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Backpacker Magazine – Online Exclusive

Ask A Bear: Skunk Spray As Deterrent?

Our resident bruin expert answers all your questions in our weekly feature, 'Ask A Bear.'

by: BEAR


Q: Many years ago my backpack was sprayed by a skunk; the smell is only now starting to fade. Ever since, I have been sleeping with my backpack and food in my tent. Is the smell keeping you away? If so, I might try to find another skunk to get mad at my pack. —Heather Keys, via email

A: Wait, let me get this straight: You've been sleeping with a backpack that reeks of skunk stink for YEARS?? Unless you've had your nasal receptors removed, I think you might have bigger problems than bears.

That said, what you are doing is a terrible idea. While a direct blast from a skunk can sometimes deter large carnivores like bears, it's unlikely that the lingering smell will keep them away. The main threat a skunk offers is the irritation and intensity of a full-on blast from its anal glands. Some of my kin have been conditioned to avoid skunks, but that requires visual confirmation of a black-and-white tiny terror; otherwise, I have the potential to investigate smells, no matter how bad they might be to you. Rotting caribou carcasses? Festering garbage? Feces? It's all child's play to me.

And sometimes, a skunk blast doesn't keep me from launching an attack. How many times has a family dog returned reeking of mustelid, happily wagging its tail? If Fido can face down a skunk, so can I.

Which brings me to the worst news: All these years, you've been getting lucky. Depending on where you typically camp, it's possible to sleep with your food in a tent and never see a bear—but it's never smart to do so. Every time you do, you're risking the chance that I'll sniff it out and start associating humans with food.

That usually gets me killed. So I must implore you: If you care about me, your safety, or the continued sanctity of the wilderness for others to enjoy, start hanging a bear bag or using a canister. You'll be doing your part to keep me wild—a few moments that could mean the difference between life and death for my kind (and sometimes yours).

And for the love of Grizz, go buy yourself a new pack!

—BEAR

Got a question for the bear? Send it to askabear@backpacker.com.

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READERS COMMENTS

TXhunter
Aug 22, 2011

Some hunters use skunk oil as a cover scent to mask human odors because it doesn't scare away wildlife. In your situation it's better to smell like a human. As others have already said, bears might investigate the skunk odor out of curiousity, as a potential food item, or due to common forage.

TXhunter
Aug 22, 2011

Some hunters use skunk oil as a cover scent to mask human odors because it doesn't scare away wildlife. In your situation it's better to smell like a human. As others have already said, bears might investigate the skunk odor out of curiousity, as a potential food item, or due to common forage.

James
May 07, 2011

Matt, May 05, 2011, is right! I have been backpacking and camping in the Sierra and the Rockies for over 50 years and have never lost anything to a bear. However, marmots, squirrels, chipmunks, mice, and a variety of birds have all managed,at one time or another, to get in my food. The cannister has been totally foolproof since I bought it 20+ years ago.

Steve C
May 06, 2011

Are there any tests out there by manufacturers of cover scents used by hunters regarding bears' reaction to skunk scent? I've read some studies concerning deer and elk reactions, but not bear.

Still, I would hang my food bag. I would not want an amorous Peppy LePew looking for a date inside my tent. Companion read: "The Stink of Love: Pepe Le Pew’s Guide to L’amour," ($9.95).

Concord Al
May 06, 2011

Had a pistol team captain once said to me: "Some people have twenty years experience and others 1 year of experience repeated twenty times. Boy have you been lucky and sometimes, especially in your case, lucky is better than good. Every time I think I've heard/seen it all . . . something new.

Eric
May 06, 2011

After a desert trip in Nevada, followed by a trip to Crestone Needle in Colorado, I found that my tent had become a very enticing salt lick. Got some great pictures of 20 bighorns gathered around the tent cleaning it for me.

And that was just salt!

Johnnyb
May 05, 2011

As a solo backpacker I'll stick with hanging food and a bell on my shoe.

girlonisland
May 05, 2011

roflmao.. you didnt have to be a bear to know that one.. i just cant quit laughing at this one.. sorry.. if you dont want to use a cannister at least take along some bear rope .. and i definitly burn the bag!! ahhh haaa

Johnnyb
May 05, 2011

As a solo backpacker I'll stick with hanging food and a bell on my shoe.

Aaron
May 05, 2011

I'm going to go out on a limb here and assume you are a SOLO camper...

Bob Hansen
May 05, 2011

Most carnivores are ATTRACTED to skunk odor...as are other skunks!!

scorched
May 05, 2011

There are a lot of other critters in the woods who would gladly chew through the side of your tent and your skunk-funk pack to get at the food inside. Bears aren't the only reason that food should never be kept inside your tent.

Matt
May 05, 2011

How has this person not already been eaten?

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