August 27, 2021
Traveling west to hunt is an exciting endeavor. It’s also a stressful one. There’s an incredible amount to know and prepare for: tags, scouting, meat care, camping, and all that corner hopping jazz that could get you fined.
As an easterner that travels to hunt multiple times per year, I’ve gleaned some helpful insights. I’ve also called on experienced hunters to lend their advice to help you prep for your big trip west.
Before breaking down gear needs, let’s cover an important detail: redundant systems. Take extra or duplicate resources in the case that gear fails (some of the important ones are outlined below). The things that keep you alive might break. Plan for that.
Also, you’ll note the long gear lists below, but you don’t need to buy all of it—especially at full price. Borrow what you can and check out secondhand shops for things like base layers. Some of your eastern hunting gear will work, too. If you’re going to spend money, spend it on the stuff that’s going to keep you in the game—that means staying safe, warm, fed, and out of the elements. One more thing: it’s experience that dials in your gear. These lists are your starting point.
Western hunt clothing is more technical than most eastern gear. The game is dialing your layers so that you can control your body temperature swings between long periods of moving and sitting still. A general rule: be bold, walk cold. Carry your mid and outer layers, put them on when you sit down.
Your new mantra is cotton kills. Your next-to-skin layers, and your mid-layers, need to be wool or synthetic. Synthetic fibers and wool maintain their insulating properties even when wet. Cotton will suck the heat out of you faster than you can say hypothermia.
Ditch the heavily insulated boots and buy good merino wool socks. With long periods of hiking, followed by long periods of sitting to glass, heavily insulated boots make your feet sweat then freeze. Wool socks will wick the moisture from your feet as they insulate—keeping your feet in much better shape as you transition from moving to sitting. (Also, take your boots off every time you sit down so that your socks and boot liners can dry out.)
Here’s my list, starting from closest to the body and working out to protective layers:
- 1-2 pairs of synthetic or merino wear underwear
- 2 synthetic or merino wool base layers (tops and bottoms)
- 2 pairs of merino wool socks (Darn Tough are my brand of choice)
- 1 mid-layer fleece or merino wool hoodie
- 1 set of puffy pants and a puffy jacket
- 1 pair of nylon hunting/hiking pants
- 1 set of rain gear
- 2 sets of gloves (1 for general hand protection and 1 to keep them warm)
- 1 fleece or merino wool buff
- Boots (light or no insulation)
Western weather is far more volatile than in the eastern woodlands. So, you’ll need a tent that bucks wind. Something with a conical shape like a teepee tent (bonus if it has a stove jack) or a low-profile tent is your best bet. A silnylon tarp for staying out of the weather while glassing is also a useful, and light, shelter.
A lightweight sleeping bag rated to fifteen degrees Fahrenheit will suit you well. There’s no sense in carrying a heavier bag with more insulation since it will only help you in one setting. If it gets too cold, slip on your puffy pants, or other layers, and crawl back into your bag.
Get the nicest sleeping pad that you can afford with an R-value of about five or more. It’s worth it. If you’re on the bigger side, make sure you get one sized long (or large) because it will also be wider. I use the Thermarest Neoair Xtherm in large and it’s perfect for a guy that’s about six feet tall and on the north side of 200 pounds. Buy a puffy jacket that converts into a pillow or ball up your puffy jacket and put that puppy under your head.
Cookware and Water
Consider what meals you’ll be making, but also consider weight and fuel that works in any temperature. I like aluminum pots because they are lighter than steel and they conduct heat more evenly than titanium.
Where you might trade weight for dependability is your stove and fuel. Gas canister stoves are great, but they don’t work well in cold temps. Alcohol stoves dependably work in the cold, but they are inefficient. An MSR Whisperlite, or comparable stove that burns multiple fuels, is your best bet if it’s going to be cold.
Water’s two considerations are containers and sanitation. There are several tools to sanitize your water—carry more than one. I use a Katadyn pump filter because it removes bacteria, protozoa, and debris, (If it’s going to be cold be sure to get the hoses and filter as dry as possible after use so they don’t freeze and damage), and an ozone pen. For containers, get yourself a thirty-two-to-forty-eight-ounce Nalgene bottle for measuring and drinking and soft plastic water totes for at camp. (Again, just be careful not to let them get damaged by freezing.)
Your day kit is everything necessary to keep yourself fed and hydrated through the day; everything necessary for breaking down and packing out an animal; and tools should a hunt devolve into a survival situation.
Here’s my day kit list:
- Hunting pack (4,000 to 6,000 cubic inch capacity)
- Head lamp (two, or have a flashlight as back up)
- Knives (and sharpener)
- Game bags
- Water purification and container
- Enough calories to keep you moving
- Clothing layers
- Weatherproof matches and lighter (take both)
- Sil-nylon tarp
- At least two ways to navigate (GPS, digital map, paper map/compass)
- Med kit
- Trekking poles
- Optics (binoculars, rangefinder)
- Accordion foam to sit on while glassing
- Signaling devices (satellite/electronic, signaling mirrors, etc.)
- Miscellaneous Gear
Outside of day kits, sleep systems, and cookware, there are other considerations: battery packs to keep your electronics functioning (and extra batteries), silicon cups for measuring/drinking, dry bags for storage and to use as bear bags.
Whether you’re flying or driving, there’s one huge aspect of travel that most don’t think about but shouldn’t be ignored: hydration. Hydration is your best defense against altitude sickness. So, don’t skimp on water to avoid bathroom stops. Drink.
Stuff your camping gear and pack in a cooler and check it. You’ll be prepared to fly your meat home.
One more travel tip from experienced east-to-west hunter, Matt Comment; fly with your hunting layers in your carry-on and your boots on your feet. That way if TSA loses the rest of your luggage, you can still borrow a gun and hunt.
Food prep step number one—prepare to be hungry. You’re likely going to burn more calories than you can feasibly take in. The goal is to find the right ratio between calories and weight. Experienced backpack hunter, Kevin Underwood, recommends the “pound of food per day plan.” That’s 160 calories for every 16 ounces of food, giving you just a bit more than 2,500 calories per day. It’s enough to keep you going. If you’re truck camping, the weight to calorie ratio isn’t a concern.
“Learn to read a topo map…” [and] “…figure out where the other hunters will be. You have to spend as much time scouting for where people will be as you do scouting for where animals might be.” Two priceless quotes from Beau Martonik of East Meets West Hunt.
Here are more solid e-scouting tips from Beau:
- Just like in-person scouting, find food, cover, and water.
- Set Google Earth to “historical view” for the dates that you’ll be hunting the area so that you get an accurate look at the water and vegetation conditions.
- Don’t settle for the big, obvious details like large parks and meadows. Also, look for similar but smaller features that others might miss.
- Have plans and backup plans, keeping detailed notes on why you like a given area.
One more piece of scouting wisdom: it’s going to look way different when you get boots on the ground than it does on your computer or phone. Prepare to orient yourself.
Units, Tags and Regulations
Here’s great advice from Steve Opat that could keep you from making a big mistake that inadvertently gets you rung up for poaching:
“I save photos of the regulations and my hunting licenses on my phone. It forces me to review them and demonstrates to the wardens that I’m an honest hunter.”
There are no shooting benches in the mountains or on the plains. Yet, every year I watch folks do all of their range work from the bench. It will leave you woefully unprepared to hunt the west. Get off of the bench and practice field positions: prone,
seated and standing (rested).
Practice them and know your effective range for each. For more info on building solid shooting positions. The same goes for archery hunting. You have to practice odd angles and odd positions, while dialing in your effective range, to be deadly in the mountains.
“Approach the trip with the mindset that you’re going to learn, not necessarily kill.” Steve Opat.
Here’s a dose of perspective: twenty-seven days. Of the eastern hunters that I surveyed for this article, that’s the average time it took to bag an elk (and many of those days were guided). That collective month of hunting was accrued over several seasons. You’re going to take your lumps.
When you shift your focus from the outcome of killing to the process of learning, it’s much easier to keep your head in the game and enjoy yourself. And with your head in the right place, it’s much more likely that you’ll find success on the other side of a trigger press.
You can’t rush the training process. So, if you expect to start your fitness prep just before you leave, you’re in trouble. Give yourself time.
Here’s a simple template to follow for at least sixteen weeks leading up to your hunt:
- Walk at least 7,000 steps per day
- 2 days per week of strength training
- 2-3 days per week of rucking with 20 percent or less of your body weight in your pack, keeping your heart rate under 150 beats per minute for 45 to 90 minutes
- 1-2 days per week of hard intervals using 10-15 seconds of hard work and nearly complete rest
The main thing to remember is that volume (the amount of work) spread out over time always trumps intensity (how hard or heavy the work is). Start early and keep moving.
Other Details Worth Planning
This year in Montana, I’ll have a med plan provided by Orion Med Consulting. It details all of the hospitals and emergency services in the area. It’s something all hunters traveling west should have. It could save your life or the life of one of your hunting partners.
Also, list all of the meat processors in the area. You can totally keep the meat quartered and handle it yourself at home. But you might find yourself in a circumstance where having your meat processed locally is the best option.
Check Off a Great Hunt
The best way to have a great western hunt is to be prepared. Practice all of your processes—using your gear, packing it, etc. Get your mind right and train your body. Then hunt hard.