Adventure Resources

What NOT to do when camping with wildlife

Camping with wildlife is one of our favourite things to do. I'm not sure if it's just that we grew up in South Africa, but getting the opportunity to share an area with wild animals is one we jump at every time.

However, there are a very different set of rules when it comes to camping with wildlife and one needs to take extra precautions to ensure one's safety and the safety of the wild animals around you.

In this post we look at the 9 things you should NOT do when camping with wildlife.

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What to expect when camping with wildlife.

Encountering wildlife when camping is an inevitability - it's best to be prepared so when this happens, you're not surprised.

Now, first up, when we say "camping with wildlife" we aren't necessarily referring to wild camping or camping - that's an entirely different post.

Rather we're talking about camping in a campsite that is in a wildlife area, or where there is wildlife around.

One other point is that, we've done most of our camping in southern Africa, so we're going to be skewing most of what we say towards the wild animals that are found in that region. So, things like baboons, monkeys, hippos, lions, elephants - these are the kinds of animals we're used to encountering. We have no idea what to do around bears, coyotes, wolves, or anything like that, so you may need to check up on specifics in your region.

When camping with wildlife goes wrong.

Let's start with a story (if you'd like to skip the story, just scroll down to where the list begins).

A few years ago, I was leading an overland expedition through Tanzania. The group were all young American teenagers who had come to Tanzania to do some volunteer work and explore a few of the country's wild spaces.

One of our stops was in the Mikumi National Park which borders the large Selous Game Reserve to the south. Mikumi is an unfenced wildlife area and is home to most of Africa's large mammals, including elephants, buffalo and lions.

After a long drive through the savannah dotted with acacias, baobabs and tamarinds, we pulled into a clearing that had recently been cut around a tall baobab tree. This was going to be our campsite for the next few days. A small, unfenced patch in the middle of the African bushveld.

Camping with wildlife in the Mikumi National Park
Our campsite in the Mikumi National Park.

As there was still some daylight, the group went out on a game drive in the truck, leaving the cook and I to set up the camp and prepare dinner.

While we were busying ourselves with camp duties we both heard the distant, but very distinct rumbles of lions moving through the veld. We nervously looked at each other and, with no one else around, started making mental escape plans in the event our camp was infiltrated by giant, hungry cats.

View from the Baobab
I climbed the baobab to see if I could spot the lions.

After a few tense minutes, our group returned with tales of lions in trees, leopard hunts and all the kinds of stories that would no doubt be told around the campfire that night.

And indeed, the stories did flow as we sat beneath the baobab and ate delicious pap and wors (a mix of maize meal and African-styled sausage) and pot bread around a roaring fire.

As the conversation started to ebb and it was nearing bedtime, I took the opportunity to give our guests the full rundown of what to expect from camping in the wild. We weren't in a zoo where the animals got put away in a pen for the night - there was a very real possibility that we could, and almost certainly would, have animals coming through our camp in the night.

While the group listened closely, their chaperone (a much older guy who come along with them to keep an eye on everyone) grinned quietly to himself as he thought we were simply telling ghost stories to scare the kids.

Camping with wildlife in the Okavango Delta
African bush meetings around the campfire.

That night, once everyone had zipped up their tents for the night, our chaperone friend thought it would be a romantic idea to spend the night under the stars and promptly moved his sleeping bag and bedroll outside, next to the fire.

In the middle of the night, I was awoken by the sound of frantic scratching at my tent and the muffled and terrified voice of the chaperone pleading with me to open the tent.

I quickly unzipped the tent flap and before it had even opened a hair's breadth, our friend had vaulted himself into the tent with cartoon-like alacrity - even slamming into the opposite side of the tent and curling into the fetal position which is how he spent the rest of the night.

The next day, we called him over to the spot where he had been sleeping and showed him the saucer-sized tracks of a massive lion that had been browsing around the camp the night before.

Lions around Mikumi camp.
I took this shot the next morning as we were leaving camp - the lions were still around.

Needless to say, it was the last time our chaperone friend did that again!

So let's take a look at our list of 9 things to not do when camping with wildlife.

1. Do not think that a fenced campsite is an impenetrable fortress.

Animals can get into campsites in any number of ways and we've had everything from bush pigs to honey badgers and hyenas invade our campsite while we were behind electric fences. Those fences are simply deterrents and not solid barriers.

Roaming hyenas are regular visitors when camping with wildlife in South Africa.
Roaming hyenas are regular visitors when camping with wildlife in South Africa.

Your foremost expectation when camping with wildlife should be that, some point, a wild animal is going to come through your camp. Your hope is that it's a harmless animal, like an nyala, or impala, but big predators can and do come through campsites, and this should not surprise you, but rather you should be prepared.

2. Do not leave your food lying around.

This is a cardinal rule when camping with wildlife!

Do not leave any food unattended. This includes anything that smells like food like your toiletries, and braai grid, and garbage.

Use a lock up box to store food and garbage, or keep everything in your car.

If you've cooked dinner over the fire, wear a change of clothes to bed and keep those other clothes out of your tent, as they will also carry the tempting smell of food.

Keeping a clean campsite is essential when camping with wildlife.
Keeping a clean campsite is essential when camping with wildlife.

3. Do not feed the any of the wildlife in or around the campsite.

This is another huge no-no.

Animals are easily attracted to campsites with the allure of easy food and this can cause them to become less fearful of humans, and even brazen.

Monkeys and baboons are a big problem in this regard, and a negative contact with either of these species could have devastating consequences.

Vervet monkey in camp
Vervet monkeys are a campsite regular on the east coast of South Africa and become very brazen when fed.

4. Do not provoke any wild animals in your camp.

As we mentioned in the beginning, you should expect animals to be in your camp, so that, when you find them there, you are not alarmed.

If you find an animal in your campsite or even in your tent, do not run at it or try to intimidate it. Most animals are scared of humans by nature, so even your presence should be enough to scare an animal away - by let it know you're coming by calmly talking and moving into camp slowly.

If you corner an animal and try to catch it or attack it, you will trigger one of its self-defense reactions: fight or flight. And if it chooses fight, you're not going to come out of that encounter well. A big baboon can do some serious damage and even something small like a monkey will send you to the hospital for a rabies shot.

Nyala in camp
Always great to come back to camp and find some friendly nyalas browsing around.

5. Do not leave your tent at night particularly in big game areas.

The story of our chaperone friend should be testimony to this point.

Besides predators, there are other, sometimes more dangerous animals that come out at night. For example, hippos are nocturnal grazers and they can travel for many kilometers in search of grass to eat and if you bump into one of those in the night, you are in some serious trouble.

Most animals that come into your camp at night are inquisitive and not looking to do any harm, but if you'd like to feel extra secure, you can always set up a tripwire alarm that sets off a bear horn, or ever create a rope barrier around your tent (there are even some electric fence options).

But once that tent gets zipped up for the night, you should stay in there until daybreak.

Shingwedzi camp at night
A nice clean camp, with food locked in the car is a best practice when camping with wildlife.

6. Do not leave your tent even slightly open!

This is camping 101, but boy does it happen a lot!

An animal will stop at nothing to get to food if it feels it has an opportunity, so giving it an easy way in by leaving your tent open is a sure fire way of inviting one such animal in. At best, a small critter might raid your stash of sweets, and at worst a big predator might get in while you're asleep. It's very rare, but there are a few stories of hyenas getting into tents in the middle of the night and doing some serious damage to people.

If you want to feel extra secure, zip the tent up and lock the zips together with some cable ties that you can cut open in the morning or when you return to camp.

Tent zippers together
Your tent zippers should always be closed together.

7. Do no spray any bug poisons in your campsite.

It might be tempted to take revenge on those irritating mosquitoes that harass you around the campfire, but spraying poison of any kind is something you should not do. Poison always effects more than just the insects you're spraying.

Bug sprays will kill any insect that comes into contact with the poison and, in turn, birds that eat those insects will fall victim to the ensuing poison cycle. Other camp critters like bush babies, squirrels, and mice are also in danger.

It is best to use an insect repellent or try to use natural remedies for repelling insects like wild sage and burning citronella oil.

brown-hooded kingfisher
Insectivores like brown-hooded kingfishers are at risk of eating poisoned insects.

8. Do not leave young kinds unattended around camp.

Small children are targets in the bush as predators see them as easy prey.

Even Jill, who is not a child by any means, has attracted the interest of a young leopard while we were sat in a vehicle. It was a harrowing moment to say the least, but her small size is was got the animal interested.

Make sure you can always see your kids and don't let them run off by themselves.

9. Do not camp where animals are expected to be.

This is not usually a problem with fenced campsites as they tend to be away from high-traffic animal areas, but camps that are more open or unfenced is cause for a bit of extra awareness.

Avoid things like animal paths leading through the bush, as well as areas that look like drinking holes. If you're camped near a river, make sure you're not right on the river bank and keep away from tall reeds, or places where there is an obvious break in the vegetation, as it is highly likely that big animals like hippos use those places frequently.

Grazing hippos are something to be avoided when camping with wildlife.
Grazing hippos are something to be avoided when camping with wildlife.

So, that's all we have for you in this post - if you found it helpful leave us a comment down below or even just let us know what you would add to this list or some of your camping with wildlife encounters.

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