Traditionally, bear safety while on trail meant lugging heavy, huge, hard-sided food storage canisters. Ursack is changing that equation, said Grady Powell who runs the small brand.
Made out of UHMWP — also known as Spectra or in Grady’s words “a really, really strong fabric” — Ursack is a soft-side, bear-resistant food storage bag that’s been certified by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC).
“I didn’t believe it was possible when I first heard about it,” Grady said, referring to Ursack. “How the heck can you have a fabric that can keep a bear at bay? I’d been around grizzly bears plenty of times and it did not compute, but it’s true.”
To get the IGBC certification, a bear-resistant product is baited and then placed in bear habitat at the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone. Bears must have 60 minutes of direct contact with a product for it to pass the test. Notching those 60 minutes, can actually take several hours, because if bears “don’t get a reward within a few minutes, they just walk away,” Grady said.
Grady is quick to point out that there’s a big difference between bear-resistant and bear-proof, and that virtually no product is truly bear-proof. “Given enough time and determination, a bear is going to get into anything,” Grady said. “Let’s be realistic, they’re bears, they’ll find a way.”
That’s why he encourages Ursack customers to use the product in conjunction with other best practices, like setting up proper bear hangs and using odor-proof bags, such as Opsak.
“A lot of people have been taking our bag and being lazy with it,” Grady said. “I highly suggest taking our bag and tying it up as high as you can on a limb of a tree.”
Grady framed it as a good-better-best scenario. Using an Ursack alone is quite definitely better than using nothing to deter bears. But, Grady said, “If you have the time, go ahead and do it the best way. It takes chance out.”
“We have to rely on the consumers to use it smartly to eliminate as much risk as possible,” he added.
While Grady takes bear safety seriously, he doesn’t take himself too seriously. At one point in our conversation, he joked that traditional hard-sided bear canisters are camp chairs while Ursacks are pillows. (PSA: Don’t ever actually use your Ursack as a pillow in bear country; all items that have an odor need to be stored well away from your sleeping area.)
Grady’s experience traveling through bear country runs deep. He participated in two seasons of National Geographic’s Ultimate Survival Alaska, a reality TV show that required Grady and his team to spend 3 months navigating from point A to point B with just the items they could carry.
He also spent a few years doing survival trips around the world for the Discovery Channel’s Dual Survival program.
Grady called his experience on these shows therapeutic and an absolute blast. “I had just gotten out of the Special Forces and needed to recenter myself, if that makes sense,” he said. “I almost died a few times. But you only get one chance to write your story and if it’s not one worth reading, you’re doing it wrong.”
While Grady now runs Ursack, it’s actually owned by Rob Bruyn and his wife Amy Bircher, who bought it in 2018 from Founder Tom Cohen. Amy runs the textile company that Ursack uses to source its fabric.
“Tom was having big issues with inventory management and sourcing the fabric,” Grady said. “Amy is a guru in textile manufacturing and sourcing. We’re not going to have any of those inventory issues.”
When Grady came on board to run Ursack, one of his biggest priorities was to have excess inventory on hand at all times. That strategy has paid off in this era of the Coronavirus.
“China is the source of one of our fabrics,” he said. “If we hadn’t had all this excess inventory, there’s a chance we wouldn’t have had what we needed because of the Coronavirus.”
Grady’s appreciation for ultralight outdoor gear actually came from his time in the Armed Forces. When talking about the merits of going ultralight, he quoted an old Army refrain: ounces equal pounds and pounds equal pain.
But, Grady, is quick to add that Ursack does more than just shave ounces. It also shaves bulk because it compresses down as you eat your food, unlike a hard-sided canister.
Ursack offers four different versions of its product: the Ursack Major is its original sack (formerly known as the S.29 AllWhite). At 10.65L it holds about 5 days worth of dehydrated or freeze-dried food. The Ursack XL is a larger 15L version of the Major that will do the trick for around 7 days out in the backcountry.
Made of Kevlar instead of Spectra, the Ursack Minor is designed to protect food against small critters, not bears.
Ursack’s newest product, the Allmitey, combines the best of the Major and Minor by laminating Spectra and Kevlar fabric together. At 13 ounces, it’s almost twice as heavy as the Major, but significantly lighter than bear canisters and provides protection against both bears and small critters.
Grady explained that Spectra is a tear-resistant fabric, but not a puncture-resistant fabric. By laminating Spectra with Kevlar, the Allmitey is has both tear- and puncture-resistant properties.
“It’s the Cadillac version of what we have right now,” Grady said, adding that an XL version of the Allmitey is currently in development.
Ursack as a brand is 20 years old, but the marketing focus from new ownership has fueled its growth in recent years. “We more than doubled sales last year and we’re looking at another double this year,” Grady said.
While product updates and a new website have certainly played a role in that growth, Grady also gives a lot of credit to their customers. “The people who are using it and speaking on behalf of Ursack are the reason why it’s expanding in the market so much,” he said.
As word gets out about Ursack, Grady hopes they’re helping to change the conversation and mentality around being bear aware.
“We’re making bear safety attractive to people,” he said. “Right now it’s cumbersome and heavy. We’re changing that in every way. It’s another tee shirt in your bag and you’re keeping yourself and the bears safe.”