I'll be backpacking in areas where a bear canister is required by regulation. All of the tip's I've read say to store it XYZ number of feet "downwind from your camp", presumably so the scent of the food moves away from you rather than in your direction.

I've never paid all that much attention to the wind, but in the north east (inland) it seems to blow all willy nilly. This appears to be reinforced by the fact that the smoke from my fire is smarter than I am and doesn't care if I move my seating position, it will find my eyes in due time.

Likewise - if it isn't a noticeably blustery day how can you tell which way the air currents are generally moving?

5 Answers 5


Use your ears. OK, Let me explain that.

But first things first. The direction of the wind is what we call “downwind”. If I throw a handful of white flour into the wind, the direction that flour travels is “downwind”.

The breeze picks up the scent of nearly everything it touches and carries that scent along wherever it goes. Like the white flour, but on a scale so small that you can’t see it, the smell of nearly everything on your person and in your camp is picked up and carried on the wind. Any animal passing downwind from your camp then knows everything that is in your camp, just by smell (if its sniffer is sensitive enough – and a bear’s is).

So, you are exactly right. Store your food at least 100 feet downwind from your camp. If a bear is attracted to your camp, he will most likely be tempted by your food, so keeping it far from you will help keep you safe. Hopefully, the canister will do its job and keep your food safe.

Generally, the wind blows different directions throughout the day, because of terrain and changes in temperature. At night, temperatures even out and cool and air movements usually settle down, becoming slow and steady (no hot, moving sun in the sky to heat up the air). Therefore, if you don’t know the prevailing night-time wind directions in your area, it would be best to check the direction of air movement after the sun goes down (assuming there are no storms stirring things up).

As air cools, it sinks, flowing downhill. If you are backpacking in hilly or mountainous areas, rest assured that the breeze will be blowing downhill during the night (unless there is a storm). If one is near the ocean (I know, you stated that you are inland), then the wind should blow out to sea when the sun is down (I live far, far inland, so I have not experienced this, but that’s what I was taught in school).

Here is the best way that I have found to discover the direction of the breeze near my camp (Using my ears):

Wait until dusk, that calming, shadowy time between sundown and full dark. Walk in a wide circle around your camp (20-30 feet out will do), stopping several times to test the direction of the air currents. To test the direction of the air currents, simply uncover your head, face and neck, and turn slowly. The fine hairs on your cheeks, and especially your ears, can feel the breeze (even a very soft breeze). When you feel the breeze blowing across the fine hairs on your cheeks and both ears, stop. You are facing UPwind. DOWNwind is directly behind you. Sampling the wind like this in a circle around your camp helps you make a very confident assessment of the wind’s direction. If the breeze is gentle and erratic, you may have to make a couple circles, and even then, you may have to guess a little. However, it’s ok if you don’t get it exactly right, as long as you place/hang your food far from camp. The goal is to place your food in such a way that it does not lure a bear into your camp.

  • 2
    Very thorough, I appreciate the bit about waiting until dusk and about the terrain and location. Thank you.
    – plast1k
    Commented Sep 8, 2016 at 0:05
  • As a kite flyer, trying to always face downwind, I use the opposite method. I feel using the back of my ears. Since the head and hair partially block wind all you need to do is turn until you feel wind on both ears. You are now facing downwind.
    – Glenn
    Commented Sep 8, 2016 at 14:37
  • @Glenn is right and I've done the same dinghy sailing. But that works better when there's a decent bit of breeze (as do sailing and kite flying of course) as the sensitivity is less.
    – Chris H
    Commented Sep 8, 2016 at 18:14
  • As a kid i was taught to wet my fingertip. The airflow cools the upwind side of my finger. Nowadays i do it similar to OPs method, but instead I use a cigarette, grass, a twig, or burn something else to get small amounts of smoke. Then walk in a big circle and see where the smoke goes. OPs suggestion does not need any tools. And he has some great points of wind direction in general, never heard of it before. I will pay attention to that next time! Thank you David!
    – Peter1807
    Commented Sep 12, 2016 at 8:45
  • As a minor addition: The wind blows out to sea when the land is cooler than the sea. This is usually at night up until sometime after dawn, depending on ocean temperature and weather.
    – WW.
    Commented Sep 13, 2016 at 12:09

Simply the easiest way is to light a match (or light a stick from your fire), and look at which way the small flame blows. Simpler still (but less.. uhh.. 'classy'?) take some leaves from the ground, hold them up high, let them fall, and note the direction. Whichever you choose, do it a few times, and in a few different spots around your site.

I would also, however, note that wind can blow in different directions based on height. Variable temperatures at different heights (warm air rises) create variable pressures, and thus move air differently.

Also, if you're using the stick method from above, note that fire is really warm and staying near the fire will likely mess up your readings to a degree (like reading a compass near a magnet) so move away for the tests.


Wet your finger in your mouth, then hold it straight up. It will feel noticeably cooler on the upwind side.

  • Always saw that in cartoons and had no idea that's how it worked - I'll give it a shot :)
    – plast1k
    Commented Sep 8, 2016 at 0:05
  • I used to always try this and find it so hard to tell and get dissapointed lol. But yes it does work sometimes.
    – Avik Mohan
    Commented Sep 8, 2016 at 0:13

How can I tell which way is down wind?

How do I know which way is down wind? I turn so the wind is coming around me from the back and is equal on both right and left sides. I feel it in my hair, on my face, and on exposed arms and legs.

If the direction is variable, use an average direction. Is there a direction it comes from more than 50% of the time? The other directions are probably close to the dominant direction or likely flip flop between two directions.

If the goal is to place food so that lions, tigers, and bears (oh my!) don't traipse through my camp following the scent, then there is a wide swath of area which is "good enough". Getting the angle to within 0.001° isn't necessary. In fact, having it within 180° should be fine. Maybe even 270°.

More importantly, place the food far enough away that finding the food doesn't make the camp an apparent "next target". In bear country, I find two or three minutes hiking distance (over easy terrain) is a fair compromise between remoteness and convenience of retrieving "just one more thing."

  • 1
    Good point about not needing to be very accurate - I often fixate on the wrong things so ill be sure to remember that :)
    – plast1k
    Commented Sep 8, 2016 at 0:06

Local wind will vary and settle and night. If you have a storm moving in or big body of water then would will get persistent breeze. Near dusk drop some grass a few time and see it is consistent.

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