Ursack Update

April 06, 2008

Ursack has reluctantly, but resolutely, filed suit against the Sierra Interagency Black Bear Group (SIBBG) asking the court to reverse what we believe is SIBBG’s arbitrary and capricious decision to withdraw approval of the Ursack S29 Hybrid. We are joined in this suit by some representative backpackers including: a former Tuolomne Meadows ranger, a college chemistry professor, and the holder of the record for the fastest self-contained female solo of the John Muir Trail. There is no way to predict, at this point, when or how the case will be resolved, but it is at least possible that Ursacks will once again be allowed in the restricted areas of the Sierra this summer.

The lawsuit does not seek money. Instead, it asks that Ursack be evaluated objectively, and that backpackers’ needs be factored into any decision that prohibits the use of Ursack or any other product. SIBBG’s decision to ban Ursack was based on the allegation of 6 failures. There is no such thing as a bear proof container—all canisters have failed at one time or another. SIBBG refuses to produce evidence of these alleged Ursack failures, but we know from SIBBG’s written description that in two cases bears got no food, and in two cases the problem was user error—the Ursacks were not torn and could be effectively used again today. Because we don’t have the evidence, we don’t know what happened in the other two incidents.

There is an analogy is to auto crash testing. The National Highway Safety Traffic Administration (NHSTA), a federal agency, tests cars for rollover resistance. It does so because nearly 10,000 people are killed each year as a result of rollovers. The test they devised was based on input from a variety of scientific sources, and the results of that test are a rating system from one to five stars for each vehicle. There is no requirement that manufacturers meet a certain standard. Rather, the government relies on consumers to protect their own interests once the rollover information is provided.

By contrast, SIBBG is a federal advisory group that tests containers for bear resistance. It does so in order to minimize bear-human conflict. The test they devised is largely subjective. In recent memory, no Sierra camper has been killed by a black bear. By far the biggest reason bears get human food is not failed canisters, it is campers’ inability to store all their food in a single canister. But SIBBG does not test canisters for practicality, it tests them for impregnability. This is a little like a stage coach company in the old West touting the strength of its safe while ignoring the fact the that the safe can’t hold all the gold.

There is not enough space here to detail all of the arbitrary and capricious decisions SIBBG has made over the years with regard to Ursack. We hope to resolve this quickly and amicably so that backpackers can use the equipment they want, while giving adequate protection to bears.

January 03, 2008

The Sierra Interagency Black Bear Group (SIBBG) has withdrawn its conditional approval of the Ursack S29 Hybrid (Ursack with aluminum liner) for 2008.

Ursack is challenging this decision. There appears to be scant evidence to suggest that the S29 Hybrid had a significant number of product failures in 2007. The nature of Ursack’s challenge has not been finalized because we are waiting for SIBBG to provide us with the specific evidence on which it based its decision. From what we know so far, user error was the sole cause of three incidents in which bears got food. In those cases, users did not cinch the opening completely—they failed to remove all slack in the cinch cord and did not tie a secure knot.

We understand that SIBBG’s decision is exasperating for our loyal customers. It is even more trying for us. We cannot run a business in which our only product is reviewed year after year by a government agency making arbitrary and capricious decisions about what equipment a camper may or may not use in the wilderness. We respect the Sierra Rangers and much of the work they do, and have no desire to file an unnecessary lawsuit. But it seems that may be the only way to bring this see saw existence to a halt.

Because the situation is fluid, we are changing our return policy. Customers may return any new, unused, Ursack for a full refund within one year of purchase. We hope that approval will be reinstated by SIBBG, and that customers will hold onto their purchases until the situation is resolved.

May 11, 2007
SIBBG has conditionally approved the S29 Hybrid for use in the restricted areas of the Sierra for 2007. "Conditionally approved" means that approval can be withdrawn if there are failures. All models of Ursacks can be used in the non-restricted areas. SIBBG has created an excellent map of the areas, complete with the locations of food lockers at http://sierrawildbear.org/foodstorage/map032107.pdf

May 02, 2007
The Sierra Interagency Black Bear Group (SIBBG) has tentatively agreed to conditionally approve the Ursack S29 hybrid (with aluminum liner) for use in the restricted areas of the Sierra for 2007. SIBBG has also decided not to test the V27, and therefore the V27 will not be approved.

The details of the conditional approval of the S29 hybrid have not been firmed up yet. Until that is done, we cannot say for certain what will happen. As soon as we know, we will post the information here.


The Sierra Interagency Black Bear Group (SIBBG) has tentatively agreed to conditionally approve the Ursack S29 hybrid (with aluminum liner) for use in the restricted areas of the Sierra for 2007. SIBBG has also decided not to test the V27, and therefore the V27 will not be approved.

The details of the conditional approval of the S29 hybrid have not been firmed up yet. Until that is done, we cannot say for certain what will happen. As soon as we know, we will post the information here.


March 09, 2007
We met with a number of Sierra Interagency Black Bear Group (SIBBG) members and others on March 8, 2007. We made a presentation to them which stressed the fact that our new Spectra (S29) Ursack is identical to the one they tested extensively and successfully in 2004. There are many hundreds of S29s in circulation, but we were unable to manufacture them for the last two years because the military took all the Spectra fabric. The Ursack S29 has a perfect record in preventing bears from getting food rewards in the Sierra. Despite the fact that the S29 tested well and has a perfect record, SIBBG wants to test it again in Yosemite in 2007, and will not approve it for use anywhere until it passes that test. The V21 (Vectran bags sold prior to August 18, 2006) are no longer approved. The V27, which is 27.5% stronger than the V21, has never been tested, nor has it had any reported failures. Until we hear further details as to the probable timing and duration of the Yosemite test(s), we are not sure how we will proceed--other than to continue to sell both the S29 and V27 with a warning that they are not approved for SIBBG restricted areas.

In preparing for our meeting with SIBBG, we read a very interesting and thorough study by Kate McCurdy--a former Yosemite (bear) ranger. This was Kate's master's thesis. Her thesis compiled and analyzed survey results from 568 Yosemite backpackers. The backpackers were, by a large majority, supportive of Park canister requirements. But, nearly 40% were unable to fully comply with those requirements and had to leave some food/toiletries unprotected on one or more nights. Among the significant factors preventing full compliance were the weight and bulk of hard sided canisters. "In roughly half" of the (108) bear encounters reported by survey respondents in 2005, bears got "substantial food rewards." In other words, there were roughly 50 incidents in Yosemite alone in which bears got food rewards even though the vast majority of campers were using approved canisters. It was not that those canisters failed, it was that the campers were unable or unwilling to fully comply with regulations. This number from Yosemite absolutely dwarfs the amount of food rewards bears got from failed canisters anywhere in the entire Sierra, whether those canisters were made by Ursack or other manufacturers.

If SIBBG's goal is to prevent bears from getting food rewards, it would seem their time would be better spent addressing the non-compliance issue and less time re-testing the Ursack S29, a product which due to its light weight and compressibility, makes it easier for backpackers to do the right thing.

January 10, 2007
The status of the Ursack Hybrid in the restricted areas of the Sierra is uncertain for 2007. I will know more after meeting with SIBBG (Sierra Interagency Black Bear Group) on March 8, 2007. Here is what I know now. By the end of January 2007 we will be manufacturing Ursack from Spectra (green) fabric. This is the same material we used a couple of years ago, but then were unable to acquire because the military took it all. We now can get it again. SIBBG extensively tested Ursacks made with this fabric in the summer of 2004 (see Ursack update November 2004) and found (after at least 20 wild bear encounters) that it performed well. Real world experience has borne this out. Many of our customers purchased our aluminum liner to retrofit their Spectra Ursacks, and there has not been a reported failure of such bags anywhere in the world. Even without the aluminum liner, we are not aware of the failure of these bags anywhere in the last few years. A few years ago a Spectra bag owned by a boy scout troop had a small hole chewed in it by a bear. It is unlikely that this would have happened had the Ursack been lined with our aluminum insert. Other than that single incident, the Spectra Ursack has performed exceptionally well.

The Vectran (yellow) Ursacks sold before August 18, 2006 have not done as well. We are aware of five bags that were chewed through in four separate incidents. All occurred within a relatively small area of Yosemite. There were no other Vectran Hybrid failures anywhere else in the world, and there were reports of successful bear encounters in the Sierra and elsewhere. After August 18, 2006 we started shipping a heavier duty Vectran (27 X 27). There have been no reported failures of that Ursack. Although we do not have more than anecdotal proof, it seems that the Vectran bag may be more rodent resistant than the Spectra bag even though it is not as effective against bears.

For 2007 we will offering both the Vectran (27 X 27) and Spectra bags. The price of Spectra fabric has increased greatly, and our prices on the Spectra bag have also increased. We will post information here and elsewhere on our website as soon as we learn of SIBBG's response.

September 21, 2006
Apparently my previous post has caused some confusion. The Ursack Hybrid is still conditionally approved for use in Yosemite and all other SIBBG areas. There has been no change in approval status--although there have been lots of false rumors. The percentage of torn Ursacks, as compared to the number sold, is miniscule--less than 1/4 of 1%. The only fabric damage that I am aware of occured in approximately the same area of Yosemite during the approximately the same time period. It could have been a single bear. There has been no reported damage to either the retrofitted Ursacks (i.e. the green Spectra bags retrofitted with aluminum) or the newer Vectran bags sold since around August 18, 2006 (beginning with about order #9193).