Worst Night in the Woods | Camping Horror Stories

Camping and river life on the Rogue River, Oregon.
Photo: Aaron Black-Schmidt

In the woods, the night works like a megaphone, magnifying small sounds into big sounds and big into bigger. And there are so many things that can go bump in the night, from bears to thunder booms. However, night frights can make for frightfully good stories. With nods to well-known works of literature, here are some of those stories:

All Critters, Great and Small (Curtsies to Mr. Herriot.)
Ben Cardelli of Hibbing, MN:
SO, THERE I WAS — said Cardelli, “on a 40-day trip in the Boundary Waters with Bernice, my 75-pound Chessie. We had just finished a 26-day Woodland Caribou trip, so we were accustomed to night sounds and sleeping in a tent. We were camped at an Iron Lake shoreline site and Bernice started to growl around 11:30 p.m. She woke me, but I was too sleepy to deal with whatever was out there. Bernice felt the same and we both returned to sleep.”

Ben Cardelli of Hibbing, MN

“The next morning, there was a big bear turd between the tent and the path to the biffy. None of our food was touched. I often wonder how many sites are visited in the night with nothing touched.”

And Bernice?

“Bernice sniffed around the campsite that morning, reading the news of the night.”

Bob Vollhaber of Stacy, MN:
Bob Vollhaber was on a 5,000-mile paddle and portage that included the Inside Passage, the Chilkoot Trail on snowshoes, the Yukon, the Bering Sea and the Kvichak River at Cook Inlet — hungry for fresh fish.

“I was camped at a freshwater stream, a site I usually avoid for respect of the big bears that crowd to the rivers to feast. But I was hankering for salmon!”

Vollhaber figured he’d risk bumping into a bear that one night and be gone by the next morning. But the wind was howling the next morning, and the following day as well. Bear activity had increased, including big bears, with them coming closer and closer to his tent and gear.

“I didn’t like how the bears were becoming less concerned of my presence. Just at bedtime, a big bear comes out and looks for salmon in the shallows. It’s closer than I want, so I again use poor brown bear etiquette and threaten said bear. It didn’t work. He comes my direction, I grab the gun, and continue my verbal assault.”

The bear didn’t care.

“He walked past camp at 40 feet, never listening to my protest and didn’t even acknowledge my existence as if to say, ‘You don’t impress me.’ Humbled, I climbed into the tent with gun and flashlight close by and fell to sleep hoping for less wind tomorrow, my food packs tethered to the tent, as was normal procedure.”

Garrett Radcliff of Oakdale, MN:
SO, THERE I WAS — “perhaps five or six years old,” said Radcliffe. “My dad finally took me and two of my older siblings to Basswood Lake. I was so excited to go.” They slept in a big, canvas tent, common in those days.

“I can still smell the canvas even now. I don’t know if that canvas ever truly dried out. It always felt kind of damp and had that smell like mold and mildew. I kinda miss it, like I miss the smell of a two-stroke motor in the water. We were all lined up in it, side-by-side, in sleeping bags on top of matts.”

Sweet dreams didn’t await the boys.

“In the middle of the night, there was a lot of commotion. I woke up to mice scurrying all over us. They had chewed their way into the tent, and there seemed to be hundreds of them. The mice were in our bags and crawling on us. There were flashlights zipping around the tent, shining briefly on various culprits.” There was action outside too.

“We could see and hear them running across the top of the tent. An owl swept down and grabbed one in the moonlight. My dad had work gloves on and he was trying to grab them and stuff them back into the holes. I had nightmares for a long time.”

The nightmare continued in the morning.

“When we got up the next morning, there was a mess kit with water in it. It had lots of drowned mice in it.” However, Radcliff recovered.

“I’m 53 now and have been back 47 years in a row and that night was one of my worst. Many paddlers in the Boundary Waters have to move because of a bear. We had to move because of mice.”

The Tempests (Bows to Billy Shakes.)

Lee Niepagen and Jody Butts of Bloomington, IL:
SO, THERE WE WERE — said Niepagan and Butts, “sleeping in our separate tents in the BWCAW. The weather that early July had been a mix of some light rain mixed with scattered clouds. Not much wind at all. After retiring in the tent we both went to sleep fairly quick. We’d fished 12 hours, as we do every day, but I was woken around 1 a.m. by intense rain, but little wind. Jody’s tent was roughly ten yards away, The torrent kept me from returning to sleep. It was so loud.”

Ten minutes later, the two paddlers heard what sounded like a train.

“In an instant, the wind and hail hit our our island camp. At yelled at Jody to see how his tent was holding up, but there was no response. He just couldn’t hear me. My tent was buffeted in all directions, it seemed at the same time.”

Then the winds came from one direction and trees started to fall.

“Three or four trees around our campsite came down that night. The lightning was constant and lighted the tent like daylight. I realized I had not tied up the 18.6 Souris River that evening, which is something I very seldom forget to do. It was out of the water, but I figured that wasn’t enough, so I grabbed a small flashlight and ran to it. It had only moved 20 feet or so, pinned against a grouping of eight to twelve foot pines.”

Niepagen couldn’t move the canoe in the wind, so he used a basketball net filled with a pretty good size rock, their anchor. The canoe was stabilized by another mistake he rarely made. Because it was upright, it had hundreds of pounds of rainwater in it.

“The extra weight saved the boat. The anchor rope was tied to the bow thwart, so I just kept wrapping the anchor at the other end around that grove of pines. In the morning, it looked like a maze of rope. It was pretty funny looking, but I’d done it while wind, lightning and hail were still coming down.”

It didn’t take long to make that maze of rope.

“I estimate my total time outside the tent was less than three minutes, but it seemed like an eternity.”

The next morning, the men discussed their primary mistake, not securing the canoe, “If that canoe had been blown away or damaged, who knows how long we would of been back there!”

John Kulka of North Royalton, OH:
SO, THERE WE WERE — “Camped on Red Rock Lake in the BWWCA on July 21, 2016 around 2 a.m., when the breeze stopped and it was deathly quiet for five minutes.”

The temperature dropped, the wind picked up and lightning high in the clouds lit the night.

“The lightning was kind of cool to watch, so I stayed awake, to watch it and keep an eye on the weather. We had no weather radio, so we weren’t aware of the severity of the approaching storm.” However, Kulka did know there was change in the air.

“I’ve been in situations before when the wind/weather changes from normal with a breeze, to dead calm, then a much colder breeze, so I knew a front was moving in. My ten-year old son and I got into the tent, our secondary shelter, with about 20 seconds to spare when the storm hit and hit hard. Amazingly, he fell back asleep, despite it sounding like a freight train outside.”

The storm came fast.

“All heck broke loose for about half an hour. Multiple trees came down, one just missing the tent we’d moved into. I thought the tent was going to take flight with us in it, ala the Wizard of Oz. I was lucky I had tied the canoe down tight that night. I’ve read reports of winds of 80+ mph in that storm.”

Kulka would not take shelter in a tent today in a similar storm.

“We should have laid flat on the ground somewhere without the danger of a tree falling on us. We had several down in our campsite, and many, many trees down all around the lake.”

Kulka made no mistakes with the canoe, “I did secure the canoe down tightly, every night, right side up, with paracord at the bow, stern and middle. I’d read of people losing or having their canoe damaged in a storm and that turning the canoe upside down can actually make it easier for the wind to pick it up off the ground, so I secured it right side up with our fishing gear in it.”

Two campers were killed on Quetico side of Basswood that night.

“The worst part is my wife knew of the storm on Thursday from watching the national weather and had heard of the fatalities and was worried sick about us. We didn’t know there had been any fatalities and we didn’t have a satellite phone, so we just finished our trip and kind of forgot about the storm until getting back to the outfitters. So my wife had to worry about us from Thursday until Sunday night.”

Steve Ouellette of Aurora, IL:
SO, THERE I WAS — “On the first day of June 2012, with my 8-year-old son. It was his first trip and we put in at Lake One in the BWCAW.”

It was the year after the Pagami Creek Fire and we were skirting the northern edge of the burn area. It started raining at 10 a.m. and we didn’t reach a site beyond the burn area till Insula at 3 p.m.” That night, the skies opened.

“I thought the whole forest was going to come down on us because of the wind and rain. I put on all my rain gear and went out around 1:30. I could hear the flapping of my CCS tarp and spent the next 20 minutes using every loop on it to tie it down.”

They had no rain gauge, but they later learned it was eight inches in nine hours.

“There were sinkholes in Duluth and a disaster area declaration. It was nuts.” And the eight-year old on his first trip?
“Crazy part was the kid slept through the whole thing.”

That was partly due to the quality of their tent, “I bought an REI Quarterdome T2 specifically for this trip. It was bone dry.”
The canoe was secure too.

“I am known as Captain Overkill. That night was no exception. I had both the bow and stern on my Minnesota III Kevlar tied down. When I looked over at it, it wasn’t moving at all.”

It was easy going on the way out, “We easily glided over rocks that had paint transfer from lower times.”

Miseries (Thank you, Mr. King.)

Gordon Hommes of Two Harbors, MN:
SO, THERE WE WERE — “It was our first Quetico trip in July 1979,” said Hommes. “I was 17 and my tripping partner was not quite 16. We had letters from our parents to get through customs at Cabin 16 on Basswood Lake.”

The two young bucks wanted to travel light and fast.

“We decided not to bring a tent in order to save weight, the idea (delusion) was that we could camp on breezy points and islands every night to avoid the bugs. On our second evening on the water, we were caught on the Shade-Noon Lakes portage by a severe storm just before sunset, and were forced to camp on the portage.”

In the lee of trees, mosquitoes joined them.

Gordon Hommes of Two Harbors, MN

“We laid out a ground sheet and slept on the ground under the canoe. The night was still, very mild, and humid. The mosquitoes came out by the millions. We spent the night sweating in our sleeping bags with just our mouths sticking out to breathe. At the first hint of light in the morning (4 a.m.), we got up, packed ASAP and hit the water–glad to escape the bugs. We were exhausted.”

More miserable nights followed, but none as bad as that one.

“The warm, humid ones were bad, but some cool, clear nights were bug-free.” They chose their subsequent campsites carefully, but to limited effect. “We worked really hard to find tiny islands well away from shore or long, exposed points, but mosquitoes are well-distributed during the northern summer. They inspire you to rise early.”

The experience prompted them to reflect on their predecessors in misery.

“We thought of the countless French-Canadian Voyageurs who had paddled these same waterways two centuries earlier with minimal bug or rain protection for months on end. We could tough out two weeks without a tent. That said, I have never skipped bringing a tent on any other summer canoe trip since!”

The Not-so-Big Sleep (You the man, Mr. Chandler.)
Rich Doty of Davis, IL:
“My first trip in the BWCA in 1977!” said Doty. “I was 10 and my brother was 7. Our father grew up in the woods of UP Michigan living a subsistence-type lifestyle with his parents up until he graduated high school. He was always very comfortable in the wilderness and always shared his knowledge and experience with us boys. I don’t recall what lake we were on but we went in through the numbered lakes. We were on an island campsite and I woke up to a loud rukus outside the tent.”

Something was scuffling just outside their tent.

“I didn’t panic or worry…I was with Dad after all and if he wasn’t worried all was well … right? Well I rolled over and saw him laying on top of his sleeping bag with his fillet knife out on his chest (still sheathed). I have never seen my father with that out unless he was cleaning fish. In the moonlight, all I got from him was his finger to his lips motioning for me to be quiet and then he mouthed ‘lay still’. Now the rukus outside the tent had my full attention and I could very clearly hear the snarling and screeching and lots of “brush” snapping and rustling. It couldn’t have lasted long but it felt like an eternity. Finally, everything quieted and my dad got up and left the tent telling me to stay there.”

Staying calm would not be easy.

“Ten minutes later he comes back in, lays down and all he says is, ‘everything is OK … go to sleep.’ Yeah, right! I laid there awake half the night before adrenaline wore off enough to sleep. In the morning as I woke up my brother (who slept right through it all) my dad heard us in the tent and said to hurry and come see what visited us last night. Not even 20 feet from the tent were 2- 3-inch-diameter trees sheared off and broken. There were several bear tracks and what my dad said was either a lynx or a cougar. We have no idea why they were fighting, our guess was food. There was a little blood so we don’t know if it was the meal or one or the other. When my dad got out of the tent he saw the bear swimming away from the shore.Only time I ever saw my dad nervous in the outdoors.”

Nowadays, the encounter has become a classic campfire tale.

“Every trip I took with my dad up there after that it was always a campfire staple and a couple of times while just out fishing in the boat it would come up with many stories of his youth in the UP of Michigan. It always gets funnier the older we get. The night it happened was pretty terrifying. It was a really good teaching moment for my dad to us though. Identifying tracks, why animals would fight, why didn’t they attack us and why it was a good idea to leave that campsite.”

John Wartman

“Easily my most frightening night was on the Ogoki River in Wabakimi. I have a rare sleep disorder, often I sleepwalk, mostly in a dream state. It drives my wife crazy, literally. On this trip, we were camped at a portage that bypassed an unrunnable rapid. I slept walked out of camp and ended up at the river at the other end of the portage. Somehow I bulled my way through a quarter mile of dense woods.”

It only gets stranger.

“At this point, I became more conscious, I was aware that the next road north was in Russia, my memories of this are like a hallucination, thousands of frogs lined the river, it was a moonlit night, I found the portage and made it back to camp. However, when I found the camp, I thought that it was German soldiers fighting in World War II. Somehow, I ended up in my sleeping bag. I never told my brother about that night.

Earth, Gas, Fire, and Water (A big wave to many authors!)
Jim Gruenke:
SO, THERE WE WERE — “On an island in Ogishkemuncie Lake in the BWCAW in July 2008. There were four of us, quite gassed, tired, cold, wet, and hungry after paddling all day in the rain.”

The quartet was also out of fuel and unable to start fire due to soaking wet wood.

“About suppertime, the rain let up enough for us to eat some cold food. Then we were driven into our tents by darkness and waves of storms. The rain drained down the slope behind our tent and our tent floor until it was like a water bed. The winds bent our tent poles until they bowed and then snapped, collapsing the tent on us.”

During a lull, they did a duct-tape repair.

“About an hour after the pole snap, we heard a tree snap and then a BOOM from a close lightning strike. A few moments later, a feeble voice came from the other tent asking about our safety because Eric had just been struck by lightning in their tent.”

Eric was lucid and pronounced himself fit, but a small burn mark on his upper arm.

Eric, struck by night lightning.

“We assumed that he had been lying close to one of the aluminum poles in their tent and that the lightning had arced from the pole to his arm. We also guessed that when the lightning hit the tree, it traveled through the roots, and then arced to the pole in Eric’s tent.”

They swore to secrecy, “We laughed about it that next day. We swore we’d never tell our spouses and it was kept a secret for many years.”

Patrick Zeuli of Stillwater, MN:
SO, THERE WE WERE — “It was the night of September 10, 2011. Freddie, my 11-year-old beagle, and I were camped on the east side of Lake Four. It had been in the mid-’80s and the air was smoky from the nearby Pagami Creek Fire. According to radio reports, it didn’t pose a threat.”

Zeuli was also visually monitoring the fire.

“From my hilltop campsite, I had a good view to the west where the fire was burning. I could hear aircraft fighting the fire and it sounded like a WWI aerial dogfight. The local radio station WELY was broadcasting live that afternoon from The Harvest Moon Festival in Ely. The fire was mentioned, but the talk was mostly about how well waffle cones were selling versus hooded sweatshirts because of the hot weather.”

Pagami Creek Fire

When the sun set, the wind picked up.

“The dark plumes from the fire had been rising straight up, but now they spread and came towards me. The air became very smoky and irritated my lungs. It got dark and the sound of the aircraft ceased.”

Zeuli turned to his radio, “WELY broadcast a pre-recorded folk music show with no fire reports. I felt alone and concerned for the first time. Breathing was becoming more difficult.”

Zeuli wasn’t the only worried one, “The voices of a family with young children camped across the lake could be heard in and out of the strengthening wind. They sounded panicked like Auntie Em did when calling for Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz tornado scene. I was wishing I was somewhere else. I was worried about keeping Freddie safe. There really wasn’t much I could do so I crawled into the tent and eventually I fell asleep.”

Patrick Zeuli and Freddie, the beagle, of Stillwater, MN

If only all the world’s problems could be solved by a nap.

“A few hours later, I awoke to no wind, less smoke, and the most beautiful full moon I’ve ever seen, as orange as a tangerine. I felt we would be okay.”

And if he had it to do over?

“I would have left Freddie at home. Prior to the trip, there was a ranger announcement on the radio about a small swamp fire, started by lightning, and that all permits were open and there was no fire ban. There was a burnout operation to remove deadfall, so they dropped napalm, hoping to create a buffer.”

When the fire spread, some rangers almost died.

“The head ranger was retired because of this, but at the time, I didn’t feel like I was taking a great risk and putting my dog in danger.”

It’s a lesson learned, “I am much more cautious today before beginning a paddling trip. I check the official sites for any chance of fire danger. I always carry a weather radio now and talk to people. I formulate escape plans should a fire develop.”

Ken Babinchak of Hibbing, MN:
SO, THERE I WAS — “Suddenly awoken at 4 a.m. by a horrific stench. I wondered who had died and checked my 10-year old daughter to see if she was still breathing. I opened the tent flaps and let some air in. I will never make chili with Textured Vegetable Protein again.”

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

For access to exclusive gear videos, celebrity interviews, and more, subscribe on YouTube!