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This article originally appeared in Issue 18 of our magazine.
You’ve just spent three days away from your basecamp gear cache and raft, and have been hiking and hunting a few miles into the mountains. When you return to camp, you’re tired, running low on rations, and looking forward to resupplying from your raft. As you step into your campsite, your mental celebration is cut short as you realize your camp was raided. Everything is scattered.
Food containers are clawed and chewed through, every bag is torn, and worst of all, your raft — your means of transportation — is damaged. The crisp tracks in the mud are a dead giveaway; a grizzly was just here, and there’s a good chance it’s still in the area.
Will you have enough food to finish your trip? Is your raft beyond repair? Is the bear now looking at you and your campsite as an easy meal?
If this story sounds far-fetched, it isn’t. It happened to us recently in Alaska. Fortunately, we were able to patch the raft, salvage some food, and make it off the river after spending almost three weeks camping in dangerous game country. Animal attacks aren’t uncommon, and every year brings headlines and internet videos of wild creatures getting too close for comfort around hikers, campers, fishermen, and photographers.
Most of the time these stories end well; other times they don’t. There’s a lot of information about avoiding dangerous game in the outdoors written from a nature-loving, overly optimistic perspective. But how can you, the RECOIL OFFGRID reader, apply a more proactive approach to ensuring your safety when avoidance isn’t possible?
In some circumstances, you have no choice but to share the land with animals that can hurt you. Here’s how to camp among them.
Animals are individuals. This means what’s generally true of a group may not apply to each and every beast you encounter. Fauna accustomed to human behavior may be less afraid than those that’ve never encountered Homo sapiens. It’s long been assumed animals fear the smell of fire, but some have learned to associate it with food.
When someone says they can predict animal behavior, be wary. If animal behavior were as predictable as those experts claim, they wouldn’t carry defensive gear on their belts. Ever see a lion tamer without a whip?
Of course, there are some general red flags to look out for and actions to avoid in the backcountry.
Above: When traveling the backcountry with kids, keep an eye on them. Predators might bypass adults, finding a smaller member of your group easier prey.
The dangerous game one should prepare for varies by season and location. Many hikers carry bear spray, assuming they’re the only wild creatures threatening their safety. But they’re not. A moose in rut can be extremely dangerous, and species roaming in packs like wolves can overpower an individual.
Animals not normally considered a threat to adults due to size discrepancies may not hesitate to attack a child in a group. The same goes for family pets. Therefore, each adult member of a backcountry party must be extra vigilant of any children in the group. In general, the savvy outdoorsman must understand the animal population in their area of operations and be prepared and willing to deal with it.
Animal tracks and signs are two very different ways of identifying their presence in a potential camping spot. Tracks are made by hooves, paws, and/or claws. Signs can be the remnants of what they last ate, their hair/fur, and scat (droppings). In general, feces will last longer on the trail than tracks.
When both tracks and scat are present — especially in a region where the weather decays tracks readily — you should seriously reconsider your camp’s location, as recent wildlife presence is likely. Since animals tend to reuse trails, camping far from their established routes is a good way to increase your safety.
Be forewarned, the same attractions that drew you to your campsite may attract critters and beasts as well. Wild edibles, water, and open areas free from mosquitos and flies are all reasons for wildlife to make new routes through your temporary home.
It helps to think like the animal you’re trying to avoid. Where would they not want to travel? Go there.
Above: : The author’s SIG SAUER P220 10mm as reference next to a recent grizzly bear track. Firearms can be used to discourage or put down dangerous game. Pistols aren’t ideal protection against bears, but are far better than high-pitched screams.
Ask any hunter about the importance of wind direction, and they’ll tell you not to let animals smell you. Even those that haven’t learned to fear humans from past encounters will still flee at the whiff of an unknown scent in the air. Whenever possible, be vigilant of being downwind of fauna, as they may get close to you before smelling your scent.
Facing the door of your shelter toward potential avenues of approach created by the wind eliminates a blind spot in your camp. By understanding the wind, you can prevent boxing in an animal that could stumble into your camp; set up your shelter in way that lets the critter easily leave once it realizes you’re there. Allow the wind to carry your human scent through the air to alert any wildlife of your presence.
Storing food in bags suspended in trees is a good idea — if executed correctly. Bags should be well out of reach, at least 15 feet in the air and away from any tree trunks. Alternately, submerging food in creeks, rivers, and ponds in watertight bags will keep the scent out of the air. Bear-proof canisters are bulky, but may be required by law (as is the case in the Adirondacks) and will stop some bears from accessing your food. All of these methods discourage animals by making calorie acquisition difficult. Animals want easy meals.
Above: Bear scat can appear fresh, but be weeks old. Bear scat next to bear tracks is indicative of recent visits.
Bear bags, bear canisters, and submerging food are meant to stop bears once they’re already in your camp. However, you should strive to prevent them from entering in the first place.
While the first reaction for most to the concept of a grizzly bear and polar bear hybrid is disbelief, this not-so-strange enough idea for the Syfy channel is reality. Polar bears have been breeding with grizzly bears for at least 10 years, according to some experts. The “pizzly” or “grolar” bear has traits of both bears. It can have the distinct light coloring of a polar bear with some of the shape of a grizzly bear. These bears have been interacting and mating, most likely due to climate change. With bears moving farther each year, these rare creatures might grow in numbers.
But the pizzly bear is not the first hybrid to be found in the wild. Coydogs, the combination of coyotes and domesticated dogs, are well-documented and found in the wild. Coywolves, the combination of the coyote and the wolf, are prevalent in the northeast. These canines have the behavioral characteristics of whichever species are combined and are growing threats to the purebred species that created them.
Run-ins with the above-mentioned animals are limited but as these rare hybrids continue to grow in number, the possibility for dangerous encounters rise, as well.
With a good understanding of wildlife to avoid and how to identify where they frequently travel, you can determine a good site to set up your camp. Consider your senses of hearing and sight when camping. Establish a camp far enough from a river, if possible, where the white noise won’t block out the sounds of an animal approaching. Avoid setting up in areas where you don’t have a clear line of sight to your perimeter.
Above: This juvenile bear was photographed by the author tearing through tree bark to access grubs. Juvenile bears may exercise less concern and demonstrate more curiosity than bears that have learned to fear humans.
Once you set up your shelter, make sure to keep grab-and-go gear handy for that dreaded middle of the night response to a nearby animal. This includes boots, a capable firearm, extra ammunition, and plenty of illumination tools.
When you set up your camp, remember to search the entire immediate area. Don’t simply set up on one side of a hill without checking out the other side. There could be a carcass stashed by a dangerous predator that might return for it. Keep your gear within sight, monitoring it throughout the day and night. A beast can tear through a vital piece of equipment (sleeping bag, raft, tent, etc.), leaving you without essential gear for safe travel or stay.
Camping in dangerous game country isn’t just about protecting self, but property as well.
Above: It’s not a bad idea to keep grab-and-go gear within reach inside your tent. Pictured here: The author’s Remington 870 Marine Magnum, Blauer Clash Boots, SureFire Fury Flashlight, and Brenneke Hard-Cast Slugs carried in an HSGI Pogey Pouch on top of a Thermarest Ridgerest.
If an extended stay in camp is expected, at some point you’ll need to cook. Cooking can easily attract dangerous game if you’re not careful. Grease pans from grills and trash are always popular attractions for animals looking for an easy meal. The camp kitchen and any food handling and consumption should be done far from sleeping quarters, in a single location. Even if you’re consuming freeze-dried meals, the meal packets should be either burned or, at the very minimum, washed out and cleaned.
If you manage to get the food you’re cooking on your clothes in the prep process, consider changing into different clothes or washing them thoroughly before retiring for the night.
Camps near rivers should utilize the current to send food waste downstream. Remember the expression, “Stop, chop, and throw.” Should you process game in your camp, take the time to chop the animal carcass into small pieces and throw it into the moving water to be carried downstream. Camps near coastal areas should have kitchen and food areas below the high tide mark to allow the sea to wash human traces away.
Above: The telltale sign your camp has been raided. Gear scattered and redistributed. Have a plan B in case your plan A is compromised.
One growl is all it takes to make most people realize they’re not alone in the woods. A growl isn’t a long-distance signal — if it can be heard, animals are well within close range. While it might seem like sound carries further at night than day, it doesn’t change the fact that predators are out and in your proximity.
Much like an alarm system for homeowners, there are ways the outdoorsman can create noise-making devices to alert him to wildlife activity in camp. Mess kits strung up with paracord and trip wires will clang if molested. Rocks placed on top of coolers will crackle as they fall off to the side. Electronic fences charged with solar energy may work on some game, but others won’t hesitate to barge right through. Overall, any methods to alert you to an animal’s presence in camp before it reaches your reactionary gap should be considered and/or carried out if practical.
Above: A makeshift “early alert system” is made by stacking rocks on top of coolers and food boxes. While not perfect, the noise of the falling rocks will alert you if something’s molesting your supplies.
Assuming you’ve taken the correct actions to avoid confrontation and it still occurs, here’s what to do. Don’t panic and flee. Running triggers chase instincts, and predators will pick up on the general behavior characteristics of what they consider to be prey. Instead, move confidently upwind from it to let it smell you. If that isn’t possible, be seen as large as possible. For instance, stand in close proximity to other members of your party to look intimidating.
Expect any animal encountered to have eyesight equivalent to yours, if not better. Let it hear you, but don’t make growling noises that could result in it mistaking you for a competitor, mate, or prey. Sound like a human and yell, “Get out of here!” or “Go away!” If this doesn’t work and you’re armed, take the action you feel is necessary.
Just remember, simply having a firearm doesn’t ensure safety in the great outdoors. Firearms can be used to put down game, or they can also be used to scare it away.
Above: No matter what you’ve read on WikiHow, it’s not a good idea to punch a mountain lion in the face.
DLP is an acronym for “defense of life or property.” This concept applies to the use of firearms against wildlife that poses a risk to human safety and property. It doesn’t give carte blanche use of firearms to shoot animals or those that aren’t an immediate threat. In fact, some states that allow using firearms against dangerous game will actually require harvesting and surrendering it to the authorities. If it’s proven you weren’t in a life-threatening encounter, you may face criminal charges.
Instead of shooting to kill at first sight, consider firing a round over the creature’s head or at its feet. Rounds that impact the ground can kick up dirt and debris and scare it off. While many species enjoy social contact, they don’t like forceful contact of foreign objects. Should an animal need to be put down, hard-cast rounds like those from Buffalo Bore Ammunition are preferable to hollow-points that won’t penetrate deep enough through fur, hide, and bone.
Animal attacks happen, but they’re rare if you use common sense. Thousands of people travel and camp, unaffected, in dangerous game country. Attacks don’t simply happen without reason. Be smart and don’t let a predator determine how your trip will end. While you can’t predict animal behavior, you can mitigate risk by staying ahead of the dangerous game.
Kevin Estela is the owner/head instructor of Estela Wilderness Education and the former lead survival instructor of the Wilderness Learning Center on the U.S./Canada border in northern New York. He has honed his survival skills traveling around the country and internationally to learn from local experts. He has spent many days and nights camping in dangerous game country where wolves, grizzlies, and mountain lions call home. www.kevinestela.com