Campsite Security: How to Be Safe Outdoors

Whether you have the best-laid plans to bug out to a secure location, one you have set up ahead of time, or you don’t have anywhere to go when you bug out, there is a good chance you’ll be camping at some point.

But unlike a building that has solid walls, a campsite is open and exposed and can be an easy target—unless you are prepared.

campsite bugging out

In order to protect the people in your group and the food, water, and supplies you have collected, you need to seriously consider the security of your campsite.

It used to be a case of what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours but there are far too many unprincipled people frequenting campsites who don’t understand this and will help themselves to your possessions.

Then there are the animals – no matter where you camp in the world there are animals that think campers are there to provide a free meal.

The majority of people in commercial campsites or at National Park campsites are on the level and can be relied on to watch out for each other. Choose those who you think you can rely on with care.

And take all precautions to make sure your campsite is sufficiently secure.

This article will address keeping your campsite secure on the average vacation trip with a focus on keeping the people and your possessions safe, ending with a special section for bugging out camping where you do not want to risk being discovered.

Choose your site carefully

Take care when choosing your site. When deciding on where to set up camp, you need to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the area and decide on what threats or opportunities might present themselves. Here are a number of things to consider when choosing a site:

  • Is there cell service? If the networks are still up and running, can you get service where you are? This will help you communicate with others in your group and get intel on what is going on in the world.
  • Is there water nearby? You need water, and its proximity should be a huge factor in deciding where to set up camp.
  • How easy will it be to go and get food and supplies if necessary? While you need to be off the beaten path, you do need to consider how easily you can come and go and get what you need.
  • How easy is the site to access? Is it surrounded by dense brush? Are there multiple paths leading in and out? How easy is it to set up some type of early warning system? This really comes down to how defendable your campsite is. The more you can conceal your camp, control access to it, and have a good view of what is around you, the better chance you will have of knowing when a threat is approaching and having time to deal with it.
  • Are you close enough to a city or town that other people might find your camp? Are you far away in a bug out situation so you don’t accidentally run into people? This is something you need to seriously consider because there are many instances in which these types of people camp or set up a base of operations outside city limits.

Tips for keeping your stuff safe

If you are in a campsite where there are other campers, the more people the easier it is for “others” to mingle and opportunistic thieving to take place.

#1. Never leave your keys in your vehicle’s ignition – not even if you “right nearby”– it’s far too easy for someone walking past to jump in and drive off when your back is turned, and on foot you have no chance of catching them. It can happen in minutes.

2. Don’t leave the keys to a vehicle just inside the door of a tent, or on a hook just outside the tent. They should be well concealed, so a cursory look from a would-be car-thief will not reveal their whereabouts. They don’t have time to search and will move on to easier pickings.

3. Place chains with suitably large padlocks around solar panels, your BBQ, kayaks, or other large items of value.

Each item should have a separate chain and large padlock (smaller ones are too easily picked or opened with a blow from a hammer), otherwise it’s a bonanza if they are all chained together and the thief just has to open one lock to get to all the goodies.

4. Secure trailers, ATVs boat trailers etc with a wheel lock and chock like this one.

It takes a minute or so to install wheel locks on valuable items – who can enjoy a holiday if the boat or ATV, the main source of recreation has been stolen? The built-in chock prevents the item moving and the wheels are securely locked, with the rubber coated arms protecting the wheel finish and the locking mechanism pick resistant and high strength.

They come with 2 keys – so you can separate and keep a spare safe. Often insurance companies don’t want to pay out if the items are not behind a secure fence – so rather than test your insurance company just make sure your stuff is safe when camping.

6. Keep your coolers/fridges out of sight. It’s no fun coming back to find these have been stolen with all the contents. They can be chained, as well as jerry cans for fuel which seem to be popular items with thieves.

7. Don’t leave alcohol lying around – it’s tempting after a couple of drinks to head out for a walk, or go to bed and leave items on the tables outside. If anyone irresponsible gets hold of the alcohol you did not shut away securely you could be in trouble. Also, you don’t want to have to buy more because someone stole yours!

8. Cameras should not be left out on camp tables. A friend simply walked to the toilet block and five minutes later when she came back her camera was gone from the table, plus her bikini and a sarong left outside. No one saw anything.

9. If you have hiked into an area and have nowhere to store valuables then place them in a waterproof bag and bury somewhere nearby, making sure no mark of your activity is obvious, sweep the ground for footprints with a branch, and scatter the type of leaves nearby so the ground doesn’t look swept. Make sure no one was watching.

10. What friends of mine did who had hiked into an area that was prone to theft in a foreign country was to place valuables like their passports, in a bag, dig a hole, cover it and place the tent on top.

This was done as if they were sitting around enjoying a drink together and sorting out their bags.

They could go out for the day reasonably sure that their items were safe and if they needed anything could simply move the small tent as is, and under the guise of sitting around having a drink again, and sorting their bags from the day’s excursion, surreptitiously extricate what they needed before burying it again and moving their tent back.

11. To protect stuff inside and outside the tent you can buy pin-pull personal alarms, and attach the pin with strong fishing line to a heavy item or a tent peg. Make sure the actual unit and line are concealed by attaching under the item or at the back.

When the would-be thief encounters the screaming object it will be dumped quickly before attracting attention rather than the thief searching for the source of the noise.

12. Take a trained dog. Thieves will rather target campsites without a dog, as they don’t want to be at the business end of those teeth. Dogs can catch scents and sounds you can’t, which will give you plenty of warning that something isn’t right.

Your dog should be trained not to bark but rather to alert you in another way. An acquaintance was devoted to his dog and said he owed the German Shepherd his life. He and a group of three soldiers had been sleeping in the jungle when the dog woke him by licking his face.

The enemy were approaching from three sides – the dog’s pricked ears alerted them to where people were approaching, then it led him and his companions out through the only gap available and saved them from the ambush.

This wasn’t the only time the dog saved him in tough guerrilla warfare situations in Africa, alerting him many times to enemy agents.

13. Keep children safe by erecting a barrier around your campsite made of shade cloth. This is very lightweight and is attached with cable ties to light aluminum poles.

It means there is only one way in and out, which can be monitored so toddlers can play and not wander off or be abducted. It also keeps your possessions a little safer. At night the gap is closed with a shade cloth ‘gate’.

14. When a group of people are camping they erect their tents in such a manner that there is no space for anyone to get between the tents from the back. This lessens the chance for opportunistic theft.

15. Thieves target the loners – so even if there are only two people camping in one tent erect a second one.

The more tents there are on your site, the less vulnerable you look. The second one can be used to store your food, supplies, and gear. You can also make it look like there are more people in the camp than there actually are by putting out additional chairs.

16. When it comes to four-legged predators, the thing that will attract them is the smell of food, so you need to give this some major thought.

How will you store your food? How will to cook it and dispose of it? The best thing is to bury your garbage and scraps or take it far away from your camp.

17. How will you cook food and dispose of leftovers?

On safari walks through the bush in Africa the guards cook the meat at night, eliminating all traces of the fire once they have finished, so as not to risk embers setting the grass on fire and secondly so that night predators are not encouraged by the smell of fat from the meat skewers used. Anything that is not eaten is buried well away from camp.

People wash their hands thoroughly to get rid of any smell of meat before sleeping. (On these walks people sleep in the open, if it rains the guards have tarps to erect for some protection). People are advised not to bring any extra food hidden in backpacks to snack on at night as it will attract predators.

The guards’ backpacks with the food for the group are placed away from the people sleeping and there are watches kept – one armed guard and one person from the group from dusk to dawn on four-hour shifts as there are leopards, lion, rhinos and hyenas.

Tip: another thing you’ll want to do is hang your food up in a tree with Paracord.
Make sure the Paracord has Vaseline on it to prevent insects walking down the cord and getting into the food, if you don’t want to use any bug killer on the cord.

18. If you use an early warning system it should be placed around 50 yards from your camp. If you have planned ahead and have the money and resources, you can get an electric fence that runs on solar power or a motion sensor.

Even something as simple as a trip wire, that alerts you can be used – tied to something inside the tent that will wake you. If you want to scare off predators and don’t mind the noise, a fishing line with cans tied to it, containing marbles or small pebbles will work.

These can deter people from coming any closer, and if it sounds an alarm of some sort, it will and warn you of intruders.

Guarding your turf

The average camper will not need to set up a guard system, however if you are in a remote area where there is a likelihood of bandits or armed attack, then you need more than one guard. Ideally, you should have multiple guards and guard posts.

It might be difficult with a small group, but you should have a minimum of two guards on duty at each guard post at all times and in two to four-hour shift to ensure they keep awake.

If someone approaches the camp, one guard can be focused on that person and the other guard can watch for any other suspicious movements in the vicinity. It is ideal to have a dog with you on guard as they can hear and smell far more acutely than a human.

Make sure that any guard posts are strategically located so that they are on higher ground (not so high as to make them visible) and can maintain a good view of the surrounding area. Also make sure the guards have the appropriate equipment, such as binoculars, night-vision goggles, and weapons.

If you only have three to four people in your camp, then it will be difficult to have multiple guards, but your camp will also be smaller and easier to conceal.

A single person will have a better chance of hiding a campsite, which is good since you need to sleep at some point. If you have enough people, then it is wise to have two or three people patrolling, in addition to the stationary guard posts.

You should also have people who might be going about their regular business, but are ready on a moment’s notice to react should a threat present itself. Remember guarding is just as important during the day as at night.

Communication is key

Finally, it is critical that you have multiple methods of communication set up. If you have guards patrolling or at a post, they need to be able to tell the people in the camp if there is a threat. A good set of walkie talkies or a two-way radio and a solar charger works for this. You can easily send intel if you have these in place.

You should also have a non-verbal system of communication. Perhaps you need to report danger and can’t use the radios or don’t have them. You can establish a system that includes sounds, such as a night bird call, or coyote yip, which can also be used to alert the people in camp.

During daytime, if you are far from camp you can use a mirror to relay a pre-arranged message, but this can be picked up by the enemy, however they won’t know the content of the message.

For communication between guards or campers when an enemy is suspected use tactical hand signals – this video will give you the basics:

For instance, you can use a flashlight to send an SOS or develop a system of signals that you can use in different situations. You can even get something like the Energizer LED Safety Flasher to send a signal in a hurry, one that won’t be missed.

When you are returning to camp, especially if dusk has fallen or it is night-time and the light is inadequate, you need to have a way of announcing yourself that everyone in the group follows.

It could be as simple as a whistle or another sound that only those in the group would know. This protocol could save someone from being accidentally shot or otherwise injured.

Remember that since your campsite is completely exposed and really offers no protection should you be attacked, you need to think ahead and be prepared to avoid a strike on your camp.

Simply put, being prepared minimizes your vulnerability. This means having the right knowledge, skills, and gear to ensure your safety. The more prepared you are, the better you will sleep at night.

If they can’t see you…

…or smell or hear you, then they are less likely to be a threat. Your best defense is simply not being noticeable to any of the senses.

Your tent, hammocks, tarps, and your clothing should be camo or a military green so it blends into the surroundings. Make sure that tents are pitched so they do not create an outline against the sky but are hidden among trees.

Also make sure you do not stand up on ridgelines to survey the surroundings, making yourself visible. Try to avoid open ground wherever possible.

Make sure there are no traces of litter, not even a cigarette butt to give away human presence. Any bones from meals should be buried or scattered far away. Any other debris should be buried. Also make sure any human excreta is buried and that there is not a smell of urine around the camp.

Do not create tracks in and out. Each time you enter or leave try to use a different way so there are no clear pathways trodden into grass or bush. If a pathway is created disguise it with leaf litter, twigs and branches. If you can, rather step on rocks so that you do not leave a trace.

Do not clear low hanging branches around your campsite – they may be a pain to step under but they keep it looking like no one is there, and if someone comes blundering in the noise will warn you.

If you need to make a fire try to use fog in the evening or early morning to blend with any smoke created. Also use very dry firewood to ensure as little smoke as possible is created. Fires can be hidden – try the Dakota Pit. If making a fire is too risky rather use a small gas cannister to heat water and your MREs.

For serious situations avoid light at night or make sure that no light can be emitted from your shelter. Switch the light source off before stepping outside and give yourself a few minutes for your eyes to adjust to the dark.

Learn to walk without a flashlight by memorizing where objects such as trees or rocks, are around your camp by counting the steps between certain things during daylight.

For example, five steps from the tent entrance to the gnarled tree. Four steps left to the big rock. Use star or moonlight as much as possible, plus what you have remembered of where objects are located.

Try to make as little noise as possible at your campsite in order not to be discovered. A barking dog, chopping wood, or the sound of metal pots can give your position away. If you are going to be shooting make sure it is done well away from camp. Talk softly or use hand signals as much as possible.

The smell of food cooking can travel a long way so be very careful about cooking, and if it could give away your position then rather not cook, until the danger of discovery by humans is past. Cook in the daytime to avoid attracting night predators of the four-legged variety.

Learn to be still. Intruders may not even notice you if you remain motionless, and do not look at them directly – somehow people pick up when they are being stared at, so try to use your peripheral vision to keep an eye on them.

Often while hiking in Africa we have had the sense of being watched up in the mountains, and have stopped to see if our senses were right. Mostly it was baboons, sitting as silently as the rocks, watching the humans passing on the trail below.

If we could see nothing, but members of the group still had that watched feeling then it could probably have been a leopard. Then we kept together in a group, not letting one person go further ahead, or anyone to lag behind.

Animals will pick up your scent if the wind is blowing from you towards them, but unless you have used a strong-smelling soap or cologne, or haven’t bathed for a while, humans are not likely to pick up your scent.

While camping and bugging out security is pretty easy, as there is usually no lethal threat, camping in survival situations is a lot harder and demands a great deal more thought and tactical planning which should become second nature, otherwise one wrong move, sound, smell, or light source can give away the position of your campsite, with serious consequences.

updated 08/07/2020 by Jeanie Beales

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4 thoughts on “Campsite Security: How to Be Safe Outdoors”

  1. Avatar

    Your article is full of contradictions, such maintaining a concealed camp while discussing the topic of campfires and security trip lines, etc. Overall, this is pretty amateurish material and it would probably get someone killed in a true SHTF bug out situation.

    1. Avatar

      Site selection. Concealment. Deception. Active guarding and deterrence. Early warning. Communication. Knowledge. Skills. Gear. All sounded correct to me. What would you do differently?

      Campfires are a necessity on a long term relocation. Dakota holes, screens, timing, and smoke dispersion can help mask the signature. Dry wood (mentioned) reduces smoke. Trip lines are an excellent idea, are covert, and will provide valuable time to assume defensive posture. Booby traps… Even better.

      I appreciate the article. Thanks.

  2. Avatar

    My son and I often backpack and camp in parts of Mexico’s Michoacan ocean front and jungle. In the last 5 years or so these areas are no longer completely off the beaten path due to Cartel “mules” backpacking product over the mountain trails to avoid military road blocks. We use many of the points you mentioned above, plus a few we’ve learned from experience. Our camouflage jungle hammocks for sleeping add the capability of being far off trail on rugged, uneven, or even steep mountainside, as long as there are a few trees or large boulders from which to suspend the hammocks. We bring our Euro Boxer dog with us as our listener, and we’ve trained him to remain silent on command so as to not give away our position. We cook on dry wood camp fires as the evening fog settles over the area to mask the smoke. We have more than once watched from cover as a group of 4 to 6 men carrying huge bundles strapped to their backs pass through the trails far above our encampment. The fully automatic weapons one or two carry tells us we don’t want to meet and greet them. Some people make fun of camouflage gear, but we depend on it to remain veiled. Everything we wear, carry or use, is in shades of military green, charcoal gray, and or full camouflage. Maintaining reasonable silence, remaining alert, and concealment works.

    1. Avatar

      Speaking of being camouflaged and avoiding being seen, use colors in uneven patterns, break up your outline, avoid silhouetting yourself to the sky or against a light colored background, the best thing to do if you are close to someone looking for you is to be completely-absolutely still and don’t look directly at them, use your peripheral vision. I’ve had people almost step on me and never saw me.

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