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Pest Proof Your Campsite: Prevent Insects and Bears From Invading

Dolores and her family enjoy primitive camping on an island in the Adirondacks in upstate New York.



Protect Campsite From Pests

Tent camping takes you out into a natural environment filled with beautiful sights, fresh air, and bird song. But tent camping brings nature to you in some undesirable ways as well. Mosquitoes, gnats, flies, and other insects can make your camping trip uncomfortable.

Bears drawn by food odors can ruin a camping trip. Even when they do not pose a threat, bears may wreck your stored food and can even break into cars and vans to get at coolers.

You can cut down on these unwanted pests by following some of the tips outlined below.

Learn About the Area in Which You Camp

When checking in to the ranger station or campsite office, be sure to familiarize yourself with the area and any potential problems. Learn the rules for garbage disposal and the location of garbage disposal areas. Carry your garbage to the dumpster (if they have one) every night—that includes empty beer cans, juice bottles, food debris, and food wrappers. If there is no disposal area, crush then enclose the rubbish in Ziploc bags.

Maintaining a neat and clean campsite will deter pests of all kinds. Keep all food in tightly sealed containers when not in use. If you place food in Ziploc bags, double-bag and seal. Heavy-duty containers work best. It's a royal pain to go off for a nice walk in the woods and return to a camp wrecked by skunks, raccoons, ravens, crows, chipmunks, or squirrels who've picked up the aroma of your favorite brownies.

Inform yourself ahead of time as to potential pests. Don't camp next to the swamp in high summer. Check for seasonal insects and other pest activity. The ranger station should inform you if there has been any bear activity in the area. Steer clear of these places.

Keep the Area Clean

Though it may seem like a good idea to just toss your trash into the campfire, current thinking suggests it's best to pack out all garbage. To this end, use reusable materials for eating—washable plates, cups, bowls, and utensils. Wrap foods in reusable materials.

  • Camp only in areas where camping is permitted or in established sites.
  • Don't camp near dense shrubbery. Find a clear, open area and pitch your tent on a surface such as sand, gravel, or pine needles.
  • Clear camp area of loose debris such as twigs and leaves.
  • If you are near a large body of water such as a lake, situate your campsite where you'll catch some breeze.
  • Keep your campsite garbage-free. Cook only enough to eat. No leftovers.
  • Dispose of garbage every evening after dinner in the manner recommended by area officials.


How to Avoid and Repel Insects

Twilight brings out pesky insects. Fortunately, there are several things you can do to bug-proof your campsite. Insect repellent comes in many forms including certain types safe for children. But there are other ways of deterring insects:

  • Dryer sheets tucked in pockets and shoes are a good insect repellent. Tuck a few dryer sheets around the edges of your tent too.
  • Incense and citronella candles ward off bugs too.
  • The smoke from a campfire will deter evening insects.
  • Avon's Skin-So-Soft has proved to be a great insect repellent as well as a welcome moisturizer that soothes the skin.
  • When evening falls, wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants tucked into socks. Remember, that out in the wilderness, upcountry, in the mountains and desert, the evening will probably be cool.
  • Wash hands and face after eating. Clean up food garbage.
  • Keep bottled juices and drinks closed. Wipe off dribbles.
  • Avoid wearing perfumed deodorants, perfume, and perfumed shampoo.
  • If bitten by a mosquito, resist the urge to scratch. Once you scratch, it keeps on itching.

There are many herbal sources to deter insects:

  • Garlic: To eat or wear. Some people swear that taking a 15 mg garlic capsule produces an odor unpleasant to mosquitoes (and vampires too).
  • Vitamin B-1: Some folks say take a tablet a day to repel many types of insects.
  • Many essential oils will deter insects: citronella, lemongrass, lavender, peppermint, pine, eucalyptus, thyme, red cedar, clove, mugwort, rosemary. Dilute in almond oil and spray it on.
  • Tea: Make a tea of catmint and rosemary (or lavender and lemongrass) and put it in a spray bottle. Spray on your skin.
  • If you drink a shot of vinegar, that should keep mosquitoes from biting. I tried it this summer and it worked well.
(photo by

Fish Guts Attract Troublesome Pests

There's nothing like fresh fish when you are camping. And you're not the only one to think so. Bears, insects, coyotes, and other varmints are attracted to the smell of fish in any way, shape, or form. The disposal of fish entrails varies depending on where you are camping. One area may be adamant about a particular rule while another area takes the opposite stance. So, check with the rules of the park.

In backcountry areas or when fishing in lakes, it is suggested that you throw the fish entrails into a deep water well away from shore. This practice adds nutrients to the water. Live fish will feed off your unwanted portions. And throwing your fish guts into deep water removes the smell of fish from your area and avoids attracting hungry pests.

Other areas forbid the disposal of fish in water and prefer that you bury the entrails in a hole several inches deep well away from campsites and trails. Some suggest disposing of the entrails out in the open (well away from campsites and trails) and that animals will eat the debris.

Newer thinking, the leave no trace concept, suggests that you pack up the fish guts in double Ziplock bags and pack the stuff out.

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Black bears and in some western states, grizzly bears can be dangerous or they can destroy your campsite in search of an easy meal.

  • Check out the campsite before you move in to look for signs of bears. Look for garbage left by previous campers or signs of rummaging bears. We found one campsite littered with broken auto window glass. The previous tenants of the campsite had stored their food in the mini-van. The bears simply yanked off the partially open window, made a huge mess, and ate most of the food.
  • Some campgrounds provide locked, metal, bear-proof containers—use them.
  • When primitive camping, hoist food containers up between 2 trees. Hang the bag or cooler 10 feet up off the ground and 4 feet out from the trunk of the tree.
  • Keep toothpaste and anything that smells like mint with the food, not in the tent. Bears are attracted to the minty smell.
  • Pitch tents far away from natural feeding areas such a berry bushes or a stream that's aboil with salmon.
  • Set up your kitchen at some distance from your tents. Some experts recommend the kitchen and dish-washing area should be 100 feet away from the tents. Dispose of dishwater at a distance from your tents as well.
  • Do not sleep in the clothes that wore while you cooked or ate in as the fabric will retain the smell of food.
  • Wash your face and hands after eating so you don't smell like dinner.
  • Never bring food into your tent.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2009 Dolores Monet


Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on July 23, 2018:

Hi Natalie - I spent a lot of time in the woods when I was a kid. We lived right next door to one. We rarely thought about ticks or any other problems and just ran wild. I feel like there are more ticks around these days.

Natalie Frank from Chicago, IL on July 13, 2018:

I used to camp in the north Georgia mountains all the time in grad school and we never thought about any of this. Guess it's a good thing we lived to tell the tale!

Kim on August 17, 2017:

Dryer sheets? No, no, never use them, bears are attracted so go with pine sol or oils with pine in them. Be safe and research everything beforehand so you don't get maimed or killed. And always boil some bear repelling bark to wash off the smell of river/ creek water where live and roam, fish oils, etc., from face, hands/arms, clothing, rinsing out mouth followed by fresh unscented water to reduce the chances of becoming the next forest snack. Sleep well.

Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on July 08, 2017:

Hi MRo - what a great question ! I went looking for that information but it's hard to find anything useful online. In general, experts tell us not to smell pretty when out in the wild. Bears are curious about odors and do like citrus scents. Maybe it's a toss up - mosquitoes or bears. Mountain lions are supposedly put off by the smell of essential oils! One way to keep bears away is by making a lot of noise, but that seems like it would spoil the ambiance. We had a run in with a bear while we were singing Bob Dylan songs which begs the question - do bears like badly sung Bob Dylan? Or, was the bear so used to people being around that the sound meant "free food!"

MRo on July 08, 2017:

You have given some great tips although I heard bear are curious when it comes to smells that they can detect from quite some distance. This begs the question, are essential oils that we use to keep bugs away and other uses, going to attract the bears?

Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on August 12, 2009:

Thanks, Frieda. We had a bear visit our camp site in the Adirondacks when we forgot to put the Little Debbies away in the bear vault. I still have the lid to the peanut butter with a hole in it from the bite the bear took out of it.

Frieda Babbley from Saint Louis, MO on August 12, 2009:

I totally forgot about so many of these great tips. Lavender oil is suppose to keep pests away from your pets too, so you're suppose to put some on their beds. Pretty nifty trick. We've come across baby brown bears in Green Mountain Falls in Colorado during the summers. Poor things have to come further down since their territories are being built on. So sad really. Love the info Dolores, thanks. Love the videos too!

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