Backpack Basics: Backpacking Is a Great Way to Increase Your Hunting Success. However, Most That do it Are Destined For Failure Due to Poor Preparation and Forethought. To Prevent Bad Success, Follow These Steps
Posted on May 15, 2014
Like many western bowhunters, I’ve always been the adventurous-type who finds it difficult not going to that next ridge, that next valley, or that next drainage over, all in hopes of finding that super-sweet honey hole. This is why I savor the idea of loading up a large, multi-day pack, filled with camping essentials, and hiking in as far as my mind and legs will go.
However, I’ll be the first to tell you, this method of hunting isn’t always super rosy, given the overall harshness of the backcountry, the toil of lugging around a bulky/heavy pack, and most specifically, the mental lows you’ll experience while living in extreme, bare-bones conditions.
But with the right amount of preparation, forethought, physical conditioning, and a good dose of mental tenacity, this form of hunting can be quite enjoyable and effective. In a nutshell, here are the most important points to improve success.
When to Go & Who With
The first order of business in planning a wilderness trip is deciding when you’ll go and who with. My advice for high-country hunts is to stick to the early archery seasons during the months of August and September. Otherwise, late-season and bad weather makes hiking travel and living just too inhospitable. Also, extreme weather means more waterproof gear, translating into more pounds to carry–a bad thing.
Low-country or desert areas, however, are more suitable for late-fall or wintertime trips, since temperatures stay mild enough for easy travel and daily living.
If for some reason, you must embark on a late-fall, high-mountain hunt (drew a special tag), then I’d highly suggest bivy-style hunting, where you backpack or horse-pack in, and then take one or two-night jaunts at a time as you hunt for game. This allows you to return to base camp and resupply as needed, whether it be more clothes, food, or shelter, that will minimize the gear you carry.
Next is choosing a very good hunting partner. This is crucial because hiking alone can be risky, as a sudden fall or slip anywhere can prove disastrous, especially with a heavy load in tow. Remember, cell and satellite phones do not always work.
Notice how I said “very good hunting partner?” This point cannot be overemphasized. Your hunting buddy is the person you’ll have to rely on when making key decisions throughout the hunt, especially if an emergency were to arise. Also, a good partner serves as your cheerleader in times of mental weakness, as in wanting to give up. Good hunting buddies are usually very considerate, ultra-reliable, and highly motivated, so choose yours with care.
If you don’t have a good partner, then I’d suggest going it alone, believe it or not. But this is ONLY if you are well experienced with backcountry camping, consider yourself a self-motivator (don’t need daily social interaction to feel secure, happy and excited), and are able to overcome the element of fear from being alone in the middle of nowhere. Otherwise, do yourself a favor and save your time and money and wait for another time.
What if you’re unsure of all this? Let’s say you’ve never camped alone in the backcountry, but you consider yourself the “loner” type that should be able to cope. Really, there’s only one way to find out, and that’s to try it. Plan a couple solo outings during the spring and early summer (well before hunting season) and give them a trial run. If you survive these, and find your spirit very much intact (not lonely), then I’d say go for it.
Think the Worst
This sounds negative, but in reality, it’s basic reverse-psychology that leads to positive results. I’ve been on a number of backpack hunts— with buddies and by myself—and one thing you can count on, your best of plans are often foiled, which is why plan B or C is now something I think about all the time.
For example, what if your honey hole is suddenly crawling with hunters? What will you do? Be sure to predict problems ahead of time to prevent a total disaster.
The same goes for lack of game. What if suddenly your secret spots went dry? Will you hike deeper into unchartered territory, or will you return to the truck and drive to another area? Again, know what you’ll do in times of complication. This is what separates real rookies from seasoned backcountry packers.
Being in good shape is advisable in order to traverse mountain terrain while carrying a hefty load of goods on your back. Otherwise, you’ll undoubtedly wear out fast and want to give up.
How good of shape? In my opinion, you don’t have to be in marathon, he-man shape—nowhere close. But you should have fairly strong legs, core, and good cardiovascular capability. The rest of your wilderness prowess, to be honest, will be found in your mental capacity, not in your body.
If you are the gym-type, then you’re off to a great start. Two to three times a week of workouts (combining both strength training and cardio) will fill the bill nicely. However, for most individuals, adopting a lifestyle change that includes regular hiking, walking, cycling, swimming, and so on, is almost always better. Combine such cardio with light strength training and you’ll be on your way to legitimate mountain shape.
Regardless of how you work out, be sure to include abdominal and lumbar exercises, which will keep your core and lower back strong and capable of withstanding heavy pack weight. Don’t just do one form of exercise, but instead rely on three or four methods, or more, which will hit the entire muscle region for all-around strength. The abdominal exercises I prefer are basic crunches, reverse crunch, toe-touches, bridges, and planks. For the lower-back, the Superman (lye on floor, raise legs and arms/head) and back extensions done on an exercise ball are the ones I like.
The most important thing is eating right. This means starting each and every day with a large nutritious breakfast and making sure lean protein is the cornerstone of your lunches and dinners. Say no to greasy foods and for high-sugar desserts go with healthier alternatives such as fruit, yogurt or breakfast cereal. Also fresh vegetables daily and a full six glasses of water daily, are advisable. Remember, your body is made up of about 60 percent water, which clearly emphasizes the importance of it.
Gear: The Big 5
There’s a ton of great backpacking gear on the market nowadays, but I’m here to tell you that most of it is just okay, not fantastic. Most products come with lots of hype and talk but then fail miserably when it counts most, so beware.
I’m going to keep things simple and cover the five most important essentials, in order of importance. You can figure out the small stuff by visiting a well-stocked mountaineering store. With this stuff, my motto today is straight-forward: buy the absolute best, regardless of price, knowing its use will nearly last a lifetime (minus the boots) if properly cared for.
1) Boots: Footwear is the most important because what ever you do, it’s your feet that take you there. If they become sore or blistered, you’re pretty much done. If your feet aren’t aligned with your legs correctly, you’ll carry heavy loads with less efficiency and eventually feel achy in your knees, hips, or lower back.
Bottom line: don’t mess around with cheap boots. Visit a high-quality retailer that specializes in boots and fit. Tell them what kind of packing you do, in what terrain, and they’ll offer suggestions. They’ll also advise on what brands that go best with certain foot types. Also, make sure to ask about aftermarket insoles. There are different ones for different feet, which is why even the best boots don’t come with super-high-quality insoles.
In most cases, an insole that supports your arch is best (Superfeet, Archmolds, Power Step, Spenco Max, Footbalance, to name a few), because the foot arch often collapses excessively when carrying heavy loads. This prevents overall foot soreness and keeps your foot aligned correctly with your lower limb, preventing undue strain on the knee joint.
Be sure to use a quality wool sock and thin under liner to prevent overly sweaty, damp feet, which causes added heel or bottom-of-foot friction, leading to blisters.
2) Pack: I get asked about packs all the time, it seems. Instead of spouting the one I use, I emphasize the importance of pack fit, ergonomics, and its waist belt quality more than anything. If a pack doesn’t hug your body well, and doesn’t have a proven suspension system with a strong, thick-padded, no-fail waist belt, then it’s more or less worthless.
After years of using inferior products, I’ve come to rely on the Kifaru Timberline. The quality, function and fit of this make is superb, and it only weighs six pounds. The heart of the pack is found in its patented suspension system.
This company and its owner Patrick Smith, specialize in wilderness packs and how they should fit. In fact, everyone is built to order at your specifications. You won’t get that anywhere. Although I suggest trying on a pack before you buy it, the folks at Kifaru are so well adept at over-the-phone consultations, that everyone I know (including me) that ordered one found that it to fit perfectly on arrival, with essentially zero adjustment.
Of course this type of pack is at the upper-level in price point, but like good boots or binoculars, a good pack will keep you hunting harder and happier. Why place more hurt and strain on your body than you have to? Can you put a price on that? And considering this pack will last you a lifetime—don’t scrimp, do it right the first time.
3) Tent: There’s a reason why this is #3 on the list – safe shelter is the only thing that keeps you safe from bad weather, wind and even predators (at least in theory).
I don’t think much of bivy sacks for nearly all wilderness applications, as they offer little protection and are just too restrictive for long-lasting happiness in the backcountry. Go with a tent instead.
For most tasks, I prefer a one-man design, since it’s easier to carry my own gear and tent, and my partner can do the same. For later hunts, where inclement weather is expected, a slightly larger two-man version is probably more ideal, so you can store your pack and items with you as well.
There are tons of great tents out there, but keep these six tips in mind. 1. Look closely at each style and go with the design that pleases you the most—whether its one with a rear or side-facing door, or one with a bit more headroom instead of length. 2. Be sure to check out the tent in person, especially if you’re a big guy. “One man” or “two man” doesn’t always mean that. 3. “Featherweight” isn’t always the best for extreme hunting use, as these ultra-lightweight tents are made with thinner fabrics and won’t prove as durable. 4. Be sure the rain fly goes nearly to the ground for full weather protection, and make sure the fly stretches nice and tight when fully set up. This improves its resistance to water and wind. 5. Purchase the footprint to prevent sticks and sharp rocks from piercing the tent floor. 6. Try to find a model that has a spacious vestibule to protect your boots and other items.
4) Sleeping Bag & Pad: Good hunting begins with a good night’s rest, so don’t take this lightly. Your sleeping system will be your bulkiest item in your pack, so if you can trim it down, the smaller and more efficient your pack becomes. This is why even the most experienced wilderness travelers jump at saving a few ounces on lighter bags and pads each year.
Again, more money gets you a better system, as the highest quality down bags (800-plus fill down) compress to the size of a loaf of bread and weigh at about a pound. Combine that with a comfortable, lightweight pad, and you have a two to three-pound sleeping system.
Best pads come down to preference. Some prefer simple foam due to reliability and weight, but I prefer less bulk and favor the new featherweight self-inflating Thermarest Neo Air 4 Season or Klymit Inertia X-Frame.
5) Stove: Overall, for my style of hunting, I prefer the high-efficiency of the Jetboil stove. I use the Sol Titanium model, which is ideal for single-person cooking. The Zip is another great model at nearly half the price. I’ve found Jetboil stoves to use less than half the fuel as other canister stoves— a huge weight-saver in the backcountry.
Satisfying the Appetite
Without good food, you’ll begin to lose focus in the backcountry, so do all you can to spice things up.
For me, this means instant oatmeal, granola, or Grapenuts in the morning. For lunch, I pack daily meals into a gallon-size Ziploc, which includes bagel, peanut better/honey, Cliff bar, Pro Core Protein Bar, Pro Bar Bolt fruit chews, fruit leather, trail mix and various other snacks. Figure out what you need for a day based on the type of hunting you do.
For dinners, I stick with Mountain House meals. I always take along a few instant coffee and tea bags (decaf tea for nighttime) and some hot chocolate when I know it’ll be chilly.
Watch for Sickness
Last but certainly not least, is avoiding altitude sickness. If you know you’re prone, be sure to camp at a lower elevation (usually the trailhead and below 8,000 feet) for at least one to two days before heading out on the trail. This effectively acclimates your brain to the “thinner air” and lower oxygen levels. Symptoms of altitude sickness include include headache (throbbing kind), loss of appetite, stomach sickness, vomiting, feeling weak and lazy, not sleeping well, and feeling dizzy. Any time you feel the effects of altitude sickness coming on, get to lower ground immediately until symptoms subside. If the symptoms are mild, you can usually stay at the elevation you are at, but you must exert yourself little, if any, and drink lots of liquids until your body becomes acclimated and symptoms go away.
Consuming a lot of carbohydrates prior to and during your trip can help as well. This includes eating lots of breads, cereals, rice, and pasta.
Also, you can ask your doctor to prescribe acetazolamide (Diamox). This speeds up how fast your body gets used to the higher altitude. Wilderness Athlete has a product called Alititude Advantage. I know a couple people that have used this with amazing success.
Physical and mental conditioning, trip preparation, and thinking of what can go wrong, are the keys to successful backcountry hunting. The better you plan, the smoother your trip will likely go.
Lightning is always a concern when hunting the wilderness, and you should do your part to stay out of harm’s way. Never camp next to tall trees, or along open ridges where you are a sitting duck for a lightning strike. Choose a ravine in slightly lower country. Never put your tent in a wash or runoff area, such as below a sheer rocky bluff where water can spew on top of your tent like a waterfall. I highly recommend reading books on basic compass navigation and mountain survival. —J.B.
Speaking of water, in the backcountry, without it you’re essentially dead, so know where to get it at all times.
Filtering your water is better than using tablets. Sure, pumping takes time, but you can begin drinking water immediately, and drink as much as you can pump.
I’m very fond of my MSR MiniWorks filter, which I bought years and years ago. It’s still going strong, mainly because it’s easy to clean and service. It’s never failed me once, which you can’t say for most brands on the market.
However, I do grow tired of pumping water, so this fall I plan on using my Platypus Gravity Works filtering system, which allows you to fill one bag with untreated water and allow it to gravity feed and filter into a clean bag. It’s that simple. Now I can filter water while I do other camp chores, only to return to fresh drinking water. Time will tell if this system is just as reliable as pumping. —J.B.
Things Not to Forget
Two headlamps and extra batteries, hiking sticks, lightweight fire starters (prefer Grate Chef), small tarp, lighter and matches, archery repair kit, game bags, bear spray and whistle (where needed), lots of parachute cord and stuff sack for bear-proofing food, Lawry’s season salt (for cooking meat/fish), sunglasses, lip balm, and scent-free body wipes. —J.B.
Next to footwear, your backpack is of highest priority. After years of using inferior packs that resulted in poor comfort and walking efficiency, the author now uses the Kifaru Timberline. He considers it the best of the best.
Your sleeping bag and pad are by far the bulkiest items that go in your pack. Shaving off bulk and weight can increase carrying endurance. The lightest self-inflating pad the author has used is the new Klymit Static V-Frame. It weighs only 9.1 ounces.
Maintaining a strong core is important for carrying big loads. This is why exercising your abdominal and lower-back muscles become important. Using quality hiking sticks (Easton Trail or Backcountry) can really help alleviate lower-body strain, too.
Without good boots, this will happen. Get fitted by a reputable mountaineering retailer who knows the ins/outs of backpacking boots. Also, consider a supportive foot bed insert, like the Archmold Ultimate, which will add comfort and help support your foot’s arch.
Text and Photos by Joe Bell