A failure to plan and prepare for bears, insects and other animals can turn a camping experience from one of delight to a difficult or even dangerous outing. Anticipate problems and know how to deal with them if they occur.

by Jim Casada

  • Problem Or Nuisance Animals
  • Snakes
  • Troublesome Insects

    One of the most memorable, and certainly the most miserable, nights of my life took place while camping on the headwaters of the remote Thorofare River in Wyoming. I was serving as a fly fishing instructor for folks making horseback trips into the wilderness, and between trips I had opted to stay in camp rather than make the long, arduous ride out and then back in after only a day’s rest. Unfortunately, a wrangler had failed to put the pin in place in a bear-proof pannier, and a grizzly got into it shortly after darkness fell. After feasting on three dozen eggs and two pounds of bacon, not to mention breaking the camp lantern in the process, he wasn’t about the leave. Eventually I ended up in a tree for the night, and in a campsite at a 9,000-foot elevation, even in July, which made for being cold, not to mention thoroughly scared.

    Eventually, with the arrival of daylight, the grizzly left, but recollections of the experience are etched in stone in my mind’s storehouse. It didn’t need to happen. Had the wrangler done his job, or had I just placed the entire pannier in a bear-proof box provided by the Forest Service, the bear would almost certainly have visited then left.

    That lack of planning and preparation goes to the heart of how (or how not) to deal with not only bears, but creatures and insects of all sorts which can turn a camping experience from one of delight to a difficult or even dangerous outing. Basically, the answer is simple. Anticipate problems and know how to deal with them if they occur. Better still, remember the old adage about an ounce of prevention being worth a pound of cure, and plan your camping trip accordingly.

    Problem Or Nuisance Animals

    Camping Among Animals And Insects 01
    Whether camping in luxury (seen here) or in primitive sites, storing all foodstuffs out of reach at night is a must.

    Bears, whether blacks or grizzlies, probably have the highest profile among potential problems for campers. That’s because they can be dangerous and on rare occasions even maim or kill humans. The key to dealing with bears is keeping all food, along with anything else they might consider edible (toothpaste, for example) safely stored well out of reach. In the backcountry, if special metal storage containers are unavailable, all edibles need to be suspended by a rope system well out of reach—at least 10 feet high. Beyond that, use common sense in dealing with bears, such as wearing bells for making plenty of noise when walking through known “bear areas,” never fleeing when you encounter one (instead, retreat strategically without turning your back), and avoiding a mother with cubs like the bubonic plague.

    In truth, far more camping trips are ruined by racoons, skunks, and smaller creatures than by bears. Raccoons, in particular, can be absolutely ingenious in figuring out ways to get into your cache of food. Suspending it by a system of ropes or cords between trees and well away from any limb or trunk is usually the solution. Also make a point of keeping your campsite completely clean, burning or carefully burying any food scraps or leftovers.


    Much of the country is home to poisonous snakes of one species or another. Virtually any camping excursion, from an overnight float trip on the blackwater rivers of the South to a hike into the deserts of the West, can bring encounters with them. Paying attention to where you walk and put your hands or feet, checking an area thoroughly before setting up camp, and maintaining reasonable vigilance in all you do are the keys here. Snakebites are quite rare, and even when they occur it is quite possible no venom will be injected. Nonetheless, those camping in snake territory should familiarize themselves with modern treatments for snakebites and be prepared should an unfortunate incident take place.

    Camping Among Animals And Insects 02
    To prevent a night of mosquitoes buzzing in your ears, keep the tent flap closed at all times.
    Troublesome Insects

    Insects pose a far more common problem to campers than do poisonous snakes or animals. They can wreak havoc in anything from an RV campground to a wilderness campsite, and they can inflict damage ranging from itchy, irritating bites to life-threatening situations. The insects campers need to think about and prepare for fall into two basic categories—those which bite and those which sting.

    Widely encountered biting and/or flying insects include mosquitoes, black flies, horseflies, ticks, fleas, biting gnats (“no-see-ums”), chiggers, and fire ants. In the case of mosquitoes and black flies, and to a lesser extent fleas and gnats, a combination of repellants, suitable attire (even including a headnet where they are really bad), and the proper tent should mitigate matters to a bearable degree. Anyone who ventures into places where these persistent biters are thick, and this covers most of the North Country and much of the West during the summer, not to mention wetlands across the South throughout all months except the winter ones, must be prepared or else suffer the consequences.

    Ticks not only cause severe itching when they get attached, they also carry Lyme disease. Anyone who lives in an area where there has been a lot of Lyme disease should consider getting the preventive shots now available. Otherwise, wear long sleeves and long pants, consider taping the area where your pants and hiking boots meet to deny ticks a means of access, and check your body thoroughly at day’s end. It also helps to spray your clothing with one of the tick repellants before starting out each day. Just be sure to avoid any direct contact with your skin.

    As for chiggers, sometimes simply called “red bugs,” the sad truth of the matter is that you usually become aware of their presence after the fact. They can bring on miserable itching after burrowing into your flesh, and the virtually invisible insects have a distinct preference for the more private (and sensitive) parts of the body. Long, dark clothing and thorough washing at day’s end are generally your best preventive measures.

    Fire ants fall into a class all by themselves, and across an increasingly wide area of the warmer parts of the country they have become a fact of life. Never pitch a tent or set up camp where their mounds are visible, and in areas where they are really prevalent, exercise great caution. Small children, in particular, can get into an ant mound and be bitten many times in seconds.

    Finally, we come to the stinging insects—wasps, hornets, yellow jackets, bumblebees, honeybees, and the like. Disturb their nests and you will be attacked. All of the bees are active throughout the warm weather months, but late summer and early fall, when their numbers are highest, are particularly troublesome times. Ground nesting yellow jackets frequently choose banks along back country trails to build, while both wasps and hornets seem partial to limbs overhanging water. Several types of bees are attracted to foods in camp. Anyone who has a history of allergic reactions needs to be particularly cautious, and should flee immediately after disturbing a nest, then assess the situation after you have gotten away from the danger. Obviously you should carefully examine your surroundings before setting up camp.

    Dealing with devilish insects and trouble-making creatures is a fact of camping life. Awareness is your finest ally and anticipating problems will help you avoid most of them, as well as leaving you prepared to deal with them when they do occur.

    As for the grizzly I dealt with, he came back a second night (I had my sleeping bag perched atop a cache used for storing elk meat when fall hunts were taking place). The first thing he did was pick up a pressurized 16-ounce can of insect repellant and bite into it. The can exploded in his mouth with a grand “whoosh” and Old Ephraim (as the Mountain Men called grizzlies) went berserk. He was still spitting and snorting like crazy when I heard him hit the stream 100 yards away, and that was the last of my troubles. However, I don’t recommend relying on insect repellant to solve bear problems.

    Photos by Jim Casada