The Best Campfire Stories You’ve Never Heard

A booze-stealing bruin, a crab-walking newbie, and a back-talking prairie dog. Plus seven more mostly true camp tales

Everybody has a camp story or two. All it takes is for the crew to settle in around the dinner table or the evening fire. Maybe a few drinks are poured. Someone starts with, “How about the time when…,” and that reminds someone of another misadventure, and the next thing you know, you’re telling your own tale. Even if you didn’t intend to.

Proof of this came when we were soliciting ideas for this collection. I asked associate online editor Matt Every if he had any good camp stories. Nope, he said. Two weeks later, we were sitting around the fire in turkey camp, and out of nowhere he tells me the two stories that appear with his byline below.

There’s just something about camp that makes us all story tellers. So pour yourself a drink and pull up a chair. I’ll start: How about the time when…

The Bear Hunter Ran Away, by Dave Hurteau

My buddy Randy Flannery, who runs Wilderness Escape Outfitters in Danforth, Maine, starts each bear camp by telling his clients that while a healthy respect makes perfect sense, there’s no reason to be afraid of black bears. They’re not coming after you. Stay in your stands or blinds—no matter what happens—because in these vast, featureless woods, what you should really be afraid of is getting lost.

Then he tells the story of, well, let’s call him Stanley. One September evening, from a treestand deep in the forest, Stanley shot a bear. But he didn’t hit it so well. Randy showed up to track the bruin and was slinking through the dense spruce woods in the fading light when he heard the sound of footsteps behind him.

Turning around, he said, “Stanley! What are you doing there?”

Stanley whimpered, “I, I wanna be with you, Ran.”

“Look, bud, I get it,” Randy told him. “But you’ll be a lot safer back in your treestand.”

Stanley inched a little closer. “But…I wanna be with you.”

“O.K.,” Randy said. “But listen, pal, you’ve got to stay right behind me.”

As the men weaved deeper into the undergrowth, there was the crack of a heavy branch snapping, and then the far-off cries of coyotes, and suddenly, a sound like a freight train crashing through the greenery. It was Stanley, running away.

“Stanley!” Randy shouted. “Where are you going?”

Stanley hollered back, his voice trailing off into the wilderness: “To. The. Tree…stand!”

“But, Stanley,” said Randy, speaking in his normal voice now because there was no point shouting. “The treestand is the other way.”

Illustration of a male lion sneaking up on a hunter sleeping on a cot.
“A big male lion had taken a sniff of my head.” Illustration by Moron Eel

The Lion Didn’t Eat Me, by David E. Petzal

In October 1978, I was in a temporary hunting camp at a place called Phuduhudu in the Kalahari Desert in southern Botswana. It was nothing more than a collection of tents, and it lacked one of the essential elements of a typical safari camp: a boma, or thornbush fence, erected around the camp to keep four-legged night visitors out.

One of the two other hunters in my tent snored. Which is like saying that the Titanic didn’t make it all the way to New York. I’ve listened to a great deal of snoring while under canvas, but this was in another league. It had tremendous volume, and there was a wet, slobbering quality to it, rather like the noise that a blue whale dying of pneumonia would make.

Finally, I thought, Enough! and dragged my cot out of the tent and out into the middle of camp, where the snoring dimmed enough to sound like a hog being shoved, alive, through a corn sheller. I fell asleep looking up at the constellations of the southern hemisphere.

I awoke to a crowd around my cot, jabbering in English and Sesotho and pointing at the sand right next to where I lay. I looked down and saw the pugmarks of a very big male lion that had strolled up in the night, taken a sniff of my head, and decided that I smelled less appetizing than a cow, which was probably true. You might have covered one of the paw prints with a dinner plate, but barely. If he had decided to eat me, he would have simply chomped down on my skull and dragged me off into the bush to dine on at his leisure.

I pulled my cot back into the tent and listened to the snoring for another week and a half.

I Was Adopted by Canadians, by Phil Bourjaily

Some years ago, I joined a big group of writers on a waterfowl-and-upland hunt hosted by D.U. Canada in southern Manitoba. Mornings, we shot ducks in potholes or geese in fields. Afternoons, we hunted sharptails. All day, we cara­vanned in three or four vehicles from spot to spot. Late the first afternoon, I got turned around and was the last one back to the meeting place, only to find that the rest of the party had miscounted heads, piled into the trucks, and driven off without me. This was before everyone had cellphones. All I could do was wait for them to realize I was missing. They never did.

The bed and breakfast where we were staying was two hours away. There was nothing to do but hike down the road, gun broken over my shoulder, until I came to a farmhouse. I explained to the woman who answered the door what had happened.

Confronted by an armed stranger, she said, “Hop in the pickup, and we’ll go find your friends.” We drove the sections, looking for them, but my group was gone. We stopped to pick up her husband at the combine, and she radioed home to her daughter: “Becky, set another place. We’ve got a hungry American staying for dinner.”

Back at the house I learned that: (1) Becky looked like the farmer’s daughter of farmer’s-daughter-joke fame; (2) her parents owned 1,600 acres of prime sharptail ground; (3) they had a good stock of Molson ale; and (4) there was a bed in the basement that I was welcome to if no one came back for me.

After a Molson or two, my first, fleeting thought was to phone my wife in Iowa and say, “Honey, ship the dog to Manitoba. I’ll be home at the end of sharptail season.” But I called the B&B owners instead, who relayed the message to my party: “Some guy named Phil called. He says you left him behind.”

They came back for me late that night, falling all over themselves to apologize. I was just finishing my coffee, pie, and ice cream, and to be honest, I was kind of sorry they found me.

Illustration  of a bear sitting on its butt with a bottle of liquor in its mouth.
“The last shot of liquor dribbled out…” Illustration by Moron Eel

The Bear Drained the Booze, by Matthew Every

At elk camp a few years back, I poured drinks for a couple of new hunting buddies, and the bottle in my hand reminded them of a story. It happened during a brown bear trip in Alaska, where they’d been dropped off to set up base camp on a beach to hunt for just over a week.

The supplies they had brought were pretty bleak. Aside from some canned goods, they were going to have to live mostly on instant oatmeal. But there’s always room on a pack mule, in a boat, or on a bush plane for some booze, and each hunter managed to bring along a plastic bottle of cheap vodka.

There are rules when it comes to alcohol in camp, especially in dire situations like this. You should always get permission before drinking from another guy’s stash. And if you do decide to take a swig without asking, you’d better be good friends.

One afternoon, one of the hunters couldn’t find his vodka. He was ticked off to begin with, but what really made him hot was that nobody would confess. No matter how he asked, they all just shrugged.

The next morning, the hunter spotted something out of the ordinary on the beach. He looked through his binocular and cursed before stomping over to it. Sure enough, it was his bottle of vodka, standing upright at the edge of the surf, all but empty. He bent down to pick up the bottle, planning to confront the others, only to watch the last shot of liquor dribble out through a row of holes in the bottom—holes about the size and shape of bear teeth. That’s when he noticed the fresh tracks in the sand.

He was still a little ticked but also a little amused and suddenly very curious about whether brown bears are angry drunks.

Pat Missed the 8-Pointer, Twice, by Scott Bestul

It was opening morning at our Minnesota bowhunting camp, and our group had gathered in a rough circle in my yard after the morning sit. We were trading stories when Pat straggled in, wearing a sideways grin directed at Dave.

“You look like you have a story to tell,” Dave said.

Dave Diesslin was a high school shop teacher whose constant grin and twinkling eyes always hinted at mayhem. Pat Townley, Dave’s best friend, was sincere and affable—the perfect foil.

“Well, it was still too dark to see when I climbed into my stand this morning,” Pat said. “I just sat there, listening to the owls. When morning finally broke, I got this funny feeling that I wasn’t alone, so I turned and saw the first rays of sunlight glinting off the tines of a beautiful 8-point buck just 20 yards away. The deer was mostly screened by brush, but his rack was visible and, by luck, so was that sweet spot right behind his shoulder.” Pat shot a look at Dave.

“I couldn’t imagine how the buck got so close without me hearing it, but I just went into autopilot, fighting buck fever enough to draw, shoot…and watch my arrow sail over the deer’s back!”

“No!” gasped everyone except Dave.

“Of course, I expected him to blow out of there, but he just stood stock-still, facing slightly away. I nocked another arrow, drew…and missed again.”

Everyone groaned.

“My arrow went clattering off into the bushes—and even then, that buck didn’t move a muscle,” Pat said, pausing for effect. “That’s when I finally realized what was going on.”

We Minnesotans can be a little slow on the uptake, and not just Pat. It wasn’t until he bull-rushed Dave and tackled him to the ground that I remembered what his best friend had asked me the night before. As dinner wound down, Dave pulled me aside and asked if he could borrow my 3D buck target.

“Sure,” I said. “I’ll help you grab it.”

I should have known what the camp practical joker was up to—­especially when he answered, “Oh, I won’t be needing it until Pat goes to bed.”

Illustration of a moose standing next to a fisherman that's wading in a stream fishing.
“There’s your moose, Marcel. See him?” Illustration by Moron Eel

Marcel Met the Moose, by Will Ryan

Some 35 years ago, a few buddies and I spent a week fishing for trout and salmon in northern Maine. All during the trip, we remained on full alert for a moose sighting. It’s mandatory for first-time tourists there. No excuses. There are reminders everywhere: from full-body bull moose carvings at rest stops to ponds, lakes, and campgrounds with moose in the name to knickknacks and even beer with moose pictures on it. We joked that the department of tourism probably pays the beasts to step out of the timber at regular intervals for the sightseers. But after five days of bog-gawking, we still hadn’t seen a one. My friend Marcel claimed false advertising and said he wanted his money back.

On the sixth day, we were fishing a remote stream, with Marcel at the head of a pool and Barney and me about 20 yards downstream, when I heard Barney say, “Hey, Marcel. You’ve got company.”

I expected to see someone, maybe another fisherman, walking up on Marcel. But instead it was a huge bull moose. It was like looking up from your book and seeing a floatplane in your swimming pool. The moose waded into the pool, right behind Marcel.

“Hey, Marcel,” I said. “I think he wants you to pet him.” Barney and I thought this was hilarious. Marcel didn’t. He appeared incapable of either movement or expression. “I could have touched him with the tip of my rod,” he has insisted in the years since.

While Marcel stood frozen, the moose started rolling his eyes, dunking his head in the water, and tearing up plants like a Holstein grabbing grass from under a fence.

“There’s your moose, Marcel,” I said. “See him?”

“Yes. I f–king see him.”

“Stay there,” Barney said. “I’ll get a picture.”

“Where would I go?”

“C’mon, relax, Marcel,” said Barney. “You look all stiff.”

“You want to trade places?!”

The moose lifted his head in bovine oblivion and turned to the camera, plants draping his antlers, water running down his droopy face. Marcel sort of relaxed, and Barney got his picture, of which we all still have a copy.

Finally, the moose splashed off into the alders—his shift apparently over.

Mac Didn’t Die, Again, by Thomas McIntyre

When Mac came out of the coma after stepping off the curb in front of that semitrailer truck, the first person he saw was Bob. Opening his eyes after three weeks, Mac recognized him but couldn’t recall his name. He called him “Old River.” Now, a couple of years later, he was with Bob and Roy and the rest of us again in mule-deer camp on Skinner Ridge.

Mac had a high-pitched voice, the too-loud kind of a man who’s lost most of his hearing. His white hair was brush-cut. He was big—not fat, but big-framed—and tall. He hunted in Levi’s with the bottoms rolled up and Chuck Taylor high-tops, before that was a fashion statement. And he hunted far. After the accident, and at his age, the consensus among us was that if he didn’t back off, he’d die.

When I returned to camp at midday, Mac was still out, hunting down into the draws and combing every sidehill. Bob sat alone in the cook tent with a Coors and a sandwich. I sat at the long table, across from him.

“You see Mac?” he asked between bites, worried.

“I saw him in his orange vest on that long west finger.”

Bob shook his head.

I was in my twenties, and like so many in that peculiar condition, I was more than a little enamored with the notion of romantic death. (You get over it.) Personally, I didn’t know what might be so bad about taking your last breath while glassing across a canyon, looking for what might be your final glint of antler.

I told Bob that as he finished his lunch, and he wrinkled his brow.

“It’s not his dying,” Bob qualified. “It’s his dying on us, all the way up here.”

He let that sink in as he filled his pipe (there can’t be a story about old men without a pipe).

Then, looking dead level at me, he said, “Besides, could be he’s not so damn eager to go.”

Dust shone in the slant of light coming through the half-open tent flap. We sat for quite a time, neither talking, wondering if this was a vigil.

Finally, we heard the high, loud, deaf man’s voice outside the tent.

“Somebody help me drag a buck off a ridge?”

That was the year Mac didn’t die. Again. Got his deer, and got it home too.

Illustration of a man in pajamas and underwear slowly backing away on his butt, hands and feet with a compound bow in his lap.
“He said I should stay low by crab-walking.” Illustration by Moron Eel

I Stalked an Elk in My Underwear, by Matthew Every

I was on a mountainside with a loaner binocular, a cheap cow call, a bow, and an Idaho archery elk tag. I’d glassed all morning and spotted a big bull standing in a clearing a mile away. I’d have to cross a desert valley floor, scramble up a rocky slope, and then creep through the timber. But the bull didn’t seem to be going anywhere.

As I hiked, I ran through some advice a veteran elk hunter in camp had given me the night before, over drinks. I’d told him this was my first time hunting out West and that I was eager for guidance. He pulled his chair close and leaned in. The first tip he gave me was that I should stay low by crab-walking. That way, I could rest my bow on my belly to keep it from dragging on the ground. He also said that when he stalks, he likes to take off his boots and pants so that he can feel and avoid branches.

I admit it all seemed a little over-the-top, but with the image of that giant bull in my mind, I wasn’t going to take any chances. So after crossing the valley and climbing halfway up the rocky slope, I unlaced my boots and took off my pants. Then I flipped myself over—belly to the sky—balanced my bow on my stomach, and started creeping backward on my hands and heels.

The first thing you’ll notice if you decide to strip down to your underwear and crab-walk up a mountain in ­Idaho’s high desert is that the rocks there are sharp. The second is that the cactus thorns are even sharper. To make matters worse, after about 250 yards, it dawned on me that I’d started my ­crab-walk way, way too soon. With my abs burning and arms shaking, I still had 150 yards before I even hit the timber.

When I finally got there, I had no idea where the bull was. I kept moving methodically, taking breaks to glass and to pick thorns from my hands, feet, and butt. Finally, when I saw a shooting lane, I decided to move toward it to set up and call. As I eased forward, I felt a stick under my foot, and for a moment I felt pretty smart for ditching my boots—until I shifted my weight and snapped another one. The woods exploded. A huge, frightened animal rocketed to its feet beside me and crashed through the timber and down the mountain.

Standing there in its wake, in nothing but my underwear, I thought I could never feel more dejected or more stupid in the outdoors—until I realized that the longest trek I would take that day would be the 400 yards back to my boots and pants.

Daniel Didn’t Have a Heart Attack, by Will Brantley

We were parked on a western Oklahoma hillside, glassing turkeys and complaining about the tacos. Daniel McVay had picked up Tony Hansen and me in Oklahoma City that morning, and I’d insisted we buy a big sack of Taco Bell for our three-hour road trip to the Panhandle. As we glassed, our rumbling guts also had us scanning for any suitable bushes nearby, of which there were few. We held it together long enough to see the birds roost, and then we hauled it back to camp and set our alarms for 4 a.m.

It was about midnight when I heard someone whisper, “Brantley.” I awoke to see Daniel at the foot of my bed, clutching his chest. “I’m having a heart attack.”

Daniel seemed barely conscious as Tony and I piled him into the truck. I jumped behind the wheel and sped 67 miles to the nearest medical facility, a walk-in clinic in Kansas. Along the way, Tony found cell service and called ahead. Two nurses met us at the door, and we dragged Daniel inside to see the nurse practitioner who was on call for the night.

As we waited, Tony and I wandered down a darkened hall to a room where I spied a coffeepot. We sat there sipping Folgers until an hour later, when the nurse practitioner walked into the room, annoyed. She couldn’t say for sure what was wrong with Daniel, but she didn’t think it was a heart attack. He’d awoken and asked her if he could have a little pinch of Skoal.

“He’ll need to get checked out by his doctor,” she said. “But honestly, this looks to me like a bout of severe indigestion.”

Daniel was lying in the bed smiling when we walked in, as if the whole night had been one great adventure. “Boys, I think it was the tacos,” he said. “And I think we’ve got time to get back before daylight and kill us a turkey.”

Our phone alarms went off simultaneously as we pulled into camp, at precisely 4 a.m. We grabbed our gear, headed out, and just after sunrise were taking pictures of two gobblers after a classic fly-down double.

Illustration of a wild prairie dog with evil eyes.
“You are one sorry-ass fisherman.” Illustration by Moron Eel

I Went Fishing With a Prairie Dog, by Bill Heavey

Whenever I’m sitting around a fire with a group of men telling stories about landing huge fish and tagging monster bucks, there comes a pause when it becomes evident that some comic relief is needed. That’s when all eyes turn to me. I’m not sure if my reputation has preceded me or if I just hum at a non-­alpha frequency. Either way, it’s up to me to tell the other sort of story. So I do.

It’s 2004, and I’m halfway around the world fishing Mongolia’s Delger River for taimen, a kind of trout that grows to 5 feet and 50 pounds. Our group is sleeping in tents and traveling in a six-wheeled Russian truck, stopping to ask itinerant herders in felt yurts if they’d seen any taimen.

The trip had been billed as a flyfishing adventure until my guide, Andy, saw me cast, at which point it became a spinfishing adventure. After two days of my throwing big lures with no luck, he has me switch over to half a lenok, or Manchurian trout. Still nothing. By the evening before the last day, my guide is desperate. At supper, he leaps to his feet when he sees two of the boys from camp riding horses toward us from out of the setting sun, one of them holding a freshly snared prairie dog in a noose. Andy stays up half the night, doing surgery on the prairie dog to insert a treble hook and rubbing an entire bottle of Gink floatant into the tail.

By 2 p.m. on a cold day with intermittent rain, I’ve been slinging the dog for seven hours and am nearly hallucinating with fatigue. The waterlogged bait now weighs about a pound and a half. And something else is happening. The creature’s lips and tongue have turned black and shriveled, exposing the gums, also black. Against this background, its yellow incisors seem to be growing bigger. In my altered state, the prairie dog has come back to half-life and is taunting me. Its eyes are swollen shut, but it manages a yellow smile.

“Sure, I’m dead,” it says. “But you are one sorry-ass fisherman.”

I look it right in the teeth. “Shut up!” I say. “I may get one yet.”

But the dog isn’t buying it. “Nope,” it says. “You’re done, my friend. The lights are on but nobody’s home.”

I keep slinging the thing until the guide calls it quits late in the afternoon. Back at camp, he still has a stunned look as we open our beers. “I don’t understand it,” he says. “You fished as hard as anybody, and I know there are fish here.” Finally, he shakes his head. “This has never happened to me before.”

I cuff him on the shoulder. “Don’t worry about it, Andy,” I say. “Happens to me all the time.”