Spiders, bugs and creepy crawlies – how to choose the perfect camp site

Growing up in Australia we become used to all the creepy crawlies that live in the bush. Whether it is spiders, ants or flies, they may be annoying or scary, but have become something we adapt to and respect.

After all, it is their environment and we are mere visitors.

How to pick a campsite without spiders
Image: David Clarke via Flickr

Recently Andrew emailed us with a question:

I too am a keen camper/walker and have been in the hills in one way or another since I started cubs at about 7 years old in the UK.

Now I have a question…my experience of hiking, navigating, camping etc is fairly reasonable, however the vast majority has been done in England, not Australia (where I now live) and the flora and fauna is VERY different. I have all the relevant first aid training for bites and stings and generally take the rule to avoid everything I can, but recently I’ve been considering this issue;

If you are hiking a new route, it is all planned and you arrive at your bush campsite just before dusk … perfect for setting up your tent and getting the fire going before dark, only to find a number of trapdoor or funnel-web spiders in the vicinity of the campsite. The next campsite is a day’s trek away and there is little light left to find a more local random spot for the tent.

What do you do?

I am regularly told things like ‘don’t set your tent up near there’ but if you have a site with numerous creatures living burrowed into the ground, can you set your tent up over them safely?

  • Are you best not sleeping or pushing on in the dark vs spending your night with these things?
  • How likely are they to attack?
  • Can they attack through the bottom of your tent, or do they just stay in their burrow until you leave in the morning?

Obviously, given the option, one would never camp in such a location and find another, but often such luxuries as choice aren’t available so if you can provide any advice as to how to manage this it would be very much appreciated.

Here is our reply to Andrew:

To be honest spiders and other bugs and creatures don’t really worry us. I suppose growing up in Australia makes you blase about them. I reckon most of them are more scared of you than you are of them. For example, if you put a tent up over a potential spiders lair I suspect it will just wait in there till you leave. There is no way it could bite you or get through the tent floor.

Obviously an ants nest is another issue . Those buggers will still be walking around under your tent and can be very annoying if they get inside. Before you put your tent up it is worth looking around on the ground to see if they are heading off to a nest. It is usually pretty obvious.

I certainly would not head off and arrive in another site in the dark. Other than the obvious risk of getting lost or injured in the dark, you may have the same problem at the next site!

Andrew’s reply!
I actually diversified my question and asked it of a forum for people who keep arachnids as pets too. Figured I’d get an opinion from spider experts, and from walking experts. For your information they had this to say…

‘Even the more “aggressive” trapdoors tend to be shy. If they’re scared, chances are they will clutch up in a stress ball for the entire time you’re there.

It won’t likely leave its burrow.. once a true trapdoor spider makes a burrow and completes it, they’ll be there for the rest of their lives. Wandering males probably account for the majority of bites in your region

A lantern will probably keep them at bay.. mygs [sic] hate light, especially trapdoor spiders.’

When I asked to qualify about funnel web spiders and if they would behave similarly I got this response…

‘Nope! you touch that webbing, they’ll kill you and your children’s children!’

Camping spiders - what to look out for

The delightful (and scary) Australian Funnel Web spider

Image: Alexandre Roux via Flickr

I do agree with your general premise, and am not one to care too much about bugs or things, but when there are animals that are known to be aggressive and can unleash a lethal venom dose when you’re miles from any hospital…I thought it sensible to at least get an idea of exactly HOW bad or HOW likely this is to occur. Typically fires and smoke and sensible things will keep most larger critters inc snakes away, but these seemed to be a different problem.

I agree that I would also not find another campsite in the dark…this was the general point because all the people I’ve asked previously have just said things like ‘avoid them’ and ‘move on’ and ‘don’t camp there’ but often, it’s not possible.

I figure from this that funnel webs are to be avoided at all costs, but they’re also more likely to be in trees or undergrowth, or one or two on the ground, so I’m sure a decent tent site, would not be a decent web site anyway, so avoiding them should be straightforward, and the trapdoors will pretty much leave you alone.

Thanks for bringing up the ants. My wife (a Queenslander) often goes on about how blasé I am about ants because the ones in England won’t really bite so I don’t tend to care about them much, but obviously there are (as always) bigger issues in Australia.

So over to you dear readers
Have you  any advice for Andrew? (and others dropping by here)
What experiences can you share about spiders and other creepy crawlies you have encountered while camping?

Shoot us a comment below, we would love to hear from you.

Comments

  1. Georgie says

    Hi Frank and Andrew. We are planning a driving/camping trip to Cape York in August, and have been considering sleeping arrangements. We thought an off the ground tent would suffice for the crocodiles, but a traveller said we should be more concerned about ants than crocs. He suggests we sleep on top of the drawers in our Ford Ranger Ute canopy, to keep us off the ground from ants – and crocs. So now my research is all about ants and how to avoid being overtaken by them in the tropics. Good to have this conversation, thanks for starting it, and look forward to any tips or ideas from OHBers. Regards, Georgie

    • Robin says

      The crocs in Australia can climb tree – so a tent off the ground next to their habitat won’t stop them!
      They are adaptable also – so don’t leave your keys in the car; or next day it will be gone!

  2. Diane says

    Georgie, have you considered a car-top tent? I had one made years ago to go on a shortie patrol; fitted perfectly and contained a standard double mattress. Had an accordian/fan structure at each end; if it was cold /raining I could stop the car, flip it open and be inside my (ready-made up) bed in under 3 minutes. I was sl over 2 metres off the ground, and the roof encompassed a floored tent which dropped to the ground as I opened up, insect proof, ladder INSIDE this area whih I could use for storage, dressing (if in a van park!) etc – and it cleverly allowed me access to the windows of the car so I could keep stuff above the drawers that I wanted. Brilliant. The patrol was 1986 and aging – and I’m getting older, so I swapped for a Hilux with a Snail.. but the Patrol went anywhere, very comfortable and very safe sleeping.

  3. Leone says

    I’m not sure what area Andrew hikes in, but that picture doesn’t look anything like the Sydney or Blue Mountains Funnel Webs.They’re much darker, heftier looking spiders, with a a shiny carapace and hairy abdomen. You can really see why the Sydney Funnel Web is called Atrax robusta – it’s a mean, nasty, robust-looking spider. The one in the picture is delicate by comparison.
    The photo credit link says it was taken in Central Singapore.

    • Frank says

      Hi Leone.
      Thanks for your informed comment!
      That is an image I grabbed of Flickr (where you can share images under the Creative Commons licence) I checked the photographer and I was pretty sure he was Australian and therefore assumed it was an Australian Funnel Web. My bad sorry!
      I have changed the image to one that looks like what you describe and is labelled as Australian! Hope it is the correct one.
      Again, thanks

      Frank
      p.s. I think Andrew walks in Queensland.

  4. David says

    Hi all,

    from my bush and jungle experience I would recommend always checking your boots out before you put them on in the morning. Tents these days are mostly sealed so don’t give things crawing around outside a second thought. If you are camping near water below 600 ft altitude east of the Great Dividing Range, check yourself for leeches and ticks before turning in for the night. Most times you will be tired so sweet dreams.

    • Gaz says

      Last weekend I traversed Mt Solitary in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney.
      Got a few leeches, including one at 850m elevation that drank his fill from the back of my leg and ended up about as big as a lychee (before I squashed him between two rocks).
      Rule: If it’s damp, check for leeches.

      • Frank says

        Hi Gaz,
        There is nothing better than wiping out a full leech other than wiping out one that is heading towards your leg……

        Cheers
        Frank

  5. Kelly Jones says

    There were quite a few funnel web and trapdoor spiders’ holes (i.e., lidded or webbed) on the 4 acres of land around the house, where my young brothers and I often ran around in bare feet over the 7 years we lived there. There were few trees, and it was flat, mown grass. So these spiders don’t necessarily burrow in undergrowth or in trees. If you walked towards the hole, they’d dart inside and hide, but if you poked a twig into the hole, they’d come to the surface to fight the twig.

    Most of my multi-day bushwalking camping in NSW or Tasmania has been with a fly and no tent, sleeping on a foam mat. It’s lighter. I’ve slept on an active ant nest, without realising it, and the ants crawled around me during the night without biting. Only tiny ants, that have a lovely smell of formic acid. With mozzies around, I’ve strung a mozzie net up below the fly, and tucked the bottom trailing ends under my sleeping mat carefully. This didn’t stop spiders creeping up inside the mozzie net, but I let them loose when I saw their silhouette against the moonlit sky.

    Advice: check for ticks, if you’ve been in long grass in the bush, or swimming in rivers. My worst hiking / cycletouring trips have been with tick bites in NSW and Tasmania: sick and weak for a week with splitting headaches, fever and nausea. The problem is a delayed reaction, so you don’t know you should stop and return to civilisation before the illness hits.

  6. Joanne says

    Hello,

    I’ve always used my dirty socks to “seal” my shoes or boots overnight, as I usually leave them outside my tent, to prevent any nasties taking up residence. If you tuck the sock right over the opening it will do the trick, and if you pull it out on top of the shoe/boot, it will even air/dry overnight if the conditions are right. Also, my pack to date has been an older one that had a cover for the straps for air travel, and if left outside overnight I’ve always used the cover to ensure that the nooks and crannies around the strapping are also as protected from critters as I can make them, and I don’t leave clothing or other items lying around before putting them in the tent. Maybe a little anal, I admit, but the one bushwalking companion that laughed at me on one trip into Barrington Tops for doing this ended up introducing a funnel web into our tent with clothing that he had left lying on the ground prior to putting in the tent. We only found the spider when packing up the tent in the morning – it was underneath a sleeping pad, minus a couple of legs, still very much alive. A photograph allowed us to identify the spider once we got home. That was the first and last time I shared a tent that particular friend!

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