Do Campfires Attract Animals?

long exposure bonfire with yellow tent on background. copy space

Everyone’s been there before: hanging around the fire at your campsite, roasting marshmallows or hot dogs or starbursts, having a great time. Then, the foliage starts rustling and no one’s off answering nature’s call–it’s obviously a bear come to eat you and your friends. Did your fire attract its attention?

Campfires don’t typically attract wild animals. Wild animals will often campfires because humans are there. Some animals have adapted to fire and aren’t necessarily repelled by its presence, but humans are a strong deterrent. However, campfires do not always repel wild animals.

That rustling in the bushes isn’t going to be a bear (even if it was, you’re more likely to be killed by a bee that flies through your campground the next day than whatever bear happens to be passing through). Here’s some more information about wild animals, bears included, and fires in case you’re not convinced.

Fire Adaption

Fire has been around longer than humans have, it’s a part of various ecological successions all over the globe. Succession is “the process by which an ecosystem recovers after a disturbance, such as a fire, flood or human activity, that significantly alters the area.” Fire is the triggering event of many ecosystems’ successions and many animal and plant species have had to become fire adapted.

The term “fire adapted” suggests immunity of some kind, that you’ll poke your head outside of your tent and find wild animals living it up in your fire pit. Unfortunately, it just means that these wild animals have found ways to survive wildfires, not that they’re magically connected to them. Animals have learned to outrun or fly fires, burrow underground if they aren’t fast enough, and wait fires out in bodies of water, like ponds, streams, and lakes.

Many animals even benefit in the aftermath of a wildfire due to the cycle of regrowth. An increase in vegetation will improve the food supply for larger mammals, as will the population increase of smaller prey animals that comes following fires. Other animals are able to create new habitats and homes from the remains of trees and other plants.

Plants have adapted to fire a little differently than animals. Some become resisters, plants with thick bark, deep roots, lower branches that are easy to shed, and moist, short needles or leaves that are hard to burn. Others become sprouters, plants that regrow from roots, trunks, and limbs that were damaged or cut off during a fire. Seeders will shed lots of seeds to sprout right after a fire has cleared the area, and invaders–invasive species–will try to take over an area recently cleared by fire.

No matter what adaptation they have, fire is essential for many different plants. It creates nutrient-rich soil, clears clutter and debris, creates more space, kills pests and diseases, controls harmful weeds, and makes new habitats for other species living in the ecosystem, like insects and small nesting animals, from trees that don’t survive.

What all this means is that wild animals aren’t going to be scared off by a campfire. It’s much smaller than dangerous wildfires and they’ve learned how to escape and survive it. Your campfire isn’t a strong deterrent because of itself; it’s because of the humans around it.

Why Don’t Wild Animals Like Humans?

At some point or another, you’ve likely come across a domesticated animal–they like us plenty. Dogs are called man’s best friend for a reason, right? And who doesn’t like when a cat takes up residence on their lap? But why are wild animals so averse to us? There are several reasons.

One is that we’re bipedal. Other bipedal animals, like chimpanzees and gorillas, stand to express threat. Standing makes them–and us–larger and more aggressive; it’s an easy way to communicate that you’re not something other animals want to mess with. We’re really social, too. Larger primates–humans included–live in groups and aggressively defend themselves from threats. So, seeing humans in large groups immediately tells an animal to avoid them.

Additionally, we’re pretty dangerous to animals. Over time, we’ve developed technology that allows us to hunt better; bows and guns are distance weapons and give us the advantage. Many wild animal populations have also declined over time, especially because of humans. When they see us, oftentimes they’ll avoid us for their own safety.

What Can I Do to Repel Animals?

Khao Chang Phueak Mountain at night time with camping tents

You’re probably thinking, “if the fire doesn’t repel animals, then what can I do to keep them out of my campsite?” Luckily for you, there are lots of options!

  • Keep food out of sight. Since they’re around campgrounds already, it’s very likely that whatever animals you see have encountered campers before and know where we’re likely to keep our food–coolers and grocery bags aren’t the great unknowns we think they are. If they’re left lying around, animals will be on them like white on rice. Keep your food out of sight, like in your car or covered completely by a blanket. Bring it out only when you’re ready to cook/eat and immediately put it away.
  • Keep food out of scent. Pack away any uneaten food or leftover scraps–be scrupulous combing through your camp, it’s better to be overcautious–in sealed containers that will keep the scent from getting out. Animal noses are much better than human noses, so even if that tied-up grocery sack doesn’t smell like anything to you, it will smell like something to a wild animal.
  • Avoid artificially scented things. Animals are curious and anything that isn’t familiar to them–like your body wash that smells like a “meadow sunshine”–is something they’re going to investigate. Pack away your scented lotions, soaps, and deodorants for your camping trip and try unscented toiletries instead. If you absolutely have to have your Japanese Cherry Blossom moisturizer, make sure to apply it in the morning so the scent dissipates by the time you go to bed.
  • Keep your food away from your campsite. When an animal happens upon your campsite, they aren’t looking for anything except food. It’s best to keep your food out of tents and sleeping bags, just in case, and away from the campsite when you aren’t eating. As mentioned above, keeping it in a car is a good idea. Hanging your food in a tree is a good idea, too. It won’t keep animals from climbing up the tree and eating it, but it will keep animals from searching through your campsite looking for any hidden goodies.
  • Don’t sleep where you cook and eat. This relates back to scents: cooking makes scents stronger and the smell of whatever you cook will linger even after everything is cleaned up and packed away. Additionally, it’s likely someone will spill or drop food on the ground, and no clean-up is foolproof. Cook and eat at least 200 feet from where you’re going to sleep.
  • Keep your campsite clean. Be conscious of any wrappers, bags, or containers that get emptied over your trip and make sure they are stored properly. Put garbage and leftover food in odor-proof containers.
  • Fabric softener sheets. Many animals hate the scent of dryer sheets and sometimes they can be used to disguise food. Put them all over: tents, sleeping bags, backpacks, coolers. Don’t use ones that have already been through the dryer, as the scent is gone. This is the only exception to the artificial scent rule.

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