Storing Food and Smelly Things in Yellowstone

Bear Sign in Indian Creek Campground. Photo by NPS

Bear Sign in Indian Creek Campground. Photo by NPS

Sure, it’s exciting to see a bear in Yellowstone National Park. But there’s no need to see one up close. And it’s definitely no fun to have one make off with your lunch Yogi Bear style.

Bears have big appetites, and for that reason, they love our calorie-dense food. Unfortunately though, sharing your dinner with a bear may lead to its death. Once these animals get a taste of human food (and see how easy it is to get as opposed to hunting or searching for it), they tend to consistently come looking for our snacks. Bears that make swiping a sandwich a part of their daily routine often become aggressive toward people and may have to be put down as a result.

So before you unpack your pic-a-nic basket, be sure to read through the food-storage tips below.

What Counts as Food?

In short, anything that has a smell, even if it’s not something you’d eat. Yep, soap, lotion, cosmetics, other toiletries and trash all fall into the “food” category and must be stored properly. Canned goods, ice chests, bottles and drinks all count too. Here’s a brief, itemized list of things that fall into this category.

  • Water containers
  • Cooking utensils
  • Eating utensils
  • Drinking utensils
  • Stoves
  • Beverage containers
  • Grills
  • Coolers
  • Ice chests
  • Trash or trash bags (in the campsite or fire pit)
  • Food (of course, food counts as food)
  • Cosmetics
  • Toiletries
  • Pet food
  • Pet food bowls
  • Pet water bowls
  • Pails
  • Buckets
  • Wash basins
  • Any item with food odor

Storing Food in Your Car

It’s okay to store food in your car as long as it’s out of sight and the car is locked with all of the windows up. If possible, don’t store food in your vehicle during the evening, and clear the inside of wrappers, crumbs and garbage as well. Never leave food in the open back of a pickup truck.

Storing Food at your Campsite

Indian Creek Campground. Photo by NPS

Indian Creek Campground. Photo by NPS

None of the items listed above should ever be left outside or stored in tents or tent trailers, regardless of the time of day. Be sure to leave these items in your hard-sided vehicle, or even better, in one of the food storage boxes located throughout most campsites. If you’re found in violation of these rules, you may receive a citation and/or have the items confiscated.

Food Storage in Yellowstone’s Backcountry

Camping in the backcountry of Yellowstone National Park is an incredible experience. You’re surrounded by stunning beauty, privy to the sounds of birds and breezes and a participant in the solace found only far from civilization. But of course it’s also important to take care and follow the rules of route. And proper food storage is a key component of those rules—not just to protect your gorp and granola from bears, but also from smaller animals (think mice) that appreciate an easy snack just as much as their larger counterparts.

Storing your vittles correctly begins before you hit the trailhead when deciding what items to bring along. Definitely avoid packing foods that are especially fragrant, since they’re more likely to pique the interest of the critters nearby.

Next, never choose a campsite that looks as if a bear has recently visited. Keep an eye out for signs of digging, tracks or scat. When you arrive, do a quick check for these warnings, as well as for any garbage or wrappers that previous campers may have left.

Aim to keep your camp clean (e.g. all of the garbage in a single area) so that everything can be put away easily when you leave camp or go to bed at night. Never store food, cooking utensils, cosmetics, etc. in your tent. You should also be sure to keep the clothes you sleep in free of cooking and food smells. Hang any garments worn while cooking and eating in plastic bags.

Even when not sleeping, never leave bags or backpacks with food in them unattended for more than a few minutes.

When away from camp or sleeping, secure all food away from possible intruders. One of the best solutions is to carry a bear canister. Ask about this option when obtaining your backcountry permit. If bear canisters are not available, hang food, toiletries, gum, dirty cooking utensils, garbage, etc. up and away from bears. Many backcountry campsites in Yellowstone have a food pole to help with this process. Food bags should be hung at least 10 feet from the ground and at least 4 feet away from any post or tree.

Don’t cook, eat and sleep in the same place. Consider setting up a “kitchen” area where all things with a smell remain, and set up your tent at least 100 yards away from that.


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