There are an estimated 4,500 to 6,000 black bears living in Vermont, concentrated in the spine of the Green Mountains, and their habitat overlaps with the Long Trail and other trail systems. It is every hiker’s responsibility to educate themselves about bear safety and take the necessary precautions to secure food and waste to limit bear-human interactions.
Proper bear-safe food storage is mandatory in the Green Mountain National Forest, as of a 2019 order, and we strongly encourage carrying a bear canister or other approved storage container on all Vermont overnight hikes. Here’s what you need to know.
About Black Bears
The black bear (Ursus americanus) is the only bear found in Vermont, with its population ranging between 4,500 and 6,000 animals. They live along the Green Mountains and in northeastern Vermont. Black bears become active in early spring, scavenging grasses and green, leafy plants until berries, nuts, and fish are more accessible. They remain active through late winter —November and December — if food is still abundant.
The American black bear belongs in the order Carnivora, alongside weasels and dogs. However, these creatures are omnivores, which eat both plants and animals, just like humans do. Not unlike humans, black bears are also opportunists; they’ll take an easy meal, whether it’s harvested seeds and insects or garbage.
Recreating in Bear Habitat
As visitors to wild spaces, we bring with us a huge temptation for bears: food. When black bears become accustomed to eating human food, they become bolder in entering camps, waste sites, and even towns. Black bears have been observed following a scent for three miles, while more generous estimates gauge a black bear’s sense of smell between 18-20 miles. Therefore, it’s important to safeguard food and be cognizant of odors. When bears associate food with humans, trouble happens. In 2019, a bear ripped apart the privy at Goddard Shelter to get to a moldy bread loaf and had to be euthanized. So how do we respect bears, other hikers, and our volunteers?
- Pack out food scraps and trash. Littering is an obvious no-no, but leaving food and wrappers behind in privies, firepits, bear boxes, and shelters is also unacceptable.
- Reduce odors. Cook, eat, and clean dishes at least 100’ away from shelters or tent sites. When you’re done, secure food away from your camp. More below.
- Follow food storage regulations during overnights or instances when your belongings are unattended. For clarity, it’s okay for your food to be in your pack while you are hiking with it or using it.
- Never feed wildlife. It is illegal to intentionally feed bears.
Food Storage Regulations
There are four ways to safely store food while camping, ranked from most to least secure:
- In a locked vehicle.
- Bear box: Bear boxes are installed by the Green Mountain Club near camping areas, but not all shelters on the Long Trail have them available (see the list here). Bear boxes can also fill up, depending on how many people are camped there, so you need to have a personal food storage backup plan even at those sites.
- Bear canisters: There are a variety of bear-resistant food storage containers, but some are more effective than others. Know how to use yours correctly, leave it closed and locked, and stash it at least 100’ from your—or anyone else’s—shelter. Don’t put it near a cliff or water source or a bear might bat it over the ledge or into the water. Check the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee website for approved personal food storage options.
- Hanging in a bear bag: While Vermont’s forests are not particularly conducive to hanging a bag in the trees away from paws, it can be done when necessary. You’ll need at least 50’ of paracord, 1-2 carabiners, and a stuff sack for food, trash, anything with a smell (such as toothpaste and bug spray), and cookware.
Remember these numbers: hang your bag 12’ up from the ground, 6’ out from the tree trunk, and 6’ out from the nearest branch. You’ll want to pick a tree that’s at least 100’ away from your (or anyone else’s) campsite. Here’s how to do it.
A Closer Look at Bear Canisters (& Why We Recommend Them)
Bear canisters can be hard- or soft-sided containers with the same objective: to keep bears and other critters away from human food. (Trust us: those cans hanging from the shelter ceiling will not keep bears out of your food, and you should not use them.)
Yes, bear canisters can be a bit heavier to carry (about three pounds), but they’re a sure-fire, hassle-free way of keeping critters out of your food — which is a plus when you’re two days out from a resupply. It also saves you from hunting down a suitable tree for a bear bag hang when you roll into camp near dark after a long day of hiking.
Where can I get a bear canister?
Most outfitters will carry stuff sacks and cord for hanging a bear bag. You can find bear canisters at these local retailers:
- Farm-Way, Bradford: Counter Assault Bear Keg
- Johnson Hardware, Rental, Farm & Garden, Johnson: Frontiersman Insider Bear Safe
- Onion River Outdoors, Montpelier: BearVault
- Outdoor Gear Exchange, Burlington: Counter Assault Bear Keg
- REI, Williston: Ursack, BearVault, Garcia
Bear canisters can cost $75 on the low end. Luckily, there are many lending programs available.
- Green Mountain Club: Backpackers can borrow a canister from select sites across Vermont through a free lending program. Find more details here, or email [email protected].
- Appalachian Trail Conservancy
- Appalachian Mountain Club: Backpackers camping off-trail in the White Mountain National Forest (WMNF) are encouraged to carry a bear canister. Free canisters are available on loan from WMNF ranger stations (call 603-536-6100 for details). All AMC-managed backcountry sites in the WMNF have bear-proof food storage.
Okay, I have my bear canister. Now how do I use it?
You bear canister should fit all food and anything scented (including toothpaste, lip balm, hand sanitizer, and trash). You’ll want to practice using the canister and make sure your belongings fit inside before you head out for your overnight in the backcountry. Your canister is only effective if used correctly.
Making it all fit into the canister may require some prep work:
- Be strategic about the amount and type of food that you bring. Choose dense, high-calorie food with minimal packaging. (Examples: tortillas instead of bagels; dried fruit instead of oranges.)
- Plan meals and premeasure to save space. When you portion and plan each meal, you won’t risk packing too much (or too little).
- Repackage items to get rid of bulk. (Examples: remove cardboard boxes; put pasta and fixings into one bag). Press out any air bubbles. More tips here.
- Carry that day’s food—snacks, lunch, and dinner—outside your canister to save space. (We like to keep it in a front pocket for easy access.) Since it’s not in a canister, you’ll want to take it with you for that quick side-hike; don’t leave it unattended.
- Minimize toiletries. Just like food, take only what you need (opt for travel-size toothpaste!) and repackage items. For example, count out enough ibuprofen for each day and store it in a reusable bag instead of bringing the whole bottle.
For proper balance and comfort, place the canister in the center of your pack and close to your back. If you are not used to carrying a bear canister, you may have to rearrange your normal packing system to fit everything comfortably in your backpack.
Don’t have any gear yet? Check this article for info on packs that work best with canisters.
Still Not Sold on Bear Canisters?
The US Forest Service does have a food storage order as of 2019, which mandates that food be safely secured in a car, bear box, bear canister, or hung correctly in a bear bag. Please adhere to the order to keep bears and hikers safe.
As for us, we’ve listed 272 uses for bear canisters, outside of carrying food. They’re more useful (and dare we say cooler?) than they’re credited for.