How do you camp with food in bear country?

Camping in bear country can be an exhilarating yet daunting experience. While the chance to observe these majestic creatures in their natural habitat is a dream for many outdoor enthusiasts, the need to safely store food and avoid encounters is also a major concern. This comprehensive guide covers everything you need to know about camping with food in bear territory.

Should you avoid camping in known bear areas?

Bears reside in forests, mountains, and parks throughout North America. Avoiding all of these areas would mean missing out on many beautiful camping destinations. With proper precautions, these locations can be enjoyed safely.

The key is being aware of your surroundings, following food storage regulations, and using deterrents when necessary. While caution is advised, don’t let fear keep you from camping in bear country.

How to find out if bears are active in the area

The best way to determine bear activity is to check with the local land management agency. National and state parks, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, fish and game departments, and other organizations monitor bear populations and activity.

Get on their email lists, check their websites, call their offices, and speak with rangers before your trip. There may be advisories regarding recent bear incidents or campground closures.

Look for warning signs at trailheads and campgrounds about proper food storage and what to do if you encounter a bear. Obey all posted instructions and ask if there are any access restrictions.

Best practices for storing food in bear country

Bears have an extraordinary sense of smell, and even small food particles or odors on clothing or gear can attract them from miles away. All food, toiletries, coolers, bottles, cans, wrappers, and scented items must be kept inaccessible.

Storage regulations vary between areas, so check local rules. Methods may include:

  • Bear-proof containers: durable, crush-resistant bins tested on grizzlies
  • Food hangs: hanging buckets from trees at least 10 feet up and 4 feet out from the trunk
  • Bear lockers: metal boxes that can be chained shut
  • Car trunks: if allowed, leave nothing inside the car or around campsite

Avoid odors on clothes by storing only unscented items in your tent. Change clothes and shoes outside. Double bag foods and pack out all trash.

When camping with an RV or trailer

The same precautions apply. Keep food inside a hard-sided trailer or RV. Close windows and vents to prevent odors from escaping. Store all food, trash, and scented items in your vehicle or a bear-proof locker.

Clean grills after each use. Do not keep coolers or tables out. Remove any items or debris that may attract bears from the area.

What to do with toiletries

Toothpaste, deodorant, soap, lotions, feminine products, sunscreens, and other toiletries must be treated like food. Store all toiletries with your food cache in bear-proof containers.

Avoid brushing teeth or applying lotions and perfumes near camp. Take care of hygiene and beauty routines well away from sleeping areas.

Safe food preparation and eating practices

Limit food prep at campsites. Prepare meals ahead of time or use jerky, nuts, energy bars and other items that don’t require cooking. If cooking at camp, maintain a clean area by washing dishes, utensils, and hands immediately after eating.

Keep all food locked up until mealtime. When cooking, stay near the campfire and keep food close by. Clean up thoroughly. Food odors on clothes or surfaces can draw bears.

Storing pet food

Kibble, pet treats, and even the empty cans and bags from pet food must be securely stored along with human food. Bears will be just as attracted to these items.

When camping, feed pets inside vehicles or RVs. Store pet food containers in bear lockers or hard-sided vehicles. Remove dishes after pets eat.

Keeping a clean camp

Regularly clean campsites of food scraps, crumbs, grease, trash, and other smells that linger. Wipe down tables and surfaces. Pick up any dropped items like chips or bread.

Use provided trash receptacles or pack out all garbage in odor-proof bags. Never keep empty cans, bottles or food packaging at campsites.

What to do about coolers

Hard-sided, high-quality coolers do not prevent bears from accessing food. The plastic can be easily torn open. Coolers must be stored along with all bear attractants.

Another option is to bring a small cooler just for the day’s use, emptying all contents before night. But never clean coolers or other food-stained items at or near campsites.

Safe camping setup and placement

Avoid camping near cooking areas. Sleep 100 yards away from food storage sites, preferably downwind. Keep campsites clean.

If allowed, pitch tents in open areas visible to the surroundings. Choose sites away from dense brush. Avoid camping near rushing water where bears cannot hear approach.

Deterrents for camping trips

Bear deterrents help provide peace of mind. Carry EPA-approved bear spray, available at sporting goods stores. Keep it accessible but not stored with food.

Portable motion-sensor alarms can be set up around the site perimeter. When triggered, they emit lights and sounds to scare away approaching bears.

Some camping supply stores rent or sell bear-resistant panniers, food containers, and cache tubes. Classical or rock music played at low volume may also deter bears.

What to do if you encounter a bear

Stay calm. Talk in a normal voice and wave your arms to identify yourself as human. Slowly back away, giving the bear a clear escape route.

Do not run or climb a tree, which may trigger a chase response. Be extra cautious around cubs as mother bears are very protective. Report any close bear encounters to local wildlife officials.

Other dangerous animals

Bears are not the only wildlife hazard in the backcountry. Wolves, mountain lions, coyotes, and other predators may also be attracted by improperly stored food, trash, or pet food. Always follow food storage rules and deterrent techniques.

Importance of proper food storage

Keeping a clean camp is important for minimizing risks from bears and other wildlife. Responsible food storage also helps keep animals wild by preventing dependence on human foods.

Follow the old camping adage: store food and scented items as if your life depends on it. Your diligence protects both animals and humans.


While bears roam the forests, mountains, and parks of North America, that’s no reason to avoid these special places. By properly storing food, maintaining clean campsites, and using deterrents, the backcountry can be enjoyed safely even in bear country.

Always check with land agencies for the latest bear advisories and food storage regulations. Their recommendations have proven effective at preventing incidents. With sound preparation and prudence, bears can be appreciated from a distance while camping in these majestic habitats.

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