How to Store Your Food So You Don’t Get Eaten By A Bear

Hiking and Camping Expert Jessica LaPolla breaks down everything you need to know about keeping your food (and yourself!) safe from hungry bears in the backcountry!

A hungry bear is laying on a log. He has very long claws and looks tired but ready to eat some hikers.

There are some obvious reasons as to why it is important to properly store food while hiking, camping, and backpacking in bear country. For starters, a bear breaking into your tent to steal the sleeve of cookies under your pillow would probably put a damper on the rest of the trip, unless you’re into that sort of thing! Aside from the risk this holds for you, it also poses a great risk for the bears and other wildlife.

Why Store Food?

Bears are highly intelligent creatures. When they learn to associate a certain location with food, they will often revisit the place, becoming less fearful of humans in the process. This drives them further out of their natural habitat and into a potentially deadly one. Bears that are looking for food or garbage can become aggressive or dangerous in certain circumstances. They have the ability to break into cabins, cars, tents, and have the potential to harm humans. As they enter more populated areas, such as towns or campgrounds, they have a greater chance of being hit by a car, targeted by poachers, or euthanized for posing a threat to people. This is why proper food storage is vital, for your sake and for the bears.

What Should Be Stored?

Food is not the only thing that will draw wildlife, such as bears, squirrels, or raccoons, into your campsite. Other scented objects, such as beverages, deodorant, shampoo, hand sanitizer, bug spray, soap, toothpaste, and sunscreen, should also be stored safely. All food, whether it is canned or fresh, should be stored, along with food waste, trash, pots, pans, camping stove and fuel, coolers, and other items used to prepare meals.

How Do I Store Food?

Food storage requirements will differ depending on the national park, state park, backcountry, or wilderness areas you are visiting, as well as the type of bears present. Some parks require the use of a food locker (usually provided at the campsite) or bear-resistant food canisters. Some parks that require the use of canisters have them available to rent. Food lockers are typically large metal boxes in or near your campsite that can fit all of your items. Food and other items should be locked up securely at all times, especially while you are in your tent or away from camp. If staying in a cabin, RV, or hotel, be sure to lock all doors and windows and to keep all food inside. Bears can easily open doors and windows if left open.

For Picnics or Day Trips

Do not leave food or any items with a scent in your car, even if you are only planning on a two-hour hike. Always keep your food close by and do not turn your back on your food and supplies.

Bear Canister

Backpacker user Bear Canister at the entrance to Kings Canyon National Park, which requires approved containers in the backcountry.  There is a sign and a view of the mountains.

Photo by Grant Backpacker

Bear canisters are smaller and can be used for both camping and backpacking. Make sure they are locked properly and place them on a level surface at least 100 feet from your campsite. Make sure your canister is not near a hill, cliff, or water source, as a bear may knock it over while trying to open it. You can stack pots, pans, and utensils (usually too big to fit inside a canister) on top of your container as a bear alarm. Do not attach a rope or cord to your canister, as it may allow a bear to carry it away. If you are worried about misplacing your canister, wrap it in brightly colored tape so that it can be seen easily from a distance.

Bear Bag

Three bear bags hang high between two trees in the backcountry. The bags are black, blue, and red.

Photo by Greg Rosenke

Some locations provide bear wires or bear poles from which to hang your food or allow you to hang your food from a bag in a tree. For these methods, you can use a stuff sack, dry sack, or “bear-resistant” bag to store your items. If hanging your bag from a tree, select a tree at least 200 feet away from your camp. The most straightforward method for hanging food is to attach a nylon cord (approximately 50 feet) to the bag. Attach the other side to a small rock or weighted object. Throw the side with the rock over a sturdy branch and use the free end to hoist the bag up. The bag should hang at least ten feet away from the tree trunk and fifteen feet above the ground. Once in position, tie the rope to the tree trunk.

Bear Canisters vs. Hanging Bags: Which is Better?

When used correctly, the use of bear canisters and hanging food from a tree are both effective methods of safely storing food. In many cases, rules and regulations dictate which you are allowed to use. Always follow those local regulations or recommendations. In cases where you are free to secure your food however you want, there are a few pros and cons to each method.

Bear canisters are arguably the safest and easiest to use in terms of food storage. All you have to do is lock them and place them in a spot away from your campsite. However, they are expensive, bulky, and heavy. They take up a lot of valuable room in your pack. That being said, when packed correctly, they can hold a lot and can actually help keep things organized.

Hanging food from a tree is something that many backpackers swear by, while others deem it outdated. While it saves you weight and bulk in your pack, it is much trickier to assemble and is highly dependent on the environment you are in. For instance, you may not be able to find a suitable tree for a proper hang. It can also be time-consuming and tiring to set up, especially after a long day of hiking. If a bear is determined enough, in most cases it will probably find a way to get your food, especially if it is improperly hung. If using this method, be sure to practice at home and research the area you’ll be camping in (what kind of trees are there, if any?).

For most people, I would recommend purchasing a bear canister. If you camp or backpack infrequently, look into renting a bear canister for your next trip.

Tips for Storing Food

Bear resistant food storage containers sit on and in a metal bear box in Yosemite National Park, California. The bear containers are blue.

Here are some general tips and rules for storing food:

  • Do not store food or scented items in your tent or backpack.
  • Wash dirty dishes immediately after use.
  • Do not try to burn trash or food, this will not eliminate the odor.
  • When packing, take food out of its original packaging (discard boxes, excess materials). This will make it easier to fit all of your items in your canister, bag, or locker.
  • Bring plastic bags to store your food, toiletries, and garbage in. This will prevent leaks, ensure that crumbs don’t fall into your pack, and make clean up and storage easier.
  • Don’t leave food waste behind (apple cores, orange peels, etc). They may be biodegradable, but they will draw bears and other wildlife to human-populated trails and campsites.
  • If visiting a park or wilderness area, check the website for information on food storage requirements before going.

Bears are beautiful, magnificent animals that are a vital part of the ecosystems in which they exist. By entering their habitat, we as humans are inadvertently placing bears and other wildlife at risk in many different ways. In order to reduce the impact we have on wildlife, as well as reduce the risk for ourselves, it is important to follow local rules and regulations regarding food storage and to do research before entering a new area.

If you are confused about bear-resistant storage products or have any questions regarding food storage, reach out to one of the Camping & Hiking Experts here on Curated! We are always happy to answer questions. Happy hiking!

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Written By
Jessica LaPolla
Jessica LaPolla
Camping & Hiking Expert
Hi there! I have always had a deep love for the outdoors, having grown up on my family's horse farm in New Jersey. I began hiking and camping at a young age and started backpacking as a young adult. I now enjoy taking weekend backpacking trips with my dogs and rock climbing with my partner. This yea...
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