Besides the dangerous animals that everybody wants to avoid, there are plenty of pests that we’d rather stay away from our campsite. How can this be done?
Careful dishwashing and bag stowing are crucial skills for keeping animals away from your campsite. The most effective tactic to keep bears and other animals away is to stay within groups greater than 2 people, although there are other methods.
I was wondering what practices to avoid animals really make a difference, there is a lot of misinformation out there on the internet, so I tried to find good sources to discover what really makes sense to do to avoid animals and what doesn’t.
By the way, as an Amazon Associate, I earn when buying qualified products through links on my site.
- Hang Up Your Food, or Hang Out With Animals
- Is There Safety In Numbers When It Comes to Wild Animals? What’s the Magic Number?
- Do Tents Keep you Safe from Wild Animals?
- Does Noise Attract or Repel Animals? The Science of Making a Racket
- Washing Dishes and Avoiding Crumbs
- Does Fire Attract or Repel Animals?
- What Attracts or Repels Bears?
- Unwelcome Mats as a Bear Deterrent
- Electric Fences With at Least 5000-6000 Volts
- Bear Canisters
- Does Ammonia Keep Bears Away?
- Do Mothballs Keep Bears Away?
- Are Bears Attracted to Human Urine?
- Are Bears Attracted to Peppermint Oil?
- Are Bears Attracted to Insect Repellent?
- Do Citronella Candles Attract Bears?
- Are Bears Attracted to Menstrual Blood?
- What Types of Foods Attract Bears?
- What Attracts Or Repels Raccoons?
- What Attracts or Repels Bugs?
- What Attracts or Repels Coyotes?
Hang Up Your Food, or Hang Out With Animals In Your Campsite
By and large, the vast majority of animals will leave humans alone and aren’t out to eat humans specifically. Your food though, pungent and delicious attracts all sorts of animals, from squirrels to bears.
Always hang up your food well away from your tent. The basic premise is to hang your food on a branch extending at least 3-4 feet from the base trunk of the tree, and at least 10 feet above the ground. This means that a determined squirrel could get to your food, but it is much less appealing for an animal to go through the effort of trying to retrieve it.
These precautions may not be enough in intense bear country, however. There are additional methods and ways to hang up your food making it more difficult for a bear to reach your food, such as the counterbalance method. The caveat with any of these methods is that you have to find a tree that will work, and bears are smart and sometimes determined enough to get around these precautions.
More important than an animal not getting to your food is for your food to be separate from you. Always keep your food well away from where you sleep, and also keep any smelly clothing or substances (like fishing gear) away from you as well.
If you’re car camping, oftentimes you can simply put your food in your car. If you’re not in bear country, this is completely sufficient, as long as all the windows and doors are shut. There are some caveats of course and some additional precautions you can take when storing food in your car which you can find out more about here.
If you’d like more in-depth instructions on how to hang up your food, check out our article here! It also talks more about how to be protected from bears, including how to use bear canisters or lockers.
Is There Safety In Numbers When It Comes to Wild Animals? What’s the Magic Number?
In this study, it was shown that over 90% of all fatal bear attacks were of group sizes of 1-2.
This is good information to know. It’s extremely rare for any wild animal to attack a human, and the numbers get even more rare the more people are around. If you are camping in bear country, consider finding enough people so you will have 3 or more adults in your group.
You have a much greater chance of being hunted if you are in the backcountry for this reason–there are fewer humans around. But, the danger in campgrounds is the amount of trash that attracts scavengers. A wild animal can be dangerous even if it’s not around for you, specifically.
In other words, safety in numbers works up to a point–having garbage easily accessible to wild animals will draw scavengers even if you are in a group of people.
Do Tents Keep You Safe from Wild Animals?
Tents, unfortunately, offer little protection from wild animals. I wrote an article here where I looked through hundreds of animal attack cases and pulled out any that involved tents. The numbers are surprising! Check it out if you want to see details.
While tents won’t keep out a bear or a cougar, they definitely will keep out some smaller animals while you’re sleeping. If you’re not in bear country, then you really don’t have anything to worry about if you’ve put your food away and you don’t have any in your tent. Even if a small animal won’t harm you, you still don’t want them sniffing around while you’re sleeping.
Does Noise Attract or Repel Animals? The Science of Making a Racket
If you try and look for products to repel a pest or a large animal such as a deer or even a bear, you’ll find a huge category of noisemakers.
The basic principle is that the noisemaker will either make a noise when an intruding animal is near or are simply made to make noise at regular intervals. When you’re camping, unless you’re out on your own in the wilderness, general noisemakers are not generally a well-loved solution because of other campers.
There are ultrasonic noisemakers, though. Where the sound produced is above the range of human hearing, but is well within the range for many rodents ears. There isn’t a lot of evidence to support the effectiveness of these ultrasonic devices.
The problem with any kind of noisemaker is that they will work for a very limited amount of time. (source) A noise without a consequence is just a noise, and animals can figure this out within a couple of days or sooner. In this study, deer figured out some sound-makers in about a week (source)
If you want your noisemaker to be effective for a longer period of time, you can increase the intensity of the noise, move the noisemaker around periodically, use noisemakers with strobe lights, or adjust the schedule for a particular noisemaker, etc.
More intense kinds of noisemakers are often used by farmers, and they are shown to be effective at least in the short run (source), but these types of noisemakers are not meant to be used while camping since they are much louder.
The key point here is that noise DOES work to repel animals, but animals will figure out if there is no consequence associated with noise.
Human Noise as an Animal Deterrent
Humans make noise, naturally. We talk, we laugh and in a hundred other ways we make noise.
Remember, noise itself isn’t considered a threat, but noise in the combination of a perception of a threat is key to deterring animals.
If you are hiking solo, then making noise will draw attention to yourself, but it all also announce your presence. Animals that don’t want trouble (such as a mama bear with cubs) will likely be deterred and avoid you. An animal that is hungry and is considering you as prey will likely not be put off by your solo noisemaking.
If you’re in a group, this instantly will help your noisemaking. Talking, walking, clanking, clinging, all of these will add to the perception of a threat. If you’re camping with a large group of people, then you have little to fear in terms of an animal attack. (always keep an eye on little kids, though)
Washing Dishes and Avoiding Crumbs
One thing in common with all of the advice in this article is that those wild animals would love an opportunity to eat your food. The most important way to prevent wild animals from entering your campsite is to remove what they want: food.
An unfortunate reality with this life on earth is that we have to do the dishes. This is a terribly sad fact we have been coming to grips with our whole lives.
Another difficulty with doing the dishes is that dishes often have little tiny bits of food stuck all over them. If you’re trying to avoid critters from coming to your campsite, you have to clean your dishes well and make sure those little bits of food don’t lay around for any animal to find.
Some quick pointers for doing dishes in the backcountry:
- Wash your dishes with a kitchen sink: There are “camp kitchen sinks” that are essentially freestanding vinyl bags that pack down very small but are great for containing the mess of doing the dishes.
- Do your best to remove all food bits before you dunk your dishes in the water.
- Use a strainer (a plastic bag with holes also works just fine) to drain all the liquids from your kitchen sink once you are done.
- Avoid foods that get stuck to things. As nice as eggs are to eat, they can get terribly stuck to those aluminum cookpots, which will end up with more scrubbing.
- Disperse the dishwater, or greywater as it’s called, as widely as you can. Make sure and do this far away from your campsite.
- Pack the garbage food out, and make sure to hang it up with the rest of your food.
If you are car camping and doing dishes, you can follow similar guidelines, but you might have some extra tools at your disposal!
When car camping:
- Use any camp-supplied dumpsters if they have any for your food waste.
- Find out if the campground has a communal kitchen sink, using this will be much more convenient. Try to strain out as much food as you can in any case (you probably won’t be finding a garbage disposal here.
- Don’t dump your dishwater by your campsite, this is a pet peeve of many campground managers, but the scraps from washing dishes attract critters, such as raccoons, mice, and more.
If you would like some more specific ideas on how to wash your dishes while camping, check out our post here on the subject.
Does Fire Attract or Repel Animals?
Fire is not a proven deterrent of wild animals.
This is something I wonder about when we are out in the middle of nowhere with a blazing campfire if the campfire was making us safer or more exposed.
It depends on how you look at it! If you’re trying to hide from animals, then a campfire is quite noticeable. Or, it could be said that because fire poses such a risk to fur and life, and the smell of smoke has a negative association, that animals will run far before approaching fire.
Which is it? Do fires make you safer or not?
The answer isn’t clear. No studies currently exist that explore whether a campfire attracts more or fewer animals, and so the only thing we have are people’s personal experiences.
If you look in forums, you’ll read several accounts of hunters that have experienced bears, skunks, or raccoons approaching campfires without any hesitation. Others state that they only see this behavior in areas where the bears are accustomed to humans, while others say they see this behavior in more remote locations as well.
For now, the case is not closed. I didn’t find a satisfactory answer to whether fire really deters animals or not.
In short, it’s best to assume that a campfire is not an effective animal deterrent.
What Attracts or Repels Bears?
As I was researching this topic, I was amazed by all the different techniques used to keep bears away! I investigated all of them, one by one, so you can make an informed decision about whether to use them or not.
Unwelcome Mats as a Bear Deterrent
In areas where bear populations are struggling to find their natural food sources, and when human food is easier to get, bears are known to start foraging near trash heaps, human livestock, and even breaking into human houses.
This has happened several times in Colorado. One deterrent which is shown to be effective is an “Unwelcome Mat”
Unwelcome mats can be just an electrically charged pad, or they can also be made with screws or carpet tack and wood, thus making a sharp and painful, but not permanently harmful deterrent.
Remember, though. No trick lasts forever, and bears are smart. It’s better to remove attractants to avoid the confrontation in the first place
Electric Fences With at Least 5000-6000 Volts
In some locations where bears are extremely common such as parts of Montana, Wyoming, Washington, and other locations, sometimes protecting your camp requires more extreme measures. It is actually possible to set up your own electric fence around your camp. You can see an electric fence’s ability here:
To make your own electric fence capable of deterring bears, you need the following:
- A fence charger capable of delivering 5000-6000 volts
- Conductive bare wire you can attach to fence posts from 12-gauge to 16-gauge.
- Non-conductive fence posts (such as fiberglass or wood)
- Ground rod to ground the electric fence
- (Optional) Chicken wire on the ground to create a more effective electric ground.
The most pricy part of an electric fence (for a small one, anyway), is going to be the fence charger. Here’s an example of a well-rated battery-powered fence charger on Amazon if you’re interested in building one yourself.
Bearproof containers are extremely effective in preventing bears from getting to your food. The smell can still escape so it’s important to still keep bear canisters far away from your tent (at least 100 feet).
That doesn’t really prevent the animal from coming around in the first place, though.
If you want to be even more cautious, you can put your food in an odor-proof bear bag which purpose is to block the smell of your food from reaching the nose of a bear.
Does Ammonia Keep Bears Away?
Ammonia has been proven as a bear deterrent time and again. If you’ve ever smelt ammonia before, you probably have experienced that almost painful burning sensation. I can’t imagine what that must feel to a bear.
Since the smell of ammonia doesn’t actually hurt a bear (at least immediately), bears can get accustomed to it. Using smell as a deterrent should be relied on indefinitely and solely.
I mean think about it, when you’re camping for several days and you stop applying deodorant, you’re able to get used to your own stench–in much the same way, bears can get used to ammonia. This was shown by the behavior of some bears where ammonia was tested as a deterrent in this study (source 3). Although many bears were put off and chose other food options, some bears ignored the deterrent.
To add evidence to this point, a study from Humboldt State University showed that ammonia and pepper-spray treated bait showed little long-term deterrent abilities. The smell of ammonia might be unpleasant, but if there aren’t a lot of more appealing food options immediately available, ammonia might not be the best deterrent over a long period of time.
Do Mothballs Keep Bears Away?
Mothballs actually have a repellent effect, although not much of one. Ammonia has a much stronger deterrent effect and male urine is significantly stronger as well. (source 3)
Remember that just like you can get used to your own 3-day old camping smell, bears can also get used to powerful unappealing smells, so don’t rely on them as effective long-term deterrents.
Are Bears Attracted to Human Urine?
A common practice with some campers is to “set up a perimeter”, which in some ways is an excuse to let loose those age-old instincts to pee on everything sometimes observed in male dogs.
But does it do anything?
There is some proof that urine will actually have a deterrent effect on bears (at least black bears) from approaching. Urine contains urea, which breaks down to ammonia, which is proven as a smell that bears don’t like.
In one study (source 3), male urine was used on foods in a sanitary landfill where bears often come to feed. This prevented “most” bears from eating the food, but in the same study, only ammonia prevented most of the bears from even approaching the bait. The results aren’t surprising to me at least, I wouldn’t want to eat food another species had marked either, much less my own.
With that information, feel free to “set up a perimeter” at least in black bear country.
Are Bears Attracted to Peppermint Oil?
Bears aren’t picky. If something smells good to you, then it probably smells good to them.
Peppermint oil, specifically, is typically used to bait animals in the Procyonidae family, which includes raccoons. (source 2)
One good resource to know what attracts a bear is to ask a hunter. Bait em 907 makes several scented products made for bear bait, and several are mint based, including peppermint.
These scent balls are intensely powerful, though, and are made to be as pungent as possible so that bears can’t ignore the scent. If you want to lay low and not be noticed, avoid any pungent odors such as peppermint.
Are Bears Attracted to Insect Repellent?
From my research, there isn’t any hard research on which insect repellents attract bears, and which repellents are repulsive to bears.
Going off of the information we have, we know that bears have an acute sense of smell. No, not a cute sense of smell, a really powerful sense of smell.
So, with that powerful sense of smell, if we as humans find a smell to be repulsive, there is a good chance that the bear won’t like it either. There are some exceptions to this, such as vinyl and petroleum products like gasoline, but if you don’t love the smell of DEET (which you’ll get weird looks from your friends if you did), then there is a good chance bears won’t be crazy about it either.
What about other types of insect repellents other than DEET? Remember that bears have a strong sense of smell, and if you put on a repellent made to smell nice and sweet for humans that this could be a curiosity trigger for bears. To be on the safer side, take the foul-smelling insect repellent.
Do Citronella Candles Attract Bears?
I did some searching around for whether it was true that Citronella candles attract bears. The Colorado Division of Wildlife has released information saying to not use citronella, although I could not find any study to back up this information. (source 1)
This isn’t the end of the world, because as it turns out, citronella candles almost do nothing to deter mosquitoes. I did a ton of research on natural bug repellents and citronella is at the bottom-end of effectiveness. Geraniol candles are actually many times more effective. If you want to see more information about citronella and other natural bug repellents, check out my post here.
Are Bears Attracted to Menstrual Blood?
Many women are concerned about whether menstrual blood will attract bears. This is a fair concern since anecdotally, sharks have a very strong blood-sense, and bears also have a very powerful sense of smell. One study took up this particular question and tried to find the answer. The results showed that black bears had no interest in menstrual blood, and instead unanimously preferred human food over menstrual blood when offered. (source)
The study mentions, though, that this isn’t true for polar bears.
In any case, keeping your food properly away from bears is far more important for keeping you safe.
What Types of Foods Attract Bears?
Most times humans run-in with bears it involves food. Bears have to make decisions just like we do–and while our decisions are often more benign such as which cereal to eat, or whether to try browsing through Netflix or Hulu first, bears have to decide whether eating something is worth the effort.
Bears eat green vegetation, ants, deer, and fruit, and they especially love berries and nuts (remember, bears are trying to put on the pounds, unlike us).
Bears eat greens in the spring (because usually fruiting trees or bushes don’t fruit until summer and fall), but as soon as the fruits and berries are out, they switch to eating the sweeter and fattier foods. Bears have a sweet tooth!
Here are some proven human sources of food that bears seem to prefer:
Apples: This study found that there was a much higher correlation with bear visits and ripening apple orchards than nights where people put out their garbage.
Food Garbage: It’s impossible to know exactly what foods in a heap of garbage, in particular, might attract a bear, but it’s much safer to assume that a bear is not very picky. In fact, it’s estimated that bears accustomed to humans and foraging through trash cans will get 15% of their diet from human garbage, alone!
This is an especially bad problem in national parks since so many people visit them, and bears are protected. Humans are associated with food which is, of course, not a great situation.
Foods High in Carbohydrates and Proteins
A fantastic study on captive black bears went through several native plants that bears eat as well as food that they do not normally eat. Fish was the preferred food of choice for bears that was not a normal food for the bears (out of 55 other foods), but in general, food high in carbohydrates or proteins were preferred. (source) Apparently bears haven’t been exposed to the Keto diet, yet.
The top 5 human foods in this study were fish, hamburger, pear, bread, and apples, in that order, while the top native food that the black bears preferred were acorns (even over blackberries).
Which Foods are Most Dangerous?
As you can see from the above studies, bears, in general, like to eat things humans eat. Any food is potentially dangerous in attracting bears. However, special care should be taken for sugary protein-rich foods (think peanut butter). Jams, honey, candy–anything super sweet is going to smell super good to a bear.
A further testament of the danger of sweets for attracting bears are the products sold by Boarmasters. These products are made to bait bears, and their signature is that the bait is several times sweeter than sugar.
Point taken, make sure your food is away from your campsite, and take special care for sugary or protein-rich foods (such as with an odor-proof bear bag).
What Attracts Or Repels Raccoons?
Raccoons are classic, I’d daresay textbook example of omnivores. Raccoons will eat anything, and they have a natural ingenuity that gives them that special ability to adapt to human environments almost seamlessly.
Raccoons are actually fairly large animals, as big as a medium-sized dog, but they still can fit into spaces you wouldn’t believe! They find ways into attics and under decks and in all sorts of nooks and crannies.
While raccoons are rarely dangerous, they are considered a pest because they are determined and smart, and will get into things you don’t want them to. I’ve personally witnessed a forgotten bag of food snatched up by a raccoon and carried up a tree to what the raccoon thought was a safe distance, and listened as it systematically ripped through the plastic packaged contents. I’ll never forget those shiny eyes that tracked on my flashlight the whole time!
Raccoons wear those permanent bandit masks for a reason, I suppose.
No food is safe from raccoons. Fortunately, if you’re car camping, you can just use your car as a depot for your food without any special equipment. If you have a walk-in campsite, then a bear canister will work effectively for raccoons as well.
In the book Noninvasive Survey Methods for Carnivores (source 2). There is a gigantic table of scents and oils used to lure different carnivores. Many scents and oils are attractive to multiple carnivores. Without any doubt, most of the scents and oils listed are used as attractants to raccoons. Bears come in second place for the number of scents that have been used to attract them, commercially.
Do Pets Repel Raccoons?
In this study, it was shown that raccoons were less likely to hang around if you have pets.
This isn’t necessarily the best news since only well-trained dogs are able to be taken up into the wilderness. Even at a well-used car camping campground (where you are far more likely to encounter raccoons), a dog can be difficult to manage. If you have a well-trained pup, though, and your campground allows it, this will be a help to repel raccoons.
Other Raccoon Deterrents
In this study, there is some evidence that female nesting raccoons can be repelled by male raccoon urine. This is mostly important for places where raccoons have made a nest for their young. If you’re long term camping and have problems with raccoons nesting where they shouldn’t, this is an option to try.
What Attracts or Repels Bugs?
Believe it or not, we don’t know exactly what attracts a bug to a human.
Let’s get this out in the open. When we say bugs, we mean mosquitoes, ticks, or gnats. Most of the other bugs we can tolerate and leave alone if they leave us alone–it is the bugs of the blood-sucking variety that are particularly offensive.
Even still, we don’t know exactly why your friend never gets bitten by mosquitoes and you always seem to (perhaps it’s just that your friend never gets bitten while you are around). We know that the air we breathe out, carbon dioxide, attracts mosquitoes, but there is more to the story.
In any case, with these bugs, we are the cause of attraction.
Because of this, we don’t know exactly what repels bugs, either. What further compounds the problem is that one species of mosquitoes will be repelled differently by a chemical than another.
DEET as a Bug Repellent
One thing is certain, there isn’t a chemical that’s as safe for our skin as DEET is that also is repulsive to so many insects. DEET has a bad reputation, especially lately, because of it’s foul smell and because of its toxicity. These are fair concerns, and fortunately, there are other more naturally occurring chemicals to try. Remember that just because a chemical is recognizable does not mean that it is safe. Try to stick to repellents approved by the EPA, if you are not experienced with mixing essential oils, yourself.
Follow the Bug Repellent Dress Code
One very effective insect deterrent is something you use every day: clothes. Camping clothes that will cover your skin, including your ankles and your elbows (favorite feasting locations for mosquitoes) will make your insect repellent job much easier.
If you’re around ticks, tucking your pants into your socks may not win you any fashion awards, but wearing ticks isn’t very glamorous either, so choose your fashion faux pas carefully.
Natural Bug Repellents
I did a lot of research and found there are several bug repellents other than DEET made out of common essential oils that actually work! I compiled all of this together and grouped it by insect so if you are trying to dodge mosquitoes, or if you’re looking for something to use on ticks, but don’t want to pull out the DEET, check out my article here.
What Attracts or Repels Coyotes?
Coyotes are wild small dogs that are considered a nuisance by many. They are not considered extremely dangerous because of their small size (they don’t usually get bigger than 35 or so lbs). They still have hurt humans (160 incidents for the 30 years before 2006. (Wikipedia) and should be avoided. Children especially are at the greatest risk.
According to this study, scent deterrents are not shown to be as effective for coyotes. In fact, one chemical called Renardine, sold in Canada, was shown to have no effect at all (source).
Noise is effective at repelling coyotes as well as staying in groups.
There are other wild animals such as cougars, wolves, mice, and a thousand others. Even though many of these are slightly different, I found that the common denominator for many of these animals was just the food availability and many of the same tactics, such as staying in groups and making sure children are attended.
The most important thing you can do is to keep your campsite clean from food and stow your food away carefully. Making animals go away is one thing, but it’s much more effective to prevent them from wanting to come in the first place.
Backcountry Camping in Black Bear Country from the Colorado Division of Wildlife (source 1)
Noninvasive Survey Methods for Carnivores (source 2)
Behavioral Responses of Bears to Tests of Repellents, Deterrents, and Aversive Conditioning (source 3)