Camping with critters

A squirrel digs through a backpack in search of a snack. Squirrels are one of many critters notorious for “robbing” campsites of unsecured food.

My wife Amy and I recently spent four nights camping at Brunet Island State Park.

Naturally, packing took way longer than expected so we arrived in the evening. As we pitched our tent and set up the rest of camp, dusk was beginning to set in. By time we were finished with setting up camp it was too dark to cook out, so we tidied up camp, placed a bowl of dog food in the trailer, closed the trailer door and set out in search of a restaurant.

Upon returning to camp full of food and feeling a bit sleepy, we discovered that some raccoons had apparently smelled the dog food inside the trailer and managed to rip a hole in the top of the trailer and eat the dog food. The sneaky critters had ripped up a one-fourth inch of plywood board to get into the trailer.

Being near and seeing wildlife is one of the major perks of camping. I have spent time in the woods with bears, wolves, coyotes, eagles and bobcats. Some have been a bit too close for comfort (I once accidentally ended up 15 feet from a black bear), but I’ve never had any of these big critters in my camp, mainly due to the precautions I take to keep them out.

However, these cute little critters have gotten into the camp food more than once. The most common camp robber culprits tend to be chipmunks, squirrels, raccoons, and mice. And the places where these critters become the most prolific robbers are in places where people camp.

Campground critters are taught at an early age that people have food and it’s easy to obtain. One time, my daughters and I went camping at Willow River State Park. As we were cooking supper over a fire, our campsite neighbors pulled in. They grilled themselves a nice meal of burgers accompanied by chips, pop, and s’mores.

They retreated to their camper to watch their favorite television show, and then went to bed leaving half empty cans of pop, dirty dishes, and food containers strewn all over the campsite. The results were predictable. By midnight, the raccoons were having a raucous party. After being awoken multiple times by pop cans being knocked off the table, and realizing the neighbors were oblivious to the party going on outside of their trailer, I grabbed a flashlight and chased the raccoons away.

Critter proofing a campsite is a fundamental part of camping. It does not matter if the campsite is in the middle of grizzly territory in the arctic, or at a state park.

Animals find food by sight and by scent. Hence, critter proofing a campsite at its most basic is about keeping food smells to minimum and keeping food out of sight. Critter proofing also includes keeping a camp neat and organized.

Keeping food out of sight is quite simple. All campers need to do is keep their food in a container when not cooking or eating and all will be well. Unfortunately, critters are smart and know many tricks. One of the first secrets to camp raiding both raccoons and bears seem to learn is that coolers hold food. Both species of animals can identify coolers sitting out at a campsite and even inside of cars. It is a common occurrence for bears to spot a cooler in a car and then rip a door off the car to get the cooler and its contents.

Racoons are very good at manipulating objects including cooler locking mechanisms. They can easily pop open a cooler left out at night and have a midnight snack. After food has been taken out for cooking, it should immediately be put back in the container for safe keeping. I once had mice raid the cheese in my food bag while I was cooking supper. Coolers and other food containers should be kept inside a car or trailer and under a blanket so they cannot be seen.

Another method to keeping your campsite free of animals is scent control. Scent control is more difficult but equally necessary. When I traveled in grizzly country in the arctic, we kept all our food in air tight food containers and at night we placed any clothing which we wore while cooking or eating in the same containers. We also kept the containers at least 100 yards from our tents.

When car camping, keep food in a container with a tight-fitting lid. Plastic storage totes work just as well. I use two coolers-one for cold food and one for dry goods. Putting all food items in a zip lock bag before storing also helps minimize the scent from the food.

Bear proof containers or coolers are another way to keep animals out of the eats and come in various sizes and styles. Some containers are big barrels that seal up air tight to keep bears (and smaller animals) out. The bear proof containers that I utilize are the small packable types. A plastic bag is used a as liner and then all the food is put in zip lock bags and put into the container. The plastic liner is sealed and the container is locked up. Some non-food items like toothpaste and deodorant can also attract critters, so it is a must to keep these items with the food or simply leave them at home.

Critter proofing your campsite is necessary to ensure an enjoyable trip. It also ensures the safety of the animals who face many more dangers when they become habituated to human food sources. Finally, it makes the trip more enjoyable for the next set of campers who do not have to deal with highly trained camp robbers.


Dunn County News reporter

Laura covers local/prep sports as well as school-related and general news in Dunn County. She joined The Dunn County News in October 2016. She can be contacted directly at or (715) 279-6721.

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