Keeping Your Food Safe from Bears: The Truth About Bear Canisters

Bear canisters are vital for protecting your food in bear country, but are they really smell-proof? Get the truth on how well bears can smell sealed foods and tips for proper use.

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Josh Koop

I live with my wife and daughter in Katy, Texas and my local trail is the Lone Star Hiking Trail which is an amazing way to experience the Sam Houston National Park!

Bear can with food next to rocks on the trail
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Do you need to worry about bears when camping or hiking? For the most part, no. However, if you are in an area where bears are known to roam, it is important to take precautions.

One way to protect your food from being stolen by bears is to use a bear canister .

Bear canisters are a very good option for storing food in bear country, but they do not fully smell-proof the contents. This means they shouldn’t be stored in camp with you but as recommended at least 100 feet from your campsite to ensure if a bear does come that it avoids you.

But do bear canisters keep food smells from escaping? Are they really smell-proof? What to put in a bear canister? In this blog post, we will answer all of your questions about bear canisters and dispel some common myths!

How Well Do Bears Smell?

Bears smell very well with a fantastic sense of smell they can be pulled into checking out anything that they think smells like food or travels with food.

The smells that will pull them in range from foods to many other scents you carry, like toothpaste, soap, bug sprays, and more.

To survive, bears developed a better sense of smell than most animals.

A bear’s sense of smell is around 2100 times better than a human’s. To help you grasp the level, a dog is about 100 times better than humans and we use them to detect minute smells in an airport!

So, just using that “smell test” using your nose or that of your dogs isn’t sufficient to know if your smell-proof container is smell-proof.

The bear may know much more about the food inside these containers because they can pick up the microscopic amount of smell that gets out.

As to distance, when wondering how far a bear can smell human food the answer is relatively easy.

The distance is about one to two miles away per the National Park Service website, which means any bear in your area knows you are there and that you have food.

Can a Bear Smell Sealed Foods?

As we dig into the sense of smell and what can or can’t be detected by bears, many will prepare foods at home to take backpacking with them or send resupply packages with them, so can bears smell vacuum-packed food or sealed foods?

Due to their massively enhanced sense of smell versus humans, the answer is more than likely a yes. Our plastics don’t contain all the smells as well as we think.

This means that regardless of packing, using a hard-shelled Bear Vault or Ursack Allmighty Bear sacks is vital to keeping your food safe and away from camp.

Bears will also link the food smell with the food source, and this is another reason you want the food far away from you, as you don’t want a bear to identify humans as carrying or being food.

What About Dehydrated Food?

As with the above topic on sealed foods, dehydrated foods are just as full of food scents as non-dehydrated ones.

This strong scent will continue to attract bears just like a non-cooked or cooked meal, as it smells interesting and like food.

Dehydrated food doesn’t have a strong smell to us, but bears can smell it. The strength of the scent depends on how the food is packaged.

How About Freeze-Dried Food?

As with both above topics, the manner of preparation doesn’t remove the scent from the food items, so in the end, a bear can smell it all the same.

The packaging matters, and the location of a bear container, bear sack, or hanging food with bear bags and line kit are more of a deterrent than hiding the smell itself.

Understanding the Type of Bear

There are many types of bears worldwide, and each type can smell food differently.

Grizzlies have a much better sense of smell than black bears. Knowing your bear can help you understand how well it can smell your food.

We want to discuss the two most common US trails primarily the triple crown trails. These are black bears and grizzly bears.

Black Bears

The black bear is the smallest of North America’s three bears and can be found in forests, swamps, and mountains across the continent.

Black bears can climb trees well and are primarily scavengers, eating anything from grasses to honey or insects to fish, small mammals, and carrion (dead animals).

Black bears are able to be scared off typically with just loud noises or if you are incredibly worried a bear spray can give you peace of mind.

Grizzly Bears

The grizzly is North America’s largest land predator, and most are brown but can vary to almost black.

Grizzlies are omnivores but have a broader diet including roots, berries, insects, fish, and small and large mammals.

Grizzlies can be averse to human contact but will attack if they feel threatened or see their young being threatened. Grizzly bears have been known to stalk campers waiting for the right time to snatch food.

Unlike black bears, grizzlies are less likely to run away from humans and can be more persistent in getting food.

What Are Bear Canisters?

The most common need for hiking in bear country is carrying a bear canister. These are basically created plastic or polycarbonate containers that can withstand claws and bites and keep your food safe , but are bear canisters bear-proof?

Bear canisters are rugged, but they aren’t fool-proof to protect their contents. A bear with the will to keep clawing and biting can eventually break through, but in nearly all cases, they will give up to get more accessible food instead.

A bear canister or bear can as some call them is basically a big round tub with a screw-on lid. The thick plastic they are built on doesn’t crack under high stress and impact making them a perfect defense against a heavy bear.

Why Bear Canisters Are Necessary

When you travel or plan camping in bear country, you must ensure they don’t see human areas as easy food.

Most problems come when bears come to understand where people are and food is easy to access and plentiful.

A bear canister can stop bears from getting your food by making it a lot of work and effort to try and access, and this will typically lead to them moving onto more accessible food sources keeping the humans and bears safe.

Using a canister can help isolate smells and limit them as much as possible, but this isn’t their main purpose.

Where Are Bear Canisters Required?

The most common requirement for canister use are in heavily trafficked bear areas, there is a segment on the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, and Continental Divide Trail where bear-resistant containers are required.

In addition, they have become more recommended in any areas where bears are a big inhabitant such as state and national parks, national forests, national wilderness areas, and many other public lands.

Most will have them required only in specific sections of a trail so you must understand which parts will require them and whether you will need to carry one for the entire trail or just the section before heading to the trailhead.

Who Certifies Bear Canisters?

There is one main group, the IGBC, which stands for the “Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee” which has a nice list of approved canisters that can be used in the backcountry.

In order to be considered for inclusion on the list, goods must meet stringent requirements and either “pass” an actual live bear test using captive grizzlies or a technical evaluation.

It’s worth noting that IGBC accreditation does not guarantee that a product is BEAR-PROOF, nor does it assure that bears will never breach a product or that little amounts of the contents of the containers will not seep out.

Sizing Your Bear Canister

All of the information is useful and helpful but how do you know what size is right as there are many options for canisters from small to large, what size bear canister do you need for your trip?

In general sizing for foods you are wanting to look at around 100 cubic inches per day, or about 1.6 liters, then you may need more space to add in the additional items you bring that smell like toothpaste, toiletries, or other similar attractant items.

The standard calculation to find how much a canister can hold is pretty simple, you want to take the cubic inches the can will hold and divide this by 100 for how many days you can expect a bear can to carry(source).

This can be influenced by how effectively you pack your canister, though as you should be unwrapping foods and using packing-friendly toiletries instead of full-size items when possible.

How Do You Carry a Bear Canister?

There are really two primary ways you can choose to carry a canister with you on a backpack, these are internally like you would with a food bag, or externally done frequently on top of the backpack with a y-strap to help hold it in place.

Internally if you have the pack size is typically the most optimal as you would prefer to carry the weight close to your body and in the middle of the pack to help carry the weight most efficiently but with many packs, this is just not viable.

If you have enough internal liters you could add the canister inside your pack, for most if they horizontally stack they may try it sideways but most will go with vertical and use other gear like clothing and other items to keep it centered and upright.

If you use a lower liter pack then the easiest way is to carry the bear canister on the outside on top of the pack, either under the brain straps if you should have a brain or, as most would use a y-strap or v-strap most packs will have on the top by default or as an option to add during build or sometimes purchase afterward.

Check out Waymark Gear Packs Here

Managing Smelly Food in a Bear Canister

So now you have all the facts, details, and information to make quality decisions now you can manage what you add and how to manage the smells as much as possible to help limit bear interactions!

Smell Proofing a Bear Canister

While bear smell proof bags exist, you can work to minimize the smells from coming from your canister with some simple methods. while it’s being stored and also when you have it open by using the following tips:

  • Repackage food into bear canister-friendly packaging like vacuum sealing whenever possible.
  • Use a small ziplock container for toiletries and other attractant items to add another barrier
  • Use and bring unscented products when possible as opposed to scented items

What Foods Need to Go In My Bear Canister?

Any food you bring with you can and will be a target for bears. That includes everything you bring to eat like human foods, but additionally things like pet food, even toothpaste or lip balm if they smell strong.

The only things you don’t keep in the canister would be snacks for the current hiking day, this can include things like jerky, trail mix, and so on.

Tips for Proper Use of Your Bear Canister in Camp

It goes without saying that you must keep your canister closed and away from camp at all times except when actively grabbing something from inside.

In general, you want your food to be placed at least 100 feet from your campsite and also downwind, but if you are in grizzly country you will want to extend this to around 300 feet as you don’t want them coming close to where you are camping.

Additionally, you should always look to be at least 100 feet from a water source as that can also pull in animals and cause more issues.

Last but not least, if you are 100 to 300 feet away how do you know if a bear or other wild animals are messing with your food? The answer is, to set an alarm, for many of the easiest things to do this with on a hike is your cook system like your pot, spoon, or spork and similar noisy items should they fall.

How to Avoid Bringing Bears Into Camp

There are many ways to lessen the chance of having a bear decide to come to join you in camp, and the first step is to make sure you have a proper canister and placement away from camp.

But additionally, there are things you can do when packing your food for the trip:

Cook Well Before Camp

Many people will want to eat once they set up their campsite, but this is one of the more problematic things you can do as then all the smells of food are going to come from where you intend to sleep.

The better course of action is to have a place along the way to the campsite where you stoop to eat food when possible as this way the food odors will be a generous distance from the sleeping area lessening the chance of bear encounters.

Clean Well Before Camp

Another thing you should do is to do your clean-up before you reach camp.

When you are going to use soaps or cleaners the more distance from the camp the better as the smells are not located around common campsite areas.

This can include things like doing dishes, cleaning your canister, or anything else that can have odors.

Avoid Midnight Snacks in Backpack

Don’t bring that Snickers into bed with you in case you get hungry, not just for bears but this will bring the rodents in and have them demolish your gear in record time.

Make bedtime a place without anything other than water, this will ensure you have no issues with critters or bears.

Additional Frequently Asked Questions

Should you bury a bear canister?

While this may seem smart it is very disturbing to the environment and physically taxing while providing you near-zero benefits. Don’t bury a bear canister, please follow LNT principles and leave the place like you were never there!

Does used toilet paper go in the bear canister?

For sanitary reasons I would avoid pairing any waste with where my food will be stored, I would instead use wag bags to keep them isolated and then store them in a bear bag or other method until they can be disposed of if burying isn’t viable at the hiking site.

Final Thoughts on  Bear Canisters and the Food Smell

Just because you can’t see or feel the canister doesn’t mean the animals can’t smell it in the area since bears can smell food for miles and you don’t want bear attacks due to food.

The best way to avoid bear interactions near your camp is by following our tips for properly using bear canisters where required.

This ensures your food smells are not present in common areas like campsites where animals may come around looking for a snack. If you normally use a bag instead of a cannister cheack out our post on using a bear bag vs canister.

When packing your food before departure on any hike, do so well ahead of time and cook all meals once you set up at camp to keep the smells from lingering too close to your sleeping area.

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