Imagine you are asleep soundly inside the tent when suddenly, a noise outside. A large animal is inside camp, creating a dangerous situation for everybody in the vicinity. Understanding how to prevent animals from encroaching into camp and how best to handle wildlife if encounters do happen are skills every backpacker should know.
Animals Attracted to Food
Most animal encounters will occur because of food being left in easy to access locations. Wild animals are focused first and foremost on survival. There are no grocery stores in the backcountry, every calorie consumed is fought for. Wildlife is not like your dog at home, these animals are smart and hardened by their environment. Every day could be their last and when there is an easy meal to be had, they will seize upon the chance.
It is up to the hiker to outsmart these animals.
Smart animals with a keen sense of smell and an excellent ability to climb. These creatures are the most likely culprits for wildlife run-ins. With little fear of humans, the only way to properly prevent these bandits from entering camp is to hide all food before sleeping for the night.
If a bear box is available, put anything edible inside of it. If you are in the backcountry, a bear canister will work just as well as a properly hung bear bag. Do not underestimate the raccoon, they can be aggressive and will destroy gear to access food.
- Tree your food. Hang all food at least 10 feet from the ground and 10 feet from the nearest tree branch. Use paracord for its thin diameter. Raccoons will be unable to climb down the rope and steal the food.
- Clean up after cooking. If there are no food scraps left in camp, there is little reason for raccoons to invade. Wash the dishes and safely dispose of any food created.
Among the wildlife, mice and rats are much more prevalent in the woods than we would like to admit. Nocturnal creatures, once you are asleep, they will come out to eat food scraps and crumbs left behind.
With little fear of humans, rodents are commonly found inside tents and backpacks by surprised hikers. They will chew holes in packs, shelters, and bags to access food. Small, annoying, and dirty, keeping these animals away from camp is not easy to do.
- Avoid permanent shelters. Permanent shelters, such as those commonly found on the Appalachian Trail, are home to large populations of rodents. The amount of people dropping food coupled with plenty of spaces to hide makes these locations veritable rodent motels.
- Hang all food. A bear bag is overkill when it comes to rodents. Called Mouse Mobiles, an aluminum can, cut in half, with a string affixed to the bottom, has been proven to stop rodents from gaining access to food.
- Encourage snakes. It might be tempting to kill a snake found inside camp but they are not there for you. Snakes eat rodents and if there are a few around camp, it is a good sign mice and rats will not be there.
Nothing strikes fear into the hearts of hikers like hearing a bear rustle around camp in the dead of night. Large animals, with some weighing in at over 1,000 pounds, their large claws, teeth, and body mass gives them the ability to seriously wound a human if they wanted to.
Luckily for us, we are not on the Black Bear’s diet. Mainly eating berries and roots, these animals are more likely to run away from hikers than confront them. When thinking about bear proofing camp, think of them like giant raccoons. They want easy to reach food that does not cost energy to reach.
- Hang a bear bag. Properly hanging a bear bag is the best method for preventing bears from entering camp. Make sure the food is high enough that a bear standing up straight cannot reach it.
- Don’t sleep with food in the tent. With a nose 100x more powerful than a human’s, bears will know if there is food in your tent. Bears are primarily focused on survival, if they rip into your tent looking for food, that instinct will make them aggressive. Don’t let a bear encounter ruin a hike.
Encountering Predators in the Wild
Predators are animals that eat other animals. These creatures will not be motivated to steal trail mix from your tent. Run-ins will commonly occur on the trail during the act of hiking. While it can be a scary situation, never be afraid.
As a human, you are the apex predator in nearly every ecosystem on the planet. Predator species are afraid of you. The only animals that are afraid of predators are prey – are you prey?
Don’t act like a meal.
You are the scariest animal in the woods, don’t forget your place on the food chain.
I categorized grizzly bears as predators because their motivations are different than black bears. As with all bears, using a bear bag and even a bear canister is the best way to prevent grizzlies from coming into camp.
Where they differ from black bears is their size and aggression. Much larger, these animals have little to fear in the wild. Dangerous grizzly interactions generally happen outside of camp.
- Using bear spray. Incredible sensitive noses help bears smell food from miles away. Such a sensitive nose also makes bear spray incredibly effective. Industrial sized pepper spray, carrying a bottle into the wilderness can prove to be a lifesaver.
- Guarding a kill. A grizzly bear will guard a dead animal with their life. There are plenty of examples of a grizzly defending a carcass from a pack of wolves. If you stumble upon a carcass, a grizzly could perceive you as a threat and fight you off.
If this situation does occur, back away slowly. The bear will not want to stray too far from the animal out of fear other predators could steal it. If the grizzly does get close, spraying it with bear spray can work to scare it back.
- Protecting cubs. Female grizzly bears will not hesitate to maim and even kill humans that get too close to their cubs. Prevent accidental run-ins and use bear bells on your backpack when hiking through bear country. The sound will alert the mama grizzly to your location and prevent surprise encounters.
Elusive and rare to see in the wild, most encounters occur with juveniles. If you do spot a mountain lion, do not panic. Their preferred food source is deer and venison, it’s tastier and easier to kill than you are.
- Make yourself bigger. Cougars are not looking for a confrontation. Stand up straight and raise your arms over your head. Let the animal know that you are big, mean, and ready to fight if necessary.
- Make lots of noise. Deer do not talk or yell. Make plenty of noise and scare the animal away. The puma is not going to tangle with a crazy human yelling at it, there are plenty of other animals to focus on.
Snakes, Bugs, and Arachnids
Forgotten by some hikers and obsessed over by others, the creepy crawlies of the woods are far more common than any of the large mammals you may run into. Unmotivated by food or wanting to eat you, all encounters in this category are entirely accidental.
The one commonality that all these animals share is their cold bloodedness. Their activity levels are directly affected by the outside temperatures. If it’s cold outside, you will not be bothered. However, on a beautiful summer day, you never know what’s hiding underneath that rock on the trail.
With some species carrying enough venom in a sting to kill a full grown adult, staying safe from these arachnids is for the best. Nocturnal, these creatures hunt and eat insects after the sun goes down. Living in subterranean lairs, they want no part of what you have to offer. They can feel your vibrations from walking and will instinctively crawl deeper underground when you approach.
- Dump out your shoes. After a long day of hiking, your shoes will be quite warm. When you leave them outside of your tent, that heat signature is picked up by arachnids such as scorpions. There is the possibility of them taking shelter in your warm shoe, it’s similar to a rock that’s been baking in the sun all day. Before lacing up, shake them out. You never know what may come out.
Getting bit by a brown recluse or black widow is potentially deadly. Luckily, these spiders are more afraid of you than you are of them. Black widows are more likely to live in old barns or your attic than they are in the backcountry. Same goes for brown recluse spiders.
- Don’t go looking for venomous spiders. If you are not overturning rocks or sticking your hands in dark places, it is unlikely for you to ever come across a venomous spider.
Snakes are much smaller than people and they want to be left alone. Their main source of food are rodents and eating a human is not part of their life cycle. Snakes are cold blooded and will likely be found on the trail in the early mornings, warming up in the sun.
- Stay vigilant. Always look where you are going. Snakes can be found in tall grasses and curled up under rocks. Stay on the path and away from ground cover. Your vibrations will scare most away but on colder days, they will be more sluggish.
- Don’t pick it up. Everyone wants to be Steve Irwin but it’s not a good idea to play with snakes, especially when your many days away from a hospital. If you leave the snake where it lies, it will not bite you.