How Far Can A Bear Smell? You Might Be Surprised

by Derrick | Last Updated: November 27, 2021

When spending time in woods camping or hiking, one of the most common concerns people have is having a run in with wild animals. Many of us have read stories of people who have encountered wolves, mountain lions, and other animals in the wild. A bear is undoubtedly one of the animals that inexperienced hikers and campers are known to immediately fear.

If you listen to the news or are part of any number of outdoors Facebook Groups or forums, you will undoubtedly hear stories of bears coming into a campsite and causing damage to property or potentially injuring people usually due to improper food storage and/or scent control.

There are methods to make sure that the likelihood of seeing a bear is small. I will cover a few of the best suggestions towards the end of the article, but will also dedicate a full article to in the future.

How Far Can a Bear Smell?

When you see a bear’s head and face the first thing that stands out is they have a very large nose compared to the overall size of their face. As such the nasal mucosa (area inside the bear’s nose) is approximately 100 times greater than humans.

This is a round about way to say bears have a really strong sense of smell, potentially one of the strongest amongst land animals in North America.

Depending on the sources you read and who you talk to, the estimates of how far a bear can smell varies. Based on a number of sources I would conservatively estimate a bears range of smell to be around 18-20 miles. With that said some factors affect how far a bear can smell. Let’s dig into those factors and discuss them in detail.

Factors That Affect How Far A Bear Can Smell

A number of things can influence how far a bear can smell. This explains why it is hard to give a precise estimate and experts default to giving a range of distance that bears are able to smell.

Wind Direction

If the bear is downwind of you it will be able to smell for a much further distance than if it is upwind.

Type of Scent

Naturally as a human you give off a scent just as any other living creature does, but where there are humans there often is food. Bears are very food motivated so the type of scent the bear is smelling can also have an impact.

Temperature and Humidity

The warmer and more humid your environment is changes how the scent of you and what you are carrying will disperse in that environment. For instance on a hot day with high humidity your scent could travel further.

Size of Smell Source

Smells that are smaller than the animal will naturally be harder to smell. For example, a bear can smell a human from farther than it can smell a bug or bees nest.

Age of Scent

The more time has passed since an odor was released the less potent it becomes, and thus the shorter distance it will travel.

How To Avoid Bears and What You Need To Know About Them When Camping

The Food Smell

One of the biggest factors for keeping bears out of your camp is eliminate food smells so that the bears in the area don’t associate your campsite and/or surrounding areas with food. Proper food hygiene around camp will go a long way.

The following list will help you avoid bear encounters caused by food smells:

1) Do not cook in your tent.

2) Clean your gear that has come into contact with food away from where you are staying.

3) Keep food stored in bear canisters or an elevated bear bag.

4) Scents and smells from toothpaste, soap, lotions and deodorant could attract bears. You may want to store these in a separate bear canister or bear bag.

Campsite Selection

Do not setup your campsite in areas that are highly traveled by bears such as berry patches, or camping along game trails. Bears like to travel along these paths, foraging for roots and insects.

Bears are more active during the day than at night. This is why it’s important to make sure your campsite doesn’t smell like food or scented products.

You may also want to setup a cooking fire area that is away from camp. Use this are for cooking and food preparation and avoid any food smells near your main camp.

Make Noise

Bears will avoid your campsite if it has a little bit of noise. Bears will typically enter a campsite only if they don’t expect to encounter people or animals, and they try to keep to themselves.

Generally, leaving food unattended, or unattended at night is when bears will attempt to come in and see what they can get away with. Keeping food secure and following best practices with an active campsite during the day, you are less likely to have bear issues.

Keep Dogs Under Control

You already know bears can smell you from miles away, so they will be able to smell your dog too.

I am a big advocate of taking dogs on camping trips but owners must ensure dogs are well behaved in a known bear populated area. Bears are curious animals so they might wander the area and come across your dog if they have been left off the leash. You do not want this happening!

Some Final Thoughts

So you know that bears can detect odors much further than humans can as well as how to keep you and your campsite safer from bears. You should be all set to enjoy your time in the woods.

When you consider how many people go camping, having issues with bears is rather rare. That does not imply you can be careless and unprepared, but following best practices will for the most part ensure you have no issues.