As a camper, retired Soldier and former Concealed Carry Permit Instructor and NRA Instructor, I thought it would be helpful to provide some protection basics when it comes to the unique circumstances while camping. Whether you are staying in a populated campground or a remote location boondocking alone, there are unique challenges to staying safe that we don’t face at home.
I have taught courses in pistol marksmanship and personal protection. This blog is intended to provide general tips and tools you may not be familiar with, regardless of your personal position on firearms. I will provide some recommendations or suggestions of protection gear and equipment that will depend on your ability and comfort level in self-defense as part of your larger protection strategy. Legal advice on use of force, proportionality and the legality of your actions are beyond the scope of this blog.
Our camping adventures sometimes take us to remote “you have got to be planning to go there” places that you don’t just come across. Years ago, we took a trip to Cape Cod, and it was definitely in this category. Leaving the mainland and driving out onto the cape, we drove on two lane roads, passing through small towns, all the way to the tip. It took about four hours to reach Provincetown and our small isolated campground near a winery. We were the only campers there.
We left the campsite one night and drove to the nearby beach to enjoy a bottle of wine and a small bonfire. We were the only people within sight. After it was completely dark, a stranger approached us walking quite a distance across the beach, and asked if he could warm up at our fire. Reluctantly, we let him stay a few minutes. He told us he was a local, but later started asking us questions about the area that any local would know. He also asked us where we were camping, how long we were staying, and other questions that made me uncomfortable. We didn’t tell him the answers he was looking for. I was legally armed, with a pistol under a blanket next to me. After several minutes, I told him that we would really like to be alone, and I had to get forcefully rude with him before he finally left. I’ve always wondered about his motives, and the many ways that encounter could have unfolded. I was glad I had my pistol, and also glad I didn’t have to use it. I like to think that I had de-escalated a situation that could have turned bad. I was later on high alert back at the campground, but we enjoyed the rest of our visit to Provincetown and never saw him again.
Situational awareness is key to camping safely. When camping, you are often in a strange place around people you don’t know, and you should have a heightened level of awareness. A police officer friend of mine used to say “It is OK to have healthy paranoia.” If you know a cop, you’ve probably noticed they tend to view the world through the lens of potential threats and bad things that could happen.
The physical surroundings of your campground can give you an idea of where potential threats could come from. These could be from people, terrain or nature, i.e. insects, animals, etc. Consider the layout of your campground, lighting, roads, and how close others are to you. Look at your own set up in terms of vulnerability and temptation for a thief. Think about escape routes and where you would go if something happened. Look around for dangerous terrain that could be a hazard in the dark.
If you assess your surroundings in terms of potential threats, you can build some layers of protection to deter or prevent an incident. Do a physical security assessment of your setup. How secure is the area you will sleep in? Can you lock the door? Can people see you through a window from outside? Is there any warning of someone approaching your vehicle, trailer or tent? To detect and record activity around your campsite, a wireless camera like the Rock Space Security Camera, $99, can send motion alerts to your cell phone. While made for home use, this could be easily adapted for an RV. The Covert Blackhawk 20 LTE Verizon Trail Camera uses a cellular signal to send alerts, photos and videos over long distances to your cell phone. While designed for hunting, this camera attached to a tree in your campground can provide you with real-time alerts when motion is detected. You can also remotely check photos and videos on its SD card. This requires the camera to be in a cellular coverage area, and monthly charges apply. The camera is $243.
Be wary of people who approach your campground uninvited, and be guarded with personal information you share. Someone stopping by to admire your teardrop may be a friendly fellow camper, but could also be a predator looking for an easy victim. This is particularly important for individuals camping alone. In addition to not sharing that you are camping by yourself, you might also make it look like more than one person is camping there by putting out two lawn chairs for example.
Dogs are also a great deterrent. They provide early warning, and add an element of uncertainty that may send an intruder elsewhere. Even if you don’t have a dog, consider putting out a big dog bowl in plain sight next to your trailer to make it look like you do.
If you keep camping gear and valuables out and in open view, you could draw in a thief. Many are opportunists, and act on impulse if they see an easy theft. The more you have out of sight, stored, or locked up securely, the better.
Another good deterrent is lighting. You can attach a solar powered floodlight which is activated by a motion detector on your trailer, post, or even a nearby tree. This will light up the area throughout the night if anything triggers the sensor. The model above will stay on all night at a dimmer level, becoming brighter if it senses movement. When away from your campground, you may want to leave a light or two on to make the place look occupied.
Other things to have on hand in your sleeping area include; a charged cell phone, a flashlight, and your choice of personal protection gear. Get in the habit of keeping these in a consistent location in your sleeping area so you can easily reach them in the dark.
This small rechargeable OLIGHT Bulb 75 Lumen Lamp is a little globe that has a motion sensor that will turn on when it is on its charger. It is small, light and weatherproof.
Tips and Tools for Personal Defense.
You have the right to defend yourself, but should do everything possible to avoid the situation in the first place if possible. Self-defense is justified when you are an innocent victim and there is an imminent threat and the attacker has the capability and intent to do you serious harm. Your actions and use of force need to be proportionate to the threat. This is an area for further research if you are unsure what you can legally do in different scenarios.
Be aware of possible threats. If you meet someone near your camping area, be careful not to share too much information. There is no good reason for them to know which site is yours, how long you are staying, are you alone, etc. If someone comes into your campsite uninvited, this is a big red flag, and you should use even more caution in that encounter.
Threats are more prevalent after dark. If you have settled in for the night, you should have your key personal protection items handy. If you think you hear an intruder, it is never advisable to venture out in the dark looking to see who’s there. Turn on your lights (inside and outside if possible) so you can see. If you can, keep your back to a substantial object and face the direction of a potential attack. Be prepared to engage the attacker immediately if necessary. You can shout at the possible intruder and tell them you are armed and have called 911 (even if you are not, and didn’t yet). This might deter an attack. If there is an intruder out there, they will know you are aware and they won’t have an element of surprise if they enter. It also confirms somebody is there; it might be a thief looking for property to steal, and quickly retreat when they know the area is occupied. Linda, a reader of my blog, told me a great tip that she keeps her car keys in her sleeping area and ready to use the panic button to set off the car alarm if necessary.
When encountering animals, avoid the temptation to approach them. Follow the National Park Service’s “viewing etiquette.”
Respect their space.
Stay in groups, minimizing noise and movement.
Stay on designated trails.
Leave “orphaned” or sick bears alone.
Leave pets at home.
Give bears room to pass.
Let bears eat their natural food.
You are responsible for your safety and the safety of wildlife.
In the event of a bear encounter (a bear is paying attention to you), talk to the bear so they know you are human, stay calm, pick up small children, don’t make loud noises or screams, slowly wave your hands and make yourself look larger/slowly move to higher ground, do not run, don’t climb a tree. Slowly leave the area. If you have bear spray, get it out of its holster and ready to use.
In the event of a bear attack, there are two different responses recommended depending on the type of bear. For black bears, yell and wave, trying to scare them off. For brown/grizzly bears, play dead. If these are not successful and you need to use bear spray, spray in the direction of the bear, adjusting your aim for crosswind. Most bear sprays shoot like a fire extinguisher, creating a thick fog between you and the bear. If the bear comes through the fog, continue to spray toward the bear’s face. Note that some parks do not permit bear spray. Check the rules before you go. More specifics on responding to a bear attack are provided by the National Park Service at https://www.nps.gov/yell/learn/nature/bearspray.htm
A fellow blogger, Jennifer Jones, shared her bear encounter with me. While hiking in Yosemite on the John Muir Trail, she was at a creek getting water as a black bear came moseying over toward her. She and her hiking partner yelled at the bear and made big gestures, and scared it off immediately. According to the National Park Service, most bear attacks relate to protecting food, cubs, or space. They note that Brown/Grizzly Bears behave differently than Black Bears, and have different protocols for responding to an attack. If attacked by a brown/grizzly bear, leave your pack on and play dead. Put your hands clasped behind your neck and spread your feet so the bear can’t roll you over. If attacked by a black bear, do not play dead, and try to escape to a car or building. If that isn’t possible, fight back using whatever objects are available. Focus kicks and punches to the bear’s head and face.
Jennifer spends a good deal of time in black bear country, and told me that when she hears a story about an aggressive bear in a campground, it often turns out that food was improperly stored and the bear was looking for something to eat. Rules differ regarding food storage; some parks have bear boxes, like these in the photo below at our campground at Yosemite, while others do not. We camped last year at Great Smoky Mountain National Park, and they have a large population of black bears. Surprisingly, the park does not have bear boxes in the campsites, but specific rules on all food storage outside sleeping areas and items not left out in picnic areas. You can help prevent a bear coming into your campground by following food storage rules to the letter. If attacked by a bear in your tent, fight back vigorously. The bear may be looking for food and thinks you are prey.
Mother bears can be particularly aggressive when then are with their cubs. The cubs are cute, and people tend to get too close to see them and take their pictures. Give them plenty of room and never get between the mother and her cubs.
A mountain lion attack is the other most likely animal to be aggressive to people. Although attacks are rare, they can be deadly. You should travel with others if possible, and don’t take pets on trails in mountain lion country. As with bear, remain calm and try to make yourself look larger. If you have a backpack, be prepared to use that as a shield between you and the lion. If the cat approaches you, yell at it and throw rocks or branches, which may scare it off. You can find additional recommendations if attacked from the National Park Service https://www.nps.gov/pore/planyourvisit/yoursafety_mountainlions.htm.
Communications. If you are in a phone coverage area, having a charged phone at the ready is a significant tool. A dead phone is worthless. If you are in a primitive camping environment without power, small solar panels like the Goal Zero Nomad 20 have an integrated USB port that can directly charge phones, lights and other USB cable devices. This is different from larger solar panels which have to be attached to a solar generator (with internal battery) to be able to charge devices. You should test this with your devices before camping. Some phones have difficulty adjusting to the charge fluctuation of a solar panel as clouds pass in front of the sun, for example.
Knowing who to call and having their phone numbers handy in the event of an emergency is a big advantage. If in a campground, it is a good idea to have the phone number of the host that you can call and report a possible intruder to them. If you know you are imminently going to be attacked, call 911.
Lights. Being able to light the area is a major deterrent, and lets you see what is happening. In addition to lighting your surroundings, shining a very bright light or strobe in the eyes of an attacker can be an effective tool to temporarily blind them, giving you time to get away or take other defensive measures. This 1200 Lumen rechargeable light by OLIGHT is extremely bright and can stun and disorient an attacker. It is charged in its case, and the case is charged via USB-C. I bought this light and so far have been very happy with it. It is smaller and lighter than it looks, and very well made. If Apple made a flashlight, this would be it!
Types of Self-Defense tools. There are two primary types of defensive weapons and devices, lethal and non-lethal. Lethal include guns, knives, and objects that can kill. Non-lethal are devices that can deter or stop an attack without killing the attacker. If you decide to have these on hand, it is a purely personal choice and you are responsible for your own actions. Because I’m not a lawyer, I won’t give you legal advice on the use of force, deadly or otherwise.
If you do find yourself engaged by an attacker, make as much noise and commotion as possible and don’t give up. Getting the attention of others can bring help and can discourage the attacker, causing them to flee. If you are in an area with cell phone coverage and can call 911, do that as soon as possible. Even calling 911 can be a deterrent to an attacker if they hear you making the call. If the attacker is an animal, stand your ground and do not run. If you have a self-defense tool, be ready to use that as soon as the attack starts happening. Continue to engage until you stop the threat.
If you camp with a gun, or are considering it, you should first know how to use it, have practiced with it, can access and use it in the dark, and more importantly, be willing to use it if you have to protect yourself. The worst case scenario is an unarmed assailant who takes your gun and uses it against you. You should also be aware of laws and local regulations regarding the possession and transport of firearms while on your camping trip. Also, it is never legal to use deadly force to protect property.
Non-lethal devices give you a wider range of tools at your disposal. There are laws and regulations that prohibit firearms, but not as many restrictions on non-lethal items. For example, there are lots of places you can take pepper spray but not a gun. If you decide to camp with non-lethal protection devices, I recommend you choose those that can be used with a good standoff distance. Engaging a threat before it reaches you is much better than resorting to a bat or a knife in hand to hand combat. A law enforcement study concluded that an attacker at 21 feet can reach you in 1.5 seconds. That standoff distance gives less than 2 seconds to decide what to do and when to do it.
Here are four non-lethal items you may want to consider for personal protection.
An air horn can be useful for drawing attention and causing an attacker to flee. Three bursts on the horn signal an emergency. An attacker will not like the attention that it draws, and these horns can cause hearing damage. They are extremely loud. Point directly at the attacker, while yelling and making as much of a disturbance as you can.
This bottle of Frontiersman Bear Spray has a large enough capacity to create a cloud of pepper spray out to about 35 feet. I don’t recommend small key-chain sized canisters that spray a mist rather than a stream. This comes with a carrying case which is convenient while hiking out on the trail. $39
This taser that fires a barbed projectile that sticks in the skin of the attacker, and small wires transfer an electric shock from the taser to the barbs to incapacitate the individual. This provides up to 15 feet of standoff range in stopping an attacker. However, it is a one-shot (but reloadable) device, and would be ineffective on an animal like a bear with thick fur. I recommend you avoid handheld tasers that require you to be within arms length of an attacker to touch them with the electrodes. https://amzn.to/3xwuilx $346
A pepperball gun, like the Byrna Projectile Launcher, is an expensive but effective option. It fires .68 caliber pepper balls up to 60 feet which burst on impact, leaving pepper spray on and around the target. This CO2 powered pistol can hold up to 5 pepper balls, and one cartridge supports about 15 shots. https://amzn.to/3uJSij6 $429. This comes with cheaper re-usable target balls for practice. These are the same size balls as fired from a paintball gun. There are different types of balls from practice to self defense. The actual pepper balls are expensive, but hopefully you never need to use any of them.
For any non-lethal weapon that looks like a gun, I recommend you get a bright color like yellow or orange. This helps to visually differentiate it from a real gun and it can be easier to find in low light conditions.
Lastly, any protection device needs to be available when you need it and within reach. If there are too many steps involved in getting it in your hand and ready to use, it may be too late.
This blog covered a lot of ground, and there are many items you may not consider appropriate for your own situation. Hopefully, I gave you some food for thought and introduced you to some concepts or tools you are unfamiliar with, and, more importantly, will take away from this an increased level of security awareness when camping. An old adage from my Army days, “If you didn’t bring it to the field, you don’t have it.” Planning and preparation with that little “healthy paranoia” will serve you well in selecting and packing the right gear for you and using it the event you ever need to protect yourself while camping.
The information provided in this blog is my own opinion based on my training and experience. I am not a lawyer and do not provide this as legal advice. I do not bear responsibility for the choices you make in your own personal protection plan. I have not received compensation or free test items of any product on this blog. If you purchase through my links, your price is the same, but I’ll get a small commission. Hopefully it has provided some useful information in helping you decide what works best for you, and helps keep you safe and situationally aware during your camping adventures.