Can You Keep Food in Your Car While Camping? 13 Tips & Tricks


Attracting animals to your campsite with food may seem like a lot of fun, but it can actually lead to some very serious problems. That goes double if you’re camping in bear country! These tips will help to keep animals out of your car and away from your food!

Yes, you can typically keep food in your car while you’re camping. However, keep in mind that it may draw animals to your campsite. You’ll need to know how to keep the scent of your food locked in. Additionally, some campgrounds may have rules requiring you to keep your food in a locker at night.

If you’re planning to keep your food in your car, planning to make sure no animals come looking for that food is a must! Continue on and you’ll learn exactly what you need to do to keep bears and other critters out of your food supply.

1. Ensure That All Windows and Doors Are Closed

While it may seem appealing to air out your car at some point while you’re camping, it’s best to avoid it when there is food in your car. Any scent that may escape the food containers can easily end up wafting through an open door or window.

When it does, you never know what kind of animal might be attracted by the smell. Even if you aren’t concerned about something like a squirrel or bird exploring around your vehicle, the predators that may find those critters delicious are something to be concerned about.

Additionally, it’s best not to risk inviting a bear or coyote into your campsite through any means.

Because of this, you’ll want to make sure the doors on your car are shut tightly and the windows are rolled all the way up. Make sure that you only open the doors when you absolutely need to and shut them completely as soon as you can.

While not all animals may present a danger to the car itself, it’s worth understanding just how strong some animals can be. To learn more about whether or not a bear can break a car window, take a look at our article here!

2. Use an Odor-Proof Plastic Storage Bag

One of the best ways to avoid animals getting into your food is to focus on keeping the smell of the food at a minimum. Even if it’s in your car, some animals will be able to catch the scent and follow it back to your hiding space. Cars may be more difficult for most animals to get into, but that doesn’t mean they won’t try.

Storing your food in specially-designed plastic bags such as those made by SmellyProof, can help to keep animals away. These bags are designed to keep the smell of the food in. As a result, nearby animals will have no idea that food is even present.

Often, these bags aren’t very expensive. Even campers on a tight budget can get the benefits that the bags have to offer. While you might trust your car to keep a bear out, it’s worth keeping in mind that smaller animals can find their way in more easily.

Following those smaller animals may come larger animals that want to hunt them. Consequently, you really can’t be too safe when it comes to keeping the smell of your food locked away!

3. Avoid Mice

When we think about animals breaking into our cars to get to food, we often think of bears. However, smaller animals can be even more difficult to deal with, as they can get through openings that we may not even realize are there.

While mice may not be as outwardly dangerous as bears, they can carry parasites or diseases, or just generally be a pain. Sometimes, mice may decide to make a home in your vehicle. Their presence may also draw other animals to your campsite who want to eat them.

Additionally, keeping your vehicle as clean as possible can help to ensure that mice don’t see it as a welcoming place to live. It really doesn’t take much to get their interest. Just a few crumbs and some shelter are enough.

Another option you have is to make use of mouse repellents. These don’t have to be chemical-based or dangerous to the animals themselves necessarily. Things like mothballs or peppermint oil are enough to keep mice from coming any closer. They will catch the scent and continue looking for food somewhere else.

When all else fails, you can also make use of traps. Like the repellents, the traps don’t need to be harmful. A live trap can be a great way to resolve the problem without injuring the mice. Instead, they can be moved to a new location where they won’t be bothering campers.

In fact, Peter has a personal story about this happening: On a few-day backpacking trip, we came back to our cars to discover that a mouse had gotten in and was after some candy that was left in the car. We found, if I remember correctly, some chewed-on Jolly Ranchers in the car. Needless to say, nobody wanted the rest of the candy. The mice had even gone so far as to leave a nest of insulation they were able to scrounge from the car. It gave all of us the creeps.

4. Keep All Food Out Of Sight

Not only should your food be locked away to avoid a lingering scent, but it should also be out of sight. Some animals are capable of recognizing the sight of certain kinds of foods. As a result, they may be prone to trying to get into your car in order to enjoy a meal.

It’s uncertain whether or not a bear would be able to know what’s in a brightly-colored, unopened bag of chips but this is one case where it’s better to be safe than sorry.

At the very least, make sure to put a blanket over the food container. Otherwise, you can also opt to store it in your trunk. The latter is a great option, as it allows you to keep your doors and windows shut tightly the entire trip.

5. Try Out Bear-Safe Containers

If you’re going to be camping in bear country, then storing your food in a bear-safe container is a great idea. Even if you’re planning on keeping your food in the car, it never hurts to gain that little bit of extra protection. Additionally, it’s just one more tool that can aid in keeping the scent of food trapped.

Something like a bear canister is a useful tool when it comes to keeping bears away from your food. If you’re unfamiliar with what a bear canister is, it’s essentially a heavy-duty jar that bears are unable to open. Even if they find them, they typically can’t get into them.

While neither the canister itself or your car are perfect at keeping smells trapped, combining them can make it that much easier to keep animals away. Additionally, other animals will be unlikely to be able to get into it either.

In many campgrounds that are located in bear-heavy areas, you’ll also be able to find specialized lockers for storing food in. Often, food can only be stored in your car during the day and must be locked in the lockers at night. This keeps any scent of food away from your campsite while you’re sleeping, so the lockers are important to make use of!

For more information about keeping your food safe from bears as well as more information about bear lockers, check out our article that goes into more detail on this subject.

6. Avoid Foods With Strong Smells

It never hurts to be as careful as possible when you’re choosing your meals and snacks for a camping trip. If you’re looking to avoid animals getting into your food, the first place to start is with what foods you’re choosing.

For example, frying up bacon is much more likely to entice bears or other animals than something like a prepackaged meal bar. While the latter may be less fun, it’s going to keep you safer in places where bears may otherwise be an issue.

Furthermore, bringing food that can be eaten quickly and disposed of with little mess is going to be that much better. Remember, food will be as enticing to animals as it is to you, so making sure that you don’t have a lingering scent of food in your campsite is going to be key.

7. Don’t Overpack

Alongside selecting food items that aren’t going to carry as much of a scent, it’s important to only pack the food you’re going to need while you’re camping. An overabundance of food is going to be more likely to attract animals, as there will be extra food in your car the entire time.

However, packing only what you need ensures that any scent of food will be dwindling as you eat it. That means the chances of an animal coming to investigate will become slimmer as each day goes by. Furthermore, it means that animals will be less likely to be interested in what you have from the very beginning.

If you’re only going for two days, then pack only what you know you’ll consume in those two days. A lack of excess will help to keep you safe, even if it’s not as fun as bringing piles of snacks on your trip.

8. Check The Campground Rules

If you aren’t already familiar with the rules for the campground you’re planning to visit, it’s a wise choice to check them out. While you might expect there to be general safety rules and rules regarding fires and wild animals, what you may not know is that some campgrounds have rules regarding your food.

Don’t worry. These aren’t typically rules telling you what you can or cannot bring. It’s unlikely that a campground will stop you from packing a ham sandwich if that’s what you want. What these rules will tell you is how to best store your food.

For example, campgrounds where bears may be present will often provide food lockers. These useful tools can really save the day when it comes to keeping your food from animals.

As you browse the rules, you may find that some campgrounds will allow you to keep food in your car during the day, but it must be stored in the lockers at night. Due to the lack of clear human presence, animals may feel more inclined to explore your campsite at night. For this reason, it’s best to keep food stored in a locker away from where you’re sleeping.

9. Consider Where You’re Camping

Wherever you plan on camping, it’s going to be important to learn about what kinds of wildlife might exist in the area. In many campgrounds, you may find that there are creatures like squirrels, raccoons and deer. While these animals may be interested in your food, they aren’t typically considered to be dangerous. In most cases, you can scare the animal away and that’s the end of the situation.

However, there may be other animals worth looking out for in certain areas. These might include bears, cougars, wolves, coyotes or even snakes that may take an interest in smaller animals drawn to your site. Not all of them will be interested in the food you have brought with you, but they may come around if they can find prey there more easily.

If these predators decide to hang around your campsite, it may become a recipe for disaster. This applies not only to you, but also to the predators.

Remember that the tips we’ve provided here aren’t just about keeping you and your things safe from animals. It’s also about protecting those animals. Predators that venture too close to humans can end up in situations where they are deemed dangerous and are put down as a result. It’s far better to avoid enticing these animals so that they can continue on with their lives in a way that doesn’t bring them in such close contact with humans.

10. Keep Your Campsite Pristine

While an empty wrapper may not look like much to you, it’s definitely appealing to animals that might smell the food that was in it. You might know that wrapper is empty, but there will still be a lingering smell that can attract animals to your site. As a result, it’s wise to be as careful with your garbage as you are with your food.

If the campground offers garbage cans that are away from your site, feel free to make use of them. Otherwise, you can also get a second bear-proof container to keep garbage in. Anything that may carry a scent is something you want to keep stored away.

This can even include your hygiene products, like soaps, shampoos and more. Although you know they aren’t food, some animals may still be attracted to the smell, especially if it’s a food-based one.

Make sure to clean up extremely well behind yourself and store garbage where animals won’t be able to pick up the scent.

Cleaning up after yourself not only keeps animals away, it also keeps the environment healthy. Check out our article here to learn more about how camping can negatively impact the environment.

Peter again has a personal story on this subject:

We had all set up our hammocks and had turned in for the night, when a couple of hours into the night, we heard some loud rustling sounds and some scurrying. I picked up my headlamp and looked outside the hammock, and sure enough, I see those gleaming eyes staring right at me running away in furtive triumph. My friend had left a gigantic bag of snacks on the picnic table and forgot to put them in the car! So, a raccoon got some sugar overload that night.

Raccoon looking for food in trash can

It pays to do a clean sweep of your campsite before turning in for the night to make sure you don’t leave anything out. 🙂

11. Keep Your Car’s Panic Button Nearby

Just a little bit of extra caution can go a long way. While you may not use the panic button on your car very often, it may come in handy when you’re camping.

Imagine waking up in the middle of the night to strange sounds. Perhaps you peek out of your tent to find some kind of animal pawing at your car, searching for your food. Depending on what animal it is, this could be a terrifying experience. However, in that moment you do have a tool that can scare the animal away.

Hitting the panic button on your car will cause the alarm to go off. We all know how loud and surprising these alarms can be when you aren’t expecting them. You can likely expect the same kind of situation when an animal is involved. In most cases, there’s a good chance the alarm will go off and the animal will become frightened and take off.

Just be careful about how often you make use of the alarm, especially at night. Try to reserve it for situations in which the animal might actually be dangerous.

While most animals will be interested in getting to the obvious smell of food in your car, it’s worth understanding how they may react to tents as well. To learn more, check out our article on whether or not animals attack tents.

12. Check On Your Goods Often

If you’re keeping food in your car, make sure to check on it regularly. Simply by taking a look around your car, you’ll likely be able to tell if some kind of animal has been exploring around it. Look not only for signs of larger animals, but for squirrels and mice as well.

It doesn’t hurt to open a door, or the trunk of your car, and check out the actual food itself. Small animals like mice can certainly get in your car without leaving any obvious signs outside of it. Look for droppings around the area of your food.

Although mice may not be anywhere near as frightening as a bear, they may attract larger predators. Because of that, it’s better to nip the situation in the bud as quickly as possible.

13. Increase Your Animal Knowledge

Different animals are going to be more common in different kinds of areas. Naturally, camping in the desert will bring a different ecosystem than camping in a lush forest.

For wherever it is you plan on camping, it’s wise to learn a bit about the wildlife you’re likely to find there. If you’re planning on visiting a campground, then the website for that campground will often provide some insight on what kinds of animals you may run into.

It can be helpful to know how to keep yourself safe around even the animals you wouldn’t expect to be aggressive, like deer or raccoons. Additionally, learning how to react to bears of different species or to cougars can make all the difference when you’re out in the wilderness.

Kahlia Meeuwsen

Kahlia is a nature lover who enjoys camping, boating and writing. She resides in the Pacific Northwest with two cats, where outdoor opportunities are abundant.

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