Worried about animals and bugs while you’re camping? Find out how to keep them away from your campsite and stay safe here!
Although campfires give an emotional sense of comfort, campfires have not been proven to repel animals–rather, the presence of humans has a stronger effect. Where there are campfires, there are humans. It’s this aspect that keeps most animals away. However, some animals may actually be attracted by our presence.
There’s a great deal to understand when it comes to how different animals react to campfires and humans. Continue on and you’ll learn more about this as well as how to keep animals away from your campsite and what to do if they get too close, anyway.
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Does a Campfire Actually Work to Keep Animals Away?
In short, no. A campfire sitting in your camp alone won’t have much of an effect on nearby animals. What does frighten animals away is that campfires typically come with humans. We are the most frightening aspect of campfires.
Because of this, many animals will try their best to stay away from both the fire and the humans around it.
Does a Fire Keep Bears Away?
A campfire by itself doesn’t have much of an effect on bears. However, campfires as closely associated with people, as there aren’t any animals in the woods who can purposefully start a campfire. This is what will often scare bears away.
Bears don’t want to be around humans. We’re dangerous, loud and scary. For the most part, visiting your camp won’t be on the agenda of a bear. That said, this may change if your campsite is full of delicious smells. Fires that are being used to cook food can be more appealing to bears.
The fire itself won’t scare bears away, but humans often can.
This isn’t always the case. As I’ve scoured forums and other people’s experiences, there was one anecdote in particular where bears came right up to a campfire even with humans present and ate the food (the humans cordially allowed the bears to take what they wanted). In areas where bears have been acclimated to humans, you aren’t guaranteed to scare away bears.
Bears are also attracted to sweets– if you’re in serious bear country, you might consider leaving any strong sweets behind.
Are Cougars Scared Of Fires?
Much like bears, cougars don’t want to be anywhere near humans. They will generally stay away from areas where they hear or see human presence. This can include campfires, but there is no evidence that cougars are scared of campfires by themselves.
It’s worth keeping in mind that we know what the cougar is afraid of. They may not like it, but a campfire will not chase or shoot at a cougar. It’s humans they would rather stay away from. The most likely time a cougar may come near is if they are ill or desperate.
Furthermore, young children and people solo are more attractive to cougars–the concept of safety in numbers is hugely important for cougars.
Do Cougars Attack Tents? I actually wrote more about this subject and found some interesting data that might surprise you. Check it out here
Do Fires Scare Away Wolves or Coyotes?
Both wolves and coyotes can fall into the same category as most other predators. Unless they can smell something delicious coming from your campsite, they would prefer to avoid humans.
Coyotes, in particular, may take some interest in your camp if you have a smaller pet with you. To learn more about keeping coyotes out of your site (and your tent), take a look at our article on the subject here.
It’s a wise idea to avoid using your fire for cooking if you’re concerned about predators coming near. Furthermore, sticking to meats that have minimal smell is a good idea. Options like jerky will be less likely to entice nearby wolves or coyotes than cooking a juicy steak over the fire or on a grill.
Do Fires Scare Away Snakes?
Snakes have little concern when it comes to fire. There can even be cases in which snakes might be interested in the warmth it provides. This situation is rare, at least while there are humans around the fire. Snakes don’t typically want to spend a lot of time near people.
On top of that, a fire isn’t nearly as comfortable as a cozy boot or the bottom of a sleeping bag. You’ll definitely want to be more careful about where you put your feet or hands when it comes to snakes, the fire isn’t something that is going to keep them away.
Make sure your tents are zipped up completely when leaving them.
Do Fires Keep Away Varmints Such As Racoons, Other Critters, Etc?
Most varmints won’t want to come near fire or humans, but this can be a case in which some animals might see the fire as a welcoming sight. Campers sometimes feed the smaller critters like squirrels and raccoons. If the animals in the area are used to this, they might connect the campfire to the possibility of human visitors and therefore human treats.
Does a Campfire Keep Away Bugs?
Campfires can be both a repellent and an attractive feature for bugs. It really depends on the bug. It’s certainly true that the smoke can keep plenty of bugs from wanting to get near, others might like the light.
Still, some bugs may not even seem to care, especially if there are tasty humans to be snacking on. Unlike most animals, we are seen as food to some insects, such as mosquitoes. This creates more of a problem when trying to avoid them.
A campfire can be a small help, but you will definitely need other repellents to assist in keeping bugs away from you.
I’d heard for years that campfire smoke keeps away mosquitoes. After my last trip to the High Uinta mountains, I have concluded that to be completely untrue. I remember vividly holding my breath and closing my eyes AND batting away mosquitoes when the campfire smoke came my way. The mosquitoes were completely unaffected by the smoke. They were still swarming my face no matter how smoky the fire was.
What Animals Might Be Attracted To a Campfire and Why
What makes a campfire frightening to some animals might make it appealing to others. In short, the presence of a campfire often suggests the presence of humans.
These animals might be interested in a campfire rather than deterred by it:
- Humanized animals. Those that are familiar with humans and have been fed by them. These critters may see your fire as an opportunity to get their paws on some human snacks. Raccoons and squirrels are often among these, but this can and does happen in heavily visited national parks like Banff or Yellowstone for bears.
- Insects that are attracted to light. Bugs aren’t always the most intelligent. They may be interested in the light of a fire, but may not recognize that the heat is bad for them. The good news is, this typically doesn’t include bugs that are harmful to you.
- Rabid animals. Rabid animals may not be attracted to the light specifically so much as driven into areas they wouldn’t normally want to be in because of the illness. If you notice an animal in your camp acting strangely, stay as far away as possible.
The American Veterinary Medical Association offers some information on rabies to help you to recognize when animals may have it and what to do if you believe an animal is suffering from the illness.
How Do You Keep Animals Away From Camping Spaces?
Keeping animals away from your site typically means making your site as boring as possible to them. Typically, that includes making sure there is no food for them to find – not even a crumb.
Yet food is just the start! Below, you’ll find what you should avoid, what you should do and what repellents are known to work against wild animals.
Things To Avoid
Leaving Food Out
If there’s one thing that will draw animals to your campsite, it’s food. Even animals that may not be interested in your food will likely be interested in the critters who do want to share your snacks. Smaller critters like mice and squirrels may not be frightening, but they will draw in larger predators.
It’s also worth keeping in mind that even if you may not be able to smell your food, there’s a good chance animals may still be able to. Many animals out there, including wolves and bears, have a much greater ability to smell than we do. Consequently, it’s important to keep the smell of your food to an absolute minimum.
When cute animals come sniffing around your camp, it can be extremely tempting to feed them and make friends. After all, who doesn’t want to release their inner Disney princess? However, remember that it can bring forth a world of problems.
To begin with, animals that are fed by humans become more accustomed to them. Although it might be cute to have a squirrel sitting in your lap or to share a meal with a curious raccoon, it does make them more prone to danger from humans who may not be as kind. This is especially true if the animals become brave enough to go digging through human food without being invited.
On top of that, smaller, cuter animals will inevitably be followed by predators seeking to hunt them. Squirrels and lizards may invite snakes to your camp, and other small animals may invite bears, coyotes, and cougars.
It’s better just to keep your food to yourself and avoid this issue altogether. I promise you that those cute squirrels won’t starve if you don’t share your Cheetos.
Cook On The Campfire
Using the campfire for cooking is often part of the tradition. However, it may not be the best idea if you’re camping where animals might be a problem. If you have concerns about bears or other predators or are camping in a particularly secluded space, you may want to just avoid it.
The reason for this is that the smell of the cooking food will spread throughout the area, drawing in any hungry animal nearby. Cooking any kind of sweets or meat will call out to larger predators and anything else is likely to interest other animals. As we’ve already discussed, those other animals are also likely to interest predators.
Camp Near Rocks and Debris
Rocks, fallen wood and debris are prime places for venomous creatures to hide. Snakes, spiders, and scorpions will all find these materials to be great hiding spaces when they aren’t on the move. You’ll be safer if you camp away from these places.
If you avoid bothering with the debris, then there’s a decent chance any snakes hanging out in there will leave you alone. However, they might decide that your sleeping bag or shoes seem like a cozier space. Other critters, like spiders and scorpions, are likely to be a lot less concerned about coming into your space.
I can attest to this. Me and my friends were sleeping on the ground (it was the Summertime in the desert) and one of us awoke and found scorpions around his sleeping bag. Be careful about sleeping out in the open.
Don’t camp near debris and you’ll be a much happier (and less bitten) camper.
Corner Or Attack Animals
In the vast majority of cases, animals don’t want to bother you if you don’t bother them. Most who see you won’t want to come near you. As a human, your presence is likely to send nearly any animal heading for the hills. If you stick to your own space, the rest will often resolve itself.
However, if you start making animals feel threatened, it can get messy very quickly. Even animals that may normally seem docile will get violent if they feel they need to fight for their lives. Don’t try to trap or catch animals in the area. Leave them be and they’ll go about their own business.
Things To Do
Use Locking Containers Or Tie Up Food
Keeping food away from you (and ideally where animals can’t get to it) is key to keeping animals away from your site. If there’s nothing there for them to eat, there’s often no reason for them to be there. Even if they can smell the food, they’re likely to get bored and leave as soon as they realize it’s too much trouble to get to.
For this purpose, you can tie up your food in a tree or make use of specialized locking containers. Bear canisters are one of the best choices campers use when they know they’ll be camping in bear country. These containers are made to be extremely difficult to get into, resulting in a whole lot of energy and time wasted for any bear trying to get into it.
Some may even use their car as a place to store food. While this can sometimes be a useful method, it’s worth understanding whether or not bears can still get into it. Take a look at our article, “Can a Bear Break a Car Window?” to learn more!
Tying up your food is a good second-option if you don’t have a bear canister. In highly visited areas sometimes this method is banned because bears and other creatures have figured it out.
Keep Your Site Clean
Keeping food away from the animals also means cleaning up any food garbage you end up making when you eat. Things like wrappers, boxes, cans and anything else that may have even a single crumb of food in it can interest the nose of any critter that happens to be near.
Make sure that you carefully bag up any garbage you create. Use two garbage bags for extra protection and store the bag in another tree, in your vehicle or in a locking container of its own. The better you keep up with the garbage, the less you’ll have to worry about animals and the easier it will be to clean up when it’s time to head home.
Check Your Sleeping Bag and Shoes
Before you go to sleep at night, make sure that you check around your tent and in your sleeping bag for any critters that may have decided to snuggle up. Snakes may find this to be a prime location for hiding out, and can you really blame them?
Another place snakes like to curl up is in your shoes. Just imagine how cozy a pair of boots must seem when they’ve just been taken off. It’s definitely a place a snake would rather hang out than the cold ground. Before you put your shoes back on in the morning, make sure to take a look inside them and carefully clear out any slithering friends you might find inside.
Be Prepared With Gear
To begin with, consider all the things that could go wrong while camping and pack along anything that might assist you in those situations. Things like air horns, whistles, or bear spray that might help you to fight back in the event that an animal does attack. It’s incredibly unlikely, but not an impossible prospect.
It’s also worth keeping in mind that even if you have all the tools you need, something can always go wrong. Because of this, it’s important to make sure you have a plan for animal attacks, venomous bites or stings, accidents and other problems that might pop up out in the wilderness. The more prepared you are, the easier these issues will be to get through.
Bring a First Aid Kit
A big part of preparing for your camping trip should include packing along a first aid kit. This kit should include everything you might need to provide basic assistance for cuts, breaks, bites, illness and any other accident that may occur while you’re out in nature.
In many cases, you aren’t likely to be very close to a hospital while you’re camping. Consequently, the more you have in your first aid kit, the better chances you have of making it to a hospital if something should happen. That said, keep in mind that it’s typically unlikely you’ll succumb to anything more than a scrape or strain.
Regardless, preparation is something that can provide comfort when it isn’t needed and life-saving assistance when it is.
If you want to know how likely it is to face a dangerous scenario like this, check out our article here that talks about what is most dangerous while camping.
More often than not, animals will steer clear of humans they know are around. Even though we may fear many other animals out in nature, we are still one of the most dangerous creatures on the planet. If you give animals a little bit of help by making it obvious you’re a human taking up space outside, it’s much more likely they won’t bother to come near you.
If you’ve run into a situation where animals like bears are nearby or perhaps a cougar, the best thing to do is relocate. You really don’t want to deal with an incident.
If that’s not an option, talk, sing, and be obvious. This is going to be most important if you’re camping out in the wilderness rather than in a well-established campground. This is one instance when you shouldn’t feel shy about talking to yourself. I hate the thought of disturbing the quiet of the planet, but if you’re safety is in question that’s the best thing to do (besides moving).
Know The Area
Different kinds of animals are going to be more prevalent in different kinds of areas. Before heading out on a camping trip, most of us already do some research to check out the weather. Go ahead and take a look into what animals are in that area too!
That way, you can adapt your plans to protect yourself from the kinds of creatures that are in the area. It won’t do you any good to worry about rattlesnakes if you aren’t camping in a place they tend to live. Furthermore, take a look into whether any notable encounters between humans and wild animals have occurred in the area. With that knowledge, you’ll have a better idea about what to watch out for and how to avoid trouble.
For example, many parks have posted information about bears and how to avoid them. Several national parks have requirements of bear canisters–make sure to look ahead before visiting.
Keep The Smell Down
We’ve covered the smell of food and food garbage pretty thoroughly already, but there are other smells worth keeping in mind when it comes to keeping animals away. These can include the scent of your hygiene products and any waste that may need to make its way into the environment.
If you’re camping in a place without bathrooms, make sure to travel a ways away from your campsite to use the restroom. Then, bury your bathroom spot carefully to cover up any smells that animals might be interested in. If you’re using anything that isn’t completely biodegradable, make sure to bag it up and throw it away appropriately as soon as you can.
For those who need to know more about keeping animals away, take a look at our detailed article on keeping animals away from your tent here!
If talking and singing to yourself all day long is just too much effort, or you run out of things to say, then bringing along a friend is one of the best ways to protect yourself.
Some of my favorite experiences have been hiking up in the mountains in deep conversation with my family. Not only is the conversation a great diversion, but it also offers protection for everyone.
Some scents have proven themselves to be highly useful in keeping different kinds of animals away. The most obvious of these include insect repellents like DEET. (on a side note, if you’re interested in finding insect repellents that are natural, check out our article here that shows over 30 different options.) However, many might wonder if there are any repellents that might work well for keeping larger animals away.
Many animals greatly dislike the smells of ammonia, bleach and other kinds of cleaners. The scents of these things can be quite annoying to us, so it only makes sense that animals with a much more intense sense of smell won’t enjoy them.
It’s not super practical to carry ammonia up with you on a backpacking trip, but in a well established campsite that has problems with animals, this is an option.
Some may also choose to use predator scents, such as the urine of foxes, bobcats or other creatures. These can work decently well for smaller creatures, but you may want to be wary of drawing in other animals of the same species, or animals that might want to hunt them.
While this is generally considered to be more of a tool for defense than a repellent, it’s definitely worth noting here. Bear spray is the safest way to confront a bear if there is no other option.
Keep in mind that it is not recommended that you approach the bear to spray them. Bear pepper spray is a last line of defense to use when the bear is coming too close and seems to be making an attempt to harm you. For peace of mind, this is a tool worth having around if only to feel safer in bear country.
What To Do If a Wild Animal Approaches You
If you camp often, there’s always the chance that you might find some kind of animal in your camp. The good news is that most of the time those animals are squirrels, raccoons or other small animals that are just interested in the food you may have to offer them.
That said, it’s important to make sure you know how to react to just about any animal that may end up near you in the wild. You never know when a bear or cougar might be in the area, and this information can help to save your life.
One of the most important things to note about bears is that not all bears will react the same way to your attempts to scare them away. Black bears and brown bears will behave differently, which makes sense because there is such a large difference in their sizes.
Black bears are the smaller of the bear breeds you might run into. Consequently, they tend to be a bit more skittish. Typically, the only reason they might come anywhere your campsite would be out of curiosity. The smell of food might interest them, but the sight and sound of a human is going to send them running far more often than not.
It’s worth keeping in mind that according to The Wildlife Society, only about 63 people have been killed by black bears over the course of 109 years between 1900 and 2009. By contrast, over 150 people died of bee sting in just 2016.
That said, there can be cases in which they might get too close for comfort. This might include a mother trying to protect her cubs or a bear that is simply desperate for food.
If you’re in a situation where a black bear is getting into your space, your goal should be to act big and scary. Don’t turn away from them, but instead face them head-on. Additionally, you’ll want to shout, wave your arms and make any other loud noises you possibly can.
Ninety-nine percent of the time, that will be enough to scare them off. If you should find yourself in a situation where they are getting aggressive, make sure to fight back. The harder it is for them to bring you down, the less likely it is they will try.
As the more intimidating of the two bear species that you may run into, brown bears can be more difficult to face. Whereas black bears tend to be smaller, brown bears can get quite large, making them very frightening.
That said, it’s still more likely that they will fear you than want to attack you. They may come around if they smell something tasty, but will likely turn around if they see humans in the area.
Should a brown bear get too close to your site, your goal should be to help them understand there are humans in this area. Don’t immediately get aggressive, but start by talking to the bear in a calm tone. Hearing the voice of a human should be enough for them to turn around and head back to the forest.
However, if they get closer you’ll want to step up your efforts a bit more. Look as big as you can. Pick up any smaller beings such as children or animals. Unlike with black bears, you don’t want to try to threaten a brown bear. If they go on the attack, it’s going to be more of a problem than a smaller black bear.
If they do begin to attack, play dead and make sure your head is covered. If they are approaching, this is the time to make use of your bear spray at this time.
The cougar is another animal that is highly unlikely to want to be anywhere near humans. That said, many of us have seen or heard stories of people being attacked by cougars while out hiking. Because of this, it is worth knowing how to react to a cougar in your area.
Noise can be your best friend if you notice a cougar in the area. Be big, be loud. Use whistles, air horns or good old fashioned yelling to scare them off. Avoid turning your back on them, but don’t make eye contact with them. Cougars will often see this as threatening behavior. Instead, keep your eyes on their paws.
You’ll also want to pick up any smaller beings with you. Lift them up over your head if you can, as this makes you look larger. If you notice cubs, stay as far away from them as possible. In the event that the cougar decides to attack, fight back as hard as you can. They will not respond positively to you playing dead.
Wolves and Coyotes
Attacks on humans by either of these animals are incredibly rare. However, it’s still wise to be prepared just in case. It’s more likely that these creatures are interested in small children or pets than an adult human, so you will want to make sure to keep an eye on little ones.
If you come in contact with wolves, stand your ground. Much like with cougars, you don’t want to make eye contact with wolves. They will take it as a threat, prompting an attack. Instead, make yourself look big and scary, and avoid giving them the sense that you’re afraid.
Wolf attacks are incredibly rare–far more rare in the U.S. than bears.
Coyotes are much more likely to be curious about your campsite than wolves, especially if you’ve brought pets. The good news is that coyotes are quite small. Your goal to get them away should essentially be to annoy them by throwing things and making loud noises.
More often than not, you’ll find that more effort will be put into avoiding snakes than making them go away when you do find them. Generally speaking, snakes are much smaller than humans and have no desire to be anywhere near them. If you think about it, you’re more dangerous to them than they are to you.
This tends to mean that people run into snakes by accident most often. Accidentally stepping too close to a hiding snake, on the snake itself, or by finding one hiding in your tent or shoes while seeking warmth. However, it doesn’t tend to take much prompting from a human for the snake to be on its way.
You may also find that some snakes try to hide out under your tent, which prompts the question – Could a snake bite you through a tent? Take a look at our detailed answer in our article on the topic here.
To begin with, you’ll want to wear clothes that are more difficult for snakes to bite through if you’re going to be in an area where snakes are prevalent. If you have stepped on or too close to a snake, move away. You’ll need to be a bit quicker about this if you’ve stepped on the snake. If you’re just near it, move back slowly.
Don’t behave in an aggressive way, as a scared snake is a snake that will bite. Give it some space, and the chances are good it will slither away. Furthermore, keep an eye out for baby snakes. They may be smaller, but they are also less picky about how much venom they deliver in a bite.
Varmints are typically prey animals, which means they are going to be easier to frighten off. Shouting and waving at them is often enough to send them heading for the hills. That said, there can be a few exceptions.
Some varmints can be very brave when it comes to humans, especially if they’ve come into contact with humans on a regular basis. Squirrels and raccoons can be especially courageous if they think there is food to be earned with their bravery.
Loud noises, flashlights and generally looking big and scary will frighten away most varmints. Just don’t get too close, avoid cornering them and keep an eye out for animals that appear sick.
Bugs and arachnids can often be the worst to deal with while camping. They always seem to be either interested in being near you, your food or your light sources. Even if you don’t have anything they want, they quite simply don’t care about being near you. Unlike most animals, insects seem to have no concern about crawling right onto you.
Because of that, avoidance is key when it comes to keeping bugs and arachnids away. The smoke from a fire can help, but you’ll typically need more to really keep them away. Citronella candles, bug repellent sprays, and clothing that covers you completely are all useful.
If you find a bug or arachnid on you, remain calm and flick it away. If it’s something larger, like a scorpion, use a broom or something with more distance to get it away.
In the event that you’re worried you’ve been bitten or stung by something, treat it as venomous if there is any doubt. You may know if you have an obvious mosquito bite, but if you have any worry that you have received venom, it’s just better to get checked out by a professional than to wait it out.