I recently purchased a Bear Vault for my second season of winter hiking. Last winter I did about 25 miles and two nights of solo backpacking, and several multi-day group hikes covering 65 miles. On the solo trips, I tried to practice clean camps and also hung a bear bag on one overnight where I knew I was in active bear country in the Lower Buffalo Wilderness Area. Although I never encountered a bear, I did see bear sign.
There is debate about the value of bear bags or canisters—the two most popular bear deterrent methods for backpackers. In Arkansas, there is generally little need felt for such precautions on the Ozark Highlands Trail when hiking in groups in winter. In addition, black bear attacks are rare here—one in modern memory. But in some camping areas, such as popular gravel bar camps on the Buffalo River and some of the more remote National Forest area campgrounds, I’ve heard reports of bears becoming less afraid of humans and coming into contact with user groups in numbers. This makes me want to be a more careful, responsible hiker, especially if soloing or in a group of 2-3 backpackers in bear areas.
In the big scheme of things, the idea of a traditional bear bag is not so much to keep your food entirely safe as it is to make it more difficult for the bear to get at it. Theoretically, it’s supposed to give you time to “scare the bear away” and learn he can’t have your food. Bears have a way of solving challenges, however. Many have learned to get hung bear bags, either by jumping to grab the bag or by biting through the rope where it is tied off on a tree, and then running off with the bag into the woods.
Canisters have been shown to be easier to use and more effective than bear bags. You leave them on the ground—no more throwing rocks attached to rope into the air over tree limbs. They are hard for a bear to grasp, and extremely difficult for them to open. I chose the Bear Vault canister for the following reasons: it allows relatively easy access with no tools; its cap will prevent rain from entering the canister when stored in an upright position; its clear sides make it easier to find what you need at the moment. There have been reports of a smart Adirondack bear figuring out how to get into this canister design; but, so far, it has only been a limited occurrence, and the company updates its design from time to time.
After my first outing with the larger Bear Vault (BV500), I can say I like it, but for unexpected reasons. Weighing at 2.9 pounds, I packed it to an eight pound total weight for two nights of camping. The canister fit easily in the bottom compartment of my GoLite Odyssey 5500 pack. It left room for two Nalgene bottles on the outside pouches. Tent and my winter sleeping bag in a compression sack rested above the vault. There was then room to stuff stove, fuel, water filter and some clothing items around them or on top. I found the weight distribution in my pack much improved with the heavier items on the bottom of the pack. My shoulders appreciated the difference.
With my food, cooking pot, cup, and toiletries inside, it was full. I use a 1.3 L MSR cooking pot. I do not know if a 2.0 L pot would fit through the opening. The mouth opening is about six and three-quarters inches. For longer hikes, one would have to be careful and smart on food planning and packing.
The canister also helped keep me organized with an otherwise sometimes unruly mess. Every food item went in it at night: coffee singles, dehydrated meals and snacks, peanut butter pouches, protein and candy bars, a couple of small cans of V-8, and items such as toothpaste and antacids. Anything scented went inside.
As I used up food, wrappers and other trash would go back into the empty baggies in the canister. As space became available, other items such as the stove could also be fit inside.
Planning the day at breakfast, I would put the day’s snacks in a baggie to be kept where I could easily reach it. At lunch break, I just pulled the vault out and retrieved lunch items. The clear sides make it easy to find items.The canister is utilitarian and also handy for hauling water and washing clothes.
I did use the canister as a camp sitting stool as advertised, and found it a comfortable height when cooking. Just be sure to spin the lid closed past the snap before sitting on it, so as to not damage the snap locks. A pad of some kind on top makes it even more comfortable.
It’s also a good idea to put some reflective tape on the canister This will help locate it quickly with a flashlight at night should the need arise.
I’ll be using a bear canister from now on for backpacking trips. It will be useful for canoe camping too.
Here is a five minute video YouTube video taken by a backpacker showing a black bear trying to get inside the Bear Vault.
[Update 12/10/12] One big negative about the canisters is: it is a large, hard object in the pack, and if you fall back on your pack, there is potential for back or neck injury depending on how it is placed in the pack. The only way I see to overcome this is to train yourself to fall more on your side than back. I discovered this after a light fall this weekend, and while I did not injure myself, I was made aware of the discomfort of falling onto the canister.
© 2012, Scott Branyan