Been a while since we’ve had a reader question up on the blog! I suppose with the new forum, it’s been much easier to throw up a new thread than send an email, which is certainly fine! But do keep in mind we love getting questions by email (our contact info can be found here) and responding to them in posts! So don’t hesitate if you think we’ve missed discussing an important topic on our blog and would like to ask us to get an article about it up!
Anyway, onto today’s reader question:
Alan’s Outdoor Cooking & Food Odor Question
I have a question that I cannot find an answer for: how to cook outside without having the odor travel and attract people and animals?
Our Response: How You Can Mask Smells & Why This Isn’t Enough
I’ll get straight to the point on this one; you really can’t cook outside without having the odor attract any humans or animals. Unfortunately, you can mask smells, but not all that much.
Thus, while there are ways to minimize the impact your cooking has in terms of attracting undesirables via those delicious smells you’re producing, realistically these are stop gap measures and there will always be a risk of something sniffing out your dinner and coming for a free ride, regardless of what any “expert” may regurgitate on the net.
When discussing wildlife and cooking in the outdoors the general bias tends to be against large predators like bears and mountain lions. I live in Canada and we have plenty of large predators, but the most I have come to see are coyotes. A lot of people depend on anecdotal evidence (my grandpa’ did x and it works, that’s why I never see any bears), which is nonsense because the chances of you running against predators in the wild are relatively slim anyway, unless you are very sloppy when it comes to your outdoor cooking and eating habits. Leaving your food just outside of your tent, for example, is a terrible idea. The only other way you’d have any real visual of a predator is if you’re in the outbacks for very long, extended periods of time. A perfect example would be the survival show “Alone,” in which some of the contestants spotted predatory wild animals almost immediately whilst others, after weeks of being in the heavy bush of B.C., still had only heard them in the distance. At the end of the day I would suggest utilizing common sense precautions (more on this later) and not going into bear territory without a firearm. Luck will only take you so far.
Practical Ways You Can Mask Cooking Smells When Outdoors
Now that that long-winded disclaimer is out of the way, let’s talk about what you can do to mask smells (at least a little bit)!
1. Have a separate cooking camp away from your base
Since you can’t completely mask smells, the best thing you could possibly do for yourself is to make a separate cooking camp a solid 10 minute walk away from your base. Use it for all your culinary needs (that means cooking AND eating) and you will greatly minimize the risk of running into bears and large animals (as well as humans!), even if you do attract them.
2. Store your food properly
Proper storage of food (if you’re going to keep it from one day to another) is of utmost importance. Use a bear hang (i.e. place your food in a container and hang it from a branch high off the ground) to store your food, and again, don’t ever take your food back to your base. You are essentially playing with fire if you think a Ziploc bag will mask your presence from bears or cougars. Bear resistant food canisters are available pretty much everywhere (some commercial campsites provide them for free!) and are pretty much a necessity. But again, these don’t mean animals won’t have already smelled your food – especially if you’ve cooked it just before storing it. These canisters just mean animals won’t have an easy time getting at it if they try to.
3. Get rid of food scraps properly
Always, always, always get rid of scraps properly! I can’t say this enough! Always do this far away from your camp, and remember to wash your cutlery/crockery too! Again, this is common sense stuff, but you would be surprised how many people forget this, assuming wild animals won’t be able to smell the remnants on cutlery just because we humans often can’t. What is the point in having a cooking camp if our going to take your pots back to the base with you? Leave ’em there! If you’re worried about them getting stolen, do your best to hide them in some way or another. But always better to lose ’em than to end up being visited by unwanted animal guests.
4. After cooking, leave food-scented clothes away from camp
Scent lingers. Anyone who has cooked anything in their life knows this already. After cooking, it’s absolutely best to change your clothes and leave the food-scented clothing away from your camp. I cannot stress enough how sensitive wildlife can be to food smells and odours. Do not take the risk.
5. Don’t cook strong-smelling foods
Common sense implies that cooking very strong smelling foods like bacon (notorious bear bait) will increase the likelihood of a confrontation. If you’re really paranoid, but still want to take something cook-able out with you, you can stick to precooked meals and dehydrated foods; but know that even that isn’t a sure bet. Crackers, bread, hard candy – these types of food will be your best friend if you want to really minimize food odours when outdoors.
6. Always assume that there are predators nearby
Trust nothing. Assume that bears are nearby and plan accordingly. Always have bear spray on you as well, and (ideally) also keep a firearm. It’s just silly to think that hungry creatures will ignore you just because you washed your dishes and cooked 100 meters away from your sleeping bag. They make their own rules.
Masking Cooking Smells from Human Beings
You will notice that so far, I have pretty much only answered in relation to bears and other wild animals. Humans are a completely different kettle of fish, and whilst we are inferior to wild animals in terms of sheer sniffing power, we are usually much more prone to look for signs of human life through use of our sense of sight. Best advice I can give for avoiding humans is to utilize your environment to camouflage yourself (and your belongings) and then walk around on the outskirts of your camp to see if you can spot anything that looks out of the ordinary.
In terms of scents, as I’ve said many times in this article and am sure you well know, humans have a terrible sense of smell (relatively speaking of course!) and so as long as you avoid cooking a curry or having an open fire, then you should be pretty safe with regards to not being tracked by humans via smell – at least after you have cooked. People can certainly smell cooking, and so, same as before, I would suggest using a cooking camp far away from base camp for the smelly stuff, and then aptly masking your trail against humans when returning to your base. Beyond that, however, you have to ask yourself how much effort would be required relative to reward. If you have good reason to be avoiding humans at all cost (S.E.R.E kind of situation) then sticking to dry food like protein bars + masking and camouflaging all evidence of you being out in the wilderness is advisable. And hope for the best – because we all know how much being unlucky can impact us when we’re in the wilderness.
Anything I Left Out?
Let me know if there are any other techniques you can think of to help mask cooking smells outdoors by leaving a comment down below.
If you have a survival, preparedness, or gear related question you’d like us to answer, don’t hesitate to let us know! Find out how to reach us via the contact page. Although we don’t publish every question we’re asked on the blog, we try our best to respond to each and every one we receive.
In case you’re interested, you can also view our past responses to reader questions here.
There are two kinds of boiling. Most people think of putting food in water and then boiling the water. I invite you to do the opposite. Start water boiling. Take it off the fire if you use wood. And put out the fire. If you haven’t use wood and have used propane, there isn’t any smell. Then leave the container on the wire mesh or stove.
The boiling water is containerized in a pot with a top.
Now, you put in a food, like a vegetable, a meat, or a grain like rolled oats or wheat berries.
Explanation. Shabu shabu is a Japanese style of cooking wherein you swish the meat or vegetables in an open pot of boiling water. Oh yeah, when the boiling water is exposed to the air in a open pot, you get smells. Of course the “fun” would be gone if you simply left the food in a pot with a lid. It would still be cooked.
With a grain like wheat berries or rice, you are attempting to heat up the grain by boiling so that it cracks/opens/absorbs water/expands. The water is nutritious. Just let the closed pot cool down. The more it cools down, the fewer the odors.
Thomas Xavier says
Great advice BDC, thanks for sharing! I never tried Shabu Shabu before, next time I cook outdoors i’ll see how it works out with grain.
Rhonda Harris says
Thank you for the great article about how to have a fire without people around knowing about it. I have wondered that same thing myself.
Hi. Great article, with a lot of good advice that makes sense. I’m from Australia, where our main concerns are crocodiles, snakes and spiders (or dingos in the ‘outback’). Koalas won’t bother you, and kangaroos are fairly shy of humans.
As real estate agents say, “location, location, location.” Plan ahead and choose places which are out of the way (decreasing the chances of human visitors), and away from known animal grounds (thus reducing the risk of ‘predators’).
And of course, depending on the country you’re in with regard to the legality of firearms, a weapon is always handy if it’s allowed. But care and commonsense will prevent most negative experiences from occurring.
Gotta love nature, and accept the challenges that come with it.
Have a great week.
Thomas Xavier says
Some great advice Chris, thanks for dropping by!
How prevalent are crocodiles in the outdoors? I imagine it would be wise to camp away from bodies of water but besides that- how frequent are encounters?
Thanks Thomas. Crocodiles are common in Australia, especially in the Northern Territory. There are signs on almost every river, creek (fresh water crocs) and beach (salt water crocs) warning people not to swim, and to watch out for crocodiles. Camping, while not illegal, is pretty crazy. Still, despite efforts by authorities to reduce fatalities, four people were killed by crocodiles in 2014, and many more injured. “It’s a jungle out there.” Chris
Thomas Xavier says
Damn. Thats pretty insane! In Canada we get bears, cougars & coyotes.
I have yet to encounter anything but coyotes- noise tends to scare away bears, the risk is when you surprise them (or if they have cubs).
Not sure how comfortable I would be camping near crocs, sounds like an accident waiting to happen!
My suggestion in addition to this is boiling food. While not as appetizing perhaps, the “food” scent is much lower with most food items when they are boiled as opposed to fried or grilled over a heat source. It does not eliminate the odor, but to me at least, it seems to be much reduced.
Thomas Xavier says
Very true William- I do agree that odor will be reduced but not to the extent that a bear won’t be able to sniff you out.
If I am going to get stalked and killed by grizzly’s, at least I want to enjoy my meat grilled instead of boiled- just my preference. ;)
Brenda Walsh says
Great tips! We have a great article over on Survivopedia on this topic too, that you’ll surely find useful. For example a Dakota fire pit will let you cook something over fire without it being observed from distance. You can check it out here: http://www.survivopedia.com/cooking-off-radar/
Thomas Xavier says
Some great advice Brenda! Never made a Dakota fire pit before- you learn something new everyday! Thanks for dropping by.