For the purpose of this question I am interested in black bears in an area with relatively low human pressure, plenty of natural habitat and presumably natural food sources.

The scenario I'm considering is eating a meal at a picnic table in a dining tent / screen tent. After eating, all trash is removed and the table is wiped clean. Any significant spills or fallen food are cleaned up, trash and food is then stored elsewhere in a bear safe location.

However, trace amounts of food and the related aromas are bound to remain on the table and surrounding dining area.

Are the traces of food left behind in a well cleaned wilderness eating area expected to attract bears?

  • yes. also by smell of food on your clothes and on your pack. Which is why the usual advice is to eat somewhere and sleep somewhere else, with a certain distance between the 2.
    – njzk2
    Apr 3, 2021 at 14:19

2 Answers 2


Are black bears attracted to trace amounts of food?

The short answer seems to be yes.

If any animal could smell trace amounts of food, then bears definitively qualify.

Smelling is a bear’s go-to sense, on par with us humans and our eyesight. Bears are known to be able to smell 100 times better than your dog, while your dog is able to sniff out snacks and seemingly the most disgusting thing around 300 times better than we can.

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Bear’s Sense of Smell Vs. Humans

A bear’s sense of smell about 2,100-3,000 times better than a human’s. - A Bear’s Sense of Smell – How Good Is It?

Further information may be gleaned from the following article:


My answer, based on personal experience in the Sierra and Rockies over 40 years, is no, not at the level you describe. Caveat -- I don't have experience eating in a dining tent, or on a picnic table, or anyplace where many other people regularly eat. You may scrupulously clean up as you have described, but many others may not have and spills and food droppings add up.

Our experience is with back-country camping, at a campsite with no other people present, and completely undeveloped campsites, nothing anyone looking for a place to camp would zero in on. We cook near our tent and in bad enough weather right outside our tent door. We eat near our tent, and in bad weather, inside the tent. After a few days, our clothes and hair undoubtedly smell of food. I'd usually have a snack of gorp and M&Ms in my sleeping bag before going to sleep. Before bear canisters became de rigeur, we hung our food and our garbage, our soap and our toothpaste. Although several times in the early days, a bear came to our campsite, it was always because we had not properly stowed our food.

With bear canisters, best to place them away from your sleeping place. Bears know what they are and will make a stab at opening them, disturbing your sleep. Bears also know what is in that bag hanging from a limb of a tree.

You specified black bears. I have no experience with brown bears.

  • 1
    Just to clarify, it's private land and I built the table, but I'll think about how to adjust the question to avoid it sounding like a public picnic/camping area Apr 4, 2021 at 0:42
  • Adding one point: Bears are interested in food, and spend a lot of time searching for food. They have to be efficient, or they will not get enough --they can't waste time on crumbs. Sure, if there are crumbs on a picnic table, they will lap them up, but then move on to richer locations. You will probably never know they were there. Think of a burglar -- he doesn't spend time looking under the sofa cushions for spare change.
    – ab2
    Apr 4, 2021 at 17:30
  • 1
    This was my line of thinking @ab2, which led to this question. And it's part of why I think the low human presence element is relevant, as bears near campgrounds learn to search human frequented areas for food. I expect those bears behave rather differently than bears with more limited exposure to humans, who are used to seeking out natural food sources. Appreciate your reply from experience in the backcountry. Apr 4, 2021 at 18:08

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