When hunting any of the North American charismatic megafauna, you must come to terms with the fact that they can smell really well. They can smell things miles away from them and determine what those things are. The obvious answer that some guys throw out is “just hunt the wind and you’ll be fine”. While yes, it’s always good to hunt the wind, it’s not always possible or practical. Further, there are other things to consider than just the wind—especially when you are chasing mature males. Whether elk, deer, or bears there are lots of ways that you can get busted in the woods besides just your scent carrying to them in the wind. From the moment you pull up in your truck to park near your hunting spot, you are leaving a scent behind. The sooner you get control of what scent and how much is left the better off you will be while hunting. Let’s talk about some of the ways we contaminate the woods with scent and then what you can do about it.
How We Leave Scent
There are two types of scent that we bring with us when hunting. Human scents and artificial scents. Every time we breathe our scent signature as a human is pouring out into the air and being carried by the wind. This is not something we can ever truly eliminate. It can be mitigated by playing the wind, running cover scents, or trying to use ozone to scrub the air. However, we will always smell like humans to some extent.
Every other scent we bring into the woods that is not natural to that habitat is what I’m going to refer to as artificial. If you are eating an apple in the woods, but apples don’t grow there, then we’ll call that artificial. Even though apples are natural to the earth, it’s a scent that does not naturally occur around the animals we are hunting. As such they may react to it when they smell it. The reaction they have is going to depend on the scent and the specific animal that is smelling it. The smell of your boots and anything that they’ve contacted in recent days. Your clothes and the smells they picked up inside your house. That Mcdonald’s breakfast or the coffee you had before going hunting are both artificial smells that you are carrying with you into the woods. God forbid you may smoke cigarettes in the woods or in your car on your way to hunt.
How Animals React To Scent
The answer is it depends. When talking about human scent a general rule is going to be that the older the animal is, the more likely they will be extremely cautious when they catch wind of a human. With some exceptions, this is how you become an old deer or bear—by avoiding people. Younger animals may be more curious about new smells like humans in their habitat, but this fascination typically wanes quickly. These are smart animals that learn fast, especially the ones that survive.
Artificial scents can be a different story. It all comes down to the particular animal’s experience with that smell. Maybe some deer that live near populated parks don’t mind the smell of cigarettes because they smell it often, where a deer in the deep woods is going to instantly know something is not right. The smell of gasoline and oil may not bother some animals especially if they live in an area where it’s a common smell. Animals will group artificial smells as harmless, dangerous, or unknown. It all depends on that animal’s past experience. If harmless (or commonplace), they will just go about their routine as normal. While the smell of a skunk is very intense, if the deer smells it frequently and has no bad associations with it then it won’t alter their behavior. If the smell is one that they have come to associate with danger such as gunpowder or dogs then they will quickly change their behavior pattern and get far enough away that they feel safe. Unknown smells are a tossup and will depend on a particular animal’s disposition. A more cautious animal may treat unknown scents as danger while a more curious animal may not mind. Just keep in mind that the curious animals get killed quickest by predators and hunters, so that 400-pound boar or 135-inch buck is likely going to be very cautious around unknown scents.
What You Can Do
Alright so after learning about how we leave scent and how animals react to it you may be thinking that you have no chance in controlling it. Let’s talk about what you can do to eliminate as much scent as possible and put animals at ease. Some of these measures may seem extreme so feel free to adopt as many or as little as you like.
- Keep smells out of your car. If you drive to your hunting location then take care to minimize odors that come in contact with that vehicle. Don’t smoke in it, don’t eat in it, and keep your dogs out. At the least, deodorize the car before you drive it to your hunting spot. Spray it with Dead Down Wind spray, air it out, or use ozone.
- Use “scent-free” products. I’m a big fan of dead down wind. Before every hunt, I shower using their scent-free shampoo and soap. I use their scent-free toothpaste, deodorant, and chapstick (while in the woods). Is this necessary? Is it overkill? It doesn’t hurt and is a big difference from using scented soaps, deodorants, and toothpaste. It’s inexpensive and you can pick up a whole season worth of supplies for like $20-$30.
- Keep your hunting clothes clean and wash them with a scent and UV free laundry detergent. Again look to brands like Dead Down Wind or Hunter’s Specialities, or Nikwax. Nikwax is not marketed as “scent-free” for hunters, but it is and contains no UV dyes. Nikwax is also great for technical clothing and apparel like Goretex. Consider storing your hunting clothes in a sealed bag after they’ve been cleaned and only changing into them outside your car when you get to your hunting spot.
- Invest in ozone. It’s not cheap, but can sanitize the scent of your vehicle, clothes, hunting gear, and even your scent in the woods. Read more about it here.
- No smoking in your treestand. Also if you bring snacks and beverages try to avoid ones with strong smells. Leave the teriyaki jerky at home and bring granola bars instead. If you sit all day you’re going to have to eat and drink, just be smart and minimize the smell as much as possible. That being said, if you’re hunting bears and want to eat smoked fish and bacon for lunch, probably won’t hurt your chances.
- Wear rubber boots. This is a big one. Most of the time we spend in the woods our feet are the main source of contact with the surrounding area. Leather boots soak up smells like a sponge and contain strong smells of their own. Use scent-free latex or rubber boots when possible. They’re easy to clean and descent. Many models from Lacrosse and Muck, and others are advertised as specifically designed to eliminate scents from sticking to them. The smell your footwear leaves on the ground will remain long after you head home for the day. Don’t educate the animals any more than necessary.
Hopefully, this gets you thinking more about how we leave scent in the woods, how animals react to it, and what you can do to minimize the odor you are emitting. It will never be possible to completely eliminate scents so you will always need to pay attention to the wind. However, the more you can reduce your scent footprint the better chances of getting that trophy animal into bow range.