“Frisky” Buffalo In Our Tent Camp

The Happy Couple
The Happy Couple

Terri and I are avid campers and have been since our university days. We’ve camped from coast to coast and border to border. Before we got our tiny popup last summer, we were tent campers.

Sleeping in a tent is an acquired taste, and a big part of the experience is “communing with nature.” Normally this communing means critters, in one form or another, visiting our campsite. Prior to our camping experience at Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, the worst uninvited visitors we’d experienced were annoying but harmless armadillos, raccoons, mice, and the odd scavenging grackle. At Roosevelt Park, this all changed.

When sleeping in a tent, and 3000 pounds of horny buffalo (2000 pounds of he, 1000 pounds of she) ambles into your campsite, it’s time to pay attention. Our motto is: “You don’t get old being stupid.”


This sounds like madness, I know, but when we decided to camp in the park, there were a couple of crucial facts that we didn’t know. First, it was bison mating season and National Park Service policy, which we totally agree with, is that humans are guests in the animals’ homes. At Roosevelt, this means the buffs pretty much wander where they choose. And the second bit of missing information was that the night before we arrived a couple of frisky males had damaged a camper’s car to the tune of $1500 while trying to decide who got to “dance” that night.

Buffalo by the truck
A Close Encounter of the Bison Kind!

On the first night, I was awakened by a series of low, guttural growls and loud grunts. My drowsy mind couldn’t imagine any situation where this noisy commotion could be a good thing, so I had to investigate. With gritted teeth, I slowly unzipped the corner of the tent window cover, peered out, and spied two huge bison no more than 10 feet from our flimsy tent. I rolled over, gently put my hand over Terri’s mouth, and breathed quietly into her ear, “Terri, there are buffalo in camp.” Now Terri, bless her heart, is as game as they come, but you can imagine the reaction this produced … and how much sleep we got for the remainder of the night.

Buffalo Herd

We survived the night un-trampled, but for some unknown reason the herd, and the amorous couple, decided to drop by our campsite for another social call the next morning. After the previous night’s visit we were on high alert, and it seemed prudent to finish our coffee inside the truck.

As we looked at the backside of the herd moving off, I said to Terri, “This is why we camp!!” But to her credit, she didn’t say (at least not out loud), “You’re so full of it!”

Theodore Roosevelt National Park is a wild and wonderful destination, and while we can’t promise randy buffalo on every visit, it’s still a must-see.

Happy Camping,
James & Terri

Last updated July 10, 2017

Author: gallivance.net

We're Terri and James Vance - high school sweethearts who went on to international careers and became world nomads. Today, 65 countries later, we're still traveling ... and still in love. Check out Our Story for more of the backstory at gallivance.net.

45 thoughts

  1. James I am laughing out loud. “This is why we camp!” Haha. Rings similarly to my line with Dave ‘ But think how great this will be for the blog!” Bless his heart along with Terri’s. 🙂 Again really enjoyed the story and post.

    1. Thanks Sue. Actually, this was a very neat experience, in a glad-nothing-happened sort of way. We were surprised when they returned the next morning, but it was a wonderful opportunity to see (and hear) bison mating habits up close. But then, maybe I am full of it. ~James

      1. That is the thing James isn’t it? Sometimes when the situation gets a bit dicey it is what makes it so fabulous all at the same time. Perspective and frame of mind have a great deal to do with it.

        On a much smaller note here’s an example. Yesterday Dave and I went cycling with our son and daughter in law. They have mountain bikes and we ended up in this steep ravine walking our bikes with a thousand or so mosquitoes. Our son was busy apologizing but I could truthfully say no where had I seen such an amazing array of wildflowers this year. Not quite buffalo I know but you get my point. It is one of the reasons I have loved your blog from day one James. You and Terri have that positive adventurous spirit which resonates with me.

      2. Thanks very much Sue. These kind words mean a lot coming from an adventurer like you. My philosophy has always been “you don’t get old being stupid”, but never taking a risk gets you nowhere. As you say, it’s all about perspective, and finding that balance. As Neil Young said: “I’d rather wear out than rust.”~James

    1. Thanks for the comment and for dropping by the blog. Like most campers, we have lots of camping stories. We think this is one of our most unique and fun (since we survived the ordeal with no injuries). ~James

    1. I’m not so sure SueBee. We’ve camped for years, and quite a bit of this has been in bear country. And I must admit, that I’ll take my chances with a buffalo anytime. Like most campers, I have a healthy respect for bears. Luckily, I’ve never had an encounter, and hopefully, I’ll continue to keep viewing them from afar…not in my campsite ~James

    1. Yes it was a bit close Andrew, and we breathed a sigh of relief when they moved on. A grackle is a common N. American blackbird. They have a glossy, iridescent body and are an attractive bird, but also a nuisance. They congregate in large groups, can be extremely noisy, and they love to scavenge around rubbish bins, picnic tables, or anywhere else they might be leftover food.

  2. Methinks the bison were WAY too close for comfort, James.

    I don’t think I’ve been camping since a 9 week camping tour of Europe back in 1976(?).

    I like my bed and a long soak in a hot bath every day. Still got my super down sleeping bag in the cupboard though.

    1. It’s funny Vicki, that after this experience we asked ourselves if we would have stayed if we had known about the buffalo, and strangely, we said yes. We’ve never really had a bad animal experience while camping, and in fact, it’s been just the reverse. Camping has always been our way of seeing animals in their natural habitats. It just so happens, that in this case, the animals clearly let us know it was THEIR home, not ours. Pretty cool actually. ~James

  3. Scary! But what an experience! Nothing I’ve experienced even though I love camping too.

    My brother though, who at the moment lives in a tent (he has recently developed an intolerance to electricity, and uses the summer time to be away from it and is doing loads better now. Lucky he is an outdoors kid of guy ;)), was woken up by an elk recently. Not so scary but quite an impressive wake up!

    1. Interesting story about your brother Vilma. We’ve spent lots of time in tents, and given todays camping technology, it’s not the grueling lifestyle that it was in the past. Still, it takes a certain amount of determination to live in a tent. I guess it all comes down to cost/benefit. Camping (like some international travel) deprives you of certain creature comforts, that feel all that much better when you go back to them. ~James

  4. I used to love tent camping but now that we have Waldo, I’m pretty spoiled!!! Amorous bison is not something I would want to wake up to. Did you continue to camp there or did you move on?

    1. As you may know from our posts Laura, when we bought our small popup, we took one step up off the ground, and it’s made all the difference. Yes, we did move on. We figured that they’d had two shots at us, and we came through unscathed. Three might have been pushing our luck. ~James

  5. Whoa! Scary, but how exciting! I remember from our back woods skiing in northern MN being told that the moose were usually fine EXCEPT during mating season, so you may have been very lucky that they didn’t see you as a threat to their intended conquest 🙂

    What great photos and fun story you have – something you will always remember. I still can’t believe you had the courage to stay in the tent all night. I would have been in your truck as fast as I could get there!

    1. Jeannee, the bison really did move in a herd, and after an hour or so, they all moved out of the campground and back into the clearing. So we felt it was OK to stay in the tent. But when they returned the next morning, we had a chance to get a good look at them (from inside the truck), and I can say that the huge, grunting and groaning males were scary. They came within 3 feet of our truck and we held our breath. ~James

      1. What a treat! You just can’t plan these things, but they really do make you realize that we are part of nature and not the other way around.

        I had a similar experience with a moose when out on a desolate trail in the north woods of MN, and I know someone who ran into a mountain lion hiking in CO (he took a photo so I know the story was true). In both cases, we looked at each other and held our breath – like your encounter (even with a truck, I suspect you were in danger if they meant to harm you). You leave those experiences knowing you are lucky to escape unharmed but so thrilled to have had such a rare opportunity.

      2. Jeannee, we share a number of opinions on this subject, and you stated them perfectly. You can’t plan these things; we are a part of nature, not above it, and particularly: “You leave those experiences knowing you are lucky to escape unharmed but so thrilled to have had such a rare opportunity.” Thanks for a nice comment. ~James

  6. What a thrilling experience, James! But it is such connection with nature and the beasts roaming its corners that makes camping adventure worth doing. But if I were there, probably I would have fallen asleep anyway despite realizing that just outside the tent there were two giant bison. 🙂

    1. Thrilling is the word Bama. It wasn’t being on safari, it was being IN safari. Truthfully, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. And while we don’t take unnecessary risks, we don’t shrink from being outside our comfort zone. I know that you can relate. ~James

    1. Rusha, thanks so much for the laugh of the day. I don’t have a go-to place, but when we travel in the US the choice is indoors or outdoors. Thanks for your insightful and fun comments.~James

  7. I am thinking just be glad your tent didn’t look like a buffalo, James. Wouldn’t want one trying to mate with it. The buffalo are grand at Theodore Roosevelt National Park though. As I recall, there were some very impressive petrified logs there as well. –Curt

    1. I’ve spent a bit of time around farm animals Curt, so I had a pretty good idea of what to expect. Luckily, we didn’t have any alpha male fireworks close to camp, but the big boy was one horny, possessive buffalo. We hiked out to see a very neat petrified forest, and when we stopped at the info center for a map it was a toasty 103° F … but it was a dry heat. ~James

      1. Same hike we did, James. I can still picture it in my my mind. We watch the bucks around here during mating season. It can get pretty hilarious but I feel sorry for the does. Talk about harassment! –Curt

    1. I wasn’t so concerned when were were inside the truck Marie, but the buffs wandering around outside our thin nylon tent made me a bit edgy. It turned out fine, and was a wonderful experience. ~James

    1. Juliann, we hadn’t read anything about Roosevelt NP before arrival, so the buffalo herd was a total surprise. I’ve seen buffalo in a number of places, but this was my first encounter with a wild herd. I didn’t know early on how wild they were. It was very cool. ~James

  8. Great story, you hardy campers. I have had a few ‘in tents’ experiences, too. Once when I was backpacking Olympic National Park, I had hung our food bag from a line I had stretched between two trees. The food bag was suspended above my tent so I would hear any ‘camp rustlers’ during the night. I had stretched a pull cord to the bag so I could haul it in to the nearest tree the following morning. My mistake was stretching the pull cord tight and tying it off to the tree.

    Early the next morning when I heard the food bag moving overhead, I peaked out of my tent and there, reaching up the tree where I had tied off the cord was a big mama black bear pawing at the cord and pulling my food bag closer to her. I must have looked pretty funny jumping out of my tent in my underwear yelling, throwing sticks and waving my arms to scare her off. I think she was more surprised than I was, because she hopped down and wandered off without much disagreement.

    Some would say it was foolish to confront a black bear, but I had my whole week’s worth of food in that bag, and I wasn’t about to give it up without some defensive measures. – Mike

    1. Mike, we’ve done a bit of backpacking in bear country, and lots of tent camping, and luckily, have never had a bear encounter. We weren’t really worried about it, but at the same time, we weren’t looking forward to the encounter. I’m glad that your confrontation turned out OK. I guess that there wasn’t much else to do, except acting like a madman. You weren’t wearing your Flintstone boxers were you? It could have been the underwear that scared Mama off. ~James

  9. Speechless. But how amazing. Once during a walking safari in Kruger we were charged by a lioness. I saw her movements in freeze frame beauty and didn’t have time to be scared. It was all over in a flash, but will stay etched in my minds eye forever.

    1. Tracey, I guess that one advantage we had with the buffalos was they had no aggression toward us (as opposed to a charging lioness – yikes!). Our only danger was just getting in the way of the, ahem, festivities. We were hoping they would think our tent was a big, blue rock. 🙂 ~James

    1. Thanks Peta. This was a camping trip for the books for sure. And on the other end of the spectrum, on that same trip a mouse moved into the back of our truck. It took us forever to find a humane trap so we could move him back outdoors. And the funny thing is that he moved into the truck in one state, and we released him hundreds of miles away in another state. I’m sure it confused his little mouse brain. 🙂 ~James

  10. Sounds like a scary yet fantastic trip all at the same time. Not know what it was at first with crunt noise must of been scary at first, especially not knowing if whether or not they were going to do harm.

    1. Thanks for the comment and for dropping by the blog. Noises outside the tent are rarely a good thing. This is why, years ago, we developed the habit of always putting everything, and I mean everything, away at night. We are particularly alert when we camp in bear country. Buffalo aren’t so bad, but I do not want a bear wandering into camp looking for a meal. ~James

      1. Your welcome! Yeah noises too close are never a fun thing to experience especially when sleeping. That’s great that you make sure of never leaving things out. We do the same, it’s just kind of time consuming but well worth it. Understandable, bears we feel are almost like a whole other category of animal, that’s what we fear. We’ve heard they could be very aggressive.

      2. I think that in the majority of cases, bears are looking for food – remove the food, remove the problem. Black bears in particular are shy and have no interest in humans, but they will definitely go for human food. But of course, all this goes out the window if cubs are involved. Grizzlies however, can be aggressive, and luckily we don’t camp that much in grizzly country.

      3. Agree, food they can smell from afar, and therefore should avoid leaving any kind of left over food items at all costs. That’s interesting, yeah apparently it’s more so the grizzlies to be watchful of. That great you steer clear of them as much as possible.

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