how to handle food and garbage while camping to keep animals away

There are lots of ways to eat well when camping, from making bacon and morning coffee outdoors to wrapping things up at night with s’mores. But all of the food-related things that make the wilderness so enjoyable to us are also tempting to the animals that live there, so it’s important to be smart about storing food. It’s just as imperative to properly dispose of garbage and food waste so it doesn’t attract critters, from measly but annoying flies and mice to the dreaded bears.

Doing everything you can to deter animals from getting into your food and garbage isn’t just good for you, either—it helps keep them safe and healthy. Particularly for bears, when they learn to associate humans with easy meals (and not necessarily in the man-eating sense), they’re more likely to approach people, thus more likely to be put down as a precautionary measure.

Here are some things you can do while camping to keep animals out of your grub and away from your tent.

1. Reduce the amount of packaging (and food) you’ll need to dispose of. Try not to pack more than you can actually eat on your trip, and before you head out, transfer any food you can to reusable or biodegradable containers. Consolidate items where you can as well (for instance, cut meat and veggies and make them into skewers so you won’t have scraps to dispose of onsite). You can even make scrambled eggs ahead of time and freeze them to reheat later, no shells to deal with.

2. Don’t create highly scented garbage. This isn’t such a big deal if, say, you’re car camping in an area without bears, but if you are in bear country, especially if you’re hiking, you may want to skip even bringing things like meat and stick to lower-odor food like rice, beans, and tortillas. Steak and bacon will broadcast a highly attractive scent before, during, and after cooking and eating them.

3. Use odor-proof bags. Regardless of how aromatic you think your trash is (or isn’t), to reduce the chances of it enticing any animals, buy odor-proof bags, like these Base CampSource XL Odor-Barrier Bags, which are also good for stashing uneaten food and toiletries. These alone may be enough for bear-free areas, but use them in conjunction with #4 in places where bears do reside.

4. Use bear bags and bear canisters. These are essential if you camp in bear country, and you should use them to store not only uneaten food, but garbage as well. Some sites include bear-resistant lockers, but it’s best to bring your own storage solution just in case (and in some places, it’s required by law). Bear bags are good, but canisters are better. You can get them in various sizes, and should stash them at least 200 to 300 feet away from your campsite (and other campsites and trails as well). If using bear bags, make sure to hang them properly.

5. Keep your distance. The general rule of thumb is to keep food 100 yards (or 300 feet) away from your campsite, as well as from other sites and trails. This means that, ideally, you should not only cook, eat, and store all food that far away from the place where you’ll sleep, but keep all trash and food waste at that distance too. Bears can smell things from over a mile away, and other animals have keen noses too, so if they are led to your site, it’s best they’re not drawn straight to your sleeping bag.

6. Don’t leave food—or garbage—unattended even for a short time. I lost the most perfect pan of brownies I ever baked when I left it, wrapped in foil and then in a plastic bag, on a picnic table. I returned from a brief walk down to the beach to find it had been ravaged by squirrels. Trash can attract animals as well, so you should never leave any food or food waste sitting out for long periods of time, especially if you leave the site. In bear country, it should all go in bear-resistant storage containers as soon as possible, but otherwise, it should be safe in your vehicle. Absolutely do not store food or trash in your vehicle in bear country, though, because they can easily break in. (And they will if they think there’s food inside; not only can they still smell it, but they’re smart enough to recognize coolers on sight, so do everything you can to outsmart and deter them.)

7. Wash any highly scented packaging before throwing it away. This is particularly helpful in bear country, but a good idea everywhere else too, especially if you can’t immediately toss your trash into communal bins on the campgrounds. Washing out especially fragrant things like empty bacon packages or tuna cans or pouches before throwing them away helps make them less attractive (and keeps your car from smelling if you’re temporarily stashing your trash bags there).

8. Strain your dishwater and dispose of it away from campsites, trails, and water sources. Even if you’re not washing your garbage, you will need to wash your dishes, and then get rid of the dirty water. You should first strain it through a mesh strainer, bandana, or old pair of pantyhose to remove any food particles (which you’ll throw in with your trash, which you’ll then properly store, right?), then scatter the strained water at least 200 yards away from your site, as well as all other campsites, trails, and water sources. Scattering it over rocks and/or in an area that will get direct sunlight helps it disperse and evaporate more quickly. And be sure to use biodegradable soap rated for outdoor use when you wash up, not Dawn.

9. Don’t bury garbage. Some sources recommend it, but animals can still find it and easily dig it up, so stashing it in odor-proof and animal-resistant containers until you can throw it in a designated bin is best.

10. Don’t forget about pet food. If you bring your dogs camping, treat their food exactly as you treat yours, because it’s just as attractive to wild animals. Store it properly, and don’t leave any outside over night. Wash their bowls out following the same method you use to wash your dishes and dispose of the water far away from all fellow campers and trails.

11. Don’t forget about drinks. “Garbage” includes not just food waste but empty bottles and cans that held beer, soda, or juice as well, so don’t leave those sitting out around the site either.

11. Never bring food or garbage into your tent. From unopened tubs of trail mix and dog treats to empty Corn Nuts bags and beer cans, you should never bring anything edible—or anything that was in contact with food (other than yourself)—inside your tent. In bear country in particular, you should keep other highly scented items like lotion, toothpaste, and deodorant well away too, and to be as safe as possible, don’t even bring clothes you wore while cooking and eating inside your tent. Though it may go without saying, don’t forget to wash your hands and face well before turning in!

Depending on the place where you’re camping, all of the above may not be strictly necessary, but it’s always best to be as proactive as possible, and exercise good judgment. Even if you’re not in danger of becoming a meal to something else if you slip up, you don’t want to lose any of your own precious food or gear to hungry rodents, raccoons, or other critters, so best not to tempt them with tasty trash.

Related Video: How to Make S’mores Trail Mix

Header image courtesy of MPH Photos/Shutterstock.

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