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Understanding Thermals

These are the tactics I apply to hunting elk in deep canyons. This science can also be applied to any other big game species you plan to hunt... Enjoy!


I believe an animals best defense mechanism is it’s nose...I remember when I first started hunting. I never paid much attention to the wind, I honestly just got lucky. I’ve learned you will be much more successful if you pay attention to the wind and understand the science behind why it does what it does. As I sink deeper into my hunting career I want to know everything there is to know about the woods and the animals.

I went on a quest to understand thermals and how they work… sure you can go into the woods and squeeze your little wind checker bottle and immediately you know there’s an up hill draft…. but why & what’s going to happen in 20 minutes? This is what I’ve found through experience and research.

Cold Air Molecules Vs. Warm Air Molecules

Cold air molecules move slower & weigh more than warm air molecules... The cold air molecules push the warm air molecules out of the way. Think about climbing into an attack of a house & how hot it usually feels… Then compare those thoughts to walking into a basement, it’s much cooler?

Now, lets apply this to the woods. At night the cold air molecules are sinking because it’s generally cooler after dark. Once I was hunting mountain lions in New Mexico, in January we rode so far in we couldn’t ride out that night so we had to camp on the mountain. As the sun was setting we rode up the trail to camp on top of the mountain where it would be much warmer for the night. As the sun rises in the morning it hits the earths surface and causes the wind to blow up hill. But, what’s interesting is the shaded areas that the sun has not hit yet. In areas that are shaded the air is still moving downwards in a sinking motion. These down hill thermals usually last longer into the morning. So what happens on that line where the sunlight meets the still-sinking cooler air? I’ve found sometimes there is a swirl of the 2 temperatures mixing. You should also consider and be aware of large obstacles such as trees, knolls, etc. These obstacles can also cause a swirling or change in pattern.

Add This to Your Tool Box

With that being said I carefully plan and apply this knowledge to my hunts. I would never try to drop into a canyon where I know there's elk during the morning hours. They'd catch my wind and be out before I even got a glance. When there's somewhere I need to get to from the top I will plan to drop down on the opposite side of the draw next to where I want to go, so I can move across the mountain in a side hill motion, paralleling where the animal is or where I think it is, as opposed to moving directly up hill or down hill. When you keep out of the wind’s path you stand a much better chance of not blowing the animal out before you even get a good look at it.

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