Camping is a fantastic way to enjoy the great outdoors. There’s nothing like sleeping with only the sky over your head — except if you wake up staring into the eyes of a bear. Wildlife, weather and other variables can make your camping experience memorable in the worst way. How can you make sure your campsite is safe before you settle in for the night?
Ask Your Local Ranger
The biggest part of a park ranger’s job is making sure the people camping in their park are safe. If you need a resource for all the potential dangers in your camping area, ask a ranger. They’ll be able to tell you the best and worst places to camp and offer tips on avoiding wildlife. Depending on the park, you may need to call the park’s main office to set up a time to meet with a local ranger.
Assess the Landscape
If you’re out in the wild, there are a few things you’re going to want to consider before you settle on a final spot.
- Proximity to water — Natural water sources can be a good source of food if you’re into fishing, and water as long as you have proper sterilizing equipment. Also, make sure you’re not going to roll down a hill into a nearby creek or water source, or you may wake up way, way downstream.
- Level — Is the campsite flat, or is it on an incline? You can camp on inclined sites, but they are more difficult, especially if you tend to roll around at night. Make sure you’re well secured before you drift off.
- Privacy — Do you have a lot of campsite neighbors? You might want to consider moving if you want to have plenty of privacy while you’re camping.
Look Around in Daylight
There are plenty of things you can look for to indicate how safe a campsite is. If you arrive in daylight, take a look around your campground before you start setting up for:
- High water marks — Look for debris that looks out of place higher up on a tree. This might indicate your campsite is prone to flooding. Don’t float away!
- Strop marks/animal tracks/animal dung — Basically, look for any signs of wild animal activity. Big predators, like bears and some large cats, will mark their territory by leaving “strop marks” or claw marks in the trees. If you see these, it might be a good idea to avoid that area.
- Game trails — Does it look like animals move freely through your campsite? If so, you might find yourself disturbed by both predator and prey during the night.
- Use — If your campsite looks like other campers have been there recently, that’s usually a pretty good indication it’s a safe place to camp.
Daylight provides the best view of the area around you, but there are some things you can only see once the sun has gone down.
Look Around in the Dark
If you’re getting to your campsite after the sun has set, you may not be able to assess the safety of your particular campsite. There’s only so much you can see with a flashlight, after all. Instead, invest in a thermal camera to bring to the campsite with you. It’s an expensive piece of equipment, but it’s worth it to keep you from accidentally walking into a bear or other large predator in the dark.
When you’ve found a campsite you like, turn out your lights, turn on the thermal camera and do a 360. You’ll probably see lots of smaller warm-blooded mammals like rodents, and maybe even some birds or bats. What you don’t want to see is large predators or large prey that might attract those predators.
You can even get thermal cameras that plug right into your phone so you don’t have to haul around a ton of extra equipment.
Secure Your Grub
This is probably the most important tip you’ll learn, especially if you’re camping in an area that’s prone to bears. Secure all your food, either in a bear-proof cooler or in a net stashed up a tree. It won’t stop a really persistent or really hungry bear, but it will keep away bears who are looking for an easy snack.
Don’t leave any food out at your campsite. In addition to attracting bears and other large animals, you may find yourself overrun with squirrels, raccoons and other smaller mammals. While they don’t present a significant threat and will run if disturbed, you’ve also never seen a mess until you’ve seen a bunch of raccoons have a party in a tent with a cooler full of food.
Don’t let this discourage you from camping. Just do your research, be prepared and your camping trip will go off without a hitch.
Scott Huntington is a writer from central Pennsylvania. He enjoys working on his home and garden with his wife and 2 kids. Follow him on Twitter @SMHuntington