Many people believe that sleeping in a tent on the ground is more dangerous than sleeping in a rooftop tent. That, I think, is a bit of a misconception.
Whether venturing into the bush in a 4×4 or on my motorbike, I always either ground-camp, or simply sleep beneath a tarp. Apart from being bothered by the odd bug or two, and mosquitoes, I never really feel vulnerable. But, if you do, here are my top tips for ground camping.
Select a site away from animal activity. If there are footprints, droppings, recently flattened grass, or trees with huge great gouge marks running down the trunk where an animal has tried sharpening its claws, I’d be inclined to look elsewhere.
Water holes, game trails, or trees with any kind of fruit should also be avoided. Ripe fruit will be attractive to many kinds of animals. Elephants have a particular liking for marula fruit. Bothersome primates also have a fondness for fruit, and the last thing you want is a troop of squabbling monkeys on a serious sugar-high around your camp.
Be careful of water
All animals require water at some time or other, and may use the same water-hole on a daily basis. While it may be nice to camp in the proximity of a watering hole and watch the animals come and go, they can be viewed as the equivalent of a supermarket for the predators who often hang out there, waiting for their next meal. The problem is that these predators might not make the distinction between you and a zebra.
Also, be very observant of what lies beneath the surface. Crocodiles have the remarkable ability to learn, and will watch the habits of a potential victim for several days before launching an attack. Seeing you crouched down while doing the dishes, a croc is going to think: “Mmm, lunch”.
Use natural features
When looking for a site to strike camp, try to use natural features such as rock formations, trees, bushes, etc., to your advantage. Use them as a shield to protect you from animals. I try to position my tent/shelter between trees or rocks, and then position my motorbike or car in front of the tent/shelter (after the fire has gone out − see below) to act as an additional barrier.
The importance of a fire
Never underestimate the importance of fire as a barrier against animals. If I know that the particular area where I’m going to camp has potentially aggressive animals, I always position my fire near to the shelter. The fire acts as a barrier to deter animals, and if you put some damp leaves on it to create smoke, it also keeps the mozzies at bay.
What type of food you carry, and what you do with it, can affect visits from wildlife. One way of keeping animals from the camp is to hang food and rubbish high enough out of the reach of animals, in a tree at least 50m away. Avoid using a brightly-coloured bag, however, as that may draw an animal’s attention.
Although some animals can climb trees, I’d rather they climb a tree to get at my food, than rip my camp apart with me in it. If no suitable tree is available, food should be double-bagged, and stored well away from the camp.
During the evening, get into the habit of eating around the campfire rather than in the tent or shelter. The fire will not only protect you from animals, but may also mask cooking odours if a strong-smelling wood is being burnt.
And it is not just food we should store carefully, but also toiletries. Monkeys are strongly attracted to the smell of peppermint, for some reason. So, store peppermint toothpaste along with the food in the tree.
Do not leave dirty pots lying around, as these will attract animals both large and small. Wash pots immediately after eating. Your campsite should also not have bits of food lying around on it. And, if there is something you don’t want to eat, don’t throw it into the bush. That is asking for a visit.
Whether you love them (I do), or loathe them (as most do), you should give consideration to snakes. Striking camp beneath a shade tree full of nesting birds is not a good idea, as they are going to attract snakes, some of which may be venomous. A friend of mine told me how he’d once pitched his tent beneath a tree full of weaver birds. That night, he was rudely awoken by having a big python fall from the tree on top of his tent. The poor guy must have needed a serious change of underwear!
Snakes (as well as insects, spiders and scorpions) can get everywhere, so think carefully not only about where you camp, but how you camp. Always keep the entrance of the tent zipped up.
Can strong smells protect you?
I have not tried this myself, but I have it from reliable sources (field guides I know, working in game lodges) that aromatic fabric softener is a good repellent when it comes to warding off animals. Apparently they don’t like the smell.
MY TOP TEN TIPS
1) Keep the tent/camp/sleeping area free of food odour
2) Keep the camp clean
3) Store food safely, and away from the camp
4) Never store food in the tent
5) Never throw unwanted food in the bush
6) Never feed wild animals
7) Use natural features as a barrier
8) Make use of fire as a form of protection
9) Be aware of the signs the wilderness gives you
10) Camp a safe distance from watering holes.
Some time ago, I read a very amusing story about a seasoned camper who began to take his wife with him on trips. Being unaccustomed to camping in the wilds and surrounded by animals, she had difficulty sleeping. Every time she heard a noise, she would nudge her husband awake with “Did you hear that?” It became so bad, that he coined the expression ‘She could hear an ant fart’.
If you are worrying to that extent, you will never enjoy the experience, nor will you be encouraged to go anywhere. As we progress through life, we all gain common sense, so why not use it while you are in the bush?