By Joseph von Benedikt
We hunt the backcountry for two primary reasons. That’s where big, public-land bucks, bulls, rams, and boars are, and that’s where noisy, bustling, interfering people aren’t.
There is a whole spectrum of additional reasons—many of them profound—but when it boils down to it, those two stand distinct.
Pure adventure, spectacular scenery, the need to challenge ourselves, and the rejuvenation of disconnecting from today’s Information Age also rank high as reasons to hunt mountain country.
Here’s an overview of what it takes—from start to finish—to be successful.
Hands down, the best way to scout is in the use of good old boot leather. If at all possible, put footprints where you plan to hunt. Use these scouting trips to help build backcountry fitness. Supplement on-location scouting with cyber-scouting, searching onX maps and Google Earth to find promising regions and then narrow them down to focus areas. And if you’re blessed with the ability to explore them personally, hike in and hang trail cameras to validate or disprove your research. This can save days from being wasted hunting sterile areas when the hunt rolls around.
Many hunters live hours or days from their hunting Shangri La. If you fall into that category, do your best with the Info Age tools available, and when you travel to and hunt your area, keep detailed notes on game concentrations and movements, feed pockets, and vantage points. They’ll prove worth their weight in elk estrus urine during future hunts.
Local hunting savvy is invaluable, but those secrets are generally shared only between blood relatives. If you make a friend in your hunt area, be generous with your time, your gas money, and your truck. Some of that sacred info eventually may come your way. Otherwise, you’ve got to earn it and learn it yourself. Which isn’t bad, either. It just takes longer.
Mountain-Worthy Hunting Gear
When it comes to choosing gear, buy quality and buy light. Choose modern gear built using mountaineering-quality materials. Weight inhibits travel, and if you can’t get up the mountain to that massive alpine mule deer, you can’t shoot it. Most critical are your boots, backpack, sleeping bag and pad, larder and kitchen, rifle, and optics. Here’s a closer look at each.
Get very comfortable boots that offer the necessary support but aren’t overly heavy. Avoid snug toe boxes because you need wiggle room to maintain healthy blood flow and warmth. Insulation is your friend—until it isn’t. Hot spots promote blisters, so go moderate on the Thinsulate for hiking-intensive fall hunts; opt for no insulation for late-summer archery adventures.
Obtain a backpack that fits your torso properly, with a generous hip belt that rides and transfers weight comfortably. Don’t fall prey to the modular, batwing, strap-on strap-off whizbang gizmo packs that claim to do anything well but actually suck at everything. For overnight trips, opt for at least 6,200 cubic inches. Good packs will weigh between six and nine pounds empty, so don’t forget to calculate that into your final up-the-mountain load.
If you don’t sleep well, you won’t hunt well. Purchase a premium sleeping bag. My personal favorite bags are filled with 850+ fill goose down treated to be water repellent. Excellent versions are made by Stone Glacier, Kuiu, Kifaru, and others. Buy a temperature rating at least 20 degrees Fahrenheit colder than anticipated night conditions. It’s worth noting that all bags are paired with a pad when rated, so match yours with a premium lightweight pad. My favorite is a $189 ExPed Synmat HL-M, which weighs 13 ounces yet provides almost three inches of air-bed comfort. Just keep it away from sharp pine needles.
Warm, high-octane food is a marvelous thing in the mountains. Calories and carbs are vital to strenuous effort, too. Spit and sputter at the cost if you must, but pony up for premium, high-calorie, freeze-dried meals by Mountain House, Heather’s Choice, or the like and pack a featherweight stove. My go-to is a $99 JetBoil Flash. The full cooking system weighs just 13 ounces, sans fuel canister.
Nothing—nothing—is as important as your rifle and optics. Even if crippled by blisters and horrible boots, you can sit on a vantage point and glass and sort of hunt. On the other hand, an inaccurate or unreliable rifle will sabotage your hunt. The various mountain-hunting experts I’ve interviewed invariably emphasize and reemphasize rifle choice, citing factors such as the rarity of opportunity and the challenging nature of those shot opportunities when they do occur.
Recent burgeoning interest in backcountry hunting has prompted aggressive innovation among rifle companies, so great options are widely available. Pick a brand known for accuracy and pick a rifle that’s light enough to pack up steep mountains. Check out Browning’s X-Bolt line, Kimber’s Montana and Mountain Ascent rifles, and Weatherby’s Backcountry series. If custom is your poison, shop Proof Research, Gunwerks, and Rifle’s Inc.
Optics are the last piece of the equipment puzzle. First, a quality riflescope that’s light-ish yet offers long-range capability. I believe the single best value on the market is Leupold’s 3-15X 44mm VX-5HD, which may be found for about $900. It weighs 19.7 ounces, has a dial-up turret with a zero stop and a zero lock, and sports side-focus parallax adjustment. Another outstanding scope that can really help solve the long-range riddle is the SIG Sauer Sierra3, which pairs with the company’s BDX rangefinders via an app to provide an instant, accurate aiming point on the scope’s reticle.
Just as critical is your binocular. Don’t hate me, but plan to spend north of $1,000 for the necessary quality. If you can’t see it, you can’t hunt it.
I find a lot more game when glassing from a tripod, so I’m a fan of 10X to 15X magnification. Clearly, mountain hunters can pack only one bino, so I generally opt for my 10X Swarovski EL Range. The onboard laser rangefinder adds weight, cost, and a trace of bulk, but it’s less than a separate rangefinder. Other excellent ranging bino options are Leica’s Geovid HD-B 3000, Zeiss’s Victory RF, and SIG’s brand-new KILO3000BDX, for true, accurate point-of-aim.
Do you really need a rangefinder? Absolutely, unequivocally, yes. Shots in mountain country are often long, and judging distances across canyons and unpredictable terrain is incredibly difficult. If you don’t want a rangefinder integrated into your bino, purchase a dedicated rangefinder.
Arguably the best on the market is Leica’s new CRF 2800 smart rangefinder, which zaps reliably to 2,800 yards; calculates ballistics incorporating local, real-time atmospherics; and weighs less than seven ounces. Its $1,100 price is steep but worth every red cent.
Leupold’s RX-2800 TBR/W runs several hundred dollars less and is my second-favorite stand-alone rangefinder.
Lastly, but onerously, a spotting scope is needed. You’ll avoid many miles, save precious time, and preserve your body for extreme efforts by weeding out sub-legal or immature rams and bucks by using powerful glass from a distance.
If hunting with a partner, bring just one spotter and share the load. If solo, you’ll have to suck it up and pack it alone—unless you decide not to. Even light spotters are heavy and require a tripod. I recommend the 37-ounce, $1,690 Leupold Gold Ring 12-40X 60mm.
Favorite tripods are Outdoorsman’s 38-ounce, $430 Medium Tripod with 10-ounce, $360 Pan Head (yes, ouch); and Spartan Precision Equipment’s 48-ounce, $958 Sentinel Mountain, which doubles as trekking poles and as the frame for my fast-and-light 19-ounce, $650 Spartan Carbonlite tent.
Fitness & Prep
In brutal candor, fat folks can’t climb mountains. More tactfully, chaps above their “ideal weight” will struggle in the backcountry.
However, it’s a misconception that only muscle-cut Navy SEAL-type hunters can access good mountain hunting. Yes, 10 to 30 extra pounds will slow you down, but with a lot of mental toughness, you can still get there.
That said, shedding pounds pre-hunt makes climbing much, much easier.
The Keto diet works for many hunters (because you can eat unlimited bacon) wanting to drop weight fast. Tune and tone muscles, tendons, and joints with daily two-mile walks or runs on uneven ground and once a week put on a 50- to 75-pound pack and carry it along to build strength and calluses.
Accessing the Mountain
Aside from Alaska, where bush planes and boats are common conveyances into the backcountry, you have two choices: boots or hooves.
If you’re hunting elk and are going deeper than two miles, strongly consider horses or mules. They’ll pack all your gear in, leaving you fresh to hike and hunt hard from base camp. And they’ll pack your elk out in one trip, rather than you torturing your body with multiple trips over two or three days.
Deer, bear, sheep, and mountain goat hunts may be done more effectively on foot. Horses are handy, but they require feed, water, and attention. Hunting out of your backpack offers a wonderful flexibility.
Alternatively, take pack goats or llamas. They may not be quite the campfire buddy as a good horse and can’t carry as much, but they eat less and dine on scrubbier browse and comfortably climb places difficult for a horse to negotiate.
Base Camp vs. Spike Camp
Extended-duration hunts benefit from a comfortable base camp with extra food, plentiful water, and spare gear. Hunting with horses almost requires establishing a base camp. And you may very well spot, stalk, and kill a big buck or bull from your base camp. However, always maintain the flexibility necessary to take off and set up a spike camp away from base.
This not only enables you to access more remote country and hunt it during those magic hours at dusk and dawn, but also it eliminates the hours of energy-burning, body- and mind-breaking travel often required when hunting from and returning to a base camp every day.
Wild meat is too hard-earned and too good to treat with anything but rigorous care. Properly cared for, it’s tender and tasty. I don’t buy the excuse that big old bucks and bulls are tough and gamey. If shot during the rut, perhaps. If wounded and finally killed when full of fear-induced adrenaline, possibly. Otherwise, proper meat care invariably results in prime eating. If your meat is bad, it’s on you as the hunter.
Three steps are critical: Cool it fast. Keep it clean. Age it properly.
Don’t just gut an animal and leave it overnight. First, skin and lift the quarters off, cut out the backstraps and neck meat, and hang it all in the shade. If a creek is nearby, hang it in a shady spot over the water where cool air will circulate around and quickly chill the meat. Slit the side belly lining along the lower spine and surgically remove the tenderloins, fastidiously keeping them clean, and then go in for any desirable organs, such as the liver and heart.
Build a meat pole or tall tripod and hang all the meat—clean and protected in meat sacks—where shade and airflow will keep it cool. If possible, tarp it to keep it dry if it rains. And, of course, take appropriate precautions in bear country.
Unlike many, I age my meat directly on ice once I get home. A little water discoloration doesn’t bother me—I’d just as soon trim that off as a heavy “rind” caused by dry aging. I layer meat and ice in my giant Pelican cooler for seven to ten days. When I process it, the meat fibers have ice crystals inside, and it’s invariably tender and mild when eaten. I’ve eaten an 11-year-old bull elk cared for this way, and it was wonderful.
The hunt’s over, time’s run out, and the meat poles are heavy. Now it’s time to pack out.
If your hunt was successful, your pack out will be much heavier than your pack in. With horses or even with llamas or goats, that’s a jubilant feeling. On foot, it can be daunting.
Critically, don’t be a hero. If it’s too much weight to pack out in one trip, don’t try. It’s better to endure extreme exhaustion and two or more additional long days of packing than to face extreme pain and a six-month recovery period from a backcountry knee or back injury caused by attempting to carry too much weight. When mentally and physically weary from extended periods of extreme effort, judgment, coordination, and reaction time suffer. Injuries can be dramatic and life-changing.
Take your time and get yourself, your buddies, and your prize home safe and sound.
The Essentials Gear Box.
Our editors have hand-picked these essential pieces of gear to make you a more successful hunter when you hit the game trails this season.