If you have ever been to the Adirondack High Peaks Wilderness, you have probably heard about the infamous black bears and the bear resistant food canister that is used to protect your food. Since 2005, these containers, or “cans” as most people call them, have been a mandatory item for a backcountry camping experience in the Eastern High Peaks Wilderness. New York State law states that, “during the period April 1 through November 30, no overnight camper in the Eastern High Peaks Zone shall fail to use bear-resistant canisters for the storage of all food, food containers, garbage, and toiletries.” To some backpackers, this regulation is a cause for consternation because of the added weight and bulk a canister brings to their pack. Believe me though, the proper use of a bear can, along with proper camping techniques leads to a much more pleasant camping experience.
When camping in the High Peaks, it is best to think that you are entering the home of the black bears and all of the other animals that call this wilderness their home. These animals lived in the mountains long before humans arrived and with our help, will continue to call the Adirondacks their home for years to come. Black bears are large land mammals and can weigh anywhere from 90 pounds to over 400 pounds in the largest males. It is important to know that they are not a direct threat to us humans; in general they are more scared of us than you are of them. It is only when they come into regular and easy access to our high calorie human food that they can get habituated and fearless of us. When this happens, it is our food that the bears are interested in, and they could care less about us. This is why it is so important to use a bear can. Bears are not stupid animals, they have a great capacity to learn and pass this knowledge down to their cubs. As camping has become more and more popular in the Adirondacks, our local bears have learned how to get into previous food storage techniques like a “bear hang”, which is when you suspend your food from a tree.
It was the ability of the bears to rip down bear hangs from trees and the frequency of human interactions with bears and our food that necessitated the introduction of the bear can regulation. In 2005, when the law was first rolled out, I was working as the hut master at Johns Brook Lodge. During that year, the Forest Rangers were recommending the use of the bear canister but not yet writing tickets for people that were not using them. We had several canisters that we were lending out to people who did not have them but there were multiple occasions when “expert” bear hangers turned down this offer. I can attest that I made more than a few sandwiches for the people who had a bear expertly rip down and steal the food bag they had set up. Not only did this ruin their trip but I can only assume how much this hurt their pride. I always tell people that it is better to carry the little extra weight of a bear can then have all their food stolen. Not having a bear canister can also result in having to hike out early and potentially get a ticket from a Forest Ranger for up to two hundred and fifty dollars.
As you can see, a bear can is an important part to a successful backpacking trip. The canister that the Adirondack Mountain Club rents and sells is the Backpackers Cache by Garcia Machine but there are other models out there. We rent canisters for five dollars for one to two nights and ten dollars for three to four nights at the High Peaks Information Center at Heart Lake. You can also purchase canisters from our store in Lake George and at the Information Center at Heart Lake for $69.99. Your canister must be “a commercially made container constructed of solid, non-pliable material manufactured for the specific purpose of resisting entry by bears.” Unfortunately, there is one bear canister model that does not work in the Eastern High Peaks, the Bear Vault canister. These clear blue canisters have been consistently broken into by our bears and should not be used in the Eastern High Peaks. With proper storage and cooking methods the number of negative bear human interactions has decreased in the High Peaks region and we at the ADK consider this an important part of being a responsible back country user. For more information on bear cans check out the New York Department of Environmental Conservations FAQ and as always you can call us at the Adirondack Mountain Club at 518-523-3441 to get camping information and advice about the High Peaks.