LDP Camping Foods has been selling camping and backpacking
foods since 1991
Food Safety in Bear Country
With high summer upon us, now’s definitely prime time to talk a little
about proper food handling and storage practices when you’re camping
among those magnificent—and potentially dangerous—bears that help liven
up our wilder landscapes.
We’ll include the same little caveat in this post, too: This is focused
on food safety among black and grizzly bears. The same basic principles
apply when camping up in the Arctic wilds where polar bears may be
encountered, but for the purposes of this piece when we say “bear” we
mean black bear or grizzly, the species the vast majority of North
American campers and backpackers are going to be dealing with.
The Importance of Proper Food Handling & Storage in
Bears, being the opportunistic omnivores that they are and equipped with
a super-formidable sense of smell, are likely to investigate just about
any intriguing scent they run across. In most cases, the scent of a
human being is going to be a negative, deterring aroma, but that’s not
the case when it comes to human foods (or garbage). Thus you’ve got to
treat all your camping eats as potential bear attractants. It’s a lot
easier to avoid a problematic encounter with a bear if you and the bear
maintain plenty of distance between one another, but with your food
supply, you’ve got something that—especially if mismanaged—can bring a
bear right into your campsite.
Here’s an important point, too: Following proper food-handling and
storage protocol in bear country isn’t just about protecting you, but
protecting both other people and the bear itself. A bear habituated to
seeking out human food has a good chance of being killed by wildlife
authorities given the potential danger said animal poses to people, so
being sloppy about your grub can lead directly to a bear’s “removal.”
Furthermore, even if you don’t end up suffering any consequences for bad
food etiquette in the woods, the next person who camps in that area may
pay the price by running into the bear that pilfered or scavenged your
snacks and decides to revisit the campsite for more.
Food Safety When Car Camping in Bear Country
When car camping, your hard-sided vehicle offers in most cases a pretty
foolproof place to safely store your food and cooking gear in bear
country. Granted, in some places, black bears have figured out how to
break into cars; in Yosemite
National Park, for example, you can only keep food in cars or
trucks during the day, but at night must keep it in campsite food
lockers given the local black bears’ burglarizing proclivities. Check
with local regulations to learn what’s recommended/required in a
particular campground. Food lockers are available in many national parks
and some other kinds of public-lands campgrounds.
Never leave food, garbage, cookware, coolers, etc. unattended in
campsites. Don’t leave food scraps in fire pits or barbecues, either:
Remove any and include them in your garbage.
Food Safety When Backpacking in Bear Country
Backpackers have a more complicated situation when it comes to handling
food and cooking. Fortunately, it’s never been easier to implement safe
food practices when backpacking in bear country.
It should be common knowledge, but first and foremost: You never want to
keep food, garbage, or cookware inside your tent when camping in places
where bears are active. (Actually, even in places notfrequented
by bears you don’t want food inside your tent ideally: Mice will happily
chew through the walls to get at nibbles.) You want to pitch your tent
at least 100 yards from where you cook and store your food, and whenever
possible upwind of those areas.
The old-fashioned way to store food in the backcountry (as well as
toiletries, garbage, and any other scented items) is to hoist a “bear
bag” into the trees, suspending it at least 10 feet off the ground
(ideally more) and four feet from a tree trunk. There are several
methods for doing this using rope of 50 to 100 feet long, including
suspending a bag between two trees, hanging from one branch with a rope
end tied around a trunk or otherwise secured, or with two food bags
counterbalanced around a limb and retrieved with a long stick.
This can be a time- and energy-consuming process, and in some high-use
backcountry areas bears have learned to sever ropes tied to tree trunks.
In some backcountry camping areas, including more than a few U.S. and
Canadian national/provincial parks, food poles or food lockers are
provided at campsites. Food poles are easier to use than the
tree-hanging method; they may have high hooks you use a pole to attach
your food bag to or a cable system for hoisting the bag off the ground.
Specially designed bear bags resistant to bear claws and odor-resistant
bags are other modern innovations worth investing in if you’re not going
the bear-canister route, which we’ll delve into next.
These days, there’s an easier alternative to hanging food in bear
country. Bear canisters are rigid plastic containers with one or another
kind of locking mechanism designed so only a human being should be able
to open and close the lid—by unscrewing it, say, or using a coin to
operate metal locking tabs. Bear canisters don’t need to be raised off
the ground, but they should be placed in a spot where they’re unlikely
to roll or fall far downslope—including if a bear or other animal knocks
them around. (Those with lockable flip lids should be placed upside down
to keep rain from getting inside.)
The trick with bear canisters—which are required now in a number of
national parks, and which provide a critical alternative to hung bags in
areas devoid of suitably tall or long-branched trees, such as
above-timberline country—is packing and arranging your food stores so
they completely fit within the container along with other scented items.
Bear canisters come in different sizes, so make sure you’re choosing one
large enough for your intended backpacking.
In parks where bear canisters are required, ranger stations and visitor
centers may loan or rent them, but be aware in peak season they may run
out and you’ll need to secure one for yourself to go backpacking.
Safe Cooking Practices in Camp
Again, cook at least 100 yards away from where you’re going to be
sleeping in bear country. You may even opt to stop and cook dinner
before reaching your intended camping area.
It’s best to choose a cooking spot where you’ve got a decent range of
view, so you can have some advance warning if a bear shows up in the
When washing dishes, strain out food particles in your dishwater and put
these with your garbage.
To be as safe as possible—and particularly in grizzly country—you may
opt to avoid sleeping in the clothes you wore while cooking and eating.
If you’re a winter camper who sometimes cooks and eats partly in your
tent, it’s a good idea to keep your winter-camping tent separate from
your spring-through-fall one, to make sure residual food odors from
those winter meals don’t draw in bears during other seasons of use.