Can Bears Smell Food in a Bear Canister?

You’ve probably heard that bears have amazing noses, and like most wild animals are incredibly food-driven. A bear’s nose is perfectly adapted to sniff out a meal from miles away, and it’s up to us humans to make sure our dinner doesn’t become theirs.

Proper food storage in bear country is essential for the safety of people and wildlife alike, but can a bear’s bionic sense of smell pick up the scent of food in a bear canister?

How A Bear’s Sense of Smell Works

A bear’s sense of smell works the same way as a human’s, but on a much bigger scale. Their noses are bigger with a larger nasal cavity, and they have tremendously more scent receptors. 

Wildlife biologist and bear expert Jennifer Fortin-Noreus at the US Fish and Wildlife Service Grizzly Bear Recovery Program in Montana has a great visual for comparing the noses of humans, dogs, and bears:

“The surface area inside the nose of a human is about the size of a postage stamp. In a dog’s nose it’s about the size of a sheet of printer paper, and the surface area of a bear’s nose is about the size of four sheets of printer paper.”

-Jennifer Fortin-Noreus USFWS

Imagine the smelling capacity of a nose the size of a postage stamp versus that of a nose as big as four sheets of paper! Bears have the sniff advantage without a shadow of a doubt.

With a nose-surface area that size, bears can smell seven times better than a bloodhound, but it’s difficult to measure exactly how far bears can smell. Bear experts don’t dispute that bears can smell up to several miles at least. 

Visual representation of surface area inside human vs. bear noses

Bears Are Curious (and Persistent) Creatures

As a guest in the wilderness, you have no way of knowing the status of the bears you could potentially encounter. “Bears are curious creatures. Anything different or novel can be of interest,” says Fortin-Noreus.

A curious bear nibbles at a sign to investigate the smell
A curious cub chews a sign Courtesy USFWS

Can Bears Smell Food in A Bear Canister?

The short answer is yes, bears still may be able to smell food in your canister. While canisters do significantly reduce smell transmission, they cannot eliminate it completely. That’s why food storage safety isn’t based on tricking a bear’s nose—they can potentially smell just about anything.

A bear canister’s purpose is to safely store your food and protect it from being eaten or destroyed, and also to protect bears from getting access to it, and becoming conditioned to human food. 

Fortin-Noreus says, “If you can break the first link [of food conditioning], you can avoid encounters like those you hear about in Yosemite where food-conditioned bears try to break into vehicles.”

Jennifer Fortin-Noreus is a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of Montana’s Grizzly Bear Recovery Program, focused on management, recovery, and the status of bears based on the best available science.

Though they aren’t completely smell-proof, bear canisters are still the best way to safely store food and other items in bear country. The hard-sided container and screw-on, locking lid keep bears from getting into any scented items and developing a taste for human food. 

“If people recognize bears’ intelligence and ability to learn, and recognize that if we behave in a responsible manner, bears stay wild.”

-Jennifer Fortin-Noreus USFWS

How to Use a Bear Canister

When in the backcountry, do your cooking, eating, and storing of food and scented items away from your campsite. After you’re finished, secure your food in your approved bear canister and keep it closed and locked. Bear canisters should be stored at least 200 feet from your camp, preferably downwind.

Store your bear canister out of sight and keep it away from water sources or places where it can easily be rolled away or knocked down a hill. Avoid attaching a rope or any other type of handle to your canister, and definitely don’t hang your canister in a tree. Bears are smart and can climb trees, or use the handle to carry it right off with them.

If a bear does get a hold of your canister, it will be a much bigger challenge for the bear to get anything satisfying from it. Without any reward, the bear will likely leave it and move on. 

Man repacking a bear canister with calorie dense foods
Repacking a bear canister - Kings Canyon National Park

What to Put in Your Bear Canister

Bears can smell scented particles in the air from miles away. This includes food, trash, human waste, and toiletries like soap and toothpaste. To a hungry bear, it all smells like it might be something to eat. 

“All food items, toiletries, even chapstick should be stored out of your tent or away from wherever you’re sleeping.”
– Wildlife Biologist Jennifer Fortin-Noreus

Always store:

  • All sealed or packaged foods and drinks
  • Lotions, deodorant, or perfumes
  • Soaps, shampoo, and conditioner
  • Sunscreen and bug spray
  • Medications or menstrual products 
  • Food and treats for pets
  • Trash, food bags or scraps

Take No Chances When it Comes to Bear Safety

Black bear peering through foliage
Bears are always looking for easy calories. Don't get caught off guard! Courtesy USFWS

How well bears can smell is “bearly” up for debate. When entering their territory, a bear nose isn’t something we humans want to challenge. 

Always assume that bears can be present in the backcountry and take proper precautions when it comes to food and other scented items. Taking steps to avoid a negative bear encounter is by far easier than actually having one, and will keep both people and animals sharing wild spaces safe.

Guest Author:
April Brightman
freelance writer and digital nomad on a mission to spend as much time exploring as possible. An outdoor enthusiast with a passion for travel and adventure, she loves camping, road trips, national parks, off-roading, and hiking New England’s highest peaks with her dog.