Bear Vault Users, Here’s How to Not Get Your Lid Stuck (learn from my mistakes)

Bear Vaults are some of the most popular bear canisters on the market, and for good reason. They’re reliable, affordable, and have convenient clear sides so we can quickly track down that Snickers bar buried waaaay at the bottom.

Last summer I tried a Bear Vault for the first time. For ten years I’ve been an ultralight Bearikade user, but I needed a smaller bear can for short solo trips and didn’t feel like shelling out a fortune for another Bearikade.

So I picked up a diminutive BV425 Sprint, one of the newest offerings in the Bear Vault line. At just 305 cubic inches it’s one of the smallest bear canisters you can buy, which was exactly the point. It took a little work to get my 3-day-2-night menu stuffed in, but eventually I did it. Then I headed out into gorgeous Desolation Wilderness for my relaxing (or so I hoped) solo getaway.

Related: Guide to Bear Canisters by Price, Size, and Weight

I’m sad, and quite embarrassed, to say that trip ended early with a hungry ten mile trudge back to my car on the morning of day 2.

That’s right, the bear canister was not only bear-proof but also hiker-proof. I could not open it in the morning. After a few hours of increasingly panicked attempts, I made the tough call to retrace my steps instead of continuing to my second night’s camp. At least I was only one day from the trailhead!

As an outdoor writer and experienced backpacker, this was humiliating! Especially when I realized, once safely back in civilization with a full stomach and clear head, that it was mostly user error all along.

So this post is my public service announcement to other backpackers using Bear Vault canisters. It’s not a knock against the product, though every design choice does have consequences. But the product is fine if you know how to use it, and after reading this post you will. I hope it spares you a few hungry miles, or worse, on your next backpacking trip.

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How Bear Vault Lids Work

Lid design is one of those tough calls every bear can maker has to take a stand on. It’s obviously critical to the whole bear-proof point, and it has consequences for a backpacker’s everyday experience on the trail.

The crux is how to make a can bear-proof but not hiker-proof, which is harder than you might think given how smart bears can be (and how not smart, in my case, a hiker can be!).

All Bear Vault canisters use the same lid design: a giant threaded cap that functions as you would expect from any lid: lefty-loosey top open, right-tighty to close.

Empty Bear Vault Sprint canister next to its lid
The Bear Vault opens like a giant jar, plus two nubs that need to slide past a stopper to unlock.

When the lid is almost screwed on completely, two black nubs on the lid will sequentially contact a blue stopper nub on the canister. When closing the lid the nubs slide easily by the the stopper. When opening the lid you need to press inward on or near the black nubs, deforming the lid just enough so the nub can pass by the stopper.

What’s nice about this system: no need to carry a separate tool (Bearikades require a quarter, which is surprisingly hard to keep track of on the trail). But the nubs can be hard to get past the stopper, and if you’ve ever struggled to get a lid off a jar you can understand the possibility for something to go wrong.

Close up of Bear Vault lid with nubs and stopper
Here the blue stopper (bottom) is between the two black nubs (top), so one more nub needs to pass the stopper before the lid can be opened.
Close up of a credit card between nub and stopper on Bear Vault canister
The card trick can help the black nub glide past the stopper.

What NOT To Do When Closing Your Bear Vault

Don’t overstuff the canister. As tempting as it is, especially with a small one like the BV Sprint, an overstuffed canister can be hard to open. If there is too much upward pressure on the lid, the threads may not glide smoothly.

Don’t pack airtight bags of food and then ascend in elevation. You know how, when you take a bag of chips from sea level to the mountains, the bag puffs up? The same thing can happen inside your bear canister, effectively overstuffing it after you’ve closed it. This can put so much upward pressure on the lid that it becomes hard to open. Punch small holes in airtight wrappers before packing.

Don’t overtighten the lid. As long as both nubs are past the stopper, it is bear-proof.

Before closing make sure there is no sand, dirt, food, or pebbles on the threads of the canister or lid. Make sure all plastic bags and other packaging are clear of the threads.

In hindsight I believe this last one was my problem – one of the tiny granite pebbles so typical of Desolation Wilderness got lodged between the threads and jammed the lid. When I finally got it open, back at lower elevation on a warm afternoon after submerging the lid in water, I noticed a deep telltale scratch in the plastic of the lid.

When you get home, clean the threads after each trip and consider applying a food-grade silicone lubricant once a year as Bear Vault suggests.

Close up of Bear Vault lid with two scratches, highlighted in yellow, on the threads
Those two scratches in the plastic suggest a small pebble jammed in the threads, causing my stuck Bear Vault lid. Check for clean threads before closing!

What to Try if the Lid is Stuck

If you’re in my unfortunate situation, in the middle of the wilderness with your trapped food supply so cruelly near and yet so far, here are some tips to try to open your stuck Bear Vault lid.

Take a deep breath. I know it’s hard when you’re hungry, but a calm mind really does help.

If the lid turns but you can’t get the nubs past the stopper, try the card trick. Slip a thin plastic card (like a credit card) between them as you turn, giving the nub a smooth ramp to slide on past the stopper.

If the lid won’t even turn (you can’t even get the nubs to the stopper, as happened to me):

Make sure you’re turning the lid the correct way: counter-clockwise to open. When I later contacted Bear Vault support to ask about my issue, they said this happens sometimes. I don’t think this was my issue, but then again I was very hungry.

Try gripping the canister between your knees for better traction. Experiment with different angles.

If you have anything grippy, like a pair of gloves or anything made from silicone or rubber, it can help you get a better grip on the lid.

If the canister is overfilled, try pressing down on the lid as you try to turn it counterclockwise. This might relieve some of the friction between the threads.

Try descending to lower elevation. If the canister is overfilled due to puffy packaging, this might relieve some pressure.

Try knocking the edge of the lid against a rock. If there’s a small pebble inside this might knock it loose.

Wait for warmer temperatures. Most plastics become a bit harder in cold temps, so try setting your canister in the sun and waiting a bit.

Submerge the lid in water. This is the only thing that actually helped me make progress, and I suspect it would have worked if I’d been more patient. A small bit of sandy grit was trapped between the threads, and I think the water helped break it into smaller chunks. Unfortunately it took awhile and by then I had already hiked out.

Wrapping up, I sincerely hope this post helps you out of a hungry situation someday! If you’re still struggling with your lid, I suggest contacting Bear Vault support when you make it back to civilization. Though I ended up solving the problem on my own, they were very responsive.

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About the Author

Hi there, I’m Alissa, founder of Exploring Wild. I’ve had the pleasure of hiking the Arizona Trail, Colorado Trail, John Muir Trail, Tahoe Rim Trail, and countless shorter amazing trails throughout the US and abroad. I love solitude, big views, and a good lightweight gear setup. Learn more here.

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