When I was just getting into backpacking, a couple other leaders of our youth group and I took a group of teenagers on their first trip in the Eagle Cap Wilderness, in Oregon (highly recommend!). It was a very hot and dry day of significant mileage and uphill, so we were all very sweaty when we rolled into our first camp of the trip. Because it was summer and we didn’t know any better, we were all wearing cotton and were understandably soaked with sweat from the grueling hike.

After getting the tents pitched and camp set, we had all changed into dry clothes and were wondering what the best way to dry out our clothes from the day. There was a huge downed pine tree by our campsite that had branches with no needles going every which way. It made for a super convenient place to hang all of our sweaty clothes to dry in the sun. I don’t remember if we forgot they were there or intentionally left them out to continue drying, but we left the clothes hanging from the tree and went to bed.

At about 2am, on a moonless night, we were awakened by the sounds of what seemed like hundreds of branches snapping and breaking. It sounded like every animal in a 1000 mile radius was outside our tents and destroying the forest. As someone who is irrationally afraid of animals in the dark, I was barely able to get out of my sleeping bag and tent armed with a headlamp, a half full water bottle, and whatever minimal courage I could muster in my exhausted brain.

I switched on my headlamp and mistakenly hit the ‘flood’ option instead of ‘beam’, which only provided enough light to see beyond the tents for about 10 feet. Everything beyond that was dark save for 30 pairs of eyes that reflected back to me from outside the light radius. My tired brain immediately thought we had been invaded by the loudest and least stealthy pack of cougars of all time. It was the only time I ever swore out loud in front my youth group.

Fortunately, before I tried to fight off a massive pack of cougars with a Nalgene bottle, another adult had gotten their flashlight going and shined the beam to reveal a herd of elk that had come into our campsite. Drawn by our sweaty clothes, which were now dangling from their mouths, they stared at us incredulously for interrupting their enjoyment of their salt-soaked treats. We hollered at them and they dropped our clothes and thundered off into the night.

My heartrate didn’t allow me to sleep for the rest of the night, but the kids had a great trip and really enjoyed showing off their chewed up clothes to their friends and parents!

What is the wildest encounter you’ve had with an animal in the backcountry? Tell us about it in the comments!

At REI, we believe time outside is fundamental to a life well lived.