Determining where bear canisters are required is confusing and hotly debated on social media. Everyone has an opinion, but how do you know who/what to believe? Figuring this out requires detailed investigation of multiple websites from the USFS and National Parks. Different pages from the same website often have conflicting information. To make it even more confusing, the SEKI National Park website clearly states: “Information is subject to rapid and unannounced change.”
Sheesh. What do you do? Best option: Carry a bear canister from Kennedy Meadows to Sonora Pass.
It is important to understand that bear canisters are all about protecting bears from humans. Bears are attracted to improperly stored human food. Bears who become habituated to human food often end up being (1) relocated hundreds of miles away from the only home they’ve known, or (2) worst case – killed.
Proper Food Storage
To protect both humans and bears, “proper food storage” is required for 315 miles from Kennedy Meadows to Sonora Pass. “Proper food storage” is open to interpretation by individual agencies and at times by individual Rangers (whom you will probably encounter along the trail). Some areas allow counter-balance hanging. Some areas specifically prohibit counter-balance hanging. Some areas require bear canisters. Some areas have permanent bear boxes. Sleeping with your food, defending your food, posting a guard for your food are all NOT proper food storage methods, and these practices violate the food storage requirements.
You could be in an area where you *think* canisters are not required, yet the Ranger you encounter tells you canisters *are* required. Hikers who violate regulations can be fined and/or escorted off the trail.
Click for counter-balance hang diagram. Counter-balance requirements:
- Carry at least 40 feet of rope (per Inyo NF Rangers)
- Place your food in two equally-weighted bags
- Hang the two bags 15 feet off the ground, 10 feet from any tree, with no rope hanging down
Besides being a very ineffective way to protect food, counter-balancing is extremely difficult to execute properly. Finding appropriate trees near a flat camping spot is not easy. Throwing rope over branches without getting the rope stuck is not easy. Hoisting food bags 15 feet in the air, 10 feet from trees using the small rope thru-hikers are willing to carry is not easy. Retrieving food bags which have no rope hanging down is not easy. ALL. THIS. TAKES. TIME. The last thing thru-hikers want to do at the end of a long day in the Sierra is spend an hour *attempting* to properly counter-balance hang their food.
Interestingly, National Forests and National Parks allow counter-balance hanging in some areas while at the same time making these statements:
- SEKI NATIONAL PARK: “It’s a common misperception that the counter-balance method is a good way to protect food from bears. Because bears are so adaptable, many have learned to obtain counter-balanced food. This method generally does not work in these parks.”
- INYO NATIONAL FOREST: “It is extremely difficult to find an adequate tree and properly counter-balance the bags. Counter-balancing is not as effective as it once was. Even when it is hung properly, bears may figure out a way to get your food. Some bears will chew the branches off trees to get the food. The counter-balance method is only a delaying tactic. Be prepared to actively defend your food. You may need to repeatedly scare bears away from your camp.”
- SIERRA NATIONAL FOREST: “If you choose to store your food using this technique, consider it only a delaying tactic. Be prepared to actively defend your food and repeatedly scare bears out of your camp through the night. Without this negative reinforcement, bears will figure out a way to get your counter-balanced food. Some bears will go so far as to literally chew the branch off the tree to get at food bags.”
If counter-balancing doesn’t work, why is it allowed? Sheesh.
National Park and National Forest Recommendations
Although counter-balancing is allowed in some areas, the National Parks and National Forests strongly encourage the use of bear canisters, even in areas where canisters are not currently required. Following are a few snippets from the relevant websites.
INYO NATIONAL FOREST
- “Bear-resistant containers and panniers are the most effective method of food storage for wilderness travelers. In all wilderness areas of Inyo National Forest, use of bear-resistant containers is strongly recommended.”
- “Counter-balance hanging technique may be used to store food where portable containers are not mandatory. However, where trees are not adequate for hanging food you must use a portable food storage container. No other methods of food storage are allowed.”
SEQUOIA-KINGS CANYON NATIONAL PARK (SEKI)
- “Portable animal-resistant food storage containers (i.e. bear canisters) are highly recommended throughout Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.”
- “In areas where food storage containers are not required, you may use a food storage box (i.e. bear box) if available.”
- “Counter-balance Method . . . . Only use this option if the others are not available.”
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK
- “Food storage regulations have the force and effect of federal law: Failure to store your food properly may result in impoundment of your food and/or a fine of up to $5,000 and/or revocation of your camping permit.”
- “Allowed bear canisters are required throughout Yosemite National Park.”
- “Hanging food is not permitted anywhere in Yosemite.”
- “There are no exceptions for Pacific Crest Trail through-hikers.” Wow.
SIERRA NATIONAL FOREST
- “Bear-resistant canisters are the only effective way for backpackers to store food in wilderness.”
- “Backcountry and wilderness users are required to store food or refuse in a manner designed to keep bears from gaining access to it. Visitors are encouraged to use bear-resistant food canisters to safeguard food. If a bear canister is not available, the counter-balance method of storing food is also an acceptable method.”
HUMBOLT-TOIYABE NATIONAL FOREST
- “Though bear canisters are not required in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest . . . . the most effective method of food storage for backpackers is a bear-resistant canister.”
- “You must have your food stored unless it is within arm’s reach (so, don’t go for a swim or take a nap while leaving food out).”
STANISLAUS NATIONAL FOREST
- Website directs users to SierraWild, which encourages the use of bear canisters.
Canister-Required Areas in the Sierra
The charts on the above links show canister-required areas between Kennedy Meadows and Sonora Pass. Unfortunately, these areas do not coincide with exits to towns. So, effectively, hikers are required to carry canisters at a minimum between Cottonwood Pass and Sonora Pass. HOWEVER, that’s only if you can properly counter-balance hang your food in the Inyo National Forest for 48 miles between Kennedy Meadows and Cottonwood Pass. It is VERY DIFFICULT to counter-balance hang in this area.
Inyo National Forest Rangers are on the PCT for the 48 miles between Kennedy Meadows and Cottonwood Pass. Hikers who do not have a canister or cannot properly counter-balance hang are sent back to Kennedy Meadows. Therefore, it is best to have a bear canister from Kennedy Meadows to Sonora Pass.
Bear Canister Rental
Triple Crown Outfitters (in Kennedy Meadows south, northbound mile 702) has partnered with Kennedy Meadows Resort and Pack Station (near Sonora Pass, northbound mile 1016) to provide easy canister rental for both northbounders and southbounders.
Northbounders pick up at Triple Crown Outfitters in Kennedy Meadows south, drop off at Kennedy Meadows Resort (known to PCT hikers as “Kennedy Meadows north”) or mail back to Triple Crown Outfitters.
Southbounders pick up at Kennedy Meadows Resort (KM North), drop off at Triple Crown Outfitters in Kennedy Meadows south. The fine folks at Kennedy Meadow Resort distribute TCO’s rental canisters to southbounders. For a smooth southbound rental, it is best to place your rental order through Triple Crown Outfitters website.
Whether you are northbound or southbound, you can keep the canister for as long as it takes you to hike between Kennedy Meadows south and Sonora Pass. Click to reserve now. Canister rentals are on sale in December.
Lassen National Park
In Lassen National Park, overnight backcountry users must carry a bear canister or use the bear boxes at Warner Valley Campground. This means you cannot disperse camp unless you have a canister. PCT hikers typically hike through Lassen (19.2 miles) during the day or camp overnight at Warner Valley Campground.
Northbound mile points:
1346.3 Enter Lassen National Park
1350.3 Warner Valley Campground
1365.5 Exit Lassen National Park
Southbound mile points:
1287.6 Enter Lassen National Park
1302.8 Warner Valley Campground
1306.8 Exit Lassen National Park
[ DISCLAIMER: This post contains Jackie McDonnell’s personal interpretation of food storage requirements on the Pacific Crest Trail. Every attempt has been made to ensure this information is accurate. The only way to be sure *YOU* are following current regulations is for *YOU* to contact the appropriate agencies. Jackie McDonnell and Triple Crown Outfitters are not responsible for changed/inaccurate information or for any fines or trouble experienced by anyone. *YOU* are responsible for your own actions. ]