Bob Bahlmann is the executive director of the education nonprofit Explore the Outdoors and has written a series on wilderness survival.
How Much Distance Should You Keep Between Yourself and Wildlife?
Wild animals are fascinating to watch and a thrill to photograph but common sense says that you can get too close for comfort. Always respect the animal and avoid getting yourself into a dangerous situation.
Out of respect for wild animals and in the interest of your own safety, a general rule of thumb should be: if the animal moves because of your presence, you should consider stopping.
Most animals will avoid human contact if possible, but if they feel cornered, threatened or surprised, they might become aggressive. Mothers with babies require extra caution, as do males during the breeding season. Never approach a predator that is eating. If you are unsure about your situation, back away. It’s better to be safe than sorry.
At Yellowstone National Park they suggest visitors get no closer than 30 yards from non-dangerous animals and stay at least 100 yards away from dangerous ones.
A tourist gets too close to a bison
Trying to run away from wildlife is an exercise in futility. If you are within 50 yards or less, the animal can catch you in a matter of seconds. It's better to not get yourself into a bad situation.
You Can't Outrun Wildlife
|Animal||Seconds Before Caught|
Less Than Four
Just Over Six
Just Under Eight
Never try to run away from a predator. Doing so could trigger an automatic response to attack and you have no chance of outrunning these wild athletes.
Even with a 50-yard head start, a cougar can catch the average human in less than four seconds. Wolves and bears aren’t far behind. They can catch you in less than six seconds.
World-record sprinter Usain Bolt wouldn’t even have a chance in a race with a cougar. With a 50-yard head start, the cougar would catch up with “Lightning” Bolt in about four and a half seconds.
If you do have an encounter with a predator, make yourself look as big as possible and slowly back away. Don't turn you back on a predator.
Remember that baby animals that appear to be abandoned usually are not. Please do not touch them. Fawns are born scentless as a protection against predators. If you touch them, that protection is gone.
Even though you might not see a baby animal’s mother, you can be pretty sure she is close by. Not only is it dangerous for the baby if you get close to it, wild mothers often become violently protective of their young.
There are lots of tricks to help you approach wildlife undetected. Here are the basics.
You can spend lots of money on camo clothing, but the key is to wear something that breaks up your outline. Matching exact vegetation colors and patterns is not nearly as important as braking up your silhouette.
The soldier on the left is easy to identify, but the one with his outline broken up on the right is not.
Regardless of which camo pattern you choose, try to find an individual garment with contrasting shades along the outside edge. This will help break up your outline, making it harder to recognize you as a human.
My favorite camo patter for nearly all types of vegetation is Desert Shadow made by King's Outdoor World. There is a nice mix of colors and shades that does a good job of breaking up the human outline. There are many other good camo patterns available and if your pocketbook is on the light side, camo clothing can often be found at your local thrift shop.
Difference between UV enhanced camo and UV treated camo
Most wildlife experts agree that animals in the deer family are not color blind, but they do see things differently than humans. Deer see colors more in the ultraviolet (UV) range while people see more infrared. That’s why hunter orange stands out so much to the human eye.
Similarly, blue colors stand out for deer, especially in clothing that has been brightened by ultraviolet enhancement. Unfortunately, most fabric fits into this category. All home laundry detergents contain UV enhancers that are designed to make clothing appear brighter. This makes your clothing as easy for deer to see as hunter orange is for us. UV enhanced clothing might even seem to glow when viewed by wildlife.
I never use detergent to wash my camo clothing. Instead I put in about half a cup of baking soda. The soda will get your clothes clean enough for camera hunting and eliminate any body odor.
If your clothing has been UV enhanced the only way to fix the problem is to wash your camo gear in UV killing detergent. There are commercial detergents that can be used to fix the problem.
Let your clothing drip dry, don’t put it through the dryer. Your dryer will be coated with the scent of fabric softener sheets that will alert wildlife through their sense of smell. More on that later.
Camouflaged Camera and Tripod
Don't Forget Your Gear
Your camera and tripod will also need to be camouflaged. You can do this by making a fabric cover to throw over your gear or you can use non-glossy camouflage tape. I have used a camo tape on my camera and lens as well as the non-moving parts of my tripod. I don't worry much about the back of my camera because it will never be facing the animals I'm stalking.
A lens shade is invaluable because it will keep the sun off your lens thus reducing the chance of a reflection spooking your subject.
To cover the collapsable legs on my tripod I sewed a sleeve that is the length of the extended leg and tied it top and bottom. When I slide the legs in, the sleeve bunches up and then lengthens out with the leg when it is extended.
Shooting From a Blind
Sometimes the best way to get close to wildlife is to build a blind. A blind will allow some movement without spooking the wildlife. If you know of a place that is frequented by wildlife for food or water you can move into the area in mid-afternoon and wait for the animals to come in for their evening meal or drink. You can also set up on trails that lead to food or water sources.
I prefer to stay under a tree in the shade and set up a fabric visual screen. You can buy inexpensive "3D Blind Fabric" at most sporting goods stores. Try to keep some natural vegetation in front of the fabric to break up the color and shade of the camo pattern.
You will likely spend several hours in your blind. You'll need to keep conversation and movement to a minimum and it's a good idea to bring along something to munch on and plenty of water.
Remember KISS: "Keep It Simple Sweety." Disturb the area as little as possible as you build your blind. Even so, wildlife may notice the change and avoid the area for a day or two.
We spent six hours in a blind to get footage of these mule deer.
Be careful where you step; try to avoid stepping on anything but solid ground. Step over branches, logs, loose rocks or anything else that might rub, break, or move when you put your weight on it.
Avoid rubbing against vegetation. The sound of branches rubbing on your clothing can give you away. Try to stay in shadows because it will make you harder to see.
Stay Low And Go Slow
Move slow and steady. Most animals will have a hard time spotting you if you move when they are looking away or actively feeding.
If your quarry looks at you, try to freeze. Sooner or later they will either flee or go back to what they were doing. Then you can relax a moment before continuing your stalk.
When you are as close as you want to be, you still need to move slowly as you make adjustments to your camera and snap the shutter.
The human mind processes 60 visual images per second which is why television broadcasters use 60 frames per second. In order for your movements to be undetected you should move so slowly that there is no discernible change in 1/60th of a second.
As an example, it usually takes less than a second to turn your head 90 degrees. By comparison, in stealth mode it should take you 15 seconds or more. Practice moving your hands at that same stealth mode speed.
Animals rely heavily on their sense of smell to find food and avoid danger. It's almost incomprehensible for humans to understand how well animals can detect smells. For example, bears can detect smell seven times better than a bloodhound and 2100 times better than humans. Scientists believe that polar bears can smell seals from 20 miles away.
Always be aware of wind direction and stay in a position where it is blowing from the animal you are stalking to you.
Just as you can buy clothing to hide your outline, there are products that can hide or eliminate human smell. The cheapest and easiest way to eliminate human scent is to stay clean, but don’t use scented soap to wash. Baking soda is good for scent elimination. Wash both your body and your clothing with baking soda or commercial scent eliminating products.
Cover scents are also available. Look for them in the bow hunting section of most sporting goods stores. These products don’t eliminate human smell, they cover it up with something that wildlife will be familiar with.
Some of the most popular cover scents are pleasant for humans to smell as well. Sage and pine are popular choices. Some scents are more offensive, like skunk scent.
An example of cover scents humans use in everyday life would be air fresheners and deodorant.
Attractor scents can also be used. These fragrances duplicate smells that attract wildlife. Since most hunters are after the male of the species, scents that resemble females that are ready to breed are popular, but somewhat offensive to humans. An example of an attractor scent used by humans in everyday life would be aftershave or perfume.
One thing to remember when using attractor scents is that they will focus the animals attention on your position. This means you will need to be extra stealthy. A word of caution: even though pine scented air fresheners might smell good to us, they contain unnatural added scents that would likely alert wildlife to your presence.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
crookedcreekphoto from Ohio, USA on September 24, 2013:
I'm just now getting to read some hubs. This is a very good one. I've been to several national parks and I'm still amazed at how close people get to the wildlife. I don't know if they think the rules don't apply to them. I haven't seen any animals charge but those people have been very lucky.
Elizabeth Parker from Las Vegas, NV on July 28, 2013:
This is very informative. I love taking pics and don't know if I'd ever have this opportunity, but good rules to follow!I never knew a fawn was born scentless and great advice about putting camo on the tripod. Again- something I'd never even think about!
Bob Bahlmann (author) from Ephraim, Utah on July 28, 2013:
I've personally never tried that and probably never will, but I do know my wife didn't like it when I used skunk scent.
gconeyhiden from Brooklyn, N.Y.C. U.S.A on July 28, 2013:
yeah its a good idea to roll around in deer excrement to confuse the wildlife. just don't forget to take your camera off before wallowing.
poe9368 on July 27, 2013:
Excellent article. Great information.