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I have never camped using a tarp (and just a sleeping bag under), and I am wondering about it. I am thinking about camping in Canada, and the animals around there are apparently mostly bears and other animals from the hills.

To avoid bears, the best advice is put your food far enough from where you camp, so I am not so afraid, especially compared to a tent. However, I am more worried about small animals and snakes. I suppose there are few, but since the tarp is not closed, I am wondering about what risks I am taking. I will be backcountry-camping, i.e. not next to RVs with lots of humans.

So, compared to using a tent, are there serious risks linked to animals when using a tarp?

  • I've never camped in any place where there was any issue with small animals or snakes wanting to crawl into my sleeping bag or anything like that. Small-animal nuisances are usually about them wanting your food, and a tent doesn't help with that. Reptiles are normally not very active at night, and most are shy. – Ben Crowell Mar 18 '15 at 5:06
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    About the only time any small animal might decide to crawl into your sleeping bag is when you're not in it yourself. If you leave your sleeping bag lying unpacked for hours, you may want to shake it out before getting in it (or sitting on it -- eww). Or, better yet, either pack your sleeping bag, or open it up fully to air it out, whenever you're not using it. – Ilmari Karonen Mar 18 '15 at 13:32
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    I completely forgot about my Aunt's last experience with sleeping under a tarp when I answered this question. She was camping alone in NW Ontario when a bear crawled in and snuggled up right next to her and laid down right on top of the zipper of her sleeping bag, trapping her in it. My Aunt spent a long sleepless night spooning a snoring black bear. In the morning, it just got up and wandered off. My Aunt hasn't slept outside since. – ShemSeger Mar 20 '15 at 16:05
  • @ShemSeger haha funniest, most random story ever. And I definitely understand your aunt, that's pretty disturbing. – Vince Mar 20 '15 at 16:20
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It's not animals you really need to worry about, it's bugs. I pack a tent to keep out of the bugs more than I do to keep the critters out. The only time I can ever remember having issues with animals was in the Ptolemy Plateau, for some reason there were a lot of gophers, and they were all over our campsite at night, scratching at the walls of out tent and even trying to come up from underneath. We spent the night playing whack-a-mole. The small critters that will approach your bed at night don't pose any risk, they're just a serious annoyance while you're trying to sleep.

Bears and other scavengers are a non-issue as long as you keep all of the sweet smells a long ways away from your bed, this includes food, tooth paste, deodorant, gum, anything with a smell–doesn't matter if it's packaged or freeze dried, bears and Candis can smell through packages and bags–if it has a smell, put it in a cache. If there's nothing but you and your stinky human stench in your sleeping bag, then you can be pretty confident that all the big critters in your vicinity will leave you alone.

The smaller critters... well, pack rats will make off with your keys and eat a hole in the foot of your expensive sleeping bag so they can get fluff for their beds. If you're at a backcountry campground that has ropes in the trees, it's to hang your gear off the ground so nothing gets stolen by the local wildlife. Last camp I went on with a big group, we carried an extra tent just to store all of our gear in at night, but there were also people there sleeping under tarps. I think it really boils down to whatever you're more comfortable with. Myself, I'm ok with carrying the extra weight so I can have the extra comfort at night, keeps my gear cleaner too.

As far as risks, I don't think there are any more risks using a tarp than there are using a tent. You put yourself more at risk to exposure than you do to wildlife. But if it's something you're going to worry about, then you might just get a better nights sleep in a tent where you're not going to be up all night paranoid that something's going to slither up to your face in the middle of the night.

  • Note that deer will sometimes go after the salt on gear as well. Which can be rather startling when you're woken at 2 AM by one chewing on your sleeping bag :-) (Glacier NP, some years ago.) – jamesqf Mar 20 '15 at 5:47
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    @jamesqf Last encounter I had with deer while camping was this summer during a downpour. We had apparently set up our tents in their favorite bedding area which provided excellent shelter from the rain. As soon as it started to pour it seemed like all the deer in the area were making a b-line for our camp, but seemed quite startled and then perturbed when they discovered it was occupied by humans. – ShemSeger Mar 20 '15 at 15:01
  • I think these deer were quite used to humans, as I was in a fairly established campsite. IIRC (it's been a couple of decades) it was Brown Pass CG, a good day's hike from Bowman Lake. – jamesqf Mar 20 '15 at 19:54
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The risk of a serious problem is quite small. Animals instinctively stay away from humans, and that instinct is even stronger in backcountry areas where they haven't become accustomed to human presence. The gear that you don't sleep with is in more danger than anything else — rodents will chew pack straps and trekking pole handles for the salt. They're very unlikely to mess with you or the things directly around you, especially if there's no food to be had.

There are stories out there of snakes and spiders crawling up inside or next to peoples' sleeping bags, but first-hand accounts are hard to find — it's typically a "friend of a cousin" type of story, and prone to embellishment. Doubtless these things do happen, but not frequently enough to worry about.

Mosquitos and biting flies, on the other hand, can be a problem while you're sleeping, so depending on the season you may want to bring along a net tent or bug bivy. Something as simple as this will do.

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