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Gear Review: BearVault 500

Aside from my paddling adventures, I’ve done a lot of backpacking, both “locally” in the Adirondacks, the Green and White Mountains, and in the Rockies and Sierras. In many cases, regulations necessitate backpackers use a bear canister - a bear resistant container for storing food; not using one isn’t an option, it’s mandated.

As a result, I’ve used them when absolutely required. They are readily rented in some parks, much as you can rent (or borrow) PFDs. I can honestly say though, I’ve never truly liked using them. However, I do understand the ultimate rationale: to protect bears by ensuring they don’t associate people with food, resulting in poor outcomes for both the bears, and potentially any humans involved.

In planning my itinerary last summer for what I refer to as my 1st Bucketlist Trip, I realized I was going to be in remote places for many days on end. I was traveling alone, so if my food was taken or compromised in some way by bears (pulled down from a hanging spot up in a tree; taken while sitting unattended at a portage; or, of if my blue barrel was broken into) I would be in an uncomfortable position. I’d either have to cut my trip short, improve my fishing skills, or go on an unplanned diet! Either way, not choices I wanted to make.

Instead, I decided to purchase one of the “dreaded” bear canisters of my own. This would give me considerable confidence leaving all my food unattended, and the peace of mind that I won’t need to share any of my goodies with forest friends the entire trip.

The BearVault 500

You might wonder, why do I call it a “dreaded” bear canister? The answer is simple: having about a week of food all stored in a single, medium sized container is like carrying a small stack of bricks with you, it’s bulky and it’s heavy! There’s simply no way around that. Protection comes at a price.

Otherwise, what you gain in the process is a sturdy, almost unbreakable hollow cylinder, one that is certified for use in regions with either black or grizzly bears. As a bonus, they are strong enough to work as a small stool or portable table too. On longer trips, I now plan on leaving my packable chair behind, using my canister do double duty as a stool and saving weight.

There are multiple types of canisters on the market, each with slightly different features. The one I chose was a BearVault 500 which I purchased at MEC for around $125.00. It has a volume of 11.5 litres. They have a smaller one too, th BearVault 450 at 7.2 litres for shorter trips.

What I like about this model compared to others I’ve used, is that it’s clear and has a wide opening up top. That makes it easy to find what you’re looking for, and just as easy to pack it and get things out. I’ve used some that are solid black with a narrow opening up top and they are much more frustrating to use.

The lid screws on much like a large medical pill bottle with child resistant opening technology. There are two tabs in the screw top threads which must be carefully compressed to unscrew the lid. The vault has no edges and is quite slippery, so it’s almost impossible to open without pressing the tabs correctly.

I have read that one bear in New York State (“Yellow-Yellow”) became famous by figuring out how to open these containers where all others have failed, but so far, she seems to be the only one. Considering all the bears out there that tried and gave up, I’m comfortable with the odds!

If you pack carefully, “burping” the air from your food bags, it’s surprising how much you can fit into the Bear Vault. I was able to fit about a week’s worth of food in mine, but that’s using 95% dehydrated meals; if you plan on using fresh food, you won’t be able to fit as much (unless you puree it first)!

What I also did to extend my food carrying abilities on several occasions was to a) have my first day and night’s food stored in a separate bag, with the Bear Vault holding the food for day 2+, and b) use the BearVault as my main food store, plus packed a few extra days worth into a bag for hanging. This trade off gave me more food carrying capacity, with some risks, but provided confidence that my “core” food was always safe.

I know people that use bear resistant bags to store their food, and they are another viable option - with some trade offs of their own. They are light and fit more easily into a pack, and like the BearVault, don’t need to be hung up a tree. However, I’ve read of folks complaining that squirrels were able to breech these bags with ease, sampling the contents. Others have described how bears chewed up and crushed the contents of a bag, leaving a wet, saliva coated mess, but one with the food still relatively edible (albeit pre-softened)! For me, I chose to value food integrity over ease of carrying. I don’t think there is a right or a wrong in all of this, it’s more about choice.

So, bottom line, would I buy a BearVault again? Yes! I now use it on all my overnight canoe trips. I’ve come to trust it; learned how to work with it; and expect it to last a long, long time.