A slight edge over the Garcia
Ill preface this review with my cut and paste statement that I work as a backcountry backpacking guide in Yosemite National Park. Nearly all of the products I take the time to review have seen at least a half a season, if not more, of use... and Im committed to not bothering to write a review until I feel like Ive really gotten to know a product. I never thought Id bother to write reviews, but Ive recently decided that since Ive spent so much time over these last many years reading reviews, and finding a tremendous amount of value in articulate and well-informed opinions, that I wanted to give back to the community. So, with that being said, here we go...
When I'm spending time in the backcountry of Yosemite you can be sure that from one to eight of these cans is not far from our camp. We use a combination of these and the Garcia cans, so I'm quite familiar with both. (Just for reference, Garcia cans are the black cans that Yosemite, and other parks, rent out. They are also sold many places.) They each have their advantages and disadvantanges, but you really can't go wrong with either. There is a third option, which is a Bearikade, but they are quite expensive... and when comparing capacity to weight and size they are a bit better than the Bear Vault, but cost significantly more.
The BV 500 has significantly more capacity than a Garcia. Being clear is a nice feature as well, though if you're out solo, or managing your own food, then that advantage is irrelevant. When I'm not working with a group and I'm out with friends then we all generally take care of our own food... so the can being clear is not important to me. However, if you're with a group that is packing food together then being able to see what's in each can is nice. We usually label the lid of each can with some random picture so that we know what items are to be kept in each can (a picture of a tube of toothpaste for toiletries, etc).
There are two major advantages to the BV 500 that makes me lean a bit toward them over other options. The lid, though not watertight or waterproof, is rainproof. If you keep the can sitting right side up in the rain (or heavy overnight condensation) then the contents will remain dry. This is not the case with the Garcia. The lid on the Garcia is recessed, and it will take on rain, leaving the contents soggy and sad in the bottom of a very small and dark kiddy pool. The frequent solution is to simply turn the Garcia over when not accessing it, which works perfectly. However, if someone forgets, or isn't familiar with this weakness of the Garcia, then you're back to the food in the kiddy pool.
The other advantage is that you do not need a tool, blade, coin, or other item for leverage to open the BV. To open the can you push, quite firmly, into the outer edges of the lid to cause two tabs on each side of the can to pass over a little squared lip, allowing the lid to be unscrewed. The Garcia requires a coin, knife, or some other implement to open. Not a big deal, but it can get old sometimes. However, if its really chilly and your hands are cold, pushing the lid in on the BV can be an exercise in sadism. Having a tool to easily open the Garcia in those circumstances can be a bonus. With that being said, if you're going to be in *cold* bear country then I'd suggest going with the Garcia.
I won't go into the downsides of the Garcia, since Backcountry doesn't sell them and this isn't the place for it. However, let it be said that if you have a pack big enough (the BV500 can be a tight fit in some packs) and aren't going to be spending most of your time in below freezing temps... I'd go with the BV500.
One last note, though this is a bit esoteric... it is rumored (I have yet to verify this story) that either the park service or the makers of this can, or both in concert, have stumbled across a bear somewhere around the AT that they have trapped and are studying that figured out how to open these cans. Folks, if you are new to dealing with bears... they are intensely intelligent, and great at solving puzzles. I spend most of my time around very, very experienced backpackers and backcountry folk who have story after story of bears managing nearly Superbear type antics to get your food. Don't gamble with your food, or the life of a bear. All it takes is for a bear to successfully raid a single camp to start associating people with easy calories. Once that happens its a slippery slope, and the entire reason that bear is going to struggle with people (and vice versa), and very possibly see its eventual premature destruction, is because someone was lazy or irresponsible.
I don't mean to get preachy, but seeing a bear in the wild is absolute magic. Hearing story after story of them being put down is a crying shame, particularly when you realize that the only reason its happening is because we are lazy and stupid with our food and toiletries.
Also, a bear can is a great way to keep other critters (squirrels, chipmunks, marmots, etc) out of your grub. The most aggressive animal I've seen trying to raid my bag for my stash are squirrels.
PS. The BV500 makes the best stool of all the bear cans!