how far can bears smell

How Far Can A Bear Smell: Exploring Bears Sense of Smell

Last Updated on

There are eight species of bears discovered and they are found in every populated continent in the world. In the United States of America, bears are found in forty of the 50 states. Bears are very dangerous predators, but can be shy, and they generally try to avoid people unless forced to interact. Some are known to attack humans as a food source. Most attacks from bears on humans can be attributed to protecting their territory and mother bears protecting cubs from potential threats. There have been few cases of bears attacking people and some of them resulting in fatalities.

Bears have large broad noses full of scent receptors, they have the best sense of smell among land mammals. A bear’s sense of smell is arguably its most important asset. Bears use their powerful noses for finding out prey, food and mates. Male bears have been known to sniff out a female’s scent and follow them for miles to mate. A bear’s sense of smell would be hard to measure conclusively but it is clearly a greater and several times larger than humans, dogs and cats. A cat’s sense of smell is 14 times greater than a human’s. As for bears, they have 2000 times greater smell range than humans!

If you are thinking about backpacking, camping or merely traveling through bear country, its always wise to know the capabilities of local wildlife. There are many cases of hungry bears breaking into camping sites searching for food. Their powerful noses are extremely useful for like sniffing out poorly disposed food, food packs and garbage in camp sites. Imagine sleeping in your tent in the wilderness early morning one day and waking up hearing a bear sniffing around for food nearby. A nasty surprise for sure. They are also known to sometimes go through trash near human settlements. A shrinking of their natural habitat has forced many wild species to adapt to the human presence.

As a general rule assume bears have a range of 18-20 miles (that’s 29-32.2 kilometers) and that’s a safe range to take into account of  how far grizzlies and black bears can smell. Polar bears seem to have bit more wider sense of smell adapted to hunting seals. Its also a safe assumption to make that if a bear can smell you, it can smell the food items (if any) you are carrying. Don’t underestimate wild bears.

You could be traveling alone and carrying food in your backpack and its understandable to want to know a bear’s sense of smell and the associated risks when it comes to navigating bear country.

The three main types of bears I will explore are black bears, polar bears and grizzly bears. They all have different food preferences and habits, i will go through each of their sense of smell one by one.

How far can a black bear smell

Black bear

Black bears have a strong sense of smell too. They have been known to beeline 18 miles straight towards a carcass purely by sense of smell and have nasal mucosas that are 100 times the size of a human’s. Its reasonable to assume a 20 mile distance as how far they can smell. Black bears can smell seven times more than a bloodhound. Bloodhounds can detect old scents up to 12 days and have been reported to follow trails for even 130 miles (209 km). Now imagine what a black bear can do!

How far can a polar bear smell

Polar bear

Polar bears are found in the colder regions of the world like Russia, Alaska, Greenland, Canada and some other islands. Polar bears have been known to smell seals from up to 20 miles (32 km) away. Seals have air holes they make in the ice to come up and breathe at regular intervals. The air holes get covered by a thin sheet of ice and snow. But polar bears still can smell them. They can also smell seals under three feet of ice from a distance of 1 miles (1.6 km). They clearly have an incredible sense of smell when it comes to detecting seals.

Polar bears have been found following seals even as far as 40 miles! This is clearly because of their superior nose and the fact that seals do have a strong odor for them to follow. Those poor seals! they just can’t seem to catch a break. Sp how does this compare to smelling a human? Seals have a much more powerful body odor (They stink!) than humans, so It would be likely harder for a polar bear to smell humans than seals. Polar bear attacks on humans are rare, but these 10 feet tall, 1400 pound behemoths are deadly predators and you better pray you don’t encounter one of these in the wild.


How far can a grizzly bear smell

Grizzly bear

North American brown bears are also known as Grizzly bears. They are a sub species of brown bear and are dangerous apex predators, well-known for their size and aggression. Grizzly smell range extends to approximately 20 miles. According to National Geographic, Grizzly bears have a scent receptor area that is 100 times bigger than a human’s, full of more than one billion receptor cells linked with over ten million nerve cells connecting to their brain. They can zero in on the scent of food from a mile away!

Bear Proofing Tips

Here are seven tips to keep yourself and your pack safe in bear country.

1) Bear smell proof bags

Odorless and sealed protection bags can be a good way to store and keep the smell of food away from bears and other scavengers. Something like the Impresa Smell Proof Bags from Amazon can be very handy to store food and spices sealed and with the smells contained inside.

2) Dispose any food wastes and other garbage safely

Seal up wastes in garbage bags and dispose of them safely later. Dispose of food waste properly in a way where it does not smell and attract bears.

3) Reduce cooking food out in the open

Instead prepare food that does not require cooking or creates powerful odors. Limit outdoor cooking as this can attract hungry scavengers.

4) Change clothes that have the scent of food lingering on them

When you eat or cook food, the smell lingers in your clothes which can attract bears. Before going to bed, safely seal away the clothes you wore and sleep in new clothes.

5) Bear Canister

Invest in a bear canister. These help keep your food sealed and secure from bears, raccoons and other animals.

The Frontier Bear Canister from Amazon is a good lightweight piece of gear to store your food supply safely from wild bears. The canister has withstood a 60 minute test from a grizzly bear to break through and will be useful hiking, backpacking and camping trips with the family.

6) Bear Spray

Keep a bear spray as a precaution. Normal pepper sprays may be good for self against other people, but may not be as effective against bears. Bear spray is highly effective in stopping aggressive bears in their tracks because it targets its highly evolved sense of sight and smell.  Further more, bear sprays shoot in a wide  and longer range than pepper sprays.

View on Amazon

A powerful bear deterrent like the SABRE Frontiersman Bear Spray on Amazon can spray a bear from up to a distance of 35 FEET (10.6m) away! This is a really useful non-lethal bear defense to carry.

7) Avoid scented items

Do not use scented clothing, toiletries cosmetics, deodorants/perfumes and any other items that may attract bears.

Wrapping Up

Bears are dangerous predators but their interactions with humans are rare and they usually tend to avoid us. Yes, bears have an extraordinary sense of smell when it comes to finding food, but with proper precautions and measures to reduce odors, you can avoid them and have a safe journey.


Leave a Comment