If you are camping in bear country, you need to stay on the lookout for bears on the prowl for food. Unprotected food attracts bears, which risks your life and that of anyone with you. Here’s a quick guide on how to protect food from bears while camping.
What Are Bears Attracted To?
To a bear, anything that smells is food. And because they have a very powerful sense of smell, they can pick up a scent from miles away.
So you not only have to worry about properly storing your food, you also need to be careful about food scraps, wrappers, trash, utensils, cosmetics, bug spray, drinks and anything else with a scent.
Even your clothes can attract a bear to your campsite. That’s why, when camping in bear country, you should not sleep in the same clothes you cooked dinner in.
How To Store Food Safely When Camping in Bear Country
Keep all your food, whether cooked or uncooked, stored safely where a bear cannot reach it.
The last thing you want is a bear feasting on the only food you’ve got. Here are some of the best ways to store food when camping in bear country.
1. Food lockers
Most national parks in bear country like YellowStone, Grand Teton, and Glacier have bear-resistant food lockers or bear boxes in many of their campsites.
These provide a safe place to store your food where bears cannot reach it.
In fact, some of these national parks have strict requirements about storing food and other items that can attract bears like trash. Improper storage can get you fined.
As soon as you arrive at the campsite, store your food and drinks inside the food locker or bear box. Only take out what you need and put everything back immediately after use, including the utensils you were using.
Tip: Research the campsite before you set off on your trip. Not all campsites have a food locker. Either find one with a food locker or carry your own bear-proof food storage.
2. Bear canisters
Another option is using bear canisters. These are portable containers that are resistant to bear attacks. They are required in most bear country campsites where there aren’t food lockers in place.
Bear canisters are great for storing food as well as anything that can attract bears like soap and medication.
Here are some tips for using bear canisters.
- Because bear canisters are usually not airtight, bears can still smell whatever’s inside. Do not keep the bear canister inside the tent with you. Place the canisters at least 100 yards away from your tent in the downwind direction.
- Try to find a flat area to place it on to keep the bear from rolling it away. Near a cliff, lakeshore or a river bank are certainly not good places to keep a bear canister. A bear or some other animal could knock it where you’ll never find the canister.
- Don’t place a bear canister against rocks as a bear can smash it against the rocks to get to the food.
- Don’t hang up the canisters. Hanging bear canisters up a tree is a lot of work, dangerous for you, and usually doesn’t prevent bears from reaching the canisters. Bears can climb trees.
If this is your first time shopping for a bear canister, here’s a helpful video from REI on how to choose the right one.
3. Your vehicle
If the campsite permits it, you can keep food in your vehicle. But it has to be a hard sided vehicle with the doors locked and the windows rolled up.
But check with the rangers first before storing food in your vehicle. Some campsites don’t allow it because bears have been known to break into vehicles to reach food.
If you decide to store food in your car, have a second layer of defense. Put the food in a secure cooler, bear canisters, or any hard sided container.
Do not store food in the bed of your truck, the roof rack, or anywhere the bear can easily reach it.
4. Bear bags
If you plan to visit a campsite where the use of bear canisters or bear lockers is not required, but you still want to be safe, bear bags like the Ursack Major are a good option.
Bear bags are sacks made with a tough fabric that a bear cannot tear.
Most bear bags are also designed to protect food from rodents and other animals. They can resist both sharp claws and teeth.
For added bear protection, get an odor barrier bag and put your food inside it before packing it in the bear bag. This keeps the bear from smelling the food.
Note that bear bags will not protect your food from being squished and squashed by a bear. Only use them in areas with few cases of bear attacks.
In campsites with lots of bears roaming about, a food locker, a bear canister or your vehicle is the best protection.
How To Protect Food From Bears While Cooking and Eating
It’s harder to protect food when you have to remove it from a food locker or bear canister for a meal. But there are ways to reduce the risk of a bear stealing your food when cooking and eating.
- Have a designated cooking area that’s at least 100 yards away from the tent. Try to set up your tent 100 yards or more away from any communal cooking facilities.
- Only remove what you need. Don’t get the entire cooler out of the food locker. If a bear attacks, all your food is gone. Only take out what you need and leave the rest stored away safely.
- Never leave food unattended. If you need to dash somewhere, have someone watch the food or store it safely first.
- Be on the lookout for a bear approaching. Be ready to quickly hide food in a canister, locker or vehicle if you notice a bear.
- Do not feed a bear. This creates an association between humans and food. The bear will bother you for the rest of your camping trip and become a nuisance, or even a danger, to other campers in the future.
Can You Hang Food To Protect It From Bears?
Hanging food up on a tree is a traditional technique to protect it from bears. If done properly, hanging food in trees works.
The problem is, most campers don’t do it properly and bears can still get to the food.
After many interactions with campers, bears have developed techniques for stealing food. They can climb trees to grab a bag of food.
They can also reach high up and pull down on the rope or bag. Sometimes, they’ll chew on the rope or cord, easily bringing the food down.
Hanging food from a tree is also time consuming and can be dangerous.
In other cases, it’s impossible. If you are camping in an area with short trees, trees without branches or no trees, there’s no safe way to hang food.
The only situation where hanging food makes sense is in campsites that provide bear poles for hanging food. These are easy to use (the hoisting cables are usually provided) and bears cannot climb up the pole.
Can You Store Food In Ziploc Bags When Camping?
Ziploc bags are one of the worst ways to store food when camping in bear country.
For one, smell easily escapes through the ziploc, even if you pack the food in two or three bags. Bears will easily pick up on the smell from far away.
Secondly, ziploc bags offer zero protection against a bear attack. Not only that, they also cannot withstand attacks from other animals like rodents.
Even in low-risk areas, do not use ziploc bags. If a bear canister feels like overkill, use a bear bag instead.
Can Bears Smell Food Through Dry Bags?
Because dry bags are not fully odor proof, bears can still smell food stored in a dry bag. And if a bear comes looking for the food, a dry bag doesn’t offer any resistance unlike a bear bag.
We do not recommend keeping food in a dry bag when camping in bear country, even in low risk areas.
If you have to, at least put the food inside an odor barrier bag then pack it in the dry bag. It’ll, hopefully, keep the bears from coming in the first place.
Note: You cannot use a dry bag in campsites where bear canisters or food lockers are mandatory.
Is Human Food Bad For Bears?
Keeping your food safe when camping is not just about protecting yourself and your food; it’s also good for the bears.
Human food provides a quick and high-energy meal for bears, and that’s why they’ll do anything to steal food.
But eating human food comes with a major downside for bears.
One study showed that bears that ate human food hibernated less, which reduced their lifespan. With the bear population already being threatened in some areas, this further increases their risk of extinction.
The other issue with bears eating human food is that they come to expect it and can get aggressive when foraging for human food.
Bear attacks on campers become more serious and can lead to injury or death. Bears also become less afraid of people and will venture out into homes and other places with humans.
In many cases, these bears have to be put down.
Even if it is safe to do so, do not feed bears. It can cause problems for both humans and bears.