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Do Campfires Attract or Repel Wild Animals? | What to Know

As a frequent camper, I often find myself staring into the campfire and hearing rustling around my campsite. I wanted to know whether or not my campfire was giving me a false sense of security, so I decided to look into what my campfire was actually doing for me in regard to animal wildlife.

Campfires will usually repel visits from most wild animals. On the other hand, some animals, like bears, raccoons, snakes, or lizards, will sometimes ignore the campfire or even be attracted to it. An animal’s reactions will largely depend on its species and if they have rabies or another disease.

For general camping safety, bear spray like this kind from Amazon is a simple way to help protect you and your loved ones from potential threats.

Since we know that campfires are not a blanket safety net when you are camping in the wilderness, let’s look into some of the factors you should consider next time you find yourself in front of a campfire.

Campfire Next to a Building

Wild Animals a Campfire Will Repel

There any many species of wildlife that will be deterred when faced by a campfire. Some of these species include feral dogs, wolves, coyotes, skunks, squirrels, and rats.

Wild canids like wolves and coyotes tend to avoid humans as a general rule. This is especially true when they are solitary animals. With enough hunger and the presence of a pack, campfires will not always drive them away.

Generally speaking, nocturnal species will find the light of the campfire to be uncomfortable since their eyes are set up to see in low-light situations, and looking into the fire can cause them pain or hamper their vision.

Insects are also repelled by campfires, but it’s not the fire or the light that does the repelling, the smoke does. Unfortunately, depending on the species of bugs present in your campsite, you may need to create a lot more smoke or sit closer to the fire to experience any tangible benefit.

Wild Animals a Campfire Will Not Repel

Bears. Everybody is concerned about encountering a bear when they are out camping and need to know whether or not their campfire will keep them safe from them.

Bears are not repelled by a simple campfire regardless of species and will happily wander into your campsite. The good news is that most bears are not aggressive and are either simply curious or scavenging for an easy meal in your food stores. We will go over some simple, effective ways to discourage them in another section.

Raccoons are one of nature’s most fearless scavengers and are unlikely to be repelled by a simple campfire. They tend to live in and around humans and live off of our garbage and food wastes, so they are comfortable near fire and light despite being nocturnal.

Packs of dogs, wolves, or coyotes will overcome any fear that they might have had while solitary, but luckily these animals will still tend to avoid humans unless they are starving.

In rare cases, a campfire may also attract reptiles like lizards and snakes looking to warm up. Although they are more likely to hide in shoes or sleeping bags for an unwelcome surprise.

Animals with rabies or that feel desperate and cornered are likely to buck conventional wisdom about their species due to their altered state of mind. Any animal with rabies will be willing to aggressively charge people at a campfire, and a cornered animal will approach a fire.

Bear in Woods Looking Threatening

So What Does Repel Them?

There are a couple of easy methods that will repel healthy animals that would not be dissuaded by your campfire.

  1. Make your presence known – the cheapest and easiest way to secure your campsite from being visited by unwanted wildlife is to be loud and make noise. Most animals are afraid of humans, so if you are a loud, confident human, they will avoid the area. Belt out some off-key songs at camp or hold a simple conversation, and wildlife will generally steer clear. If you need to sleep or don’t want to take the whole time, play a radio to simulate human voices and conversation.
  2. Use scents to your advantage – I don’t mean marking your territory like an animal would. The scents of urine and excrement actually attract bears. There are various liquid and solid animal repellents you can purchase, but if you want to keep it cheap and simple, just use some fabric softener sheets. Place these sheets strategically around your campsite and make sure they don’t blow away, and your area instantly becomes less appealing since animals are very sensitive to these scents.

Related Can You Scare a Bear With an Airhorn?

What Attracts Wild Animals?

Animals are always using their noses to further their main agenda, which is finding food. Sustenance is the main goal of any animal, and this extends to staking out territory and investigating the marking of any animals, including humans.

There are some common actions that humans tend to do that attract the attention of wildlife in camping or hiking situations.

  1. Cooking nothing gets the attention of animals more than the scent of cooking food. During the cooking process, a lot of scents are put out that attract hungry animals. If it is possible to cook in an area some distance from your camp, you reduce your chances of an unwanted animal encounter.
  2. Food-related trash – improperly disposing of food-related trash is a sure way to end up with your camp being raided by animals. It is important to dispose of all trash that is food-related or has food scent or scents that are similar to food in a durable odor-proof bag.
  3. Urine and excrement – bigger animals like bears and mountain lions are attracted to the scent of urine and excrement. In large predator country, you need to be cautious and be 100 yards from camp before taking care of your bathroom needs.

Executing good practices relating to these issues will decrease your likelihood of unintendedly running into wildlife.

How to Avoid Camping Near Animals

You can save yourself from potential animal trouble if your campsite is appropriately placed. Some things to consider when choosing your campsite are below.

  1. Choose flat open ground – flat open ground improves wind flow and will alleviate insect-related issues.
  2. Minimal grass – low grass or bare ground is a better choice when possible because of snakes and rodents that like to lurk in these areas.
  3. Fallen trees and deadfall – fallen trees and deadfall often house insects, snakes, rodents, and other wildlife like raccoons.
  4. Trails and water sources – animals tend to use the same trails and need water just like humans do. Avoiding these high-traffic areas by being 50 yards away will reduce your chances of an encounter.
  5. Animal sign & droppings – if you see scratched-up trees or large droppings, you should pick a different campsite immediately because it is possible that a bear or mountain lion has marked its territory, and you want to avoid them at all costs.
  6. Talk to the ranger – if you are camping in a state or national park, you can talk to them about what areas have more or less animal activity and where sitings have happened. Their advice is invaluable since they are wildlife experts in the local area.

Following these simple rules, you can make your camping experience more pleasant.

Additional Preventative Tips

Wild animals are naturally curious and will investigate new and foreign smells. This includes common items like toothpaste, deodorant, dish soap, and shampoo. Use these in the morning to increase the chances of the smell dissipating by nightfall.

Here are 6 more tips to lessen your exposure to an encounter with a wild animal:

  1. Change into clean clothes prior to sleeping to further reduce the chances of cooking odors or other interesting scents being investigated in the night. Clean yourself and change around 50 yards from your campsite when possible.
  2. Inspect your tent to ensure that there are no rips or tears in your tent and that all of the zippers are in working order. Make sure all the zippers are closed before leaving your tent. Animals inspecting your campsite is one matter, but finding them in your sleeping area is much more dangerous.
  3. Shiny objects like keys, cutlery, and aluminum foil are attractive to many creatures, especially raccoons. To avoid contact with them, just cover these items up before going to sleep.
  4. Thoroughly wash down any cooking equipment and dispose of food scraps in appropriate areas. Wastewater from these activities should also be disposed of 50 yards from your camp.
  5. Never eat inside your tent. Food odors being trapped inside your tent can attract animals and give them a reason to force their way inside.
  6. Hang your sealed cooler and all of your supplies high in a tree in an odor-proof bag high off the ground, preferably over 10 ft off of the ground. Other options include a bear canister and storing your food in your car. However, it is important to realize that food stored in your car is only safe from smaller scavengers. Bears have been known to open and break into cars to investigate food smells.

What to Do If a Wild Animal Shows Up

Even if you do everything in your power to avoid it, it is still possible that wild animals could show up. Stay calm and don’t panic if it happens, and use some of the tips below to increase your safety.

  1. Make loud noises – clapping and whistling and bright flashing lights all scare away the majority of animals. Bears will also dislike these actions, but you need to make sure that it is not done in a threatening or combative manner from a safe distance.
  2. Do not stare – any direct eye contact with a predator is considered a sign of aggression so unless you are looking to be in an animal attack situation, avoid doing this. Larger aggressive predators will attack if they feel challenged.
  3. Back away slowly – backing away slowly will remove you from the situation in the safest possible way. Turning your back or, even worse, running from an animal may trigger an instinctive response to chase and hunt you as prey.

Following these simple guidelines could help keep you safe in an animal encounter. To be extra safe, try to read about the local wildlife you are likely to encounter before camping or hiking and talk to a local park ranger to be as prepared as possible.

Related Questions

Will coffee grounds attract bears? Coffee is very attractive to bears, but not for drinking. Coffee grounds are very aromatic, and since bears have such a strong sense of smell, it is like catnip to them.

What smells will deter bears? Strong pine-based smells in cleaners are disliked by bears and tend to keep them away.

Final Thoughts

Campfires repel a wide variety of wildlife but not all types of wildlife. A campfire will not repel everything, and it is important to take a broader view of your actions in the wild to repel or avoid animals.

Be aware of the situations you are creating, and you can help to control the likelihood of encountering wildlife and the safety of yourself, your friends, and your family in the case of a wildlife encounter.

For more, check out 4 Steps to Building the Best Fire Pits in Survival Shelters.