Okay, okay, while these bags and some bear canisters have come to be known as ‘bear-proof,’ that term is a little misleading. Bears are phenomenal creatures! Never, ever, ever underestimate a bear’s strength, creativity, or intelligence. I just wanted to make that clear upfront.
That being said, the Ursack bear-proof bag and bear canisters can be very effective at preventing bears from stealing your food when used properly.
Of course, we are humans. As humans, there will always be some degree of human error creating nuisance bears for the rest of us to deal with and of course, there are simple weaknesses in manufacturing. It’s rare, but it can happen that even when used properly, bears can chew through, break or open bear canisters, as well as possibly rip open Ursacks. But like I said, when used properly – that is very rare!
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Ursack: the most bear-proof bag
I know there’s been a lot of hubbub in the hiking and backpacking community in the last year or so claiming that bear bags just don’t work, and you should just use a canister or go home.
Well… I absolutely disagree with that statement for a few reasons.
Most articles bashing bear bags are referring to the more traditional PTC style bear hang. Again this comes back to user error, it’s not that ‘bear bags don’t work.’ It’s that, yes, when lazy hikers only hang their food 6 or 8 feet off the ground – they don’t work – and that is also not a PCT style hang.
If you’re willing to put in the time and practice to hang an ultralight PCT style bear hang – then, by all means, I do recommend that and know it can be very effective at preventing bears from stealing your food when hung properly, 12 feet off the ground and 6 feet away from any other tree trunks.
If you either can’t hang a PCT style hang or the climate just doesn’t allow for it – for example, you’re in a high alpine area, or anywhere out west that doesn’t have beautiful deciduous trees with branches at just the right height, then an Ursack is another amazing option to protect your food and prevent the creation of a nuisance bear.
Or honestly, if you’re just tired of throwing your line to hang a bear bag. I do find the Ursack is much quicker and easier to put up.
Ursacks have been certified as a bear-resistant container by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC) – just like bear canisters.
HOWEVER, (and that’s a big however) some National Parks do not consider Ursacks acceptable and will fine the crap out of you if you don’t carry one of their specified bear canisters. So, please always check and confirm local regulations before you get to the trailhead.
What are Ursacks made of?
Ursacks are made of “bulletproof” UHMWP fabric, which makes them pretty dang bear resistant! But there is a new model out, the Ursack AllMitey which is made with a patent-pending laminated process that combines the UHMWP fabric with Kevlar correctional fabric–the kind used in prisons to thwart shivs. How cool is that!?
I’ve been using and loving the Ursack Major, and have never had any issues with it, but there have been very few reports of failures over the years (bears puncturing or ripping it.) The new AllMitey is virtually puncture proof and up to the time of writing this, there have been no reported incidents or failures, which is amazing and much more than the Park Service can say for bear canisters… but I digress.
Are Ursacks waterproof?
Ursacks are not waterproof! It definitely won’t hurt the Ursack at all to get wet or rained on, but you’ll want to keep your food and trash in some other Ziploc bags or a waterproof stuff sack inside the Ursack. Or kill two birds with one stone and buy some scent-proof Ziploc bags like Loksak Opsak odor-proof bags to keep all your scented items in, inside of the Ursack.
Opsak odor-proof bear bags
These things might just be a hiker’s best friend. Again, nothing is ‘bear proof’ because bears are freaking amazing, but these Lopsak Opsak odor-proof bags used together with an Ursack, bear canister, or bear hang give a double whammy of protection against bears.
If a bear can’t smell your snickers bars and tuna packets to begin with, he won’t try so hard to get inside whatever bear-resistant container you choose to use.
One word of caution here, be extra careful not to get food smells or particles on the outside of your odor-proof bag. Obviously, we are hiker humans and may end up resealing our food bags without washing our hands, do the best you can here.
Ursack aluminum liner
If by chance a bear does smell your food bag and think it will make a tasty treat, he will probably demolish all your food in an attempt to get the Ursack off its tree. While it is very unlikely he will actually take the Ursack, it is totally possible that all your food will be morphed into one pancake by the time he’s done.
This is a risk we take when we choose to carry the ‘ultralight’ Ursack instead of a hard-sided bear canister. I say ‘ultralight’ because true ounce-counting weenies would disagree…. but compared to a bear canister, they’re absolutely ultralight in my book!
And nothing against ounce-counting weenies. I use that term affectionately as I’m slowly becoming one myself.
But if you’re worried about a bear crushing your food or will be in an area where you know there’s been high bear activity, it might be worth it to buy the aluminum liner insert to go in your Ursack. This should keep your food mostly in one piece and only weighs 13 ounces, which will still be significantly lighter than a bear canister.
How do you use an Ursack?
First things first, I put all my food, trash, toothpaste, anything with a scent inside odor-proof bags. Then I put those bags inside the Ursack.
Make sure your drawstring around the top creates an X and crisscrosses over the opening of the bag, then cinch it down as tight as you possibly can.
Then tie two overhand knots to keep the top of the bag closed. Side note – to be as ‘bear proof’ as this bag can be, the top must be totally cinched down. If you have so much stuff packed into the bag that it can’t be cinched all the way closed, you have too much stuff and it is more likely a bear will be able to get into your bag!
Once you have your overhand knots tied tight, find a sturdy trunk or tree branch that you don’t think a bear could break, and that is at least 100 yards away from your sleeping area. Wrap your strings around it, and tie a figure 8 knot.
Figure 8 knots are amazing because they only become stronger and tighter when weighted or pulled on – for example, if a bear is trying to steal your bag, but they’re still relatively easy to undo if you happen to have opposable thumbs.
Watch this short video below to see how to use an Ursack
How to tie the overhand knot and figure 8 knot
The Ursack vs bear canister
Pros of the Ursack:
- It is lightweight – at 7.6 ounces for the Ursack Major and 13 ounces for the Ursack AllMitey.
- Since it is soft sided and squishable, it is very easy to pack with food and fit inside your pack.
- It’s easy and quick to hang, you don’t have to worry about finding the perfect spot to hang a PCT style bear bag. It can even be securely tied and just tucked away on the ground.
- When used properly, it is very effective at preventing bears from getting a food reward from hikers and can help stop bears from becoming habituated nuisance bears who will eventually have to be relocated or euthanized. #savethebears
Cons of the Ursack:
- It is a little pricey – but it should literally last longer than you do, and if by some chance a bear does destroy it, Ursack will send you a new one if you did indeed hang it properly and a bear was able to create a hole or tear bigger than 1/4 of an inch.
- It is not accepted in all National Parks, some still do require hard sided canisters. Always check local regulations before you go!
- Some people truly are averse to knot tying. Although, I really believe with even a little bit of practice, anyone can tie the overhand and figure 8 knots. But if that’s really not your thing, then a bear canister might be better for you.
- They are only ‘bear resistant’ and bears can still possibly rip into them. This is very rare – but yes, it is possible. Also keep in mind several incidents have been attributed to user error (like hikers not tying the knots properly or overstuffing the Ursack.)
Pros of bear canisters:
- Bear canisters are required in some National Parks. As much as I loathe carrying a bear canister, I do own one, and carry one where required. I was actually surprised to find a ranger 6 miles in on a trail once who physically had to touch our bear canister to confirm we had it and would have left us a hefty fine if we didn’t. So, they do have their place.
- They are pretty fool proof to use, just screw on the lid and place it somewhere at least 100 yards away from your campsite – zero knots or trees required.
- Hikers who regularly carry a bear canister say they like to use it as a seat.
Cons of bear canisters:
- They weigh almost 3 POUNDS! That’s just the canister, without any food it it!
- Again – they’re heavy AF!
- They are an expensive piece of gear. If you won’t be hiking regularly in areas that require them, you might be better off trying to find a rental or borrowing one from a friend.
- They are pain to pack. To pack your food and all smellables inside the canister can be tricky, and it can also be hard to fit the canister itself in your pack. This is actually the biggest ‘user error’ with bear canisters – when hikers get to their campsite and realize not everything fits into the canister. Be sure to check this before you leave.
- These are only ‘bear resistant’ and bears have been to known to MacGyver the lids off, chew or crush them to the point of cracking open, or just simply rolling them off never to be seen again.
Whichever method of food protection you choose to use, please promise me you’ll do something to protect your food from bears in the backcountry. You have several options here and no excuse not to use one of these methods. And of course, always follow local regulations if bear canisters are required.
Leave any questions about using the Ursack in the comments below!
For more tips on hiking and backpacking gear, check out:
- Everything you need to know about waterproof tents
- How to choose the best backpacking stove
- Easy make your own backpacking gear projects
About the author, Mallory Moskowitz:
After studying Recreation, Park & Tourism Management, Mallory spent several years teaching environmental education, guiding hikes, and leading backcountry trips. Her life-changing trek from Georgia to New York on the Appalachian Trail is what sparked the creation of Your Adventure Coach, to share backpacking tips and resources with as many new hikers as possible.