Many hunters will enjoy nothing more than a toasty campfire after a day of deer stalking. After all, what better way to keep warm and enjoy some good, old-fashioned flame-grilled meat? However, over the years there have been many debates about the use of campfires in deer territory.
Some individuals firmly believe that the smell of both the smoke and the food cooking can spook the deer. Hunters will spend hours swapping tales around a cozy fire but what if the campfire smell does scare the deer? If this is the case, how will they react? We decided to take this debate by the horns (or antlers) and investigate this theory.
When hunting Native Americans used to roll around in extinguished campfires as a way of removing their human smell suggesting that the smell of campfire doesn’t scare deer. Today, however, there are arguments to the contrary. It largely depends on whether fires in the area are common.
Does Campfire Smell on Your Clothes Scare Deer?
Anyone on the hunting scene will be aware of how the Native Americans relied on campfires for covering their human scent. Deer have a remarkable sense of smell that has the potential to reach a distance of a half mile or more. Author of The Deer Of North America, Leonard Lee Rue 111, spent some time observing their ability to smell.
Therefore, hunters used the smell of old campfires that had died out and cooled, to their advantage. They would roll around in them, covering their human scent as much as possible. Also, their clothing was often made using the smoking process.
If this was the case back then, then surely deer can’t fear the smoky smell? This does put a spanner in the works when it comes to the argument that deer don’t like the smell of smoke on clothes.
Can Deer Smell Campfire Smoke?
Deer have an outstanding sense of smell.
They can smell things from an amazing distance away so under perfect conditions, will be able to smell a campfire. They will also be able to smell the human scent and any food that is cooking.
Whether or not this scares them is something still under scrutiny to this day. There is a belief that over the years, deer have come to associate campfires and food smells with human predators.
There is a very solid argument to suggest that it all comes down to conditioning. People have observed the behavior of whitetail deer, in particular regarding smells. It makes sense that whether a smell is scary or not will depend on context. By this we mean:
- Is it common to have fires in that particular area?
- Are deer used to humans?
- Are the deer timid or are they tame?
Deer that are around a lot of noise, human traffic, and smells are much less likely to be bothered by campfires. On the same note, deer in rural areas where they are left to their natural territory will lead them to be wary of humans. The response that a deer has to smells such as smoke and cooking food will ultimately come down to their individual experiences and personalities.
Can Light from A Campfire Scare Deer Away?
We have looked at the smells of the campfire but what about the fire itself? Is there any evidence to suggest deer are scared of the light? Often, the light alone will be enough to keep deer away. There have been some arguments to suggest that deer aren’t scared of, or even see lights. For the most part, though, this theory is rejected by most hunters.
Some deer may not react to a light being shone on them, for example, a flashlight. However, as we have already established, some deer are more curious or braver than others. There is some evidence to suggest that shining red or green on deer will feel less intrusive to them.
MY OWN EXPERIENCE: In the UK, I have a wildlife garden that includes deer, foxes, badgers, and hedgehogs. In the evening, once it is dark, we put on a red or green light which doesn’t scare the animals. When we use the white light, however, they will run out of the garden. We also have regular BBQs using wood and it doesn’t keep the wildlife away.
We know that this was a practice used by the Native Americans, but it is time to explore if it is a trick used in modern-day hunting.
After considerable research, our findings suggest that this isn’t something that is practiced in today’s modern world.
This is because there are many products now available that hide the human scent. Most of these are logistically easier to use too and do not involve rolling around in last night’s campfire.
A lot more is understood about animal behaviors now. Here are some of the more modern techniques adopted by hunters when it comes to concealing their human scent:
- Scent-free laundry detergents.
- Scent-free toiletries.
- Eating apples can conceal mouth odors.
- Scent-eliminating sprays.
- Pine smells.
- Acorn scents.
- Vanilla extract on boots.
- Tree branch air fresheners.
- Disposable odor-killing wipes.
- Merino wool clothing.
We should point out at this stage that these odor eliminators will only work if they are natural smells in the environment already. There is zero point in smothering yourself in something a deer has never smelt before. Let’s not forget just how marvelous the deer’s nose is. A lot of what they smell will come down to the conditions on any given day.
We conclude with some thoughts from a US-based deer hunter who we spoke with based on their first-hand knowledge and experience.
Hunt’s End Deer Ranch, based in Wisconsin, US is a hunting preserve for whitetail deer. Hunt’s End Ranch assured me that “deer are actually very curious to new smells”. This is clear to see from this video footage of a deer standing just yards away from them, observing their activity.
We should be very aware of the fact that there are many more smells in the air today. Commuting, huge housing estates, many more people – it is safe to assume that deer have simply adapted their behavior accordingly. Many people will tell you that deer are quite nosey animals and with this, comes bravado.