Camping Question: How Far Can a Bear Smell

August 2, 2020

how far can a bear smell

Hike and camp for long enough, and you will inevitably cross paths with wildlife. Most of these encounters will be brief and pleasant: chipmunks stuffing their cheeks with food, migrating birds flying overhead, white-tailed deer eating grass. But if there is one animal in particular that most campers want to avoid at all costs, it’s a bear.

With their massive build, retractable claws and large teeth, bears are a force to be reckoned with. But none of these traits compare to a bear’s greatest asset: its incredible sense of smell.

How Far Can a Bear Smell?

Bears are believed to have one of the most powerful sniffers on earth. The scent-detecting area inside a bear’s nose (called the nasal mucosa) is 100 times greater than ours.

A bear’s nose has more than a billion receptor cells that connect to over 10 million nerve cells, which subsequently generate an electrical signal to be sent to the brain for processing. To put that in perspective, humans have about 50 million receptor cells.

But just how far can a bear smell?

hard cases brown black bears

While there isn’t much research on the topic, it’s obvious to many that bears have an excellent sense of smell. There have been tales of grizzlies finding elk carcass underwater, and black bears have been known to detect the smell of deer carcass from over two miles away. And that’s nothing compared to polar bears, which can find seal dens underneath layers of ice from roughly half a mile away.

The bottom line? If there is a bear within one mile or so of your campsite, you can be sure that they can easily pick up the scent of your delicious campfire meal, your cooler and even your deodorant.

Which Scents Attract Bears?

Bears have a broad diet and are therefore attracted to a wide variety of scents, including the following:

  • Human food
  • Pet food
  • Canned or bottled beverages
  • Birdseed
  • Toiletries
  • Cosmetics

These items and other valuables should be stored in bear-proof storage lockers provided at the campsite.

If you’re camping in the backcountry, hang your items from a tree or a cable. Store your valuable equipment in Pelican cases and lock them in your vehicle. However, be warned: Bears have been known to break into vehicles if they see or smell something desirable.

Looking for heavy-duty cases to protect your sensitive equipment? Shop protective cases at Pelican’s official store.

Additional Tips for Camping in Bear Country

Many campers are fearful of hiking or camping in bear country. While this fear is not unfounded, it’s important to remember that bear encounters are uncommon. You can further decrease your risk of encountering a bear with the following tips.

  • Use the “Bearmuda Triangle” Strategy – The Bearmuda Triangle setup is designed to keep bears away from your campsite by creating three separate corners: one for cooking, one for bear bags and one for your sleeping area. Pro tip: Use a rolling cooler to transport food from your car to your cooking area.
  • Dispose of Garbage Properly – Stash your trash in bear-proof containers. If bear-proof containers are full, double-bag your garbage and lock it in the trunk of your car.
  • Keep a Tent Clean – Do not bring food, drinks or toiletries into your tent. After cooking a campfire meal, change out of your clothes immediately and store them in the same place as your food.
  • Be Noisy – Black bears will happily avoid humans if given the opportunity. If you go hiking, make lots of noise to avoid surprising a bear.
  • Leave Pets at Home – While camping and hiking with dogs is fun, they may be a liability in bear country. Dogs can provoke bear attacks, so it’s best that you leave Fido home.
  • Know What to Do During a Bear Encounter – If you encounter a bear, do not run. Slowly wave your arms and make yourself as big as possible. If the bear isn’t moving towards you, move away slowly and sideways. If the bear follows, stop and hold your ground. If a black bear attacks you, try to escape or fight back with anything you have available. If a grizzly bear attacks you, leave your backpack on and play dead.

Being Bear Aware

In summary, bears have an incredible sniffer that is believed to have a range of a few miles. If you’re camping in bear country, it’s important to be prepared. By taking certain precautions, you can keep yourself safe and prevent the unnecessary killing of an aggressive bear.

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