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How to store food when camping: tips and tricks to keep your grub fresh and safe from critters

A camper tucking into food in a food container
Eat cooked meals outdoors safely with these food storage tips (Image credit: Advnture)

There’s nothing better than a dinner cooked, served and devoured deep in the wilderness after a long hike on backcountry trails.

Without due care, however, the smell of your dinners-to-be could attract a few unwelcome visitors to camp – bears, mice, squirrels, chipmunks, raccoons, et al – all of whom would be more than happy to let you and your tentmates go hungry.

If you, like us, believe that the slogan “sharing is caring” has its limits, learning how to store food when camping is an important skill set – and can require a little more knowhow than packing everything away in your best camping cooler. Wildlife sightings are always fun, of course, but become less so when segueing into the destruction of your best tents and/or the pilfering of your precious edibles.

Below, we'll show you how to keep those edibles safe with short, straight-talking guide on how to store food when camping.

Raccoon

Raccoons: cute and cuddly, but destroyers of dinners (Image credit: Christopher Winton-Stahle)

How to store food when camping: check regulations

Before you leave for that long-planned, epic backcountry backpacking adventure, make sure you understand the local rules and regulations. Many national forests, state parks and wilderness areas now require backpackers to use hard-sided bear-proof containers to carry and store food.

The regulations are in place to prevent backcountry encounters between bears, both black and grizzly, and humans. Bears can become habituated to campsites and return frequently expecting to find leftover food or easy access to food bags or unsecured coolers. Paying careful attention to how you pack and store food, therefore, will help to keep both you and the park’s wildlife safe. When you follow the rules, you also make your campsite safer for the next people visiting that park.

If you are heading into bear country, it’s also a good idea to learn what to do if you meet a bear in the wilderness and how to use bear spray.

How to store food when camping: keep camp clean

The best way to keep your food safe and secure is to keep your campsite as clean as possible. Bears and other, smaller animals are attracted to the smells of cooking, fresh food and enticing scents like sunscreen, toothpaste, deodorants, soap and even empty food packaging or containers. Packing these items in airtight containers or double-bagging them in zip-lock pouches will help to stifle their scent and, hopefully, keep the big guys at bay.

Also be sure to keep food and other scented items out of your tent at night or when you are away from camp. An encounter with a bear is a memory most campers would prefer to avoid, but small varmints like mice, squirrels, chipmunks and raccoons can be equally destructive. Their sharp teeth and claws can rip stuff sacks, shred food packaging, and tear even the best hiking backpack.

When you set-up camp, look for a site that offers a convenient location away from your tent pad for cooking, cleaning fish and washing dishes after eating. Store your food in bear canisters or hang food bags in trees at least 100 feet from your campsite. If an animal can’t see your food or can’t follow the scent to your campsite or tent, they will keep moving in search of something to eat.

If you are car camping, the most effective way to store food is in your vehicle’s trunk at night – just be sure to take coolers out during the day when temperatures rise.

An airtight food container

Air-tight containers are a popular way to protect food from predators (Image credit: Advnture)

How to store food when camping: hang your food

For decades, the most common method of storing food at camp was packing everything into a stuff sack and using ropes to hang the bag from a tree branch. Well-meaning advice from dozens of experts provided tips on the gear required (usually 50-100 feet of cord, a few carabiners and a throw bag to get the rope over the branch) and the process of getting the ropes rigged around tree branches
to suspend the food bag. Most suggested hanging food bags on branches at least 12 feet high, 6 feet away from the tree trunk and 6 feet from the ground, though in practice the measurements will vary depending on the size of the trees available near your campsite.

Dry bags hanging in a tree

The hanging method in action (Image credit: Douglas Sacha)

Or don’t...

There is, however, a growing consensus that hanging food is not the safest way to store food in the backcountry. The disadvantages include limited availability of appropriate trees, complicated rigging processes, and stuff bags that can be too heavy to hang properly. Experienced rangers and wilderness wildlife experts also point out that bears are smart and will return to trees that are frequently used to hang food. Bears can also climb and reach for suspended bags, and their sharp teeth and claws can snap ropes and drop the food bags to the ground. Mother bears have even been known to send cubs to climb out onto slender branches to bend them lower.

The current consensus is to replace hanging food systems with rigid bear-proof containers. These airtight containers seal in the scent of their contents, so are far less likely to attract bears. If they are discovered, their rugged lids and impact-resistant materials keep the food inside secure.