It has been said that you can fool an elk’s ears and eyes, but you’ll never fool his nose.
An elk may hear you coming and think little of it; after all, if another elk were approaching they would make some noise, too. And you can fool an elk’s eyes by utilizing concealment, shadows, and above all – stillness.
But if an elk smells you, the gig is up and you’re done. He’s out of there!
And unfortunately the hardest thing for hunters to control is their scent, which is especially true when hunting the mountains. Swirling winds, changing thermals, and the body scent that can accumulate on a week-long backcountry hunt – these things make it very difficult to keep an elk from smelling you.
What to do?
If you’re going on a backcountry hunt, then you can’t throw a gallon of scent killer in your pack and spray down throughout your hunt. (And does that stuff actually work anyway?) You’re likely not going to be able to shower with scent free soap and shampoo. And I’m pretty sure you’re not going to have the time, energy, or extra clothes to wear while you wash your camo in scent-free detergent each night.
So, how can you control your scent on a backcountry elk hunt? The way I see it, there are three major aspects of controlling scent on a wilderness elk hunt. That’s not to say these are the only three things, as certain other details – such as fire, food, etc – may also help you control scent. But, in my opinion, these are the big three…
#1 – Watch the wind at all times
When it comes to bowhunting, the wind is either your best friend, or your worst enemy.
The wind will determine pretty much everything about your hunt, from where you camp, to how you plan to approach elk that you locate, to the ways that you travel through bedding areas during the day.
Playing the wind can be especially tricky when hunting the mountains. Prevailing winds can be researched, and thermals should follow certain patterns, but weather conditions can cause the winds to become unstable at any moment. Just because the prevailing winds and thermals should be doing “this”, the winds in the mountain drainage/break/ridge that you’re hunting in may be doing “that“.
So it isn’t enough to think you know what the wind is doing, or have an idea of what the wind should be doing – you need to constantly check and see what the wind is actually doing. There are all sorts of strategies for wind-checking; mine is simple – a small squeeze bottle filled with corn starch. Give it a squeeze and you’ll have a solid idea of where your scent is drifting.
Still, it’s helpful to know a few simple things about common wind behavior. An over-simplified, but helpful, way to think of thermals is that they follow the temperature. In the early morning, while its still cool, the thermals will be falling. However, as the sun rises and the temperature heats up, the thermals will begin to drift up the mountain. Then, when the sun and temperature begins to fall in the evening, the thermals will follow. This somewhat predictable pattern should dictate how you approach elk hunting grounds, especially for morning and evening hunts.
#2 – Wear the right clothes
“Cotton kills” is an oft-repeated mantra among backcountry hunters. Synthetics perform much better in terms of moisture management, insulation, and comfort. However, synthetics get smelly quite fast – especially synthetic base layers.
If you’ve been following my articles, you’ll notice that I’m a huge fan of merino wool. Forget carbon, bamboo, and silver-impregnated fabrics – merino is the way to go for scent control and scent prevention – especially for backcountry hunts. I don’t know of any other clothing that I can wear non-stop for a week and still not reek.
There are several reasons why natural merino wool doesn’t hold body odor – including the rough, scaly surface of the fibers, which prevents the growth of bacteria, and the natural ability to absorb moisture and then aid in evaporation of sweat.
In addition to the fabric, it’s important to use a good layering strategy. Smart clothing systems not only help you stay comfortable, they also help prevent the conditions that cause your body to produce, accumulate, and retain odors.
#3 – Wash the right way
Believe it or not, there are several solutions for backcountry bathing, including some smart solar-warmed showers. But these items add more complexity and weight than I’m willing to bear on my back.
But personal hygiene shouldn’t be ignored in the backcountry. It is important to take small personal-care steps that help maintain a diminished scent profile, and to prevent other issues such as chaffing and rashes. One of the most important things I take on multi-day trips are scent-free baby wipes. These are my “shower squares”. It’s amazing how effective they are at removing the funk, cleaning your skin, and just helping you feel refreshed.
The wind blows…
One of the most frustrating aspects of hunting is encountering the seemingly perfect situation, only to have the opportunity blown away by a suddenly-shifting wind. That is simply part of bowhunting. It makes the challenge great, and the hard-fought reward even greater. The wind is either on your side or theirs, but it’s never neutral. In both a figurative and a literal sense – the wind “blows”.