How Far Can a Bear Smell? (And How To Avoid Them)

bear in the woods

Let’s be honest – bears are pretty terrifying.

Luckily, they’re not too interested in us. The scent of certain things we might have with us, on the other hand, can attract a bear.

So, you might be wondering – just how far can a bear smell?

Well, the short answer is pretty damn far.

It depends on the kind of bear, and it depends on who you ask. Still, estimates on the lower end of the scale claim that a bear can pick up a smell up to 3 miles away. 3 miles!

Other estimates indicate that figure could actually be as high as 10-20 miles. Some sources even claim that a polar bear is able to track prey up to 40 miles away. That’s insane!

So is it 3 or 40 miles? What’s the difference between grizzly bears and brown bears? Does the weather affect their sense of smell?

Let’s dig in and answer all those questions, shall we?

Calculating A Bear’s Sense Of Smell

bear smelling air

To give you an idea of just how strong a bear’s sense of smell is, let me put it into perspective for you. When compared to that of a human, a silvertip grizzly’s sense of smell is 2100 times stronger.

OK, so humans don’t really have a very impressive sense of smell anyway. What about dogs though? Well, most dogs have a sense of smell that’s about 100 times stronger than that of a human. For bloodhounds, who are known for having an incredibly strong sense of smell, that figure is 300.

That means that a grizzly bear has a sense of smell around 7 times stronger than a bloodhound’s.

In nature, everything has a purpose, and this is no different. Bears rely on their sense of smell to survive.

Their scent receptors enable them to find food when it’s further away, whether it be berries, live prey or an animal carcass. If they didn’t have such an acute sense of smell, they wouldn’t be able to find enough food to eat.

They also use it to sniff each other out. Their keen sense of smell is necessary for them to be able to find mates and identify other bears that are trespassing on their territory.

Another threat that they’re able to identify on time due to their impeccable sense of smell is fire. Wildfires are a major threat to all animals, so being able to detect smoke while it’s still far away is essential to their survival.

Finally, bears need to have a strong enough sense of smell to be able to locate cubs that stray and get lost.

Scents That Attract Bears

bear sniffing food

Most of the time a bear that sniffs you out won’t be interested in attacking you, or even approaching you. As long as they don’t see you as a threat to their cub, they’ll more than likely leave you alone.

That being said, it’s not your scent per se that you need to worry about, but rather the scent of the things you have with you that may attract a bear.

The main thing you have to worry about is your food. A bear might not be interested in you, but it sure will want your food. So, to keep bears away your best bet is to take the following precautions:

  • Get yourself some odor-proof plastic bags 
    • These work really well. Use them to wrap all your food up so it doesn’t attract bears.
  • Use a bear canister
    • This is another great way to prevent bears from picking up the scent of your food.
    • If you want to be extra safe, you can use both odor-proof bags and a bear canister for double protection.
  • Camp at least 100 yards away from food
    • If a bear does end up coming for your lunch in the middle of the night, you want to make sure you’re nowhere near it. That way, it’s far less likely that the bear will perceive you as a threat.
    • Also make sure that any cooking you do is at least 100 yards away from where you’ll be sleeping.
  • Don’t sleep in clothes you cooked in
    • You might not notice, but cooking smells will linger on your clothes long after you’ve finished having dinner. So, make sure you don’t go to bed smelling like a delicious meal.

Other scents that can attract bears include bug spray, fuel, medications, perfume, deodorant, soap and suntan lotion, to name a few. Make sure you’re as careful with all of these as you are with your food.

One more thing to keep in mind is where you take care of your business. When nature calls, make sure to go as far away as possible from your campsite. Animals use urination as a way to mark their territory, so you definitely want to avoid sending the wrong message.

How Weather Conditions Affect Smell

The scent you give off doesn’t always travel the same distance.

How far it goes and how intense it is depends quite a bit on the weather.

There are 3 things that can influence how far away a bear will be able to sense your scent:

  • Temperature
    • The warmer it is, the stronger smells become and the further they’re able to travel.
  • Humidity
    • Humid weather conditions will also make your scent travel further.
  • Wind 
    • The direction in which the wind is blowing will also play a role, as wind carries the particles that contain your scent.

More Useful Tips For Keeping Bears Away

These are a few things you can do to avoid issues with bears that aren’t related to smell:

Make Enough Noise

If they can hear people, bears will usually stay away. Sitting in silence opens up the possibility of a bear showing up to check out your food, thinking that there’s nobody around. So, make sure you keep things lively enough to make your presence heard.

Keep Your Campsite Clean

Don’t leave food lying around and make sure you clean up after every meal. Dispose of your trash on a regular basis and keep it at a safe distance away from your campsite.

If You Do See A Bear, Don’t Panic

The best thing you can possibly do in the event of a bear encounter is stay as calm as possible.

Also, follow these life-saving tips:

  • Whatever you do, don’t run. Back away slowly from the bear.
  • Clap your hands together or bang things together if you’ve got anything within reach that can make a loud noise.
  • Don’t make eye contact with the bear.

Bears run extremely fast, so trying to outrun one isn’t going to end well for you.

Have Some Bear Spray On Hand In Case Of Emergencies

If you find yourself in a sticky situation and a bear attack is imminent, you can use bear spray to protect yourself. Make sure you acquaint yourself with the necessary safety tips beforehand.

Summary

If there’s one thing you should take away from this article, it’s that there’s no need to be afraid. The truth of the matter is that bears are probably just as scared of us as we are of them. So, if you stay out of their way and follow the above advice, you’re unlikely to run into any trouble.

When we venture out into nature, we always have to remember that we’re visitors. It’s our duty to do everything we can to respect the environment we’re in and all its inhabitants.