Very few preppers would ever consider camping or bugging out in a wilderness setting without making use of a campfire. A campfire provides light, warmth, a much-needed morale boost and it can also help keep animals away from your campsite. At least, you often hear people assert that fire will repel animals. But is this true?
While most animals will retreat from fire when they are threatened with it, and instinctively they will flee from a conflagration like a forest fire, do they associate the presence of a small fire which might just be a flickering light in the distance with danger? Will that be enough to make them stay away?
Will campfires really keep animals away? Maybe. There is little evidence to suggest that the presence of a small fire is itself what will repel an animal from a campsite. The evidence does suggest that animals are more likely to associate a small fire with humans, or the fire highlights the human presence – and that will repel certain animals. However, in areas where human contact occurs frequently and animals benefit from this in the form of easy access to food, a fire might actually attract animals.
There is more to this question than a simple yes or no answer, and what works in certain circumstances might not work in others. We will explore a few of the factors below.
What Kind of Creature Are We Dealing With?
While it is true that most mammals will retreat from fire when directly threatened with it, not all mammals are inherently afraid of fire, and some organisms are completely heedless of the danger presented by fire, and still others are attracted to the warmth and light emitted from it.
Let us start with mammals. Most large mammals you might expect to encounter when camped, things like bears, cougars, deer and so forth, will generally stay away from a fire not necessarily because it is a fire, but because the fire is associated with people and most mammals keep away from people, wanting nothing to do with us.
The fire might simply highlight the presence of said people, further providing a disincentive. It is in no way certain that the light emitted by a fire or its very nature is a proper deterrent to larger mammals.
Smaller mammals, raccoons, armadillos, squirrels, rats, mice and so forth are also generally not afraid of fire, and will as a rule keep their distance from people, but plenty of stories prevail about these creatures drawing very near to campers with little reservation. Curiosity is not just a trait of cats! More on that in a minute.
Reptiles and amphibians, snakes, frogs and the like, might actually be attracted to the fire for the warmth it provides. Quite a few stories abound of campers watching hapless frogs hopping directly into their fire without a moment’s hesitation.
Snakes might not be drawn directly to the fire itself, but to objects warmed by the fire that represent an enticing shelter. Do take care that your boots, sleeping bag or any rocks in your campsite do not become the temporary habitat of a snake!
Insects are another matter entirely, with the vast majority being completely heedless of a fire and what danger it represents. Most importantly for campers, the smoke produced by a campfire is absolutely no deterrent whatsoever towards mosquitoes and other biting insects, contrary to popular folklore.
Moths and other flying insects that are attracted to light will oftentimes fly into the flames moments before they burn up.
Scorpions, spiders, centipedes and other creepy crawlies show no concern or preference for fire one way or the other, and many campers who stopped for the night in the desert will wake up to find scorpions all around their campsite despite keeping the fire going all night.
Generally, fire is something of a mixed bag as an animal repellent, with only mammals being dependably repelled by it and probably not because they are necessarily afraid of the fire itself.
Fire Might Attract Certain Animals
Of particular concern to preppers and campers is the notion that some animals that come into regular contact with people might actually be attracted to your campsite if you have a fire going.
Through habitualization and the gradual loss of their fear of humans, many animals eat pretty well thanks to human campers and tourists, thanks either to being fed by irresponsible people, or through the raiding of campsites, picnic tables, trash cans, coolers, vehicles and so forth.
We should not underestimate the intelligence of our furry friends, foremost among them bears, raccoons, coyotes and cougars, and indeed some animals that have long associated the presence of a fire with humans might do the opposite of their nature given enough exposure and success when looking for food.
Instead of running in the other direction they might head towards the flickering light on the horizon in search of an easy meal!
Anytime wild animals draw close to people, the stage is set for tragedy, and you should not assume that any animal that has lost its fear of humans is docile, harmless, or otherwise not a danger. That kind of complacency might see you seriously injured.
Generally speaking, if you are camping in a place that is frequented by human traffic, chances are increased that the animals in the area will be more habitualized to the presence of humans, and thus less likely to avoid a human campsite that has a fire going. Proceed accordingly.
It is also worth considering that an animal that is sick, rabid, or starving might boldly approach a fire as a matter of course looking for a meal of any kind, pre-prepared or not, any animal that approaches your campsite without fear must be treated with great caution, and you should be especially cautious if it looks unhealthy or is exhibiting signs of illness.
Should You Build a Fire or Not?
The bottom line is that you should build a fire if you need or desire one, but do not count on it one way or the other to repulse any animals that might be in the area, whatever they are. At best, the fire will highlight the presence of humans to the animal which will then attempt to avoid you.
At worst, it will make it more likely that you could get visited if it has learned humans mean handouts and goodies. Smaller reptilian and insect life will likely not behave any differently one way or the other.
If you need to cook, want the light or just prefer to stay warm build your fire but be prepared to act should an animal come by and investigate.
A campfire might repel animals from your campsite because it highlights the presence of the humans occupying it, but most animals are not particularly afraid of a small fire unless directly threatened by it.
Smaller critters, ones like reptiles, amphibians, insects and arthropods do not care one way or the other if you have a fire going or not; they will continue to move about as they always have. Make use of a fire if you need one, just don’t count on it as a surefire animal repellent.