October 28, 2021
Have you ever dreamed of truly going off the grid with all you need to survive carried on your back? Ever watched videos or read articles about the adventure, but never truly committed? Backpack hunting can be all that it’s chalked up to be, and it can give you an advantage over other hunters—if, and only if, you are prepared.
Why Backpack Hunting?
This form of hunting and camping is not for everyone. It’s both mentally and physically demanding. Why? Because you’re hiking many miles, sometimes with high-elevation gain and off-trail, with upwards of 50 pounds on your back—more if you’re loading out an animal. It puts strain on your muscles and pushes your body to its limits. Weather conditions can be cold and miserable or hot and unbearable, and sleeping on a pad without the luxuries of home can make your mind want to quickly call it quits.
But what backpacking into the wilderness gives you is an advantage to reach unpressured animals and separates you from other hunters. It allows you to sleep in close proximity to game so you’re hunting at first light instead of hiking. Backpacking lets you hunt new areas where your quarry may be less educated to humans, giving you a leg up on the possibility of tagging out.
The Right Gear for the Job
Before you dust off the pack and sleeping bag from your Boy Scout days—hold up. Backpacking is nothing close to car camping, and having the right gear is vital.
Unfortunately, this isn’t a cheap hobby. Lightweight gear comes with a cost. However, you pay for what you get. The higher costs offer you durable gear that sheds the pounds that will ultimately allow you to go farther. Here are the top pieces of gear you’ll need for your backcountry equipment.
- Pack– A backpacking-specific pack should come with an adjustable frame or yoke. It’s vitally important that you have the proper-sized frame to fit your torso length for comfort, as well as to prevent injury. You can determine your torso length by measuring along the contours of your spine from your C7 vertebra to your iliac crest. As for pack size, consider 2,500 cubic inches (20-35 liters) for overnight trips, 2,500 to 4,000 cubic inches (35-50 liters) for two nights, 4,000 to 6,000 cubic inches (50-80 liters) for three to five days, and 6,000 cubic inches (80 liters) and up for more than five days in the backcountry. For more information on the right pack, check out another Backcountry Hunter web article: Carrying the Kitchen Sink.
- Tent– Your shelter is one of the most important pieces of gear. You can go extremely lightweight and carry a one-person tent or split the weight of a larger tent with your hunting buddy.
- Sleeping Bag– A backpacking sleeping bag is much lighter and packs down smaller than your regular car-camping bag. You want to choose a bag that is rated a few degrees lower than the temperatures you will face where you’re hunting. Look for down or synthetic-filled bags. Down is more expensive, but it is lightweight, compresses down small, and is very warm. However, it doesn’t do well when wet. Synthetic is more affordable, packs down small, and insulates even when wet, making it a good choice for damp environments.
- Sleeping Pad– Look for pads that fold down small and weigh under two pounds. Blow-up or self-inflating pads, like those from NEMO or Therm-a-Rest, are ideal choices.
- Stove– A stove made for backpacking is designed mostly just to boil water for your dehydrated meals. The two most popular are canister and liquid-fuel stoves. Canister stoves feature a burner that screws on to a small isobutane or propane tank. They typically come with a twist-on, insulated cooking pot with lid. Liquid-fuel stoves use white gas, which performs well in below-freezing temperatures.
- Water Purifier– These come in many shapes and sizes but are essential for safe drinking in the backcountry. Read this article for the best water purifiers to consider.
- Food– Dehydrated meals are lightweight and don’t take up too much room in your pack. They're high in calories and protein for energy.
Understanding Your Limits
Don’t let your first-time backpack trip be on your bucket list elk hunt—you’re setting yourself up for disaster. Begin with a simple overnight trip, many weeks before your hunt. It can be a scouting trip or simply a fun weekend. This will give you an opportunity to get a feel for weight on your back, make any necessary adjustments to your pack, and help you see which items in your kit you really need, and which you can ditch for weight.
It also allows you to practice with your gear. Learn to properly load equipment into your new pack, pitch your tent, boil water with your stove, try a couple of dehydrated meals to see which you like best, and test your water purifier at a water source. The last thing you want to do is get in the backcountry before you’ve ever spent a night under the stars in your new tent or learned how to use your supplies flawlessly.
Making a Game Plan
Making realistic goals for your backpack hunt is crucial. Planning to hike 10 miles into the wilderness before you set camp will not benefit you in the least. It may get you far from other hunters, but it sets you up for failure.
If you’re 10 miles from your truck, that’s 10 miles of gnarly terrain you have to traverse with a pack loaded down with meat—not once, but likely several trips. That could be more than 30 miles before you get your game meat out—meaning possible meat spoilage or personal bodily injury.
Ideally, your game plan should put you no farther than five miles from a trailhead. That leaves 30-50 pounds of gear at your spike camp, meaning that weight is only five miles from your truck. Then you have a good two to three miles of radius around your camp to find and hunt game. When you have a bull on the ground, that leaves you seven to eight miles to get 200 pounds of meat, plus the head and hide of your trophy, back to your truck, making your overall hiking mileage much more achievable.
Utilize mapping systems such as onX Hunt, HuntStand, or Google Earth to plan your hunt. These platforms can help locate trailheads, water sources, and ideal hunting terrain. Look for water sources to camp near—that’s the best spot to set up a spike camp, as you’ll need to replenish your water supply throughout your trip.
The most important thing you can do before attempting backpack hunting is to prepare physically for the challenge. You risk injury, or worse, if your body is not prepared to endure what carrying a heavy pack while hiking miles over tough terrain can do to you.
Cardio, as well as core and back strength, is of utmost importance. You may be able to deadlift 300 pounds, but that means nothing on a backpack hunt if you can’t hike a couple of miles without getting winded.
Start your prep a few months before your trip. Plan cardio workouts for at least three times a week. Cardio burns fat and calories, as well as helps to make your heart strong and increases your lung capacity. Cardio can be anything from running, fast walking, biking, swimming, elliptical, or even the rowing machine. Incorporate weightlifting and core strength into your workout days. Focus on building muscle in your legs, back, and arms. This will help prepare your body for extra weight on your back and hips.
On top of cardio, you should be hiking—a lot. Place weight in your pack by either filling it with gear or liters of water. Hit the trail a few times a week, shooting for two to three miles each time you hike. Try to find different terrain, rather than just flat roads. You want your body physically prepared for steep inclines, uneven ground, and unsure footing, such as loose rocks. The prep for backpack hunting can seem daunting. But the experiences that can be had with going off the grid are part of the reward.
Remove dehydrated food from its original packaging and place it in sandwich baggies. They are easier to pack into a stuff sack that way and can hold boiling water just fine.