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how far can a bear smell

How Far Can a Bear Smell? (Trust Me, Bears are Badass)

Bears are thought to have the most advanced sense of smell to any animal on earth, but just how far can a bear smell?

I want to give you an idea just how amazing a bears nose truly is.

Your average dog is able to smell around 100 times better than a you or me. A bloodhound however, can smell 300 times better.

Believe it or not, a bear’s sense of smell is 7 times better than that of a bloodhound.

That’s right, a bear can smell a whopping 2100 times better than a human.

How far can a bear smell?

Black Bear

how far can a bear smell

Black bears can smell extremely far. The estimates surrounding the exact range of their sense of smell vary widely among scientists.

Conservative estimates state that a back bear can smell a food source of up to a mile (1,6 km) away. With other sources claiming black bears can actually smell food from 2 miles (3,2 km) away.

More generous estimates state that a black bear can smell food between 18 and 20 miles (28 – 32 km) away.


Polar Bear

Polar bear

Oceanwide Expeditions claims that polar bears can smell seals and other animals up to 5.6 miles (9 kilometers) away.

Polar bears are even able to smell the breathing holes of seals in ice almost one 0.6 miles (1 kilometer) away.


Grizzly Bear

Grizzly bear

I am not able to find consistent evidence on just how far a grizzly bear is can smell. There is not doubt however, that grizzly bears are able to smell similar distances to black bears.


Can a bear smell menstrual blood?

In 1991 researchers declared that black bears and grizzly bears are not interested in menstruating women.

One exception to bears’ disinterest in menstrual blood however, is the polar bear.

A study conducted in 1983 involved exposing four captive polar bears to a series of scents. Of all the scents they were exposed to, they took an interest only in seal smells and used tampons.

(Keep in mind, these tests were limited to four bears and only 12 encounters with live menstruating women.)

The bears for the most part were more interested in food smells than menstrual blood.

On average the bears would eat the used tampons only half of the time, compared to 100 percent of the time for seafood and 92 percent of the time for seal oil.

Even beer seemed to interest the bears more than used tampons. When introduced to beer, the bears guzzled down the liquor 66 percent of the time!

For context, the bears would eat used tampons only 13 percent of the time.


The anatomy of a bears nose

This is the area inside the bear’s nose, it’s known as the nasal mucosa. The nasal mucosa is 100 times larger than ours.

This large nose is the reason bears can smell things from so far away.


What smells attract bears?

how far can a bear smell

Garbage – Never store any of your waste outside unless using a bear-proof container or enclosure. Instead, store indoors or in a sturdy, locked building until it’s time for garbage pickup.

Grease – Don’t discard any grease in your garden. Put grease in a double bag and place in trash can.

Bird feeders – Avoid feeding birds when bears are nearby. That includes hummingbird feeders. Bears absolutely love birdseed. At the very least, make any bird feeders bearproof. Bird baths are also a good alternative.

Berry bushes – Bears eat more berries than you’d be able to count. If you don’t want to attract any bears to your garden, don’t plant berry bushes!

Compost – Don’t throw meat and fish waste into your compost pile. Cover any food compost with leaves or shredded paper.

Pet food – It’s best to feed all your pets indoors. If you must feed them outside, remove food bowls after each meal. Store all pet food indoors.

Barbeque grills – Clean the BBQ and empty after each use. Spray the grill with apple cider vinegar to deter bears.

Beehives – Bears get their protein from eating bee larvae, and of course, the honey is an added bonus.

Citronella products – contain a compound that is incredibly attractive to bears. Bears are also attracted to salt and mineral blocks.


Information on bears

Black Bear

  • Common name: American Black Bear
  • Scientific name: Ursus americanus
  • Type: Mammals
  • Diet: Omnivore
  • Group name: Sleuth, sloth
  • Average lifespan in the wild: 20 years
  • Size: 5 to 6 feet long (1.5 to 1.8 meters)
  • Weight: 200 to 600 pounds (90 to 272 kilograms)

Grizzly Bear

  • Common name: Grizzly bears
  • Scientific name: Ursus arctos horribilis
  • Type: Mammals
  • Diet: Omnivore
  • Average lifespan in the wild: 25 years
  • Size: Five to eight feet (1.5 to 2.4 meters)
  • Weight: 800 pounds (362 kilograms)

Polar Bear

  • Common name: Polar Bear
  • Scientific name: Ursus maritimus
  • Type: Mammals
  • Diet: Carnivore
  • Average lifespan in the wild: 25 to 30 years
  • Size: Head and body: 7.25 to 8 feet (2.2 to 2.4 meters)
  • Weight: 900 to 1,600 pounds (408 to 725 kilograms)

How to survive a bear attack?

What not to do when a bear attacks:

  • Do not try to run away, you have zero chance of outrunning a bear.
  • Avoid climbing trees, bears, especially black bears are much better at it than you.
  • Don’t play dead. Brown bears especially, are most after carrion. There’s a good chance if you play dead they’ll see you as just that.

If you want to survive a bear attack, you’ll need to know what type of attack it is.


Defensive bear attacks

defensive bear signs

It’s likely that a female bear protecting her young, is not hunting you – she just wants you the hell out of there!

The rule of thumb is that any attack following a sudden surprise bear encounter is likely a defensive attack.

The warning signs of a defensive bear attack are:

  • sticks out it’s lips
  • makes huffing or woofing sounds
  • hits the ground with its paws
  • rears up on its hind legs (this is how they try and see and smell you better)
  • the ears are laid back while charging you

What to do in this situation

It’s best to back away, talking calmly so that the bear identifies you as a human and not some other threat.

If a defensive bear continues to advance on you and certainly if it tries to attack you, your best bet is probably to play dead.

The safest way you can position yourself is in the foetal position

fetal-position - Pivot Consulting & Coaching

The bear might swipe at you, or even bite you. But there’s a good chance it will just leave you alone when it doesn’t perceive you as a threat.


Aggressive bear attacks

aggressive bear signs

If a bear has smelled you from far away, and has been stalking and circling you, it is most likely an aggressive bear attack.

The warning signs of an aggressive bear attack are:

  • makes almost no noise
  • has it’s ears pointed up and forward
  • is maintaining eye contact while advancing on you
  • is attacking you in your tent

In this situation, playing dead will not be any good. Your only option of survival is to fight back, with all the strength you can possibly muster.

In open spaces t may be best to create some sort of diversion – perhaps throwing your bushcraft backpack in its path so that it stops to investigate.

Make as much noise as possible, attack (with branches, bear spray or anything available) as if your life depends on it, because it does.

Your main objective is to convince the bear that you are not an easy target. Because it will keep attacking you until it’s too scared or injured to continue.


Bear Spray

The best bear spray in my opinion is the Sabre Frontiersman Bear Spray.

  • It rapidly deploys the heaviest fog of 1.84 oz (52 grams) per 1-second burst, which helps maximize your safety by deploying a massive barrier of protection to help deter an aggressive charging bear.
  • E.P.A. and Health Canada approved, this bear spray is environmentally friendly and has been field-tested and proven effective against all types of bears by the Elmendorf Air Force Base and Brown Bear Resources.
  • The spray temporarily incapacitates a bear’s ability to see or smell while causing no permanent injuries; it’s safe to use while camping or hiking and is non-flammable, and does not contain any ozone-depleting chemicals.

So, how far can a bear smell? That all depends on the species of bear, the wind direction and the landscape. But a general rule of thumb is that a bear can smell between 0.6 and 2.4 miles (1 and 4 kilometers).

Further Reading:

One comment

  1. Hi Kyle excellent article. I have had first hand experience of Grizzly bears when we did bear-trekking on Kodiak Island in Alaska. We came within 2 meters from a female grizzly and her cub. But I were ask to stand up when a male approached in order to appear taller than the male. Not an easy feat with such a massive animal.
    We were also asked not to drop any food not even crumbs when we had lunch as the bears will associate us with food.
    You also have to be loud in order not to surprise the bears whilst hiking contrary with how move through the bush in Africa.
    We saw grizzlies playing and eating clams.
    They claim the grizzlies in Alaska are bigger due to all the salmon they eat.

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