Mountain Equipment Company
Hiker setting up a bear bag hanging from a tall tree

How to keep bears away from your campsite

Bears have an ultra-keen sense of smell. They’re attracted by food, garbage and cooking, as well as spills and grease left on a fire grill or BBQ. Scented products like insect repellent, sunscreen and toothpaste can also attract their interest.

Note: The information below includes recommendations from MEC and Parks Canada’s website on bear safety, but we can’t be held liable for any interaction or close encounter with a bear. You’re responsible for your own safety.

To avoid attracting bears when you’re camping, follow the Leave No Trace principles and these basic tips:

  • Don’t leave food or coolers out during the day or overnight

  • Clean up any spilled food immediately

  • Store all food, cooking equipment and scented items in a bear-proof locker or cache, or locked in your car

  • Collect all garbage and store it in your locker or car, then pack it out. Bears will dig up any buried garbage and fires rarely burn everything

  • Wash your dishes at least 50 metres from your campsite over rocky ground. Strain food particles out of your dishwater and pack them out with your garbage.

  • Empty dishwater into drains, sinks or toilets if available

How to avoid bears when backcountry camping

Backcountry camping requires that you take a few extra steps to avoid attracting bears.

  • Prepare and cook food at least 50 metres away from your tent, downwind if possible

  • Store food in the best cache available at least 50 metres from your tent

  • Never cook or eat in your tent or vestibule

  • Never sleep with your food to guard it

How to hang a bear bag

If you’re camping in the backcountry away from your car, with no bear-proof lockers or other food storage options, you can hang a bear bag. For this type of cache, you’ll hang your food from a tree branch to make it difficult for bears to reach. It’s worth practicing this skill before you head out for your trip, as it takes time and patience to get it right.

First, you’ll need to find a solid tree with a sturdy branch about 5 meters off the ground. This might seem simple, but the perfect caching tree can be quite rare. Make sure the tree is alive – a dead branch will break easily, allowing bears to get your food.

It’s a good idea to choose a campsite well before sunset and begin hanging your bear bag before you pitch your tent or have dinner. That way, you won’t be scrambling to set up a bear bag in the dark. You could also stop and camp earlier than planned if you find a tree with a branch that looks just right.

What you’ll need to hang a bear bag

  • Stuff sack for food (waterproof is nice)

  • Small stuff sack to toss over the branch

  • Rock to weight the small sack

  • 30 metres of 3–4mm cord

Steps to hang a bear bag

1. Put the rock in the small stuff sack and tie the cord to the sack

2. Toss the small sack over the branch (this may take several tries)

3. Untie the small sack and attach the larger stuff sack full of your food

4. Haul the food up so it’s suspended 4 to 5 metres above the ground, 2 metres away from the trunk and about 1 metre below any branches

5. Tie the cord to the tree trunk

Tips for hanging a bear bag

  • Try throwing the small stuff sack underhand

  • Hold the cord loosely. If you hold it tight, the tension can cause the sack to loop around the branch and get stuck

  • Step on the end of the cord so the whole thing doesn’t go over the branch

  • Use a smooth-sided throwing sack that won’t snag

  • Don’t use ultra-thin cord that can damage trees

  • Make sure any surrounding branches won’t support a bear’s weight

  • Remember to make noise while looking for a tree and hanging your bear bag

  • Tie a bandana on the tree or use sticks to create a marker for your bear bag tree. This will make it easier to find in the morning.

How to hang a bear bag using the PCT method

In some popular parks and campsites, bears have learned to bite or slash the tied-off cord to get food to drop to the ground. In these areas, it’s a good idea to hang a bear bag using the PCT method, which doesn’t need to be tied off. To hang a bear bag this way, you’ll need the same equipment listed above, plus a carabiner and a stick. Check out this video demonstrating the PCT bear hang strategy.

What if there are no trees?

Sometimes, the best campsites don’t have any nearby trees that will work for your bear bag. Consider other options, like suspending your food bag over a steep cliff or hanging it from a structure like a bridge.

But if you know you’ll be camping above the tree line or in areas with few or small trees, it’s a good idea to plan ahead and bring your own bear-resistant cache.

Bear canisters

A bear canister is a portable, hard-sided food container with a lockable lid that bears can’t open or bite through. In some areas and U.S. National parks, you’re required to carry one. They come in different sizes to hold several days of food and keep it safe from bears, raccoons and rodents (and they make a nice camp chair). At night, stash your canister at least 50 metres away from your tent.

The only drawback is that bear canisters are bulky and heavy (most weigh more than 1 kg). You’ll need to make sure your canister fits inside your backpack or can be securely strapped to the top. If you’re camping with a group, a barrel (and barrel harness) might be a good option.

Bear-resistant bags

If a canister isn’t required where you plan to camp, you can opt for a bear-resistant bag. Made of tightly woven chew-proof fabric, these bags are designed to be tied to a tree or rock so your food can’t be dragged away. If a bear does investigate your bag, it might crush your snacks, but they should still be edible. To add extra animal-deterring protection, you can also put your food in an odour-proof resealable bag inside the bear-resistant bag.

Choose a bear-resistant bag that’s certified by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee. That means the bag has been tested with real bears – and it passed.

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