How to Protect Your Camp Food from Wildlife

From bears to bugs. 

How to Protect Your Camp Food from Wildlife
Image Courtesy of BearVault

Food is a powerful motivator—that's especially important to remember when you're out camping, sharing a space with all varieties of wildlife. Whether it's raccoons and black bears or yellow jackets and mosquitos, be mindful that unsecured food will draw the attention of unwanted visitors. For your safety and theirs, consider the following strategies for keeping your food sealed tight and your campsite secure. 

Bear Country

Here in the U.S., more than 40 states are home to a permanent population of black bears. At the same time, other states that aren’t typically considered to be within black bear territory get the occasional wandering visitor from outside their borders (bears aren’t great at respecting human-made boundary lines). Black bears overlap with their bigger, more aggressive cousins, grizzly bears, in four of the contiguous United States, as well as in Alaska, where you can also find coastal brown bears and polar bears. Suffice it to say, most of the country and much of where we recreate can be considered “bear country.” 

If you’re unsure whether bears can be found in the area where you’re planning to camp, check ahead of time. If you can’t get an answer, and the location is in or near what’s considered bear country, assume that you need to take precautions to protect your food and prevent attracting bears into your campsite or onto the trail where you’re walking.

These days, bear canisters are the preferred method of protecting food from wildlife in bear country. Many national parks, in fact, require campers to use either park-installed lockers or an approved bear canister to store food. Bear canisters are pretty much what they sound like: ruggedized containers that bears have trouble opening up or carrying away. Leading bear canister brands include Bear Vault and Garcia, which are approved in most areas. 

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Once you’ve placed your food in the canister, the National Park Service recommends storing it at least 100 yards downwind of your tent. Cache it in an area away from water, cliffs, hills or rocks—a bear that finds it may knock it around for a while before giving up. It’s also a good idea to put brightly colored tape or stickers on the canister to help you locate it. Your cooking and dishwashing areas should also be well away from your tent and in a location different from where your food will be stored.

Another option for food protection in bear country is a ruggedized bear bag, like the Ursack, which, when secured to a tree or a similar object, has proven to be effective at preventing bears from accessing food. The downside is that such bear bags don’t prevent contents from being crushed and they are not as widely approved for use as many bear canisters. They also tend to be more susceptible to penetration by mice and other non-bear varmints. 

Some developed campgrounds provide bear hooks—smooth metal poles with hooks at the top from which you can hang food bags—which is also a good option for campsite food storage. As a last resort, you can suspend a food bag on a line strung between two trees. The general rule is that the bag must be at least 12 feet off the ground and 5 feet from any branch. Evidence shows, however, that bears in many areas have learned to defeat this system of food storage. Many state and national forests have specific rules regarding suspended food bags, be sure to check them before you head out into the woods.

Finally, never keep food or anything with a scent, like toothpaste, in your tent. If car camping, try to avoid keeping food in your car—bears have been known to break windows and open doors if they smell food in a vehicle. Storing food inside a hard-sided recreational vehicle is acceptable, as long as it is secured at all times. 

Everywhere Else

A bear canister is a good solution in places outside of bear country, as well. So, is a locking cooler or the trunk of a car. Store food and items with a scent away from your sleeping area to prevent unwanted visitors from sniffing around your tent at night. Never leave food, garbage, or dirty dishes out on a table or unattended in your campsite. Finally, an areal insect repellant, like the Thermacell Radius will help to keep some kinds of flying pests away while you’re to eat.

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