How to bear-proof your campsite

Ask campers what they fear most about the outdoors and they’ll say, “Bears!” Some people are afraid they’ll be eaten alive by a bear; others are worried that one will get their food. 

These suggestions from the U.S. Forest Service are supposed to keep Boundary Waters Canoe Area campers safe from bears. Two of the four will get you into trouble. Can you tell which two?

  1. Hang your food pack from a tree limb that is at least 10 feet off the ground.
  2. Don’t leave food in your tent.
  3. Leave your tent flaps open so that a bear can walk in and check for food without resorting to force.
  4. Where bears are frequent, secure your food in government-approved “bear-proof” containers.

Numbers one and three are wrong. Why?

No. 1 is wrong in most cases. Bears learn from experience that food comes in packs that hang in “certain” trees. For example, in popular campsites there is often just one high tree that everyone uses to suspend their food pack(s). Bears identify these special trees and devise ways to get food packs down. Camps such as Philmont that have installed special bear cables strung between trees are exceptions.

No. 2 is correct. Bears will tear your tent apart to get at food. This means no snacks—not even hard candy or chewing gum—in bed.

No. 3 dates to the 1950s when campers cooked fresh foods near their canvas tents. Canvas holds odors that will entice a curious bear. Better to leave the door flaps open than risk disaster, the saying went. Closed tent flaps will not discourage a bear, but they will keep out insects, creepy crawlers, and the weather.

No. 4 is correct, and it’s the law in many places.


1. Break the conditioning habit by putting your food where others don’t. If you hoist food packs into a tree, don’t use the same tree as everyone else.

Where bears are plentiful, store food in government-approved, bear-proof containers.

At popular campsites such as those in Sylvania and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, I simply take food packs out of the immediate camp area and hide them in the woods, taking care to keep them away from game trails and lake shores.

Bears don’t see well, especially at night, so as long as there’s no food odor (there must be none), they’ll leave things alone.

As an added precaution, I vacuum-seal foods in plastic. Some grocery stores will vacuum-seal foods at no charge.

Medical grade OPSAK bags are 100 percent odor proof and waterproof. They come in a variety of sizes.

2. Keep fresh meats frozen and sealed in bear-proof containers until use. Do not store fresh/smelly foods in your car. Bears are adept at breaking into cars.

3. Don’t keep any “smellables” in your tent. These include food (especially candy bars), toothpaste, and deodorant. Set up the cooking area at least 100 yards downwind from where you sleep.

What works for bears works for ground squirrels, mice, and other critters. Like bears, these small animals learn where, and in which containers, campers store their food.

Cliff Jacobson is a Distinguished Eagle Scout and the author of more than a dozen bestselling outdoors books.


  1. Bears have a sense of smell seven times greater than a bloodhound. Even with medical grade packaging, I wouldn’t leave food down on the ground. They don’t need eyesight to smell it. Use the Philmont “Bearmuda Triangle.” Keep your food and cooking on one side of the triangle and keep your clean tent on the other corner. Also use the PCT method to hang your bags (if you aren’t using bear canisters.) You can see that here:

  2. Black bears climb trees, VERY WELL! There are many pictures on the Internet that show them high in trees and on power line poles. Indeed, in the Smoky Mountains National Park, black bears winter den in trees. You will not keep your food safe by hanging it in a tree. BUT, you may be safer because the food is where you aren’t. And this, I think, is the real philosophy behind “treeing food packs”. Also, be aware that in places where grizzlies abound (they don’t climb as well as black bears), there are often very few trees that are high enough to discourage a bear.Grizzlies can “claw climb” up until they’re about four years old, then their claws straighten out enough to make claw climbing difficult. BUT, like humans, they can “hug climb” throughout their lives. There are many instances where grizzlies have chased people up trees then climbed up to attack them.

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