Bear Safety: Storing Food

Food Storage Container
Food Storage Container.

NPS Photo

Storing your food and disposing of garbage properly can mean life or death to a bear.
Bears learn quickly and will return to areas where they find food. Not only can this be dangerous for people, but it is also harmful to bears.

Why Is Human Food Bad for Bears?

By eating human food, bears can lose their preference for natural food sources and their fear of humans. Over time, these bears may begin approaching people in search of food. They can become aggressive, unpredictable, and dangerous. Bears looking for human food and garbage can damage property and injure people. These bears pose a risk to public safety and are often euthanized as a result. Studies have also shown that bears that lose their fear of people have a shorter life expectancy than bears that feed on natural foods and are afraid of people. As bears become comfortable around humans, they are more likely to be in areas where humans are. These bears are at risk of being euthanized to protect people, getting hit by a car, and becoming an easy target for poachers. Learn more by watching the Yosemite Nature Notes 26: Black Bears video.

What Is Considered "Food"?

Bears have an insatiable appetite and an amazing sense of smell, and they consider anything with a scent to be "food." This can include canned goods, bottles, drinks, soaps, cosmetics, toiletries, trash, ice chests, sunscreen, bug repellant, fuel, items used for preparing or eating meals, etc. All of these items must be stored properly.

Never leave your food scraps behind. Leaving behind food scraps can attract bears to the area and make them associate people with food sources. This can lead to dangerous situations for both you and the bears. Always pack out your food scraps, garbage, or toiletries in resealable bags or containers. Never leave these items unattended when hiking.

Food Storage Requirements

Depending on which national park you decide to visit and what types of bears are present there, regulations differ for how best to store your food. Some parks require food lockers or bear-resistant food containers ("bear canisters"), while others allow visitors to hang food from a tree in a food bag. Bear canisters should always be locked and stored properly when not being used. Not following those rules may result in fines, confiscation of food, towing of cars, or other penalties to protect visitors, property, and bears. Read below to learn some common food storage tips that can help you have a more enjoyable visit to your national park.

In Picnic Areas and Campgrounds

  • Always keep your food within arm's reach and don't turn your back to your food.
  • In some parks, food may be stored inside your car as long as it is out of sight, with windows completely closed, and only during daylight hours; never store food in a pickup truck bed or strapped to the outside of a vehicle. In other parks, all food must be removed from your car and stored in lockers. Remember to clear your car of food wrappers, crumbs in baby seats, baby wipes, and even canned food and drinks.
  • Secure your food, garbage, and other scented items immediately upon arriving at your campsite.
  • Do NOT store food in your tent or backpack.
  • Wash dirty dishes immediately.
  • Do NOT attempt to burn excess food, tea bags, or coffee grounds in a fire. Burning organic matter completely requires a very hot fire, hotter than most campfires. Partially burned matter will still draw wildlife into camps.

In Hotel Rooms and Cabins

  • Keep all food inside your room. If you are not in the room, the windows and doors must be closed. Bears can easily break into cabins through an open door or window.
While Backpacking
  • Check with the park before taking food into the backcountry. Some parks allow or require portable containers designed for backpackers; others provide food lockers.
  • Choose foods that are compact, compressible, high calorie, and lacking in strong odors, such as rice, tortillas, jerky, pastas, nuts, dried fruits, peanut butter, and protein bars.
  • Take food out of its original package. This allows you to fit more food in your canisters and reduce garbage. Use resealable bags instead of bottles, jars, and cans. Force air out of bags or packages.
  • Carry food and garbage in plastic bags to contain crumbs and grease that can leave odors in your backpack.
  • Bear-resistant containers only work if they are closed and locked. Be sure to keep the container closed and locked even while you're around your campsite.
    • Place containers on flat, level ground 100 feet or more from your campsite.
    • Do NOT place containers near cliffs or any water source, as a bear may knock the container around or roll it down a hill trying to open it.
    • Do NOT attach anything to containers. Ropes attached to containers enable a bear to carry it away.
    • Place pots and pans on top of containers as a bear alarm.
    • Learn how to pack your container efficiently.
  • Do NOT dispose of food waste in the wilderness. Pack out all uneaten food and food particles. Treat food wrappers and other garbage the same as food.

Part of a series of articles titled Bear Country.

Last updated: March 21, 2023