When you first start hiking and in particular overnight camping, there are so many aspects to consider but the impact of wildlife may not be first on the list. For many people any negative interactions with animals on-trail, almost without fail, concerns our interactions with snakes but in reality its the unexpected interactions with the ‘cute and fluffy brigade’ that cause most people issues when they’re hiking. Often these interactions are at the level of a minor inconvenience but sometimes they can have more of an impact on your hike particularly when your food and equipment goes missing or is damaged.
In this article we discuss potential issues that our native, and occasionally pest, species can have and what we can do to minimise these impacts.
From my own experience our cute and fluffy friends on-trail have the potential to generate two main negative impacts with the first being thievery. Animals of just about any type are opportunistic and will take advantage of an easy meal where they can but it may surprise you what they class as a meal.
The obvious one is food with many animals having an extremely good sense of smell, able to locate fresh or packed food in your packs or storage bags that human senses can’t detect. Over the years I’ve had a number of thefts/attempted thefts on-trail from various types of animals. This is very much the case on the really popular trails that have dedicated shelters such as the Overland Track and the Bibbulmun Track where animals come to associate shelters and hikers with food. While this interaction might start out with animals waiting for the hikers to leave so they can scrounge any left food or scraps, the more interaction an animal has with hikers, the bolder they become getting to the stage where they don’t even care the hikers are still there.
One of the first attempted thefts that we had was a possum trying to steal our food at one of the huts on the Overland Track. We were camping on one of the timber tent platforms and were aware there was a possum in the area, in fact it was in a tree that was adjacent to our platform. Just to be safe we stored our food bag inside our tent below our feet. Not long after we went to bed I could feel a small paw coming up from underneath the tent platform between the gaps in the timber trying to access our food bag. We managed to ‘shoo’ it away but in the morning when we talked to other hikers that were spread along the camping area, we discovered they all had visits from possums, possibly the same one, during the night trying to steal food.
Something hikers may not be aware of is that many animals love the smell and taste of silicone which can often be compounded with left over food residue. In late 2022 when I hiked the South Coast Track in southern Tasmania I left my stove, spoon and food waste bag outside my tent just 30cm away from my head. In the morning I discovered that the Ziplock rubbish bag had been dragged away a short distance but what was more of a concern was that my GSI Long Handled Spoon (which has a silicone covering on the scoop section) was gone.
Thankfully the other hikers in the area had spares which they graciously loaned me but having had to deal with lost spoons in the past, I was fully prepared to start whittling chopsticks to carry me through the rest of my trip. I discovered by the end of the trip that the likely culprit was a Spotted Quoll which I had seen around my tent on other occasions on that particular trip.
In this video I was sitting in Torbay Hut on the Bibbulmun Track in August 2018 eating breakfast. This little native(?) rodent dropped in for a look, specifically to see if there was any food around. I could tell that it really wanted to get up on the camping platform because hikers mean food but it was a bit worried about what I’d do so kept its distance
The second impact that the ‘cute and fluffy brigade’ can have on hikers after theft is damage to equipment. Often this damage is caused as a byproduct of animals trying to steal food; the smaller animals will often chew through packs and tents, which is what they see as a flimsy barrier, to get to the food.
The images below were provided by a hiker who spent an unforgettable night with a number of small rodents setting upon his tent to access food, chewing through his tent, his pack and at one stage biting him to try to get to the food. In this instance he shortened his trip rather than spend a second night having to deal with this issue (listen to podcast episode 273 to hear his story).
While this is an extreme example, damage to equipment from animals trying to access food is not uncommon. Thankfully the worst damage I’ve had was a rodent eating a hole in my Sea to Summit Silicone cup which was rendered useless for the rest of the trip; luckily I was able to use the built in cup on my stove unit for the rest of the trip.
Damaged pack. I have seen holes much worse than this in hiker’s packs
Animal damage to a tent. Even though the hiker was sleeping inside, the rodents just didn’t care. They knew there was food in there and that’s all that mattered!
Ideally we don’t want to experience problems with animals on-trail so wherever possible prevention is better than cure. So, how do you prevent animal damage/theft while you’re are on-trail?
Hanging hook on the Bibbulmun Track
OK so the worst has happened – your spoon has been stolen or your pack has holes in it; so what can you do about it other than pull the pin on your hike? If the situation is that bad then go home early. But what if you’re going to continue on-trail?
Over the years I have released various articles on ultralight hiking and one of the practices to consider is taking gear that is multi purpose. My stove unit has a built in cup so on the Bibbulmun Track when my cup was destroyed I just converted over to this alternative.
The other option is to improvise and as mentioned I’d have become very adept at whittling chopsticks. They may not be the prettiest thing in the world but they are functional and you can avoid eating your nut butter or hot food with your fingers. If the hole in your backpack is bad enough then dental floss can make a handy chord to close up the hole at least to the extent you can keep going. On longer hikes I will also carry tape to strap my feet and this can also help to reduce the size of holes in your pack.
In reality it isn’t possible to plan for every negative interaction with wildlife on-trail. In all honesty all you can really do is minimise any impacts. On the whole, the examples used in this article are reasonably minor and are the ones you’re likely to manage as opposed to the extremes which we’ve never personally come across.
But you should always keep in mind, particularly at shelters, huts or high-use campsites, that animals will associate campers as sources of food so we want to do everything we can to minimise this association. Do this by taking out your food scraps, and if a campsite has a reputation for ‘food thieves’ then do the best you can to make it hard for animals to access food.
And then on those really, really rare occasions where you find yourself in a situation that becomes a scene out of some nightmare, don’t be afraid to pull the pin and head home.