Preventing Animal Encounters While Camping

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One of the highlights of any camping trip, can be seeing animals out in nature. Small animals like birds, chipmunks and squirrels are common at most campgrounds. While some animals are scared of campers, others have become accustomed to humans, which can create a very dangerous situation.

bear at campground

Encountering Wildlife In Campgrounds

Whenever you see wildlife in a campground, make sure to give them plenty of space. Remember that this was their home long before you decided to come camping here. Wildlife who are approached by humans can feel threatened, so stay away and let them naturally move on.

Feeding Wildlife in Campgrounds

The worst thing that you can do when you see wild animals in the campground is to feed them. The saying “a fed animal is a dead animal” is incredibly true for all wild animals you may encounter while you’re camping.

feeding squirrel while camping

Feeding Wildlife Teaches Wild Animals Not To Get Their Own Food

If wild animals are constantly fed in campgrounds, they gradually learn that to get food, they just need to come and beg, instead of hunting or foraging for their own food. When the off-season comes around and campers aren’t there, many of these wild animals starve to death.

Feeding campground animals also can cause wildlife to get aggressive. If the campers in site 4 happily feed all their snacks to the camp raccoon, the racoon learns that this is the place to eat. Later on, the raccoon goes to site 8 and the campers there don’t feed the racoon, but this hungry wild animal is used to getting fed and will often steal food, get uncomfortable close to people, or cause damage by breaking into coolers, tents or garbage bags.

raccoon at picnic table

Human Food Can Be Dangerous For Wild Animals in Campgrounds

While we may love the taste and flavor of the food we bring camping, a lot of the things that we eat can be dangerous for animals. While eating human food is unlikely to poison an animal, it can make them incredibly sick, so don’t feed animals in campgrounds.

Storing Trash Properly While Camping

While you may see your uneaten dinner as trash, wildlife see it as food, and have no problems breaking into your trash bag to get it.  To prevent animals from feedin on your garbage, always put garbage bags in campground dumpsters when you’re away from camp, or store trash bags in the trunk of your car.  While it may seem like a nuisance to always store your garbage bags when you’re not around, having an animal rip the bag and spread trash all over your site is much more difficult to deal with.  

What To Do If You See A Bear While Camping

The first time that I saw a bear in our campground was equal parts exciting and terrifying. I was camping with my 5 kids in Glacier National Park and we had been constantly searching for bears out the window as we were driving through the park.

As we were back at camp that evening, making dinner, I heard other campers say “there’s a bear in the campground”. I quickly loaded up my 5 kids into the car where we waited in safety. Sure enough, a black bear walked through the campground, about 3 sites down from us. The car was the safest place for us to be, to be safe from the bear in the campground.

bear sighting at campground

If you’re camping in bear country, you need to take extra precautions.  All food should be stored in bear-safe containers (never in your tent) and you should always carry bear spray with you.  Most campgrounds in bear country have bear boxes at all campsites. ALL of your food should be stored in the bear box unless you’re actively cooking or eating your food (most bear boxes are big enough to fit a cooler and plenty of other food). Never leave food unattended, even if it’s just for a few minutes or it will attract wild animals.

campground bear box

If you are camping in the backcountry, make sure to bring a bear bag or bear canister and some rope with you. This is used to put all your food in and to elevate it off the ground (at least 12 feet), so bears do not get into it. If there is not a designated place to hang a bear bag (many backcountry campsites in bear country have a large pole for this), find a tree limb high off the ground to hang your bag from.

Bear bag pole for backcountry camping
One of our boys trying to “help” pull the bear bag up onto the pole at this backcountry campsite.

It’s also important to make sure to keep food and scented items out of your tent so that you don’t attract bears. The only exception to this is keeping a can of bear spray with you. This includes toiletries, snacks, and any other scented items since they all can attract bears and other wild animals.

The most important thing to remember if you see a bear while camping is DO NOT RUN.  Do your best to remain calm and brave.  If you’re with other people, get close together, and pick up little kids.  When you see a bear, slowly back away, talking as calmly as possible the entire time.  If a bear starts walking towards you, pretend to be big by raising your arms into the air and making loud noises to try and scare it away.  If the bear continues to get closer, get out your bear spray and prepare to spray it when the bear is in range.

 What To Do If You See Elk While Camping

Elk are some of the most commonly seen large wildlife, though don’t mistake the large numbers of them for how safe they are. Whenever you see an elk, make sure to stay at least 150 feet away from them. 

elk in campground

Elk can be especially unpredictable during their fall mating season, known as the rut.  During this time, male elk are bugling to attract a mate and can be violent.  It’s especially important to keep small children away from elk. Elk are best observed from a distance, but if one does approach you, slowly back away to safety.

Seeing A Moose While Camping

If you’re camping near a lake or river, you’re camping in prime moose habitat. Remember that a moose is about the size and weight of a horse, and can critically injure you if it feels threatened. If you see a moose, stay at least 150 feet away from it. This is especially important if you see a mother and calf together as moose are incredibly protective of their young.

moose while camping

When you see a moose in the wild, stay calm, talk in a soft voice, and slowly walk away.  If you don’t act aggressive or loud, most moose will leave you alone. 

If a moose lays its ears back, that’s a sign they’re ready to charge and you SHOULD RUN!  Try to get behind something big like a boulder or a car.  If a moose knocks you down, roll up into a ball and cover your head with your hands and arms. 

Seeing A Mountain Lion While Camping

Mountain lion sightings in campgrounds are rarer than other wild animals but also are likely the most dangerous wild animal in campgrounds. If you’re camping in mountain lion territory, never go out alone and stay with your group.  Make plenty of noise so you don’t startle a mountain lion. If you see a mountain lion while camping, act fast to stay safe.

mountain lion while camping

If you do encounter a mountain lion while camping:

When you see a mountain lion in the wild, make yourself big and bold.  Stand up straight, make noise and raise your hands up in the air.  If you have small children with you, pick them up for safety. Be brave and always face the mountain lion, and NEVER RUN AWAY.  If the lion keeps watching you or comes towards you, start throwing things at it to scare it away.  Try not to bend over, but rather throw things that are in your hand or that you can grab out of your backpack like a hiking stick or water bottle.  If a mountain lion attacks you, fight back as hard as you can!

About Jessica Averett

Hi, I’m Jessica, a mom of 5 kids and married to my favorite adventure partner. I love to bike, ski, camp and hike. We've visited over 40 countries with our kids, but are equally happy on the road as we are exploring our home state of Utah.

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