bear-attracting smells?

Posted by: Olga

bear-attracting smells? - 06/14/16 09:25 PM

Hi, everyone:
I am wondering whether the traces of chemicals from toiletries left on the skin would be attractive to bears at night. For example, wildeness wash (especially, the one with citronella): I am sure that skin will smell of citronella if it was used for washing before bedtime. Or should it be avoided in bear country? Would non-citronella wilderness wash be OK? Another chemical that I am sure to use is aloe vera aftersun lotion. I burn very easily, even after wearing sunscreen, and will have to use it, so avoiding it is not an option. Would all these smells prompt a bear to check inside my tent at night? On the related note, Esbit solid fuel tablets: they are pretty stinky and I would prefer not to keep them next to food in the bear-proof container. May I keep them in the tent at night (in the pack) or this is asking for a bear visit?
Thank you very much.
Posted by: scratchtp

Re: bear-attracting smells? - 06/15/16 10:41 AM

I generally don't worry too much about those sorts of things. I think if bears have very much experience with humans, they recognize which scents are food, and which tend not to be. If you had peanut butter scented soap, I would be a little bit concerned, but I wouldn't worry as much about citronella or aloe vera. Is the citronella wash an anti-mosquite measure? I would think a non citronella scented soap would be fine if all you are looking for is to get a bit cleaner. Truth be told, I don't generally take soap, just hand sanitizer, and then in the evening will rinse off in a lake or stream at the end of the day if I feel grimy. You probably already know, but soap shouldn't be used near any water sources anyway. I definitely wouldn't worry about esbit, I don't think it smells like food at all.

That said, I generally try to avoid scented toiletries when backpacking (when possible). If that's not possible then choosing the ones that are least related to food seems reasonable. Aloe vera and citronella don't seem too bad to me compared to pomegranate body wash or some of the other soap scents.

If you haven't already seen it, there's currently a thread running about what to put in a bear canister that has some interesting points in it. Both Oregon Mouse and Wandering Daisy had some good posts in that thread about what they felt makes the most sense (or scents? grin) to put in a bear can. Here's a link to that thread:

What to keep in a bear canister
Posted by: balzaccom

Re: bear-attracting smells? - 06/15/16 11:02 AM

Local knowledge is key here. IN the Sierra, bears won't generally go after people at all. They will go after packs, bear cans, and anything that smells like something vaguely edible. But they won't go after people, even if you are wearing Chanel No5 in the evening.

But that may not be true in Grizzly country, or Alaska...
Posted by: wgiles

Re: bear-attracting smells? - 06/15/16 08:30 PM

I would call your attention to an article in Backpacker Magazine which quotes Dr. Tom Smith of BYU. I'm not a fan of Backpacker Magazine, but I am a fan of Tom Smith.

I do think that some of the concerns are area specific. A Yosemite bear is likely to act differently from a Yellowstone bear, but, when you are in bear country, you play by their rules. Bear attacks are rare, but they make big news.
Posted by: Zuuk

Re: bear-attracting smells? - 06/16/16 09:42 AM

I read that article, lots of good info in it, and it's straight to the point. I've spent a lot of time in the woods where I live, and we probably still have the highest black bear density population in North America. Of course, you hardly ever see a bear as the forest is pretty dense here and lots of places for them to hide. I have had a few bear encounters, but most of them were hunting related, so it's not like a fully natural encounter.

I'm getting to the point in my life where I'm starting to "wise up" to things. I've never carried bear spray, but I think I should probably start.

Talking aloud to yourself is a good noisemaker to avoid bears. You're basically announcing your presence as you go along, and the bears will go hide and watch you pass by. You'll never even know they were there. Of course, if you're not hiking alone, it's probably better to talk to the other person so that they don't think you're nuts.

The only time I ever felt threatened by a bear was when helping a friend check his hunting bear bait. We were putting out some donuts when we heard a big crack of a branch breaking. My friend said it was time to go, that the noise was a dominant bear coming in to the bait and making a sign for everything to get lost. We went back the next morning, and there were huge bear footprints that had walked on top of ours from the night before, following our exact trail from the bait to the car. I never went back to that spot again.
Posted by: billstephenson

Re: bear-attracting smells? - 06/16/16 01:58 PM

Great bear story. Thanks for sharing!
Posted by: Zuuk

Re: bear-attracting smells? - 06/16/16 02:56 PM

I only have a few bear stories. One of the "don't try this at home, kids" stories would be when a friend was hunting, thought he shot a bear with his bow, but couldn't find it. So he called me up to help him because I'm good at tracking. Long story short, I'm following fresh bear prints on my hands and knees, in the dark with only a little flashlight. I crawled into this thicket of small fir trees... and the place exploded around me as the bear jumped up and ran out. In that instance I asked my self what the hell I was doing, handed my friend the flashlight and told him it was his turn. Needless to say, he did not hit the bear. There were 4 of us there helping him. The others after said I was braver than they were, but I think I was stupider than they were. (I know it's properly "more stupid" but stupider fits better for how dumb that was!)

It does go to show though that the bear was indeed more scared of us than we were of it. If we had been making noise when tracking it, it would have just kept creeping away and never have stopped to hide. It is rare for an attack, but like others have mentioned, do the things that reduce your chances of an encounter. It'll still happen someday, just have to try and reduce smells as much as possible.
Posted by: wgiles

Re: bear-attracting smells? - 06/16/16 04:23 PM

There are probably some odors that don't get bears attention, but I don't know what they are. I suspect that a bear might try to check out the source of an unusual odor if the bear doesn't associate that odor with a bad experience.
Posted by: Glenn Roberts

Re: bear-attracting smells? - 06/16/16 08:18 PM

And, since you don't say anything about the bear coming back, I assume you've proven that the odor of human urine and feces doesn't attract them? (Sorry, couldn't resist. smile )
Posted by: JustWalking

Re: bear-attracting smells? - 06/16/16 09:10 PM

Originally Posted By Glenn Roberts
And, since you don't say anything about the bear coming back, I assume you've proven that the odor of human urine and feces doesn't attract them? (Sorry, couldn't resist. smile )

Urine certainly attracts deer, but you probably knew that. On a trip in Trinity Alps Wilderness last weekend, we had some deer hanging around our camp all night. In the morning, right after I did my morning relief, they made a beeline for it and 'enjoyed' it for awhile.
Posted by: Glenn Roberts

Re: bear-attracting smells? - 06/16/16 09:41 PM

That wasn't really intended as a statement of scientific fact. blush
Posted by: JustWalking

Re: bear-attracting smells? - 06/16/16 09:47 PM

Originally Posted By Glenn Roberts
That wasn't really intended as a statement of scientific fact. blush

Oh I know. It just gave me an opening for my deer story! grin
Posted by: Zuuk

Re: bear-attracting smells? - 06/17/16 08:55 AM

Originally Posted By Glenn Roberts
And, since you don't say anything about the bear coming back, I assume you've proven that the odor of human urine and feces doesn't attract them? (Sorry, couldn't resist. smile )

Well, in that kind of a situation there's only 2 responses. One where fear takes over and you lose everything, and one where you freeze and wait to get hit. In my case, it was a giant full body clench waiting to be run over, which luckily didn't happen. Happy to report that no change of underwear was needed. Again, probably due to stupidity.

Deer are attracted to urine though, and it doesn't matter whether it's human or not. I haven't tested it after eating asparagus, but I know that many times hunters will just pee off their tree stands, and the deer will walk right up to it; probably just curious.

Bears don't seem to mind it, but I haven't seen any behaviour as to show an attractiveness to it.

Poo is more of a detractant than an attractant.

My suggestion would be to stick with scents that are insect-repellent based, if you use scented products at all. Anything that would have a sweet smell would undoubtedly be mistaken for food by a bear, or rouse it's curiosity. The more natural you go though, the better it is for everyone and everything.
Posted by: wandering_daisy

Re: bear-attracting smells? - 06/17/16 10:59 AM

It is my understanding that bear spray is not allowed in some national parks, for example, Yosemite.

Almost all my bear encounters have been in Yosemite. One day I ran into 8 bears in about 4 hours of hiking. All the encounters have turned out OK. My last run-in (two weeks ago)was on the north boundary of Yosemite, with a mother and cub. I was solo, saw them first, started making low level noise. The mother bear stood up, the baby ran downhill, I turned and slowly walked uphill and never looked back.

Bears are afraid of people where they are hunted. In National Parks with only black bear, where hunting is not allowed, bears are either defending their young, looking for human food, acting territorial, or curious. I have had a curious bear smell my face while I was sleeping out in the open. I have had more threatening encounters with moose. Those guys are really aggressive.

I carry bear spray, where it is allowed. I would also use it on a moose if needed.
Posted by: Zuuk

Re: bear-attracting smells? - 06/17/16 12:32 PM

My dog is gonna be sniffing my face tomorrow morning, and I'm gonna wake up thinking it's a bear... thanks! wink

I love bears. Was hunting one year with a friend, and a mother & cub came out. I filmed them with my camera, and my friend took still pictures of them (we didn't shoot them!) Their behaviour was something to watch up close. I was about 8 yards away, my friend 10 yards. Momma bear walked up to his tree, looked up at him as if to say "stay right there" and went back to watching over her cub. She also kept looking into one area where I think a juvenile bear was waiting to come in, but again, she was the boss. That was my best day hunting ever.

Bear spray should work on moose. They're half nose to begin with. Although, it could just make them mad too. A young moose during the rutting season is dangerous because he's so frustrated he can't get any action due to the dominant ones keeping him away. They get crazy and will do unpredictable stuff. They are the top of the food chain, with no natural predators (other than bear & wolves/coyotes when they are very young) so they don't have any fear when they get annoyed. At least you don't have to worry about attracting them with food smells.
Posted by: Olga

Re: bear-attracting smells? - 06/17/16 04:08 PM

Thanks a lot. One less thing to worry about. I will need soap to wash off the sunscreen (I use the non-chemical one based on zinc oxide/titanium dioxide) before sleep and it cannot be removed just by washing with plain water (at least, I never could). Citronella wash is indeed expected to do double duty: cleaning and repelling mosquitoes, but I think I can skip the second feature. The hike will be in Sierra Nevada. I had before a couple of (reasonably) close encounters with black bears (one at the Lake Tahoe and one in Kentucky), but they ran away as soon as they saw/heard me. But there was plenty of space for us to go our separate ways. In the tent it would be a little more crowded. That is why I was asking this question.
Thanks to everyone for their help.
Posted by: GrumpyGord

Re: bear-attracting smells? - 06/17/16 04:54 PM

I was out hiking this week and used some hand purifier that I had picked up at a dollar store. I did not look at too closely but it ended up being vanilla. Probably not a great idea. I smelled like vanilla for the next hour.
Posted by: Jim M

Re: bear-attracting smells? - 10/17/16 11:57 PM

I agree that it is local thing. In the Olympic Mountains we just don't seem to have problems with bears even when we have see them not far from camp. Nevertheless, we are quite careful and use bear containers when required or otherwise hang our food and smelly tooth paste etc. I do know of one case where a bear stuck his head in a tent and quickly grabbed a piece of candy right next to my friends head! Thrilling to be sure, but no harm done. Bears are curious and have even better sense of smell than dogs, I am told. So I personally would never put any thing with any scent on my body.