An old painting of a black bear licking a bucket clean

2023 BWCA Bear Canister Rules

Food storage is something every paddler thinks about in the Boundary Waters. The reasons are that 1) bears will eat your food and 2) food is heavy. There are certainly best practices when it comes to food storage, but what is actually required by the Forest Service?

In this post, we’ll cover the Boundary Waters rules concerning food storage. The rules were updated in the summer of 2021 to read that basically unless you are eating from it or in your canoe, your food must either be:

  1. In an approved bear canister, or
  2. hanging in a tree.

The main goal of the rule is to reduce the frequency of encounters between bears and BWCA visitors.

Bear and human encounters in the Boundary Waters (what to know)

The fact is, most BWCA paddlers have their stories of bears at the campsite. The only native species of bear in the Boundary Waters is the black bear. A full-grown black bear can reach up to 300 pounds and typically stand about 2.5-3 feet tall at the shoulders. They eat mostly berries, grasses, and buds. Only about 10% of their diet is made up of animal meat. Black bears are much less aggressive than grizzlies or polar bears.

Every time I’ve seen a black bear in the BWCA, they are quick to run away. Attacks are almost non-existent. In 1987 there were two bear attacks by the same bear (thankfully, no one was killed). The bear was terminated shortly after by the Forest Service.

That said, black bears will absolutely ruin a canoe trip. And many paddlers have their stories.

Black bears have an incredible sense of smell. If food is not properly stored, a bear may come searching for it and try to eat it. Not only will your painstakingly planned menu be short, but the bear may ruin your food pack or canister in the process. When bears eat human food, they can become dependent and more likely to enter campsites again. Thus the need for some rules around food storage.

When are black bears most active?

Bears in the Boundary Waters are quite wild and not always used to humans in their habitat. That means they are most likely to stick to their regular routines which generally include a morning nap and early bedtime. For the most part, paddlers will encounter bears during daytime hours. It’s the bears who have become accustomed to humans who will scrounge for food at night in order to avoid human interaction (we’re pretty scary, after all).

In terms of active times of the year, black bear activity has significant overlap with the best times to visit the Boundary Waters. They wake up from winter slumber around March and go down in late fall or early December.

What had been the rule in the past?

Experienced paddlers will remember the days when there was no explicit rule, but only helpful guidance. Many developed their own ways of protecting their food from bears while in the wilderness. There were popular blue plastic barrels that many outfitters still rent out. But with more and more new visitors to the BWCA each year, the Forest Service has determined it necessary to establish clear rules that affect everyone who enters the wilderness.

In 2020, the Forest Service issued an order limited to just a handful of lakes in the Gunflint District that stated that food and garbage must be properly stored when not actively eating from it. Specifically, it required that food and garbage be stored either in an approved “bear resistant” container or hung from a tree at least 12 feet from the ground and six feet from the tree. The limited order in effect for a few lakes in the Gunflint area was backed by a fine to the tune of $5,000.

What has changed?

In July of 2021, that same food storage order became a universal requirement for everyone entering the Boundary Waters Canoe Area with some more specifics on what constitutes an approved “bear-resistant container.”

Bear resistant container means a securable container constructed of material capable of withstanding 200 foot-pounds of energy (using the approved bear resistant container impact testing machine). When secured and under stress the container will not have any cracks, openings, or hinges that would allow a bear to gain entry by biting or pulling with its claws. Wood containers are not considered bear resistant unless they are reinforced with metal.

Forest-Wide Occupancy and Use on the Superior National Forest Order 09-09-21-09, July 27, 2021, link

If you don’t happen to have access to an approved bear-resistant container impact testing machine, the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC) has helpfully made a list of bear-resistant products.

And here’s a fun video showing some grizzlies officially testing gear on that list.

What are your bear-proof food storage options?

Bear proof canisters

Bear-proof canisters are the simplest way to keep your food safe from not just bears, but rodents as well. Look through the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee list of approved products to see if yours is approved. For instance, Yeti coolers are okay, as long as there’s a lock on them. Other popular options include the Bear Vault.

What about those blue barrels?

For years, BWCA outfitters provided rigid plastic blue barrels as food packs. However, these are not considered bear-proof by current standards. That said, they are still excellent food packs because they protect delicate items, keep everything dry, and are easy to dig through when you’re looking for that jar of peanut butter. You’ll just want to hang these instead of leaving them out because bears are able to infiltrate them with some ease.

Hang your food

If you don’t have a certified bear-proof container, don’t fret. You are still allowed to bring food into the BWCA. You’ll just need to hang your food up in a tree. This can be a difficult camp skill to master, especially if your campsite lacks good trees to do it. The guidelines state that you should hang it 12 feet high and six feet from the trunk. Of course, this isn’t always achievable.

Store food outside camp

Some long-time paddlers swear that simply keeping a clean camp and keeping your food pack away from camp, on the ground (or near the water) is sufficient to not clue bears into your presence. Take it to another level by putting your food pack under a canoe with some pots and pans on top to scare away anything that knocks them down.