Tips to remember when animal-proofing your campsite

Critters crashing your camp? Here’s how to keep animals out.  

Animal proofing campsite

AROUND MIDNIGHT, three bears — a sow and two cubs — strolled into our camp, lured by something scattered on the ground: Our Scouts had used their extra snacks as ammunition in a food fight when I wasn’t looking.

When the bears had devoured every discarded morsel, they lumbered around camp, probing packs and peering into tents. We were all scared senseless! The bears finally waddled into the night, leaving us to pack up fast and head to another campsite, where we hoped to avoid another bear encounter.

I’ve guided more than 100 wilderness trips in remote parts of North America, and except for this instance, no animal has ever robbed me of my food. Why? Because I keep smellables where animals can’t see — or smell — them. These are the rules I live by:

If an animal can’t smell your food, it won’t get your food! Keep a scrupulously clean camp. Pick up, seal and pack out every scrap of uneaten food. I pack leftovers inside odor-proof plastic bags (such as Loksak, Another option is a bear canister, which is made of strong plastic with a heavy-duty lid that animals cannot pry open. Don’t forget: Always handle odor-proof bags or a canister with clean hands!

It’s OK to smell like the great outdoors. Artificial smells also attract wild animals. A bear that’s a mile from your camp won’t smell your freeze-dried spaghetti, but it will smell deodorant. Avoid using any scented “smellables,” such as lotions or soaps.

If you choose to use a smellable, do so in the morning so the smell deteriorates before bedtime. Always change into clean clothes that have not been exposed to these scented products before bed. Any smellable products must be sealed in an odor-proof bag and stored away from camp with your food.

If an animal can’t see your food, it won’t get your food! Once an animal finds food in a pack, box or can, it will seek out similar containers with hopes of securing a meal. I’ve watched bears destroy boxes and packs that didn’t contain — and had never contained — any food. This means you should keep ice chests, boxes and packs out of sight. And don’t store food in tents or other places where people gather.

Hanging your food doesn’t mean it’s out of reach. A bear cub can climb a 70-foot-tall tree in about 10 seconds. Mama bear can climb, too — slower than her cub, but faster than you. So “treeing” your food won’t necessarily keep it safe from critters that climb. Why, then, do many park authorities ask campers to hang their food? For your own safety!

Separating food and humans is the safest solution. Most campsites have only a few trees with horizontal branches that meet the guidelines for hanging food (about 20 feet high and approximately 8 feet from the trunk of the tree, according to the Fieldbook), and animals that climb know them all. If you do tree your food, do not use the same tree as everyone else. (Unless you’re at a Scout camp, like Philmont, with designated poles and cables used specifically to hang food bags.)

Another option: Take your food out of camp and hide it in the woods. Do this only if it’s packed in a waterproof and odor-proof container, like a bear canister or bear box supplied at some park campsites.

Make garbage a priority. Scouting practices lean heavily on Leave No Trace ethics. Among these principles is the act of setting up your sleeping area at least 200 feet from where your unit will cook or store anything smellable. Always clean up spilled food or leftover food particles, and you must strain all wash water and distribute it at least 200 feet from camp.

In terms of trash, Scouts pack out everything they pack in. This should, of course, be done with caution. Carrying garbage in your pack while hiking through bear country could be a recipe for an attack. Make sure the garbage is sealed in an odor-proof bag or container. In some instances (if park-permitted), you might wish to burn food scraps instead of carrying them in your pack in areas highly populated by bears. And you should never throw leftover food down park toilets or box latrines.

A critter-proof container can save the day.
Many national parks require hikers to store their food in bear-proof containers. Some examples include the BearVault 500 ($79.95), a tough plastic
cylinder that’s government-approved; the Ursack S29 ($68.88), a bag made from virtually bulletproof Spectra fabric, which makes it more lightweight and compact; and the Outsak Spectrum series (starting at $32), a stainless-steel mesh bag that resists raccoons and smaller animals. I always recommend using odor-proof bags inside critter-proof containers.

Chipmunks, squirrels and other rodents are usually a bigger nuisance than bears. Fortunately, the rules that work to help deter bears work for these animals, too. Just because a squirrel doesn’t pose a threat to your life doesn’t mean you should forget about animal-proofing techniques when you’re not camping in bear country.

Take this quiz to see how much you know about animal-proofing your campsite.



  1. There are some inaccuracies in this story that should be corrected:
    1) Storing food out-of-sight is ineffective when a bear’s sense of smell is approximately 2000 times better than a human’s. All food, smellables, and trash should be stored in steel bear boxes, approved bear canisters, or hung 12 ft off the ground and more than 6 feet from trees and limbs.
    2) Loksak (Opsak) bags are waterproof but NOT odorproof. An investigation published at BackpackingLight conducted by Ari Jutkowitz (4/10/2013) demonstrated that Police drug-sniffing dogs were easily able to identify closed lockers containing illicit drugs sealed inside Loksak bags in a locker room.
    3) Bear canisters are bear-proof, not odor-proof. Keep all food, smellables, and trash in them stored away from your campsite except when accessing items needed within.

    Keep ALL wildlife wild by never allowing them access to your food, smellables, and trash – even micro-garbage counts. Protecting these items avoids the development of food attraction behaviors in all wildlife, from mice that can transmit the deadly Hantavirus, to bears that pose a direct threat to your safety. Observations by land managers reveal that bears make a beeline to campsite fire pits and nearly always find something to eat there – never attempt to burn trash or food – carry it out!

    • Jeff: Thank you for sending the link to the article. You are absolutely right about bears being able to smell through plastic. Even mylar, which is much less porous than plastic, will emit odor through the seal, in time. Even if the plastic is technically odorproof, it is unlikely that anyone could load a bag in the field and have no smells. The major problem here is that the Boy Scouts want to be politically correct,though in this case, it may incur some danger. When I wrote the original column, I was emphatic that carrying garbage in bear country is a bad idea—and that Federal authorities strongly recommend that left-overs be tossed into a river and tainted plastic bags burned (in grizzly country). This makes sense for the safety of the crew even though it does not coincide with “Leave No Trace” camping ethics. On the other hand, storing edibles like cheese and salami in Aloksak (or other) purportedly odorproof bags does cut odors significantly. In the quoted experiment, the sniffing dogs were within feet of the packaged drugs. In a realistic camping situation, the odorproof bags would probably prevent a bear that was say, 50 yards away, from smelling the contents. A large group (more than four people), is often enough to deter a bear. For example, in the BWCA, where black bears are common, they regularly hone in on campsites that are occupied by humans. They can probably smell humans a quarter mile across the lake, but probably not food. So they come in to investigate. More often than not, they are intimidated by large groups (most scout groups are fairly large) and therefore don’t close enough to smell properly packaged food. Of course, there are exceptions. That’s why I am emphatic that you burn plastic and cardboard that once contained food. Carrying it on your back, no matter how carefully packaged, is never a good idea. Note that the recommendation to toss leftovers into a river is specific for grizzly bears. In black bear country my crews either burn it or bury it far from camp. I believe that scouts should do the same, but my philosophy here is at odds with scouting policy. Thank you for writing. Your point is well taken and on-target.

  2. I think you’re confusing LOKSAK bags with OPSAK bags. Both are made by the same company. But OPSAK’s are odor proof–that is, if you use good sense when filling them. Namely, wear medical gloves etc. Just touching the outside of one of these bags will leave human odor, and the odor of the stuff you handled that’s inside. It is never wise to hike in bear country with garbage in your pack. Sealed, freeze-dried foods packed in mylar are extremely odor proof. But opened bags aren’t. Being “politically correct” with leftover food and open packaging in grizzly country can get you killed!

  3. The study used Opsak “odor-proof” bags manufactured by Loksak. They are not odor-proof as claimed according to this study.

  4. This is some really good information about getting campground ready to fend off critters. I like that you talked about how it would be smart to hide all containers from animals. I didn’t realize that they will go after things that don’t have food in them.

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