December 01, 2021
I’d like to proclaim I’ve been in peak physical condition for every hunt, but that’s a lie. In truth, there are a few hunts that stand out in my mind as truly torturous. Without exception, the issue with each of those hunts was that I simply didn’t take the time to get in proper shape before heading to the field.
Pre-hunt conditioning isn’t strictly about your ability to lift heavy objects, either. Strength training is a key ingredient to hunt-ready fitness, so don’t forego your squats, barbell curls, and so forth, but don’t make building muscle mass the exclusive objective of your training. Aerobic workouts like running, hiking with a weighted vest, and biking will all help improve cardiovascular health. Abdominal strength and balance are also important, and so is flexibility. Many hunting injuries in the field are a direct result of tight muscles that weren’t properly conditioned.
Not all the hunts listed here will require gladiatorial conditioning, either. Elk on public land can be tough, but then again you might have a bull wander by camp while you’re cooking breakfast. There are even places where mountain goat and sheep live in relatively low, easy to navigate country, so if you have physical limitations that simply won’t allow you to climb and hike all day long that doesn’t mean you can’t hunt any species on this list. What it does mean, however, is that you’ll have to be more selective of where you hunt and who you book with if you hire an outfitter. If you do hire an outfitter don’t lie to them about your physical ability: when both parties know the limitations upfront the hunt will be more enjoyable.
1. DIY Elk
There’s a culture surrounding public land elk hunting. Locating elk in big country, getting a bull down, and packing him out can be an enormous task. For most of us backcountry elk hunting is simply too much: finding your way in the woods, building a camp, finding elk and knowing what to do with that elk once it’s on the ground aren’t tasks learned overnight on Youtube. It’s best to take an experienced friend along or hire an outfitter. Elk are big animals that live in big country. Quartering a bull you’ve killed at the bottom of a dark canyon and moving the meat back to camp is incredibly demanding work. I wouldn’t dissuade anyone from hunting elk, and hearing a bull bugle on a crisp autumn morning is a fantastic experience, but you need to know what you’re getting into.
2. Moose and Caribou in Muskeg
For the uninitiated, muskeg is a patchwork of sphagnum moss, peat, and humus, and materials that are essentially floating on top of the water table. Muskeg looks much like the same solid, reliable ground you’ve walked over your entire life, but what you quickly learn with muskeg is that every step is treachery. The high points of vegetation are round and when your foot slides off them it sinks into the ooze. It’s hard enough to walk on the stuff, but stalking or--heaven forbid—hauling a butchered animal over muskeg can be grueling. Since muskeg covers great swaths of Canada and Alaska you’re bound to run into the stuff sooner or later if you hunt the north country. The most demanding pack-out of my life involved hauling out a caribou bull over relatively flat ground. The problem was much of that ground was muskeg, and for every two steps forward I took one step back or sideways while trying to balance a pack stuffed full of meat. Being in shape will help you survive hunting in this stuff, and I’d focus on core strength to combat all the twisting and sliding action as you walk across muskeg bogs.
3. Lion and Black Bear with Hounds
There’s a stigma surrounding hound hunting, but very few of the sport’s detractors have ever actually run behind a pack of big game hounds. In truth, hound hunting for bear and mountain lions is one of the most challenging hunts in North America, taking you through deadfalls, onto cliffs, up steep snow-blanketed peaks as you fallow the dogs. Most mountain lion hunts are conducted on snow because it holds scent better than dry ground and because the houndsmen can determine the size of the animal’s track, which saves a lot of walking to treed immature cats. More often than not, the animal (bear or lion) will tree in some remote and hard-to-reach area. There will be a lot of scrambling over rocks and downed trees and plowing uphill through snow. Don’t miss an opportunity to chase big game with hounds, but don’t sign up for this adventure because you think it’s easy.
4. Public Land Upland Birds
Surprised to see an upland bird hunt listed among the toughest in North America? Clearly, you’ve never chased chukar in Idaho’s Hell’s Canyon, where everything that isn’t straight up is straight down. There’s a lot of excellent public land wild birds hunting in the west, but some of those hunts occur in rugged, remote areas. Bird hunting is also a low-cost way to get your public land fix if you didn’t draw an elk tag this year. Chukar are notorious for inhabiting nasty cliffs, but they’re not the only wild bird that will you’re your endurance. Petersen’s Hunting editor David Draper and I chased sage grouse around the high country of Wyoming for several exhausting days before I fired a shot. Want the ultimate test of your skill as a mountaineer and upland hunter? Then try chasing Himalayan snowcock around Nevada’s Ruby Mountains. These birds, which were introduced to Nevada in the 1960s from Asia, live above 10,000 feet and are the holy grail for public land upland hunters.
5. High Mountain Hunts
In North America, this usually means either sheep or mountain goats, both of which can be extremely challenging to hunt. Not only is the terrain that these animals prefer torturous, filled with shale slides and peaks with narrow ledges from which you dare not look down, but generally you’re also facing logistical challenges. You’re far from help and you will likely hike into the area with only the resources you can carry on your back. When wicked storms blow across sheep and goat country there’s nowhere to escape. A few weathered-in days spent huddling inside a tent while you progressively ripen without a place to bathe is more mentally challenging than physically demanding, but these are the realities of hunting the high country. Odds are when you eventually do spot an animal you’ll have to work your way up, down, or around to get in position. It’s said sheep and goats never die in an easy place to recover them so once the trigger breaks the work is only just beginning.