January 08, 2024
Backcountry hunting has gained popularity as more hunters embark on the challenge of pursuing game farther from roads and population centers. Every year, new hunters head into the field with high expectations only to return home disappointed for a variety of reasons. Read on to help get you started on planning your first backcountry hunt so you can walk out of the mountains successful.
We all dream of bugling elk and the mountains, but if you’ve never hunted far off the grid in Western terrain, start small before planning a big Western adventure. Try hunting small or medium-sized game a couple miles from your vehicle—it can be a good way to test one’s gear, hunting style, and fitness level while gaining valuable experience. How and where to set camp, water-source management, and woodsmanship are all durable skills that can be consistently improved upon with time afield. Use the summer months to practice and learn these valuable skills by going backpacking, camping, or hiking locally. You do not want your first time camping or backpacking to be on your first Western big-game hunt.
Additionally, it’s imperative that hunters have the skill to ethically get game home cold and clean. Many states have laws dealing with wanton waste of game meat—and for good reason. Every year there are stories of meat spoilage due to unpreparedness. In the backcountry, it is imperative to understand how to get meat cooled in warm weather. Do you know how to quarter an animal? Where and how to hang those quarters so they stay cool? It’s no easy task to get game from the mountain to the freezer. By starting with a reasonable set of self-imposed parameters and skill base, hunters ensure an enjoyable experience while respecting the resources they hold in such high esteem.
Muhammad Ali stated, “Train the mind and the body will follow.” A backcountry hunt has many similarities to a grueling ten- to fifteen-round boxing match. There’s prolonged pain that must be managed. There will also be a need to utilize several techniques to achieve the end goal of a successful outcome. There will be days you see no animals, and days that your legs are so tired you’re not sure how you’ll hike back to camp. And you’re not coming home to a warm, fluffy bed or hot dinner that’s ready for you.
You’re most likely eating a dehydrated meal and sitting in the cold. You don’t get to take a warm shower. Expect some inconveniences like wet, cold boots every day and wearing base layers well past their laundry-cycle date. It’s a basic principle but the more you anticipate “getting comfortable being uncomfortable” the less discouraging these minor inconveniences become when a hunt drags on.
The old cliché “chance favors the prepared” rings especially true in mountain-hunting circles. Mind and body alike require equal attention before one tightens their hip belt and heads for the alpine on a maiden voyage. To my knowledge, no one has ever wished they’d exercised less after returning from the backcountry, and in that spirit, the more physically prepared a hunter can be, the better. A workout regimen focusing on core muscles, cardio, and endurance will pay dividends as a hunt goes past the first- and second-day mark and tired muscles are called upon repeatedly.
Core strength is an often-overlooked prep that backcountry hunters shouldn’t skimp on. Most exertion begins in the core abdominal muscles (think putting on/taking off a heavy pack or pulling a hind quarter off of a game animal). Our bodies are like trees, the branches—or appendages—can only take as much punishment as the trunk can tolerate, so strengthen core muscles ahead of time to avoid potential injury during the hunt.
Much has been written on the staggering amount of gear available to hunters these days. Buy the best you can afford and familiarize yourself with the intricacies of your system before you head afield. A quality pack that fits well is a foundational piece of gear, and I’ve found 6,000-7,000 cubic inches of storage is sufficient for hunts that won’t typically last longer than eight or nine days. Boots are equally important yet leave more room for personal preference due to the sheer variety of options. I’ve shared camps with people who are partial to a softer, more forgiving sole and others who prefer them approaching the stiffness of a ski boot. Your clothing choice is also vitally important as some fabrics can mean the difference between life and death from hypothermia. Layering systems are key. Do your due diligence and research the proper gear for your hunt far in advance of your trip.
Give every piece of gear that is packed a thorough once over and check its functionality. Make sure cook stoves ignite, sleeping bag zippers hold, air pads don’t leak, and boot laces are free of flaws, etc. Your first time setting up your tent should not be when you’re four miles from your truck, and 2,000 miles from home. Taking the time predeparture to ensure everything works as intended will cut down on surprises in the field that need to be dealt with on the fly.
Mother Nature can be a harsh teacher to its pupils but with forethought and preparation, hunters can achieve goals they’ve only dreamt of in seasons past. Prepare now, respect the backcountry, the people and animals who find solace there—and have fun.