Proper camping food storage is important for many reasons.
Not only does it help you stay organized, but it also increases the lifespan of perishables, keeps critters (including bears!) away from camp, and leaves your campsite in pristine condition for the next group of campers.
Today, I’m going to break down how to store food for camping and backpacking, how to keep wildlife (especially bears) away, the most important camping food handling basics, and so much more.
Here’s exactly what you need to know to store food while camping or backpacking.
Camping Food Storage
Luckily, proper food storage while car camping at a developed campground is quite easy.
Daytime Food Storage
Always keep your food secured.
When it’s not in use, it’s best to keep all scented items, including toiletries and anything else aromatic, put away.
Although you’re probably fine leaving food or a cooler out while hanging around camp, always keeping food stored away when not in use is a great camping habit to practice.
This is true of anywhere you camp, but especially when camping in bear country.
Yes, this includes your cooler as well!
The key is to reduce human food scents around your campsite to best keep animals away.
And, especially, don’t leave food, trash, or cooking items unattended when walking around camp, taking a hike, or going on a day trip.
Even if you’re not camping in bear country, other critters like birds, squirrels, and racoons can cause a lot of havoc of their own.
Nighttime Food Storage
Most of the time, your best bet for nighttime food storage while camping is to place all food, trash, and scented items inside a hard-sided vehicle.
However, it’s essential you double-check if storing food inside of a car is okay with the camp hosts or ranger.
In certain areas (such as Yosemite National Park), bears have learned to break into vehicles – even when they’re locked – to find food!
Indeed, bears as well as other crafty animals like racoons are able to open coolers, even those that claim to be bear-proof. So, stash your cooler away somewhere safe at night as well.
In those areas where storing food in your car is prohibited, store all food plus your cooler and cooking equipment inside a metal bear box.
Almost all campgrounds in areas where car food storage is prohibited will provide bear boxes.
Remember keeping wildlife away from camp isn’t just about food storage – it’s also about properly storing any other scented items, like toiletries, pet food, and trash.
Backpacking Food Storage
Backpacking food storage is a little trickier than storing food at camp. But, with three main options, it’s certainly not difficult to find one that will work for your situation.
Metal Bear Boxes
Some designated backcountry campsites along popular backpacking routes provide metal bear boxes.
Unlike the bear boxes at car campgrounds, these backcountry bear boxes are usually communal. Everyone at the camping area will share the same metal locker.
Although storing food in a bear box is your best bet while backpacking, it’s important to always bring a backup food storage method, just in case the backcountry bear box is damaged or otherwise unusable.
A bear-proof canister is now my go-to backpacking food storage method.
These hard-shell plastic cylinders come in many different sizes. They’re designed to fit inside of your backpacking backpack. They have enough room for all of your food as well as your toiletries and any trash.
Bear-proof canisters come with a screw-on lid that’s extremely difficult for bears to open. Most bears know that they can’t open these canisters, so they’ll just move on if they come across a campsite with one.
Although you can double up by hanging a bear-proof canister, it’s fine to just leave them on the ground at night.
Consider using an odor-proof bag inside of your bear canister to further reduce the chance of a backcountry bear encounter.
If you’re a regular backpacker, it’s wise to invest in a bear canister of your own. However, many areas, such as national parks, loan or rent bear-resistant canisters to backpackers.
In fact, some areas, such as Olympic National Park, now require bear-proof canisters for backpacking in certain areas. Hanging food is prohibited in these areas.
Hanging Food in a Bear Bag
Hanging your food is another option for backpacking food storage, although it’s now prohibited in some places.
Place your food and other scented items (including trash) in your bear bag and then hang in one of a variety of different ways.
Some designated backcountry campsites have bear poles or bear cables to help you hang your food. At those without these, you’ll need to hang your food yourself from a sturdy branch.
Remember that your bear bag should be hung at least 15 feet off the ground. It should ideally be at least 15 feet from any tree trunk as well.
We recommend hanging your bear bag well away from camp. Around 200 feet is a good bet.
Not only is hanging a bear bag time-consuming, but it’s often hard to achieve the right hang (15 feet off ground, 15 feet away from a tree trunk), especially in alpine or desert areas.
In addition, many bears have learned how to access bear bags. Some even go as far as to pull on the ropes used to hoist the bag to pull it down.
Although hanging your food is a good backup plan, we strongly recommend using a bear-proof canister instead, as these are much more reliable and efficient.
Remember to Follow All Food Storage Rules
As mentioned above, backcountry food storage rules differ from place to place.
Many areas no longer allow you to hang your food at night. The main reason is that many (if not most) backpackers end up hanging their food incorrectly.
The other reason is that bears are just too smart nowadays. They’re familiar enough with this food storage technique to get into the hanging bag, even when correctly applied.
Many popular backpacking areas in bear country now require you to use designated bear storage lockers or a plastic bear-proof canister.
Double-check the local rules and regulations before heading out on your backpacking trip.
Cooking Food While Backpacking
Proper food handling is just as important as proper food storage while backpacking.
When backcountry camping in bear country, never cook at your campsite, especially in front of your tent.
It’s important to always use a separate cooking area, ideally at least 200 feet from your campsite.
In fact, we recommend using a triangle setup for your campsite, camp kitchen, and food storage.
In other words, your campsite should be 200 feet away from your cooking area and your food storage (in a bear canister or bear hang) should be at least 200 feet away from the cooking area and your campsite.
The key is to ensure that there are no scents or spilled bits of food near your tent that might serve to attract bears or other wildlife at night.
How to Pack Food for Camping
Camping food storage is about more than just keeping wildlife at bay.
It’s also about organization. Ideally, you want easy access to all of your meal ingredients and other culinary supplies.
Personally, I like to keep all of my food and camp kitchen items together in a single rubber tote.
I have one rubber bin set aside that serves as my camp kitchen plus my pantry. In addition to my cooking utensils, cookware, and plateware, I store all of my dry foods here.
Any fresh ingredients that need refrigeration go in my cooler, although I personally try to limit these perishable ingredients since I use a small rotomolded cooler and I tend to camp for around a week at a time.
Any perishables that don’t require refrigeration, like apples or bananas, go in a canvas tote.
Of course, your exact camping food storage setup depends on the size of your party, your personal culinary preferences, and the length of your trip among countless other factors.
Important Camping Food Handling Tips
Handling certain foods is a bit more difficult while camping than at a home, mainly due to limited counterspace and lack of convenient handwashing facilities.
Raw meat is perhaps most difficult to handle – but simultaneously most important to handle right.
I’ve found that pre-preparing meat makes handling it much easier once at your campsite.
For example, do any cutting ahead of time at home. Then put the pieces of meat in Ziploc bags before putting into your cooler.
If you do cut raw meat at camp, it’s essential that you don’t cut vegetables or other foods on a cutting board with meat residue.
It’s also important that you’re extremely cautious during the cleanup process. Raw meat is a huge attractant for bears and other wildlife.
A basic camping dishwashing setup is vital for preparing meals with raw meat. If possible, always wash with soap and hot water (although this certainly isn’t always easy while camping).
Never wash dishes and dump water in your camp. Always strain the water to remove as many food scraps (and thereby food scents) as possible before disposing of water well away from your campsite (at least 200 feet).
What to Do with Trash and Food Waste?
Never discard food scraps around camp.
Always put any food scraps, including any leftovers, in a trash bag. The same goes with any food packaging, paper towels, etc.
I personally like to use odor-proof trash bags to further prevent wildlife encounters, especially if I’m backpacking in bear country.
Just like all of your food items and cooler, it’s essential to keep your trash inside of a locked vehicle, metal bear box, or bear-proof canister. Or hang it from a tree in your bear bag.
Simply put, think of your trash and food waste like food – and store it as such.
Remember to follow all 7 of the leave no trace principles when camping or backpacking – picking up all of your waste is just one of them.
Using the Bathroom in the Backcountry
Just as important as proper food storage while backpacking is proper disposal of human waste.
While some backcountry areas allow you to also bury any toilet paper, we encourage you to pack it out.
Bring along some Ziploc bags or other small sealable bags for toilet paper. WAG Bags work well if you plan to pack out all of your waste while a small trowel is ideal for the cat hole method.
If you do pack out your toilet paper or all of your waste, remember to treat it like any other scented item, especially in bear country.
Other Tips to Stay Safe When Backpacking in Bear Country
Safety is paramount when backpacking in bear country.
In addition to the food storage and food handling best practices outlined above, we recommend never sleeping in the same clothing you cooked in, especially if your meal was aromatic.
Food scents and smells can linger and stick to your clothing.
Many backpackers bring an extra set of clothing to wear at nighttime. Change into this after you’re finished with your day of hiking and cooking.
Store your hiking/cooking clothing in your bear bag or bear-proof container, at least 200 feet from your tent.
Never wear clothing with food smells on it into your tent or sleeping bag, especially in Grizzly bear country.
Why Proper Camping Food Storage Is So Important
Bears and other wildlife are dangerous.
Improper food storage can attract these critters, causing danger to you. But it also places them in just as much danger.
When these animals learn they can find food at a campsite, they start visiting more often. It quickly becomes habit.
Once this pattern is established, the animals often become aggressive. They sometimes even lose their natural fear of humans.
These animals then must be removed from the area – sometimes even euthanized.
Proper camping and backpacking food storage is about keeping both you and wildlife safe and happy.