Bears are common in various areas of North America. Knowing how to interact with a bear should you come across one is key. But before you even think about that, you can do your best to avoid interactions altogether by understanding how strong a bear’s sense of smell is.
A bear’s sense of smell is roughly 2,100 times as strong as that of humans. They can smell food sources from several miles away under the right conditions. A bear can also smell various items that you keep in your tent, including lotions, insect repellent, deodorant, soaps, shampoos, and food.
Understanding just how strong a bear’s sense of smell is can allow you to prepare for a safe camping trip. Below, we’ll go into more detail about a bear’s sense of smell, and give you tips to prevent yourself from ever having to encounter a bear on the trail.
How Strong Is A Bear’s Sense Of Smell?
A bear’s sense of smell is difficult to measure. However, some studies and anecdotal evidence conservatively estimate that a bear can smell up to one to two miles away. Some groups speculate this to be much larger depending on the weather, temperature, humidity, and terrain conditions.
In a personally written account by author Gary Brown in his book The Great Bear Almanac, a bear can smell a deer carcass three miles away. But why do bears have such a strong sense of smell?
For starters, bears are very large animals who need to conserve their energy to prepare for the lean winter months. So, it suits them to have a keen sense of smell to keep their efforts in check when out foraging. Bears spend all day long walking and searching for food, and their strong sense of smell allows them to do this efficiently without wasting too much energy.
A bear has a very large and long snout. A snout, distinguished from just a nose, includes the bear’s nose, mouth, and jaw. These anatomical masterpieces work together to detect food from miles away. The bear’s long snout has two purposes. It detects odors and warms and moistens the inhaled air before sending it to the lungs.
The long snout contains millions of odor sensitive nerves and tiny muscles used to point the bear in the right direction. The snout also contains a nasal mucosa (moist mucus membrane) that detects smells. It is known to be about 100 times the size of a human’s, which contributes to the bear’s super sense of smell.
While in the snout, odors are captured by the millions of nerves, and the messages are relayed to the base of the brain. This is where the olfactory bulb, which is about 5 times the size of ours, interprets the sensory data that it just received. Many factors affect how well a bear smells. The most important factors are wind and humidity.
The Effect Of Wind
When the wind is facing you, your smell drifts backward and allows a bear to track you. When the wind is ‘at your back’ your odor floats forward. This is a more ideal case in the wilderness, because you can see up ahead and make plans, and the bear gets warned before your arrival, so it can get out of your way.
As a side note, be aware that on a windy day in the wild, your sound gets muffled too. So, it is wise to be on the lookout for bears as they may not hear you coming, or smell you depending on the wind direction.
The Effect Of Humidity
Humidity is the measure of water vapor in the air. High humidity means lots of water vapor in the air. Think of water vapor in the air like a smell transport system. Our odors attach to water vapor in the air and float away from us in the wind. The higher humidity, the greater the chance of a bear smelling us from miles away.
21 Ways To Attract Bears To Your Tent
- All human foods
- Insect repellent
- Tea bags
- Pet food
- Skin lotion
- Suntan lotion
- Dirty cooking utensils
- Dirty cookware
- Cooking oils
- Stove/lantern fuel
- Unopened cans
- Urine and feces
- Coffee grounds
What Deters Bears From You And Your Tent?
There are many ways to deter a bear from entering your campsite and even into your tent. When you are out in the wilderness, it is essential to be on your best ‘cleaning’ behavior. Clean your cookware immediately after you eat then pack it away from the tent.
9 Common Bear Deterrents
- Air horn
- Pepper spray
- Bells and chatter
- Cider vinegar
- Bear canister
- Common sense
How Does Bear Repellent Work?
Bear repellent sprays use capsaicin as the chemical irritant keeping you safe from a bear attack. This chemical irritant, found naturally in chili peppers, is an irritant to the nose, mouth, eyes, throat, and lungs of both humans and bears.
Bear sprays use capsaicin at a very concentrated level of between 1 and 2 percent in each bottle. Because of the high concentration, you should not use it on clothing or your backpack. Most bear sprays discharge up to 30 feet at a time. It is advised to get a minimum dose of 8 ounces. Bear sprays are only used when a bear is charging or attacking.
5 Best Bear Deterrent Products On The Market
The 5 best bear deterrent products are:
- SABRE Frontiersman Bear Spray
- Guard Alaska Bear Spray
- Udap 2 Personal Defense Bear Sprays with holsters 12VHP
- Mace Brand Self Defense Magnum
- Counter Assault 8.1 Ounce Bear Deterrent Spray with holster
How To Keep Your Camping Area Safe From Bears
When camping, clean up after yourself, don’t place trash or food into the fire, and don’t eat or keep smelly items (refer back to the list of bear attractants above) in your tent. As a backpacker, there are a number of State and National Parks where you cannot camp without a bear canister too, so you may need to invest in one for your trip to stay within the rules.
Use Bear Canisters
A bear canister protects your food from bears. It does this by being very secure and smell-proof. A bear canister weighs between 2 and 4 pounds, has a carrying capacity of about a week’s worth of food, and is made with hard-sided dense plastics.
Certain areas require the use of bear canisters. These include many of our National and State Parks. If you intend on travelling to one of these parks, you should find out the requirements ahead of time. Expect to pay between $60 and $100 for most bear canisters.
The 5 best bear canisters are:
- BearVault BV500/BV450
- Lighter 1 Big Daddy
- Backpackers Cache
- Counter Assault Bear Keg
- Bare Boxer Contender
9 Bear Safety Tactics
1. Use A Bear Canister
This eliminates the smell of all foods and other consumables that might attract a bear to your tent if simply left out or in a backpack.
2. Clean Everything Thoroughly
Make sure to always clean your area after eating or using any lotions, sprays, shampoos, or soaps.
3. Don’t Bring Known Attractants
Don’t bring along things that are known to attract bears (see list above) and if you do, always store them in a bear canister.
4. Follow The Rules Of The Park
If you are backpacking at a National or State Park, obey their rules. Many require the use of a bear canister.
5. Change Clothes Before Bed
This may seem odd, but smells stick to clothing, and changing before you go to bed and storing your worn clothes in a bear canister or other secure container will keep you safer in your tent.
6. Use Triangulation
When in the backcountry, triangulate. This involves making a triangle with your food/cooking area, your tent, and your storage canister. Make that each area is at least 100 feet from the others.
7. Pack Out
Get in the practice of packing out what you take into the wilderness. All trash should be packed in your bear canister.
8. Keep Bear Spray On Hand
Keep your bear spray in your tent and easily accessible.
9. Keep Pets With You
Make sure that your pets are on a leash so they don’t wander off at night.
A bear’s sense of smell is more than 2,000 times stronger than a human’s, and they can smell sources of food, among other things, from many miles away. For this reason, it’s important to keep your camp area tidy, and use a bear canister to minimize the chances of attracting a bear to your tent.