What would you do if you got up in the middle of the night and discovered a bear sniffing around your camp, or a pack of raccoons tearing into a grocery bag with chips and other snacks? This is surprisingly not that obscure of a scenario, and it can happen to anyone who doesn’t take the proper precautions when camping in the wilderness.
In addition to bears and raccoons, other animals that populate the North American wilderness like goats, squirrels, chipmunks, mice, deer, marmots, and birds, are avid foragers and also just as inclined to follow those foreign and intriguing smells right into your campsite. And while a squirrel or a marmot might not be as destructive as a bear, the damage that is caused to their natural behavior from an availability of human food is the same for every animal.
Of course, feeding a wild animal is an absolute don’t, but care needs to be taken to avoid unintentionally attracting them as well. Their foraging instincts make them very keen to new food sources, and bears and raccoons are capable of recognizing things like coolers and other food-related storage as sources of food — even within the confines of your vehicle. In national parks all around the country, stories abound of visitors’ vehicles being broken into by bears because they had left coolers or food out in the open.
In some national parks, you are not allowed to store food overnight in your vehicle; instead you must store your food in provided metal “bear boxes”, usually found in campgrounds and parking areas. Bear-proof canisters are another simple, yet effective way to keep animals of all kinds out of your food. There are also options for hanging your food in a bag high above the ground, which require some rope or cord and a little persistence, but definitely work.
Whichever method you choose for keeping your food out of the reach of wild animals, the way you set up your food prep area is just as crucial. Park rangers recommend placing your food prep area at least 100 yards away and upwind from your camp, to avoid any food smells wafting down to a sleeping camp later. Wash and rinse water should be dispersed along a perimeter away from your cook station, and any aprons, oven mitts, or clothing worn while preparing food should go into your animal-proof container with your food. You don’t want to leave anything inviting for your nocturnal guests.
Even things like toothpaste and mouthwash can attract wild animals, so be sure to brush and wash away from your campsite. If you’re camping in a national park, absolutely use the park rangers as a resource for information on how to handle and store your food, as each park may have different regulations.
The most important thing to remember when enjoying the wilderness is that we are guests in their habitat, and it is our responsibility to leave no trace, including on the behavior of animals. Taking the time to carefully prepare will ensure a safe and rewarding outdoor experience for everyone.