Usable by humans
In Wyoming's Bridger Wilderness the Forest Service requires protecting food from bears by either hanging from trees or using canisters. My wife and I used canisters on a recent trip because we camped much of the time at or above treeline. We compared Garcia and BearVault canisters loaned by the local FS office and friends, respectively.
Conclusion: We like the Garcia design much better because its lid is easy for us to open and close (but probably not so easy that a bear could work it), while the BV's lid was essentially impossible to open most of the time.
The Garcia's two locks are in the canister cap and work like blade-type screws, operable easily with a $.25 coin, blade screwdriver, or the tail end of a metal spoon. Turning the screw mechanism to the "Closed" position moves a lever that catches under the canister body rim to lock cap to body. When both locks are in "Open" position, pressing a button pops the cap up to open it.
In contrast, the BearVault cap is threaded to screw onto the body, and locks with two small tabs that slide under a molded catch. The problem is that opening the cap requires simultaneously pressing a tab inward and rotating the cap to slide the tab past the catch. The cap rim is made of smooth hard plastic, making both steps difficult. In warm/dry indoor conditions I could grip the rim well enough to rotate it and could move the tabs enough to clear the catch. But in cold and/or wet conditions the cap material becomes stiffer and slicker, making it much more difficult to depress the tabs enough to clear the catch and, especially, to rotate the cap to move the tabs past the catch. We couldn't work it in cold (under maybe 40 degrees F) or wet conditions, making it useless. I realize that these features are intended to keep bears from opening the canisters, but as other reviewers have noted, BVs need a redesign to enhance grippability at least by knurling or otherwise texturing the cap and ideally the canister body as well. Any resulting compromise in bear protection would be worthwhile for human usability.
Other less crucial features yield more mixed comparisons:
-- The BV's clear body lets users see canister contents while the Garcia's black body doesn't, though bears may prefer the clear body for the same reason.
-- The BV cap seems more waterproof than the Garcia, though we had no problem with water leakage into the Garcias during storms.
-- In BVs the cap diameter is the same as the canister body while in Garcias the cap diameter is smaller, giving BVs the edge for using the full canister capacity.
-- The BV is wider so may be more usable as a camp chair.
Caveat: We didn't encounter any bears on this trip so couldn't compare the two brands' relative bearproofness.
Garcia Container and Tips for Use
Having been backpacking in the Sierra and other "beary" places since long before the introduction of bear-proof food containers, I find the Garcia to be a welcome addition to my pack. In 25 years I've had about a dozen close encounters with bears in the backcountry of the Sierra, mostly in the area in and around Yosemite. Only once did a bear get my food while using a counterbalance system. This was an unusually aggressive bear that came down from the tree (it was gnawing through the branch where the food was hung) several times and false charged while I attempted to scare it away. Once I began to use the Garcia container (before it was even required in the parks) I haven't seen a bear do anything more than give it a couple sniffs and a few bats while inspecting it. Nowadays most bears don't even pay any attention to the container at all. I prefer areas above tree line so the container is great where a counterbalance wouldn't be possible. It's marmot-proof, too!
A few people here have talked about rigging a lanyard to the container to hang it or attach it to a tree. Bad idea! Any bear with teeth can bite through a lanyard, short of a steel cable, pretty quickly. The bear then has a very convenient "handle" to bite onto and carry your food away. I do have my container set up with two strips of reflective tape around it. This makes it alot easier to locate at night, especially if a bear has been batting it around the area.
Yes, the Garcia is heavy from an ultralight perspective. However, going unplanned ultralight from not having any food is a worse option. I'd rather cut weight elsewhere and be assured that I'll be eating during my trip. If your buying a new pack and plan to use one of these be sure to account for the container's size. They fit nicely into the sleeping bag area of many 3 day+ packs but less so in other areas of the pack. You'll need to plan for space for the sleeping bad bag as well. Unused space in the container can be filled with items like tent stakes, cell phone, stove, fishing reel, etc. I avoid putting clothing or tent flies into the container to reduce food odors on these items.
I keep a few spare quarters in my first aid kit (throwback from before cell phone days when change for a payphone near a trailhead might come in handy) which I can use if I lose the coin I keep on hand for opening. However, I usually just use my Swiss Army knife or Leatherman (which you shouldn't be in the backcountry without) for access.
I've heard rumor that bears have been sighted trying to bum spare change at several trailheads in Yosemite. They do learn fast!
Durable and Easy (human) access
I've used various techniques for storing food in bear country. The hanging bag method, while light-weight, is unreliable and no longer an option in many backcountry areas. I have used the BearVault canisters several times in the past, and while I like the idea of being able to see my packed food (translucent blue container), I had a lot of trouble opening and closing it. This made me feel good about bears and other critters not having easy access to my food, but I was frustrated with the process. The Garcia container's system is much easier. I typically use a tool from my Leatherman's to unlock the top. I like how I can leave it out in the open with the to still unlocked, but completely covered (unlike the Bearvault canister where the top has to loosely rest on top). This has proved useful when birds and squirrels are interested in my meals and I don't need to continually lock and unlock the canister for access. Like all bear canisters, this is heavier than a bear-bag, but I've done several solo trips with it and haven't had any issues with overall pack-weight. I've packed it completely inside my pack as well as on the top panel - using the top pocket straps for compression. You could consider getting a sling for it to fit outside your pack (purchase or make one). I prefer to pack my canister weight closer to my back, so I haven't tried this method. Overall, I recommend purchasing this canister if you're looking to buy. I also recommend the investment if you plan on venturing out in the backcountry a couple of times per year, as more and more places are requiring them.
Nice Easy Design, Proven Bear-proof
I've used this canister in SEKI and Yosemite as a rental over the course of several years and was pleased enough to buy my own. This is what the ranger/permit stations at Lodgepole, Road's End, and Wawona issue as rentals. I think I've gotten a Bearikade at Road's End too.
Compared to its competitors I've used:
- Full 1 lb. (28%) lighter than the Counter Assualt w/ only 14% less capacity
- Bearikade - cool that it's 1 lb. 15 oz. for roughly the same size but the Bearikade is such a true cylinder. The reasonably sharp edges concerned me early and then as I expected put some wear on the inside of my small pack. It also costsand cost 3x + as much for an 11oz savings.
I think all of them are good products but the shape of the Garcia with it's tapered ends and rounded edges lends to easy internal packing and (for me) the case is a BIG plus. Get that big bulky thing out of my pack and put it where the sleeping pad would go! It's a good seat, overpacks (read - crams more than it'll hold with 30-40 lbs of pressure on the lid when closing) well because of the design of the lid. I've had a bear play soccer with one and it suffered damage. I'd try the BearVault if the size and lack of a sack didn't seem like such a limitation but just for it to be clear and opened w/o a coin doesn't outweigh the pros of the Garcia.
Product is sized right, shaped right, designed right, and has the right accessories.
It works, no more hanging & losing food
I have never lost food that I'd hung before, but once National Parks began requiring bear cans I've never regretted the security of this bear can. I cannot overrate the convenience of a bear canister. While not required in the Enchantment Lakes area, it was a no-brainer to use this for protection against rodents. I've owned mine for 20 or so years now. Packing it is a bit tricky for longer trips for two, but can be done, esp if you remember that it won't need to hold your first day's food as it will be eaten before tucking in for the night. Also, freeze dried food packaging is rather bulky and doesn't like to go through the small mouth of this product. The can held enough food for 4 days/3 nights for two, using bulk foods and plastic bags to hold chili mixes, rice, barley, quinoa, beef jerky, tomato leather, dried pears and trail mix.
I lightly sanded mine, then spray painted it orange for easier locating in the a.m., tho I often put it in a natural depression between rocks or logs. It has never been touched.
These do weigh a bunch, but I've dropped 4.5 lb by downgrading my pack, and moved from a tent to a tarp, dropping another 2 lb or better. If I didn't already have this can, I'd have considered the carbon fiber can. Water will get in if left out in the rain opening side up. I leave it out opening side down.
Great for Heavy Duty Purposes
This is a heavy-duty bear canister ideal for places where conventional tree bear bags or canisters with twist-off style lids are no longer sufficient and there are no fixed facilities for overnight food storage. Because of its weight, it should really only be considered when other types of food storage solutions are insufficient. Also, for most practical purposes, because of the limited storage space, each person will need to carry his/her own, with 2 smaller people possibly being able to share depending on the length of the outing.
That being said, this product is nothing short of vital in a grizzly bear wilderness or other high-traffic wilderness where bear activity is especially problematic. (Adirondack High Peaks Wilderness, anyone?) A bear cannot get into this without finding a way to crush it or using a manufactured tool, like a coin or screwdriver. A slick texture makes the canister far more likely to roll away than being crushed if a bear tries to use its weight to crush it.
The lid of the canister is NOT air-/watertight and the contents can and will get wet if left upright out in the rain. Simply turning the canister over so that is upside down when being stored overnight, however, minimizes the moisture that can get in, and short of a flood under the canister, will keep your food dry enough to remain useful.
The smooth PVC surfaces also make the canister easy to clean.
Fix and forget bear defence
I picked a Garcia bear can up when I worked for the Forest Service in Bishop, CA, almost 10 years ago. In the decade since, it still looks as good as new, despite countless long trips, leaky food bottles and rough treatment.
This can is a fix-and-forget device. I absolutely ADORE not having to hang rope to secure food. At the end of the night, you throw everything in together and set it under a rock a distance away. All your food and toiletries in one place, ready to go for the next day's adventure. It also makes a great camp stool while you're getting ready for camp.
I haven't had a bear try to crack it open yet, but I don't know how said bear would accomplish that. The coin slots work well enough, and you can usually improvise with a smooth rock if you can't find your nickel.
The downsides are its bulk, which should be expected, and its volume limitations. When hanging rope, it's easy enough to re-appropriate an extra stuff sack to hang a few more pounds of food. When the can's full, it's full, and it surely doesn't make any sense to tote a can AND gear for a bear hang.
My bear can is 10 years old, and I don't see any reason it won't be around for another 25 years... unless a bear kicks it off a ridge in frustration or something.
It's solid, durable, and useful. Although bulky, it fits well in my Osprey pack. It's larger inside than I had anticipated and has a very reasonably sized opening. The outside is very slippery as is intended to keep bears from grasping it well, but doesn't have any methods for strapping it to a pack externally and allows straps and ropes to slide off. I was told other canisters have that, but I haven't done the market research to validate that statement. I purchased this one because my local Columbia, MD REI store doesn't carry bear canisters at all, the REI store in the Fort Collins, CO area I was visiting didn't have any others in stock and was out of rentals, and all of the other sporting goods stores in that area were completely sold out due to a new rule of bear canisters being required at Rocky Mountain National Park. I like the product and it works really well. I just wish it would be shaped a little differently externally to help prevent straps from slipping off, so that it could be more easily externally strapped to a pack. But it fits inside the pack well enough for it to only really be an issue for the flights… (I'd rather have this durable canister strapped to the outside than the sleeping bag or tent while my backpacking gear is being tossed around by airline baggage and TSA personnel).
I like this for the convenience, as not all states have as many bear wired campsites as here in Wash State--I have no confidence in rigging my own food hanging system. 614 cu in/10 liters works OK for us scratch cookers. Our plastic bags of rice (instant brown or white), falafel, flour, quinoa seed & flakes, oatmeal, spices and such conform nicely. Add a small bottle of cooking oil & we've got meals for days. Theoretically, if that 10 liters were all carbs like amaranth it'd weigh ~14.7 lb. If I ate 2 lb per day, I'd survive for 7+ days. But we bring dried apples and raisins which don't compact as well as small grains. WE'll bring more oil/butter. Bread takes up too much space--we usually eat it the first day out. The packaging of freeze dried fud hasn't the flexibility of plastic bags.
I only worry that a critter will knock the can to where I won't be able to find it. Maybe some kind of leash? (attached to a tree, not my ankle) I try to place the can in a niche such as between logs, or in a tree hollow.
Lose the coin, lose access to your food---you might as well be the bear. I s'pose I'll drill a penny, run a loop through it, maybe wear it around my neck.
my favorite out of the bunch
researched all options like crazy, read the reviews, had used this Garcia brand several years ago and liked it. when I went to the store, even after armed with the knowledge and all the tricks on how to open the clear blue bear container brand, not only could I not open it but neither could anyone at REI. well, that made my choice very much more easy! Besides, you can find pictures of broken blue bear containers online, but I haven't seen that with the black Garcia container!
The fact that you can't see through the plastic is not a bad thing. Pack in the (reverse) order that you plan to eat. Girlfriend and I had at least 3 days worth of good (luxury) food in there so size was good enough. hang a small bag for the first few days if you go over. At least you won't have to hang the bear container! Yay for black. Hide in a bush and don't worry about it (seal your food with ziplocks or better if you're paranoid or going to a bear crazy area). I would advise a strip of reflective tape on it to help aid you in finding it later though and in low light conditions. Just shine your light and bam there it is.