Can Bears Smell Sealed Food?

Bears have a never-ending appetite and a nose well adapted to keep feeding it. They can smell food particles and other scented items like toothpaste from miles away, and their curious nature keeps them on the move for sustenance.

It might seem obvious that open food left unattended or out overnight is an invitation to animals, but when it comes to creatures with as keen a sense of smell as bears, even sealed food items like dehydrated meals or freeze-dried food can carry a scent.

Can Bears Smell Sealed Food?

Bears have an amazing sense of smell and can potentially smell sealed or canned food, especially if you’ve touched the outside of sealed containers with food on your hands. 

Bears have incredible memories, and once they encounter a food source they’re unlikely to forget about it. When that food source is associated with humans, it can become dangerous for both people and bears.

Bear nose down searching for food
Bears have an incredible sense of smell, this one is in the search for food that may be far away

“You don’t know whether you’re the first person or the 20th person to encounter that bear,” says Kim Annis, Grizzly Bear Management Specialist with Montana Fish, Wildlife, & Parks. In the same sense, there’s no way to know whether a bear has been food conditioned to humans.

“Bears that nobody has ever seen before get something out of a cooler in a campground once, and now the same bear spends the entire week raiding the campground.”

Bears operate the same way in the wilderness. If they realize that backcountry campsites set by people are a place where they can find find, even the most primitive campsites could become a point of curiosity.

Why Shouldn't Bears Have Human Food?

When bears figure out how to access delicious, high-calorie human food, they lose their desire to seek natural food sources. Spend the entire day roaming miles for berries, or raid a backcountry campsite with improperly stored food come nighttime? Bears will choose the lowest effort option every time.

Bears have incredible memories, and once they encounter a food source they’re unlikely to forget about it. When that food source is associated with humans, it can become dangerous for both people and bears.

Bears in meadow searching for BearVault bear canister
Alaskan bears foraging for food in the wild

The Difference Between Habituation and Food Conditioning

When a bear loses its immediate flight response to the presence of humans, it’s called habituation. It’s not always necessarily a bad thing, for example in Glacier National Park where bears may be used to seeing humans around and (hopefully) continue about their bear business, resulting in safe, positive encounters for both the bear and humans.

“Habituation alone isn’t typically the problem and doesn’t always directly lead to a human-bear conflict,” Kim Annis says. “However, this only works when humans act in a way that bears can predict all the time.”

The bigger issue arises when habituated bears become food conditioned. Food conditioning is what happens when bears develop a taste for human food, and begin to rely on interactions with people instead of finding food naturally in their environment. Bears learning to seek human food without a fear of people is a recipe for trouble.

Keeping food stored safely in the outdoors isn’t just about keeping your rations for yourself, it’s also about reducing our impact as humans. It’s our job as people entering wildlife territory to be excellent guests, and care for the land and its creatures. 

“Bears that nobody has ever seen before get something out of a cooler in a campground once, and now the same bear spends the entire week raiding the campground.”

                                   – Kim Annis

When Do I Need to Store My Food Outdoors?

Whether you’re out for a picnic in the local park or backpacking in remote wilderness with your favorite Mountain House meals in tow, food should be stored anytime you’re not actively cooking or eating.

Every park, national forest, and recreation area has its own set of rules when it comes to storing food securely. It’s your job to know the rules for the area you’re visiting, especially in bear country.

Man storing a BearVault bear canister by two logs
How to properly store a bear canister

How Can I Safely Store Food from Bears?

There aren’t a lot of ways to prevent bears from seeking food if that’s already their mission. Your priority is to keep them from getting your food if they are curious enough to come close—and to keep your dinner from becoming theirs!

Using a bear canister is one of the best steps you can take to decrease your likelihood of a negative bear encounter, and protect humans and wildlife alike.

To Use A Bear Canister:

Stash any and all food or scented items in your bear canister and secure the locking lid. Keep your canister around 200 feet from your campsite. Store it somewhere behind rocks or bushes where it’s hidden from sight and away from water sources.

Store These Items In a Bear Canister:

  • Foods and drinks, sealed or unsealed
  • Toiletries like toothpaste, deodorant, or soap
  • First aid and other hygiene products
  • Pet food Trash and food scraps
  • Dishes or cooking items if space allows
Various food items that may be found in a BearVault bear canister
What a bear might see as you use your BearVault bear canister

It’s always worth the time to take full precautions to keep yourself and wildlife safe. While part of that includes protecting yourself, it also means keeping bears and other animals from becoming conditioned to human food. When we work to protect these animals, they stay wild and continue to be part of the magic that makes the great outdoors.

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.