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What To Do If You See A Skunk On A Hike

A skunk walking on green grass

Skunks get a bad reputation because of their smelly disposition. Their well-known scent can be smelled for miles, alerting everyone to their presence. However, skunks are actually very docile animals that try to avoid confrontation as much as possible.

If you’ve ever wondered what to do if you see a skunk on a hike, we’ve got you covered. We’ll go over everything about skunks, from their temperament to the nitty-gritty details about their spray. We’ll also cover some ways to remove the stench if you get sprayed.

All in all, skunks are amazing creatures that are great for the environment. Their spray is not as big of a threat as you might think!

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A closer look at skunks

Let’s start by taking a closer look at skunks (from a distance, of course!). There are three main types of skunks in the United States:

  • Striped skunks: Common across the United States and is the most likely skunk you will encounter while hiking. They prefer wooded areas such as where hiking trails are present.
  • Spotted skunks: These are much rarer and typically only found in wooded and rocky areas. Spotted skunks are usually found in the Eastern United States but are found as far west as Colorado and Wyoming.
  • Hog-nosed skunks: Only found in the southern United States and prefer rocky and mountainous terrain.

If you encounter a skunk on a hike, chances are it is a striped skunk. However, all three have similar temperaments and behaviors, so our tips in this article can apply to any skunk you meet on the path!

Let’s take a closer look at skunk spray so you know exactly what to do if you see a skunk on a hike.

Skunks Use Their Spray Conservatively

Despite all the stories we hear about people and dogs getting sprayed by skunks, this happens rarely. Skunks use their spray to defend themselves against predators, mainly coyotes, bobcats, foxes, badgers, and mountain lions.

However, skunks only have so much of their smelly yellow liquid stored up before they have to replenish it (similar to how snakes must replenish their venom). The Iowa Department of Natural Resources tells us skunks store 5 or 6 sprays’ worth in their glands. Once depleted, it takes 8 to 10 days to replenish their defensive spray.

During that week or so of restoring their spray, skunks are highly vulnerable to predators as they have no other defense mechanism. So, they don’t use their spray all willy-nilly. They do it only under extreme circumstances when they feel threatened or are suddenly startled.

Skunk Temperament: Are They Out To Get You?

A skunk hiding out in a rocky alcove. What to do if you see a skunk on a hike

If you’re walking through nature on your favorite hike and spot a skunk, will it attack? No. Will it spray you? Probably not. Will it waddle away as fast as it can? Probably.

Skunks are very mild-mannered creatures. They don’t even pay attention to other animals when they’re around unless they are being harassed by a predator. 

There are only a few scenarios where skunks may become defensive or even aggressive toward a hiker:

  • Suddenly startled: skunks have poor vision and can only see for about 10 feet in front of them. If you sneak up on a skunk and startle it, it may react by spraying immediately to defend itself.
  • Dogs: Dogs often fall victim to skunk spray because they are curious. They’re not sure what a skunk is, so they investigate. Because skunks have poor vision, they don’t have time to react before the dog is right in front of them. 
  • Cornered: If a skunk feels cornered, it displays defensive postures and may even spray if it feels threatened. Always give a skunk an exit!
  • Babies: When skunks are young, they haven’t yet learned what is and isn’t dangerous. Young skunks are more likely to spray than adult skunks.

Skunks in nature

Now that we know the basics about skunks, let’s move on to the scenarios you might encounter on a hike. Seeing a skunk on a hike is rare- they usually sleep during the day.

However, if you’re catching a sunrise or sunset, you may encounter one of these nocturnal animals.

Skunks Are Crepuscular – Active At Dawn And Dusk

Skunks are most active from dusk until dawn. They use their impressive sense of smell and hearing to locate food throughout the night, mostly ground-nesting bees, grubs, frogs, lizards, snakes, and bird eggs. They may also eat fallen fruit, mushrooms, and vegetables out of gardens.

Seeing a skunk during the day doesn’t mean it’s sick or has rabies. If it’s acting normal, there’s no reason to call wildlife control or pest control services. 

It may be out during the day because it was disturbed from its den or searching for food. This is especially true for females taking care of kits (baby skunks), typically during early summer.

Skunks Are Active From February To October

The skunk breeding season typically starts in February, when these striped animals emerge from inactivity during winter. Skunks don’t hibernate but are usually less active from November to January.

High skunk activity occurs in February, March, and April as male skunks look for mates. Skunks can give birth as late as June, and by September or October, the young skunks are following their mama around to learn how to find food.

Where You’re Most Likely To See A Skunk On A Hike

Skunks are pretty unbothered by other animals, but despite this, they hang out in wooded areas with plenty of cover. This helps them avoid predation by great horned owls, their main predator. Great horned owls are unaffected by the spray of a skunk.

Here’s where you’re most likely to see a skunk on a hike:

  • Wooded ravines where there is a water source.
  • Forests, especially near hollowed-out logs, water sources, and tall grass or brush.
  • Meadows with tall grass.
  • Suburban trails near dumpsters and homes.

Skunks are among the few animals that have adapted to living near humans. So, even if you’re on a trail in the heart of civilization, you may still spot a skunk!

Signs That A Skunk Is Nearby

One prominent sign indicating a skunk is nearby is the well-known skunk odors. However, this isn’t always a good indication that a skunk is close since even humans can smell their spray for up to a mile and a half away!

A better indicator is if you smell a very faint hint of skunk. Even when they don’t spray, if a skunk frequents an area enough, it develops a faint musk of skunk smell. This is an excellent indicator that a skunk is nearby.

Encountering a skunk on a hike

Now, let’s get down to the root of this article: what to do if you see a skunk on a hike. I’ve had two encounters with skunks, both of which ended peacefully with no smelly outcomes. 

Let’s discuss how to deal with a skunk and what to do if you encounter a skunk while hiking.

What To Do If You See A Skunk On A Hike: Step-By-Step

If you’ve spotted a skunk while hiking, here’s a step-by-step guide on what to do to avoid being sprayed.

  1. Back away: If a skunk is approaching you, it may have yet to spot you due to its poor eyesight. Back away and give it plenty of space to pass by. In most instances, your skunk problem will go away on its own.
  2. Make gentle noise: Skunks have excellent hearing. If you’ve noticed a skunk but they haven’t noticed you yet, make some gentle noise (like talking in a normal tone or rustling some leaves) to alert it to your presence. It will most likely scurry away. Don’t make sudden, loud noises, as this may startle the skunk and cause it to spray out of reflex.
  3. Wait: If a skunk is crossing the trail, give it time to cross without harassing it or coming any closer. Skunks aren’t likely to stay in the same place for long.
  4. Give them an exit: When encountering a skunk on a hike, ensuring the skunk has an exit is essential. Avoid accidentally cornering them or making them feel like they can’t escape, such as making them back up into a tree, bush, or rock face.

There’s no need to retreat to your car like you would if you encountered a bear or moose. Once the skunk is passed, you can continue your hike and are unlikely to see it again.

Signs That A Skunk Is Getting Ready To Spray

Knowing the signs that a skunk is upset and getting ready to spray can be tremendously helpful on a hike. It tells you you’re too close to the skunk and need to back up and give the animal an exit.

Here are the signs that a skunk is being defensive and may soon spray:

  • Stomping its feet
  • Hissing
  • Arching its tail over its back
  • Arching its back (like a cat)
  • Handstands

You’ll know you’ve upset the skunk if you see any of these signs. And an upset skunk can only end in a smelly demise.

The final queue that a skunk will spray is when they bend their hind end around while still facing you. These animals are surprisingly accurate with their spray for up to 10-15 feet away, so if you see this sign, it’s time to scram.

Dogs And Skunks

If you know anything about us, then you know we love taking our dog on hikes with us. Unfortunately, dogs and skunks do not get along. Skunks perceive dogs as predators similar to coyotes and will defend themselves from curious pups.

Dogs are naturally curious and may not be as aware as wild animals about the dangers of brightly-colored creatures like skunks.

If you are hiking in skunk territory, it’s imperative to keep your dog on a leash and monitor them if they explore in tall grass, brush, or near hollowed-out logs or anything resembling a skunk den. If you see a skunk while hiking with your dog, keep your dog close and do not let them approach the skunk.

Dealing With Skunk Spray

If you or your adventure pup get sprayed by a skunk, don’t panic. You can get the smell out; it might take a few soakings before your dog or your clothes smell fresh and clean again.

Getting Skunk Spray Off Clothing

Skunk spray is notorious for clinging to fabrics with a tenacity that would make a mountain goat jealous. But with a bit of patience and a few household items, you can reclaim your favorite hiking gear from the clutches of that skunky stench.

  • Step 1: Start by hanging your clothes outside, away from your living space. You’ll want to avoid bringing the smell indoors as much as possible.
  • Step 2: Mix a solution of one quart of 3% hydrogen peroxide, 1/4 cup of baking soda, and a teaspoon of dish soap. Trust us, this concoction is a game-changer. The chemical reaction helps to break down the smell-causing compounds in the skunk spray.
  • Step 3: Soak your clothes in this solution for about 20 minutes, then rinse thoroughly.
  • Step 4: Wash your clothes as usual, but add a half-cup of baking soda to your laundry detergent. Once they’re clean, hang them to dry outside if possible. The fresh air will do wonders for any lingering odors.

Remember, patience is key here. You might need to repeat these steps several times, but hang in there. Your clothes aren’t destined for the dumpster just yet!

De-Skunking Your Adventure Dog

Now, let’s talk about our four-legged adventure buddies. Dogs have a knack for finding trouble on the trail, and unfortunately, that sometimes includes skunks. Here’s how to help your pup smell like themselves again:

  • Step 1: Before anything else, put on some gloves and old clothes that you don’t mind getting smelly. This is one adventure you won’t want to remember.
  • Step 2: Mix up the same solution we mentioned earlier: one quart of 3% hydrogen peroxide, 1/4 cup of baking soda, and a teaspoon of dish soap.
  • Step 3: Apply this mix to your dog’s coat, avoiding their eyes and mouth. Let it sit for about five minutes – the perfect time for a belly rub!
  • Step 4: Rinse your dog thoroughly. You’ll want to ensure all the solution is out of their fur to prevent skin irritation.
  • Step 5: Give them a regular bath with dog shampoo to help soothe their skin and eliminate any remaining stench. We recommend using bathing gloves like HandsOn All-In-One Pet Bathing & Grooming Gloves. The gloves help distribute the shampoo throughout their coat and soothe any irritated skin.

Remember, your dog might be feeling a bit rattled after their skunk encounter, so take this time to reassure them and show them some love. After all, every good adventure has a few bumps in the road!

What About Tomato Juice And Commercial Products?

You’ve heard the story, right? Your furry friend gets sprayed by a skunk, and the next thing you know, you’re pouring cans of tomato juice over them in the bathtub. It’s a classic tale, but it’s about as effective as rinsing them off with water.

Tomato juice doesn’t remove the skunk smell; it masks it. What’s happening is something called olfactory fatigue. Your nose gets used to the skunky stench, and the strong smell of tomato juice takes over. But rest assured, your pup still reeks to everyone else.

Commercial products and shampoos are similarly ineffective. Many use perfumes to cover up the smell rather than neutralize it. Plus, they can be pricey, and who wants to spend their adventure fund on de-skunking shampoo?

In the end, remember that skunks are just a part of nature, and sometimes, they make their presence known in smelly ways. But with these tips, you’ll be back on the trail in no time, smelling fresh and ready for your next adventure!

Final Thoughts: Coexisting with skunks

That wraps up our adventure with our striped friend, the skunk. They might occasionally leave us holding our noses, but it’s important to remember that they’re generally peaceful critters who’d rather scurry away than pick a fight.

Just like we respect the mountains we climb and the trails we tread, let’s extend the same courtesy to the wildlife we encounter along the way. Skunks, with their distinctive markings and unique defense mechanisms, are just another part of the rich tapestry of nature that makes our adventures so rewarding.

When you’re out there, whether you’re solo trekking or exploring with your four-legged companion, remember to give skunks their space. As we’ve discovered, understanding is the key to coexistence, and now you know exactly what to do if you see a skunk on a hike. 

So, let’s embrace our skunk knowledge, share it with our fellow hikers, and continue to explore with respect and love for all the creatures we meet on our journeys. Happy hiking!

For more general tips about encountering wildlife on hikes, check out our guide on what to do if you see a wild animal on a hike!


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