It was about one or two in the morning when I was awakened by a noise. I laid there, in my tent, listening to what sounded like bones crunching. I laid there for what seemed like an eternity trying to decide what to do. Should I get up and check? Or should I just hide here in my sleeping bag inside my tent and hope that whatever it is goes away and doesn’t decide to come see if my bones are any tastier? To be perfectly honest, I don’t know if my decision to get out of my sleeping bag was driven by curiosity (I know, it killed the cat) or the need to use the restroom.
So, armed with my flashlight and pocket knife, and questioning my intelligence, I quietly crawled out of my sleeping bag and crept silently to my tent door. I unzipped just enough of the tent door to shine my flashlight out and locked eyes with a raccoon.
She was up on the picnic table rummaging through a resealable bag of coffee creamer cups that had been left out. She was puncturing each creamer cup with her teeth and sucking out the sweet contents. The picnic table was covered in creamer carnage. On the picnic table with her were three babies who were eagerly licking up all the spilled creamer.
Caught in the beam of my flashlight and with all the creamer cups sucked dry, she decided she didn’t want a confrontation with me and she and her babies hustled off the picnic table and into the bushes. That was about five years ago while at summer camp with my son’s Boy Scout troop. I’ll always remember that.
Last October, at our troop’s annual pioneering weekend, I had to defend my camp kitchen once again. This time from a persistent horse who smelled the unmistakable smell of an apple pie in one of my food totes.
After I had to gone bed the night before, the adults who stayed up later did not secure the tote where the apple pie was. Early the next morning, a couple of horses from a neighboring farm wandered through camp and one headed straight for my camp kitchen and that apple pie! He was in the process of nosing off the unsecured top when I caught him. Luckily, I had gotten up early to get coffee and breakfast started or that apple pie would have been a goner.
It was a bit of a standoff with him trying to nose off the lid and me trying to hold it on. I knew I needed to carefully shoo him out of camp without spooking him. I was concerned that, if I was too aggressive, he’d bolt and possibly injure a scout sleeping inside a tent.
We had a long conversation he and I, and I finally persuaded him to move along without the apple pie, but the experience reminded me once again of the importance of critter proofing your camp kitchen.
In all the years I’ve been camping, whenever an animal has invaded my camp kitchen in the middle of the night to ransack, rob or otherwise make a mess, it’s usually been because I had gone to bed and a late evening snacker did not put something away properly or left something sitting out.
Here are some simple rules I try to follow so as not to encourage critters to come into my camp at night.
Keep a scrupulously clean camp. Pick up, seal and pack out every scrap of uneaten food. Pack leftovers inside odor-proof plastic bags. Another option is a bear canister, which is made of strong plastic with a heavy-duty lid that animals cannot pry open. Don’t forget: Always handle odor-proof bags or a canister with clean hands!
Avoid using any scented products such as lotions or soaps. Artificial smells also attract wild animals. A bear that’s a mile from your camp won’t smell your freeze-dried spaghetti, but it will smell your fresh and fruity deodorant.
If you choose to use a scented product, do so in the morning so the smell deteriorates before bedtime. Always change into clean clothes that have not been exposed to these scented products before bed. Any scented products must be sealed in an odor-proof bag and stored away from camp with your food.
Keep your food out of site. Once an animal finds food in a pack, box or can, it will seek out similar containers with hopes of securing a meal. Bears have been known to destroy boxes and packs that didn’t contain — and had never contained — any food. This means you should keep ice chests, boxes and packs out of sight. And don’t store food in tents or other places where people gather.
Separate your food from you. Campers often hang their food in a tree but that doesn’t really protect it. A bear cub can climb a 70-foot-tall tree in about 10 seconds. Mama bear can climb, too — slower than her cub, but faster than you. So “treeing” your food won’t necessarily keep it safe from critters that climb. Why, then, do many park authorities ask campers to hang their food? For your own safety!
Separating food and humans is the safest solution. Most campsites have only a few trees with horizontal branches that meet the guidelines for hanging food (about 20 feet high and approximately 8 feet from the trunk of the tree), and animals that climb know them all. If you do tree your food, do not use the same tree as everyone else.
Another option: Take your food out of camp and hide it in the woods. Do this only if it’s packed in a waterproof and odor-proof container, like a bear canister or bear box supplied at some park campsites.
Practice Leave No Trace principles. Scouting practices lean heavily on Leave No Trace ethics. Among these principles is the act of setting up your sleeping area at least 200 feet from where your unit will cook or store food. Always clean up spilled food or leftover food particles, and you must strain all wash water and distribute it at least 200 feet from camp.
In terms of trash, Scouts pack out everything they pack in. This should, of course, be done with caution. Carrying garbage in your pack while hiking through bear country could be a recipe for an attack. Make sure the garbage is sealed in an odor-proof bag or container. In some instances (if park-permitted), you might wish to burn food scraps instead of carrying them in your pack in areas highly populated by bears. And you should never throw leftover food down park toilets or box latrines.
When staying in a campground, take the garbage to the trash bin every night no matter how full the bag. If you allow it to stay in camp overnight, it will just attract critters and, in the morning, you will wake up to a huge mess.
Many national parks require hikers to store their food in bear-proof containers. Some examples include the BearVault, a tough plastic cylinder that’s government-approved; the Ursack, a bag made from virtually bulletproof Spectra fabric, which makes it more lightweight and compact; and the Outsak, a stainless-steel mesh bag that resists raccoons and smaller animals. Using odor-proof bags inside critter-proof containers provide extra protection.
Fortunately, the rules that work to help deter bears work for chipmunks, squirrels and other rodents, too. Even if I’m not in bear country, all my food is stored in ice chests and hard-sided totes that I can secure from nimble little raccoon hands. Just because a raccoon doesn’t pose a threat to your life doesn’t mean you should forget about animal-proofing techniques when you’re not camping in bear country. Otherwise, you may be awakened in the middle of the night by the sound of bones crunching outside your tent door!
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