Keeping Skunks Out of Your Campsite – Skunk Problem or People Problem?

We have enjoyed camping in our wall tent. We have used it as base camp during the fall hunting seasons and just to enjoyed the outdoors during the summer. Our wall tent is spacious and warm, but it is not 100% critter proof. We use a canvas drop cloth for a floor. The floor is not attached to the walls, but simply overlaps the sod cloth to keep the cold wind out and keep the creepy crawlies under the canvas.  A few bugs are not a big deal to us in warm weather and they almost completely disappear after the weather turns cold.  But I can’t help remembering encounters I’ve had with some little bushy tailed carnivores and there is absolutely nothing to keep them out if they want to come in.

striped skunk problems while camping

I have PTSD – Post Traumatic Skunk Disorder, but she just thinks they’re cute.

Little Mustelids; skunks! To be exact; Mephitis mephitis, the common Striped Skunk. Also known as pole cats or as my wife names them all;” Pepé Le Pew”. She always smiles when I mention skunks as if she is imagining a cute little skunk sticking his head under the tent just so she can rub his little skunk head. She thinks it’s funny I worry about skunks. But I have been traumatized. PTSD. Post-traumatic Skunk Disorder.

I’ve had many run-ins with skunks over the years, but my education of dealing with skunks at camp came many years ago while I was a young, idealistic graduate student. I was camped at the edge of a Wilderness Area and had just started my second field season studying the behavior of golden eagles. My normal day started with getting up before sunrise, climbing the hill to my small blind, where I sat on an ammo box for 16 hours while I observed and recorded eagle behavior in the nest.

I ate in the blind, I drank in the blind and yes, I peed in the blind (in a milk jug).  To make sure the eagles didn’t see me, I had to get into the blind at least 30 minutes before sunrise and I did not leave until 30 minutes after sunset, when I would slip out of the blind in the dark and walk down the hill back to camp. I was usually so exhausted at the end of the day, I would eat a sandwich and go to sleep. At least I would try to sleep.

I could only record data at the eagle nest for one day at a time because of the limitations of data storage and batteries, so I observed eagles one day then took the next day off. On my off days, I would drive 17 miles to civilization where the local game warden let my use his house take showers, download data and recharge batteries. I would also use his kitchen for the occasional one-pot bachelor meal. I was usually back at camp before dark to get ready for the next day.

About half the time I was alone at the camp site and half the time I was joined by volunteers that helped with the logistics of running the project. When volunteers were there, they slept in a big army tent and I either slept on the ground if the sky was clear or in my pup tent if the weather was bad. When I was alone at camp, I usually slept in the army tent on a cot.

Don’t Feed The Skunks

The skunk problem started when some of the volunteers allowed skunks to get into the tent and eat some of their food. In hind site, none of us should have had food in the tent because we were in black bear country, but in those days, I was never concerned about black bears. Apparently no one else was either.

Once skunks associated food with our camp, the problem got worse until it was ridiculous. I constantly reminded the volunteers about keeping all food in coolers or where skunks couldn’t reach it,  but new volunteers were showing up every two or three days and many times, skunks would raid them before I had a chance to give them the “Don’t feed the skunks” speech. Some of the volunteers were deliberately feeding the skunks.

Four to five skunks were showing up at a time. It was actually comical during the day when we could see them. We would try to herd them away without getting “skunked”.  Herding skunks is harder than herding cats.  If we pushed them too much, they would turn on us an hold up their little tails and threaten to spray us. We always backed off. They trained us more than we trained them. They had absolutely no fear of us and the way they behave, I don’t think they really fear anything. They should fear Great-horned Owls, because they may be the skunks only major predator. Owls don’t seem to have much ability to smell.

The problem with the skunks grew until it got to the point, we could not sleep at night. Skunks were constantly trying to get into the big tent and they even crawled around under the floor of the tent.

Skunk in the Tent

One night, I was awakened by skunks moving around under the tent when they knocked over a lantern. I was trying to go back to sleep when I heard scratching and sniffing at the door. The outside door of the tent was nothing but flaps that were secured with tie straps. The only security was a screen door that closed with zippers. I was always concerned the skunks would bust through the mosquito netting and come inside.

I shined my flashlight at the door, where all three zippers came together at the floor. I could see that cute little skunk nose pushing into the tent and the zippers were starting to spread apart. He paused for a moment and was furiously sniffing the air. I was laying on the cot with my face only about 2 feet away from the skunk. I assumed the skunk would back off when I shinned the light on him. Wrong. After weeks of searching for the opening, he had finally found it and he was coming inside.

I couldn’t imagine any good outcome if he came in. I would probably get skunked. The little bugger pushed again and I could see his eyes. His head was in the tent. As a last resort, I quickly rolled off the cot and dropped onto the floor. I took a deep breath and blew into his face as hard as I could from about 6 inches away. He instantly backed up and shook his head. I closed my eyes and turned my head expecting a blast of skunk spray. None came. I slowly looked back toward the skunk. He was still there, with a puzzled look on his little skunk face. Then he slowly turned and waddled off. My friends later said it was my bad breathe that saved the day, but I don’t think so. Skunks probably like bad breathe. He just never had anyone blow in his face before.

I started tying the three zippers together with a twist-tie. No more problems with skunks trying to get in that way, but I nearly peed myself on several occasions trying to remove the twist tie in the middle of the night. The nightly raids continued and I am still surprised the skunks never tore through the mosquito net. I finally quit trying sleeping in the big tent.

Last Skunk Insult

Our camp was sparse. It was mainly used for sleeping and I was the only one that stayed there more than a few days. We had not bothered to make it comfortable for cooking, eating or lounging around camp.  I was eating a sandwich one afternoon and needed a drink of water. We didn’t have a table and the top of the cooler was too dusty, so I put my sandwich on top of my foot while I drank from a water bottle. When I reached back down for my sandwich, a skunk was eating it right off my shoe.

Like Forest Gump, all I could think of to say was “Hey Bubba”. He looked up and stared straight at me and smacked his little skunk lips and ate the rest of my sandwich.  I didn’t want to piss him off,  so I just stood still and watched as he finished the sandwich and then waddled his little skunk waddle back into the bushes. That was the moment I decided it was time to go to war against skunks.

War on Skunks

The next day, I borrowed a 6 inch colt huntsman from a local friend. That evening before dark, I ate a can of sardines and poured the fishy oil on the rocks at the edge of small cliff next to camp. I backed off about 20 feet and waited. It took less than three minutes for one of my stripped friends to show up. His nose was in the air and he tracked straight to the fishy oil. The wind was blowing away from camp, so I let him have it.

Pop! Pop! and one of the little skunkers was gone off to that happy skunking ground. The first shot was in the head, but since I was backing up as I shot again, my 2nd shot missed. Why was I backing up? Because I expected to be sprayed. The skunk didn’t spray, but he did leak skunk juice. It is one thing to smell fresh skunk spray, it is another thing to smell it up close. I could taste it. Glad I didn’t get any on me. I grabbed the camp shovel and pitched him off the cliff face. About 10 minutes later, there was another one. Pop! Shovel. After ten more minutes, Pop! Shovel again. Three less skunks to deal with.

I was hanging around camp several days later as a new group of volunteers arrived. We introduced ourselves and I showed them their living quarters. They were concerned I was carrying a pistol on my hip. I told them it was mainly for skunks. They immediately made “frowny” faces and said something about not hurting skunks and they were too cute and all that. They also couldn’t seem to grasp the idea that a person that studied wildlife could carry a weapon and use it on wildlife. Their world must have been small.

I tried to defend my intentions by telling them about how much sleep we had lost and how they had eaten too much food and that they were probably a rabies risk. They weren’t having any of it. To keep the peace, I didn’t shoot any skunks that night. I left them to their quarters and moved off to my pup tent.

I heard a lot of commotion around their tent that night. I smiled to myself and went back to sleep. Who am I do deny these “city folk” a good camping story? The next day was an observation day for me, so I didn’t talk to them until the following evening. When I came down the hill, the first words out of their mouths was how they didn’t get any sleep the previous night because the skunk came in the tent and ate or ruined all their food.

Skunk Huggers

In one night, my new skunk-hugging friends were convinced of the necessity for skunk control.They actually asked me to shoot the skunk. I teasingly asked them if they wanted to borrow my pistol. They wanted me to do the controlling. It was already dark and I was tired, so I told them they would have to survive one more night before I could do anything. They had secured all their food and they followed my advice and tied the zipper shut that night.

The next morning, before I went into town, I left a small piece of my sandwich at the edge of the cliff. Before I finished the sandwich, another skunk joined his companions at the bottom of the cliff. At least he left this world knowing the joy of eating turkey with mayo.

Skunk Problem or People Problem?

So, how do you keep skunks out of a tent? Simple, don’t put food in the tent. Skunks never bothered me while I slept out on the ground or when I slept in my pup tent. They only tried to get into the big tent, because food was kept there. They aren’t attracted to us, they are attracted to our food.

The skunks were never the problem. We were the problem. We camped in one area too long and we were not careful about keeping food out of reach. In over 30 years of camping, I have never had another skunk problem at camp.

I have still never been skunked and I would like to keep it that way.

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Photo Credit: http://www.birdphotos.com (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0]

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