Overview of the BearVault
The BearVault is a “7-day” bear resistant food canister made of transparent polycarbonate – and you will immediately see its resemblance to a bigger, fatter, Nalgene bottle. The BearVault is easy and efficient to pack, and for $80 and considering that it’s SIBBG-approved, it’s the best sub-$100 canister available.
Opening and closing the lid. The BearVault’s primary ‘technology feature’ is its lid. Akin to the childproof tops of pharmaceutical bottles, the tightened BearVault lid won’t turn counterclockwise until you apply downward pressure on it. The technique isn’t difficult to learn in the warmth of your home, but we found that using cold, dry hands on an extended trek made opening the lid a little tough. Our solution? Use a glove or mitt with a grippy surface, and all was well.
The BearVault lid is engineered with some key features in addition to the one-way rotation. When closed, the lip edge of the lid remains recessed in a well-fitted groove of the main container, making it impossible for a bear to hook a fang or claw underneath the lip and crack it. Smart engineering! In addition, the lid seals well and we had no problems keeping our food dry when the BearVault was left outside in a heavy rain, regardless of its orientation. Water resistance (and presumably, some odor resistance) is achieved by a softer inner gasket that seals the threads.
The only serious problem we had with the BearVault was the condition where the threads become wet from rain, and then froze overnight. The canister was impossible to open the next morning. Fortunately, it withstood some thawing over our stove and the situation did not evolve into a crisis. Lesson: keep the threads dry on cold nights.
Odor Resistance. We slathered a 12×15 Aloksak in the BearVault with honey, sausage, and kibbles, closed it shut, and washed the outside well in soap and water, and then placed it in a dog kennel for the Black Lab sniff test (not a standard method). The curious lab batted the BearVault around the kennel a bit, got bored, and went back in her dog house. We repeated the same test – sans Aloksak – and the dog tried to lick her way through the polycarbonate (uh, yeah, that would be an indicator that the canister is not odor proof). For the record, canisters from Garcia and Bearikade have also failed the test. Lesson: consider lining any bear canister, or storing your food in, odor proof storage bags. Conflict of Interest Disclaimer: We like Aloksaks, obviously, because we sell them in the store, but if you are wholly opposed to being tainted by this pitch for them, order some catheter bags from a medical supply house. That’s what we used for years. And, yeah, they work!
Usable volume. This is where the BearVault really shines. A wide opening that is 85% of the inside diameter means that you can efficiently pack food inside with little lost volume. With proper food planning (high density foods), repackaging, and careful packing, you can expect to pack 6 to 8 days of food (2,500 calories per day).
Long term durability. After a few hundred miles of hard use, the BearVault looks like a weathered Nalgene bottle – heavily scratched with a dulled surface. Is this surprising? Should anybody really care about cosmetic appearance? We see this as a benefit, actually: rapid cosmetic wear accelerates your reputation as a hardcore user.
Of more importance is the consequence of having grit entrapped in the threads of the lid. We accidentally (and then purposefully) closed the canister lid with some sandy soil in the threads, and then tightened it shut. The consequence of this the next morning was a maddening effort to unscrew the lid. The sand grains had evidently entrapped themselves in the soft plastic threads of the lid, making opening difficult. Only with one set of grippy mittened hands holding the canister and another set of grippy gloved hands trying to unscrew the lid were we successful. Lesson: keep the threads clean.
We do not anticipate durability problems with the BearVault. We packed ours with 12 pounds of food and tossed it down a 75 foot limestone cliff. It bounced a few times off the rocks, a few more times on impact, and came to rest with only a few deep scratches in the polycarbonate. The same test with a Garcia Backpacker’s Cache caused that canister to crack on impact.
Strapping to a pack. The BearVault has a series of raised dimples, on each end, around one-fourth of the circumference, used to keep in place straps used to fix the BearVault to the backpack. Dimples are spaced 1″ apart, so naturally, 1″ wide straps work the best. Of course, 1″ wide straps are also heavy, and lightweight hikers will prefer to use a thinner strap (or even nonelastic cord). Unfortunately, the dimples are not very effective at keeping thinner straps fixed if hiking is rough. The straps work loose (a natural consequence of stretching or sliding through buckles, especially in rain), and slip over the dimples. In addition, the dimples only decorate one-fourth of the circumference, and we had the BearVault rotate over the course of a long day to the point where dimples were no longer keeping thin straps in place. In fairness, we had no such issues when using 1″ straps, and thus, recommend them and remind you that some straps must be included as part of the weight of the canister if you expect to strap it to the outside of your pack. Lesson: use a pack large enough to put the canister inside – it will improve your load distribution anyways!
- Capacity (measured): 380 (+/- 0.5%) fl. oz. (11.2 L)
- Weight (measured): 38.8 oz (1.01 kg)
- Outside Diameter (measured): 8.7 in (22.1 cm)
- Inside Diameter (measured): 8.5 in (21.6 cm)
- Length (measured): 12.5 in (31.8 cm)
- Material: polycarbonate
- Color: transparent blue body, opaque black lid
- Lid Closure Type: “Childproof” screw-top
- MSRP: $80
As of February 2004, the BearVault has received certification from the Sierra Interagency Black Bear Group (SIBBG). Certification is pending for grizzly bear resistance.
The BearVault’s closest competitor is the Garcia Backpacker’s Cache (Model 812). The BearVault has a slightly higher volume-to-weight ratio (9.7 fl. oz. / oz., vs. 7.7 fl. oz. / oz.). Plus, the BearVault offers more usable volume with a cleaner design that allows you to pack food more efficiently. In spite of the fact that the BearVault is only 10% larger than the Backpacker’s Cache, the more efficient design means a full extra day of food for most hikers. We could easily fit 8 days of high density foods (meusli, gorp, dry meats, pastas, soups, etc.) in the BearVault vs. about 6.5 days of the same type of food in the Backpacker’s Cache.
BearVault claims that their canister is easier to strap to the outside of a pack with the built in (dimpled) strap guides, while the Garcia Backpacker’s Cache requires an additional carrying case. For most conditions, this is a valid claim, but the dimples could benefit from being somewhat larger – we lost our BearVault down a talus slope on a fall when the canister worked its way loose from thin straps.
The BearVault’s biggest disadvantage is its size. At 12.5″ in length, it can be a tight squeeze in today’s lower volume ultralight packs. Strapping the canister to the outside of internal frame packs is a poor choice for load distribution, and we’d prefer a canister that was just a tad smaller – 8″ in diameter and 11″ in length would have been ideal – and certainly better suited to the weekend hiker with a smaller pack.
Our favorite feature: a lid with an opening diameter that is nearly the same as the canister! One of the most miserable experiences in carrying the Garcia is dealing with the small opening and trying to efficiently pack food along. For this reason alone, the BearVault should earn your attention – it’s just plain easy to use.
The BearVault is a solid-performing food canister that overall, exceeds the performance of its primary competitor, the Garcia Backpacker’s Cache. We do wish the canister was slightly smaller (or that there was a smaller weekender version), and opening the lid with cold dry hands while trying to grip the canister wearing slick pants is tricky. Don’t get water in the screw threads on freezing nights, and keep the lid out of the sand, too. These faults aren’t going to earn the canister any editor’s choice awards from us, but the overall design, quality, and packing efficiency is superb, and the BearVault belongs on the short list of any hiker traveling to wilderness areas with truly habituated bears (California), or national parks featuring sensationalized media attention (Northern Rockies).