[Note: Since there has been considerable interest expressed about hunting camps and especially hunting camp layouts, I’ve decided to post the following column I wrote for the Alberta Outdoorsmen in September of 2009.]
Copyright (C) 2009 Don H. Meredith
The early fall is one of my favorite times of the year. The poplar, birch and dogwood leaves are turning shades of gold, orange and red. The wet-dog scent of wild cranberry is in the air; and my summer allergies subside along with the biting insects. It is also the time of year when my garage is strewn with camping equipment in various stages of readiness, and the scents of canvas and old campfires dominates the air there. Despite over 35 years of doing so, I still get excited about going out and setting up a hunting camp.
As I’ve said several times before in this column, I’m an old-fashion kind of camper. I like to hear the wind blowing through the trees or the patter of rain marking time on the canvas over my head while I sleep. I prefer the smell of wood smoke over the convenience of propane. And at this time of year, I crave the isolation and wilderness immersion of a camp in the northern Alberta bush. Depending on our success in the draws, our hunting party tries to make at least one long-term camping trip a season.
When my partners and I first hunted together for moose or elk, we camped frugally in a nine-by-nine-foot tent, cooking outside over an open fire. This worked O.K. as long as it didn’t rain for long periods or get too cold. In cold and wet conditions, condensation builds in clothing, sleeping gear and on tent walls. Without an efficient way of drying things out, a hunting trip can become pretty miserable, and several of our trips were cut short.
Consistent, successful moose or elk hunting requires several days in the bush. I figure it takes at least three to four days to find out what is going on — that is, where the animals are and what they are doing. Only then do you start focusing your efforts for success. In Alberta during the fall, the chances are great for some inclement weather within a period of a week or more. So it became obvious that if we wanted to increase our success, we needed a better camp.
Pooling our resources, we purchased a large wall tent and a portable wood-burning stove. The tent with stove can sleep six people comfortably. Since we rarely have more than four in our party, we have lots of room to spread out ourselves and our gear. Most important for those cold wet days is the wood stove. A fire-proof ring in the canvas ceiling allows the stove pipe out, while keeping the stove a safe distance from the walls. We also have a weather fly (with stove-pipe ring) that keeps the rain and snow off the tent’s roof, reducing the moisture condensation on the inside ceiling and walls.
Our wood stove is a box type with a damper and air intake valve so we can control the burn. Most important is the long stove pipe that extends up just past the peak of the roof to prevent downdraft. Once fired, this stove has brightened many a dark and cold morning as well as the spirits of hunters returning from the cold and wet bush.
Another feature I like about this tent is the lack of a sewn-in floor, made necessary by the wood stove. We clear an area of burnable material around the stove, and then lay tarps over the remaining area. This allows adequate air to come in under the walls to feed the fire in the stove and dry any damp gear we may have.
Another piece of equipment I’ve come to appreciate is my sleeping cot. It is comfortable and keeps my bed off the ground, allowing the moisture that accumulates in my sleeping bag to escape. The result is I sleep much warmer than if I were on the ground.
A successful hunting camp is much more than a comfortable place to sleep or get out of the elements. Over the last few years, however, I have noticed that many hunting parties do not understand this. In our travels, we have noticed many camps that break fundamental rules about good camping. We have seen what passed for latrines too close to eating and sleeping areas, camp fires too close to the bush or sleeping areas, game meat hanging too close to living areas and parts of game carcasses left to rot in the camp area after the campers have left. This is a shame because such lack of consideration for safety, health and the surrounding countryside not only reflects on the occupants of the camps but also on hunters generally. Perhaps it is time to review some of the fundamentals of keeping a safe, comfortable, and yes, successful hunting camp.
The layout of a camp is an important consideration in terms of safety and convenience. Bears are looking for easily acquired food before their long winter’s sleep, and a poorly laid out or unclean camp can be a temptation. A hunting camp should be designed to discourage entry by a wandering bruin.
First, separate cooking and eating areas from where you sleep by several metres. Don’t bring food into the sleeping tent, and definitely don’t cook there. Odors linger in tent fabrics and a bear is lead around by its nose.
Store food in vehicles or hang it in bags at least three metres off the ground and away from the tent. Hang any game you’ve bagged off the ground and well away from the tent. Burn garbage or store what can’t be burned in a bag away from the main camp area. Any cans with remaining food or food scents should be burned out to reduce odors. Haul out all garbage when you break camp.
Like most mammals, bears use their noses to tell them much about the world around them. If a bear picks up your scent — and not that of your food — prior to arriving at your camp, chances are good it will avoid you. Leave your scent at the campsite by frequently walking around it and urinating at various locations outside the camp’s perimeter. If you are hanging game meat, also urinate around the perimeter of that area. We use this method in our camps and so far (crossing fingers) we have not had a problem with bears in camp. That may be the result of just dumb luck but I believe our scent does send messages. However, if you believe your camp is too much of a temptation for bears (depending on your location, previous experience, horse feed, etc.), portable electric fences may be the answer.
Urinating around the outside of a camp to discourage bears is one thing, but defecating randomly around a camp is something else. A single latrine should be placed well away from the living area and well away and down hill from any water source. If you are going to be in a camp a long time, dig a trench deep enough to handle the waste. Bury all human waste.
Remember your fellow hunter/campers. Many campsites, including random ones in the bush, are often used by several parties of hunters throughout the season. Leaving garbage, exposed human waste and used toilet paper scattered about is really a poor reflection on the particular campers and hunters generally. The right to randomly camp on our crown lands is being abused by many hunters and non-hunters alike. If this abuse continues, the government may be forced to step in and eliminate the practice, forcing hunters to use designated campsites.
Don’t be part of the problem! Leave your campsite in better condition than when you found it. Keep our wilderness wild!