How to keep your food safe from hungry bears when camping

Stashing food responsibly in bear country is crucial for your safety—and the bears'.
Two bear cubs in a meadow.
"We heard you had snacks" anthony renovato / Unsplash

If you took a poll at a national park you’d find the grand majority of visitors have a bear sighting at the top of their camping bucket list. But those who don’t know how to store their food properly when spending the night outdoors will get a much closer encounter with these animals than they’d wished for. Because when bears sneak up right outside your tent looking for a midnight snack, they look a lot less cute.

In the best-case scenario, they steal your backpack full of vittles, leaving you without a morsel for breakfast. But in the worst-case scenario, your carelessness might result in personal injury and a bear that has to be euthanized.

This is why it’s crucial to be responsible when storing your food and anything else that might attract bears. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to go about it that don’t require installing an electric fence around your campsite.

Food storage is important business in bear country

One free meal for a bear may not seem like a big deal as long as no one is hurt. But it’s still problematic because even if it’s the bear’s first offense, it almost certainly won’t be its last. 

Lana M. Ciarniello, research scientist and co-chair of the Human-Bear Conflicts Expert Team at the International Union for Conservation of Nature, explains that as soon as you reward a behavior, you condition the bear to seek out more of the same opportunities. This is especially true for bears who are used to humans. 

[Related: Bears can run at surprisingly fast speeds—here’s how they vary by species]

So when bears frequently pop up in camping sites it’s not the animal’s fault—more often than not, it’s the humans’. And these encounters usually don’t have a happy ending, as bears that do this are considered a threat and are likely to be euthanized. 

This is why proper storage techniques are paramount to safety in the outdoors. But not just yours—the bears’, too. 

Bears are not only attracted to food

It’s not just your stockpile of instant oatmeal that requires protecting. Food is the first thing you should store safely and out of bears’ reach, but Ciarniello says you should also put away what she calls “attractants”. Translation: Anything that might smell, even if it’s imperceptible to you.

While bears’ olfactory abilities are difficult to measure, experts at the National Park Service assure us they’re good. Really good—better-than-a-bloodhound good. That means these animals can detect the faintest of smells from farther away than you think. This includes your unscented deodorant or lip balm.

So even if an item is sealed (like wet wipes), or its label says it’s odorless, be safe and put it in the stash pile. Once you know what to put away, toss everything in a stuff sack, gallon-sized zip-top, or another durable bag, and get ready to store it.

Use a food locker

The easiest storage solution to keep bears away is food lockers. Many parks have installed these large, metal, cemented, bear-resistant structures in front-country and developed campgrounds, but they’re also popping up in backcountry sites where these animals roam.

So before you resort to more complicated solutions, make sure to check with staff at your destination to see if lockers are available.

Make a bear hang

Perhaps the most well-established method of protecting your food from bears with the munchies is the classic bear hang, where you stash all of your snacks in a durable bag, tie a long cord to it, and hang it in a tree.

Sounds simple, but “it is a pain in the ass,” Ciarniello admits. That’s because you can’t just throw a rope over any old tree limb, tie it off, and call it a day. Contrary to popular belief, bears are excellent climbers, so if you hang the bag less than 8 feet away from the tree trunk, they’ll scurry right up and chow down. And if you don’t hang the bag high enough, bears may be able to snatch it down without breaking a sweat. 

How high you need to hang your food will depend on the type of bears native to the area you’re visiting. If black bears are your only concern, a bag hanging 10 feet off the ground will do the trick, but in grizzly country, the ideal height is closer to 12 feet. So before you set off on your camping trip, make sure to ask a ranger what lives nearby and hang your food accordingly.

Tom Smith, a professor of wildlife sciences at Brigham Young University, says there are two main ways to make a bear hang: the single-tree hang and the double-tree hang. The single-tree hang is the simplest of the two. 

  1. Start with a line about 25 feet long and tie one end around a weight, like a rock or a hefty piece of wood. 
  2. Toss the weight over a sturdy tree limb at least 15 feet off the ground. Make sure you hang on to the other end of the line, as you don’t want the rope to make it all the way over. 
  3. Once the line is over, remove the weight and tie that end of the rope to your food bag.
  4. Pull the remaining end of the rope until your stash is at the desired height. 
  5. Tie the rope off to the tree trunk.

The two-tree hang is more involved and requires a longer cord, closer to 60 feet. But this method is more secure as bears are less likely to swat or chew on the down line. 

  1. Pick two stout trees with limbs at least 15 feet high. 
  2. Attach one end of the rope to a weight. Again, a rock or a hefty piece of wood will do.
  3. Toss the weight over one of the limbs. 
  4. Remove the weight and secure the line by tying it around the corresponding tree trunk. 
  5. Tie your weight to the opposite end of the rope and repeat steps 1, 2, and 3 with the other tree. Make sure you leave enough slack in the middle so the rope can droop to the ground. You want it to form an “M” shape.
  6. Use a carabiner to attach your bear bag to the droopy center of the rope. 
  7. Pull on the loose end of the rope and hoist the bag. When it’s high enough, tie off the rope securely around the second tree trunk.

Use terrain to your advantage

Smith says bear hangs are a hassle, so he’ll usually avoid making one if he can. Instead, if the landscape allows, he recommends using the terrain to your advantage. For example, if there are large, isolated boulders with no way to climb up to the top, tie a line to your bear bag and toss it on top of the rock with the line hanging down for easy retrieval. 

[Related: Bears can count, take selfies, use tools, recognize supermodels, and even open car doors]

Alternately, Smith explains that if there’s a cliff or escarpment nearby, you can hang the food below the rim and secure the rope to a tree or bush. This approach will require you to be confident in your knot skills and extra careful when retrieving your grub, as slippery hands can result in having to forage your dinner or an early trip home.

Get some bear canisters

If you don’t want to deal with the hassle of a bear hang, you can use a bear canister or safe.

These typically roundish containers are built to withstand impact and are nearly impossible for a bear to open, as they don’t have opposable thumbs. Some have twist-on tops, while others feature screws to secure the lid, but they’re all designed to fit in a large backpack for easy —albeit heavy—transportation into the backcountry. 

To use one, Smith advises cramming all your smellables inside zip-top plastic bags and into the container. Take it 100 feet or so away from your tent and find a good place to stash it. Lash it to a tree trunk or shove it in a bush, otherwise, it may not be there when you come back for it in the morning. 

“Bears have been known to bat them around, playing kickball with them deep in the woods, making it very difficult for campers to find them,” Smith says.

Make sure to add stickers or reflective tape to help you identify your canister in high-traffic areas. This will be incredibly helpful if you’re packing up before sunrise.

Whatever method you use, make sure you store your food wisely while in bear country. It’ll help keep you and these majestic animals safe. And don’t forget the bear spray.