What are the best scent control tactics for elk hunting?

Today’s blog is Part 1 of a two part series addressing this question.

All was going as planned.  I had driven to a ridge top that was part of the Continental Divide.  Making my way in the dark, I walked down what was left of the old, steep road as it dropped off the Divide.  The locals call this part of the road “The Widow Maker”, and it’s easy to see why.  After making it safely down the treacherous trail, I crossed the sage covered bottom.  Although I had occasionally seen elk in this open area, that wasn’t their recent pattern.  My destination was a small, tree covered ridge on the far side of this narrow sage flat.

I had made this trek often enough during this hunt that I was able to recognize individual bushes and trees, even in the predawn light.  I located the trail that led up this “hogback” ridge that divided this large valley into two sage covered drainages.  The first drainage was the one I just crossed.  The second was my objective, where I hoped to see elk from the top of “hogback”.  I quickly ascended the ridge and picked my way through the thick juniper and pinyon.  At last I found a spot where I could see into the second sage covered drainage.

This spot was a corner of national forest that was bordered by private property on two sides.  The Continental Divide ridge made the third side of a triangle of public land that most hunters avoided.  I had observed that the elk tended to follow a pattern on most days.  They usually spent the night on one section of private land where there was water and good grazing.  During the day they would bed down in the dark timber on the other section of private property.  The elk would often cross this stretch of public land as part of their daily routine.


Before I even had the chance to start glassing, I spotted a bull with my naked eye.  He wasn’t huge, but he was on the public land side of the fence.  I quickly formulated a plan to intercept the bull before he reached the second boundary fence.  I was going to drop down the far side of the hogback, cross the second sage drainage, and meet the bull in the trees beyond.

There were plenty of trees on the side of the ridge to cover me as I dropped down to the more open sage meadow.  I moved quickly, while still trying to be as quiet as possible.  The bull was at least 400 yards away, and was feeding as he slowly moved toward his bedding ground.  Since he wasn’t looking in my direction, he didn’t catch my movement as I moved low among the thick sage brush.  The morning thermals created a very slight breeze down the drainage toward the bull.  Since he was so far away, I expected my scent to be sufficiently dissipated long before it reached the elk’s sensitive nostrils.

Moving through the sage, I kept tabs on the bull.  He was blissfully unaware of my presence as I moved in for the ambush.  In the middle of the sage was the wash, or arroyo, as we locals call it.  This is where the water concentrates during the heavy monsoon thunderstorms to form a temporary rushing torrent.  Over the years the water had cut a ditch that was 4 or 5 feet deep.  Dropping into the ditch, I decided to take advantage of the fact that I was hidden to close much of the distance between the bull and me.


Climbing out of the arroyo, still at least 200 yards from the bull, I peeked over the sage.  The bull was looking directly at me.  He wasted no time galloping in the direction of the private land, disappearing into the trees.  What had happened?  I was sure he hadn’t seen me as the terrain had covered my movement.  The sandy bottom of the ditch had allowed me to move very quietly, so I was sure he hadn’t heard me.  There was only one possibility.  The bull had caught my scent on the slight breeze, even though he was so far away.  I had underestimated the olfactory powers that God had bestowed on this majestic creature.

Scent Control Tactic #1 – Wind direction

As I learned while trying to ambush that bull, and relearned many times since, wind direction is THE most important scent control tactic when hunting elk.  Their noses are extremely powerful sensors, alerting them to potential danger in their environment.  And the more elk there are together, the more sensors there are to detect you.

Detection Methods

Detecting the direction of even the slightest air movement is very important when planning a stalk on an animal.  Archery hunters have long used bottles of scent-free powder, puffing a little into the air to determine the air current.  A feather dangling from a string can be a good indicator too.  Simply paying close attention to how the air feels on your face can help you determine your plan.


Understanding wind direction is a critical scent control tactic when setting up a blind.  Some things to consider are the prevailing wind direction and potential thermal activity.  Knowing the terrain and which direction the wind typically blows will ensure that you set up your blind on the downwind side of your target.  If the location is subject to thermal activity – downhill drafts in the morning and uphill drafts in the afternoon, the location may only be usable part of the day.

Sometimes terrain and weather conditions can cause winds to be inconsistent.  The wind may be coming from one direction at one moment, and may switch to the opposite direction the next moment.  If this is the case during a stalk, it’s best to back out and try again later.  It’s usually better to pass up the stalk than risk having the elk smell you and completely leave the country.

Scent Control Tactic #2 – Cleanliness

While elk hunting one day, I was stopped in my tracks by an unpleasant odor.  As I continued down the game trail, the odor grew stronger and I quickly identified it as human body odor.  Knowing that another hunter must be close by, I began to look for him rather than elk.  I was surprised to find the hunter about 75 yards from where I first smelled him.  If I could smell him that far away, how much easier could he be detected by the sensitive nose of an elk?

One of the best scent control tactics an elk hunter can use is to stay clean.  While it may be difficult to shower in camp, washing daily with scent free hunter’s soap is helpful.  Carrying scent free baby wipes in your pack is a convenient way to freshen up while away from camp.

Scent Control Tactic #3 – Perspiration control

In most of us, the primary source of body odor is perspiration, or more specifically, the bacteria that grow as a result of perspiring.  Therefore, it makes sense that one of the key scent control tactics is to prevent perspiration.  This can be difficult with the wide range of temperatures and activities experienced by a hunter.  Often we bundle up against the early morning chill, only work up a sweat as we hike to our favorite hunting spot.  Additionally, the cold weather clothing that feels good in the morning can cause us to be overheated in the afternoon.

The best way to prevent perspiration is to dress in multiple light layers.  In cold weather wear a base layer that will wick perspiration away from your skin.  Merino wool and many synthetic fabrics do a good job of this, but avoid cotton.  Holding the moisture against your body, cotton will lose its insulating ability and will lead to body odor.  Avoid heavy outer garments that will be too much during the warmer part of the day or during strenuous exercise.  Ensure that you have enough pack capacity to carry the extra garments that you might shed during the day, or that you might need to put on as temperatures drop.  If I am getting overheated as I am walking, I often remove gloves or my hat to allow excess heat to escape.  This is a quick and easy way to maintain a comfortable temperature and avoid excessive perspiration.


Like many other big game animals, elk have an extremely powerful sense of smell.  The most important of all the scent control tactics is utilizing wind direction in your favor.  Also, staying as scent free as possible by staying clean and minimizing perspiration will reduce the chance of being detected.  In part 2 of this topic, we’ll discuss some of the products that are available for scent control.  How effective are they?  Should you spend your hard earned money on them?

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Jimmie is a retired high tech engineer who now spends his time writing about elk hunting, selling Real Estate, and doing DIY projects.

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