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Can Bears Smell Through Canned Food?

Bear Eating Canned Food

Going into bear country can be unnerving for beginner backpackers and campers. Bears can smell dinner from miles away and you don’t want to accidentally lure a hungry bear into camp. Will a bear smell right through your attempts to smell proof your food and is there any other ways to deter bears from camp? Campers use odor proof bags/containers to cut down the scent, but what about canned goods?

Can a bear smell through cans of food? Bears won’t be able to smell through canned food. Oxygen can’t get through the aluminum barrier, which is why canned food lasts so long. There shouldn’t be any scent escaping without oxygen entering/exiting the can. Just remember that canned food is heavy so it’s hard to pack and bears will pick up the scent the minute you open up the can.

Trying to keep bears away from your camp is an impossible battle. Bears have slowly started to become domesticated over the years (they’re still dangerous) and they associate humans with food. Bears might not be able to smell through your canned goods, but they’ll know that there’s food nearby just by your presence.

You still need to use bear canisters or hang a bear bag even if everything’s stored in smell proof bags and sealed cans. There’s only one real advantage to cutting down the smell of your food. It makes the food harder to find when a bear pokes his head into camp and they will come looking for food if there’s any nearby.

Can Bears Smell Through Cans?

Canned Food On Pantry Shelf

It’s hard to say exactly how far a bear can smell, but most estimates put it at the 20 mile mark. Grizzly Bears (aka Kodiak and Brown Bear) and Polar bears have the best sense of smell since they have bigger nasal cavities, but black bears can still smell food from miles away.

Bears are thought to have the best sense of smell of any animal on the planet. They need to take in a lot of food to store enough fat to hibernate through the winter and be able to find mating partners from miles away. Bears are territorial animals with home ranges of 60-300 square miles. That’s about 10 times the area of New York City covered by 1 male bear.

For example, a blood hounds sense of smell is 300 times better than a humans and a bears sense of smell is 7 times better than a blood hounds. So a bears sense of smell is an astounding 2,100 times better than a humans! It’s almost impossible for a human to comprehend how strong a bears sense of smell is.

So what does that have to do with bears smelling through canned food? Bears can’t smell through a sealed can of food, but they can smell the food the minute you open it. They can also smell the empty cans and you can’t leave those behind littering the forest.

Plus bears have been domesticated over the years, and they’ve learned to associate humans with food. Just smelling a human will draw them into camp. There’s no way to completely eliminate your scent on a camping/backpacking trip. Making your food smell proof will reduce the likelihood of a bear finding your food stash, but it won’t keep them out of camp.

That’s why you still need to store all your food in a bear canister or hang up a bear bag. The bear vault is by far the most popular bear canister and it can hold a lot of food. The medium sized BV450 bear vault can hold up to 4 days worth of food and the larger BV500 Bear Vault can hold up to 7 days worth. I’ll go over a few tips on storing food in bear canisters and explain why they’re better than using a bear bag below.

Should I Bring Canned Food Camping?

Canned food is an excellent addition to your camping food list if you’re camping close to your car. Just don’t expect to bring more than a can or two on a long backpacking trip. An empty can only weighs half an oz, but the contents inside are loaded with water which is extremely heavy.

The average can of soup or beans weighs about 1lb so make sure the foods calorie dense if you’re going to add it to your pack. I like to limit myself to 2lbs of food per day backpacking and you need to get in 2,500 to 4,500 calories. That can be hard to do when half your days weight is taken up by a single can of soup.

A can of clam chowder (390-500 calories) or potato soap (450-550 calories) is the most calorie dense soup I can think of and they don’t come close to meeting half of a days calorie needs. You would have to make up a lot of weight with the rest of your food unless you plan on carrying a few extra pounds of food.

Remember that every extra pound in your pack slows you down and adds additional stress to your body. Cutting 5-10 pounds out of your pack can make a huge difference on a long backpacking trip.

Bears Can Smell Food Once You Open Up Your Cans

Bears Can Smell Opened Cans Of Food

What do you plan on doing with the cans once you’ve opened them up and eaten the contents? The second you open up the can bears will be able to smell them from miles away. You can’t just toss the empty can on the ground so you’ll need to carry it with you.

Tossing an empty can of food directly in your bear canister will defeat the purpose of odor proofing the rest of your food. You can store the empties away from your food supply, but bears and other animals will quickly find them carrying them off. That’s just as bad as tossing the cans on the ground and leaving them behind.

If you want to keep your food smell proof you’ll have to put the empty cans and the rest of your discarded food in a separate odor proof bag. Opsak Odor Proof bags are by far the best odor proof bags on the market. There are cheaper options available, but most of those are designed so humans can’t smell through them. Opsak is the only brand I know of that’s strong enough for animals.

Bears shouldn’t be able to smell through an opsak bag. You still need to store your food in a bear canister or bear bag, but an odor proof bag will make it harder for animals to find your food. Personally, I recommend storing your food in a bear canister since bears have learned how to get down bear bags and carry them off in popular camping areas.

Bear canisters are harder to get into and they won’t be able to carry them off. Large bears might be able to get in if you give them enough time and there’s a leverage point they can put their weight on, but it should give you enough time to scare them off.

How To Use A Bear Canister (Don’t Use Bear Bags)

BV500 Bear Canister

The vast majority of backpackers/campers have switched over to bear canisters when traveling through bear country. Bear bags used to be popular, but bears have learned how to get them down in popular state/national parks. Plus other animals like racoons, mice, squirrels, etc. don’t have trouble climbing up to bear bags and getting in them.

The Ursack is the only bear bag that’s worth considering since it’s slash proof, but you need an aluminum liner to stop bears from crushing it. Just tie the Ursack to a tree using a slip proof knot and you’re good to go. They may still be able to get in with enough time, but it should give you enough time to scare them off. Just make sure you check with whichever park you’re staying in because many of them ban the Ursack only allowing bear canisters.

Bear canisters are by far the most reliable way to protect your food against bears and other animals. They’re strong and almost impossible for a bear to get into. There have been a few cases where bears have smashed bear canisters using rocks as leverage points and rolling them off cliffs, but those are rare.

There are lots of bear canisters on the market with the Bear Vault being by far the most popular. It’s durable, hard to open, and one of the cheapest options on the market. Plus there are 2 different sizes available making it perfect for weekend camping trips and longer 7 day trips. The screw off lid works like a pill bottle so it won’t come off easily and you don’t need special tools to open it like most of the other bear canisters.

The Frontiersman Bear Canister is another affordable option, but it’s a pain in the butt to get open. It holds a weeks worth of food like the Bearvault BV500, but you need a flathead screwdriver, coin, knife, etc. to get it open. Bearvaults screw off safety lid is so much easier to use.

Here’s a brief overview of a few of the other bear canisters you can choose from. Pay attention to how many days of food each of these bear canisters can hold.

ModelWeightCubic InDays Food
Bear Vault BV450
(Favorite Weekend Canister)
33 oz4404
Bear Vault BV500
(Favorite Extended Trip)
41 oz7007
Backpackers Cache43 oz6146
Frontiersman Canister56 oz7347
No-Fed Bear Canister
(Budget Pick)
38 oz5005
Counter Assault Bear Keg
(Premium Build)
56 oz7169
Bare Boxer
25 oz2753
Lil Sami21 oz3003
Big Daddy36 oz6506

Are Bears Dangerous?

I would hesitate to say bears aren’t dangerous, but bear attacks are extremely rare. There are only 11 bear attacks (on average) in North America each year and 2-5 fatalities per year. With 30,000 grizzlies in the United States and 300,000 black bears you would think there would be way more attacks if bears were truly dangerous.

The vast majority of run-ins with bears are uneventful. You run into them on the trail, they raid your garbage cans, bird feeders, or enter your camp looking for food. Bears see humans as a threat and rarely attack humans as a source of food.

Yelling at a bear, throwing rocks, and flailing your arms wildly in the air will usually scare them off. Mama bears might attack to protect their cubs so be careful if you see cubs nearby. There are a few exceptions to that rule and some black bears, grizzlies and polar bears have been known to hunt hikers/hunters when food is scarce, but that’s rare.

That’s why you should always carry a can of bear spray while hunting in bear country. Frontiersman Bear Spray has a 30ft range, which will keep you at a safe distance if a bear were to charge. Just make sure it’s easily accessible and you know how to use it.

A powerful revolver like a 44 magnum or above can kill a bear, but most experts agree that it’s much less effective. You can shoot a bear with a lethal shot, but you have to get lucky and be deadly accurate. Most shots will slow a bear down and piss them off.

Even a deadly shot can take a while for the bear to bleed out. Every hunter knows that you usually have to track an animal after shooting it and that’s when you’re not in a dangerous spot using a scope. Trying to get off an accurate shot to a bears head will rarely happen if a bears charging and you’re under pressure. It’s safer to spray off a can of bear spray which covers a wide range and you know it will be effective.