May 10, 2023
By Zach Bowhay
For many, me included, dream hunts often consist of a backpack-style, multi-day adventure in the mountains out West. Unfortunately, many of these same hunters put all of their eggs in one basket when planning. And every single year, I am amazed at the number of dejected hunters I meet at trailheads or in the backcountry. Most of the time, these hunters either were not prepared physically or, more often, not prepared mentally for the rigors of what this type of adventure truly entails. This usually leads to a ruined trip, as all of their preseason preparation was focused on that one excursion. Although these hunters could adapt and still have a successful—or at least an enjoyable—hunt, many times they are far from home and out of their comfort zones. Many of them throw in the towel and give up completely.
There’s an easy way to avoid heading home empty-handed and frustrated that also offers a subtle immersion into backpack hunting: Simply plan a trip around a base-camp-style hunt and take single-night excursions into your hunting grounds. These short trips whet your appetite for backpack-style hunting without physically exhausting you right out of the gate.
Day hunting from a well-equipped base camp, with the option of overnighting on the mountain, is a simple yet effective method of hunting. When on these types of hunts, I spend the morning hours glassing the area I intend to hunt and planning where I will set camp that evening.
Then, after a good lunch at my base camp (or truck), I head off on my overnight hunt. I generally leave shortly after eating to give myself plenty of time to get into the area I plan to hunt, leaving a few hours of daylight to effectively glass and hunt before sunset. This allows me to hunt right up until dark, during the prime hunting hours when animals are most likely to be active. By sleeping on the mountain, close to where I hunted animals that evening, I have the upper hand in finding the animals early the next morning. It is important to strategically place the camp close enough to the animals for a strike at first light but far enough away as to not spook them. Doing this requires quiet, stealthy camping and a minimalist setup.
MAXIMIZING THE HUNT
Hunters know the most effective times to see animals are at first and last light, but on day hunts in the mountains, most hunters don’t make it to their primary hunting spots for those prime hours. Oftentimes, getting to these places takes an hour or more of hiking, and let’s be honest, many folks aren’t willing to do that before daylight. Also, the draw of getting back to the truck before dark exerts a strong pull on folks, and most will find themselves starting toward the trailhead early instead of hunting until dark. These overnight hunts offer the benefits of a semi-comfortable bed for the evening and easy access to hunting grounds the next morning.
I’ve always seen these overnight forays as an opportunity to hunt these areas in-between where most people will hunt. It’s too far for day hunts and too close for the few who pack in deep, a sort of No Man’s Land. This has proven to be an effective method, and more than one buck and bull have rewarded my efforts. Sure, these spots can absolutely be accessed and hunted by day hunters, but most of the time it’s too far to reach at first light and many have vacated the area by late evening.
Even though I often hunt the “in-between” areas, implementing this method on the areas that are closer to the truck can be very effective as well. Using this method allows you to more effectively hunt the same areas you would generally day hunt. The reason is time—that priceless extra time to check out every nook and cranny. Some will say it’s silly to sleep within a mile of the road, but I have no problem doing so, especially when that mile puts you a couple of thousand feet in elevation above or below that road. This not only saves you time, but also keeps you from expending precious energy to get back to the same location every morning.
PACKING FOR THE ASSAULT
There are certain items hunters always have in our pack, regardless of the length of the hunt. This includes an insulating layer, rain gear, game bags/kill kit, food, water, and anything else you may need to get through your day of hunting.
Then there are the optional items, which are selected based on the species you’re pursuing. For example, when I hunt mule deer, I always have a spotting scope and tripod in my pack. When bowhunting elk, I can almost always get away with using my 10X binoculars, even when glassing at a long distance. Hunters’ needs and wants also can vary greatly depending on their trophy standards or if they just want to be able to see animals farther away.
As far as overnight gear on these one-night trips, I take a minimalist approach. When hunting alone, I carry a KUIU Summit Star 1 tent that weighs little more than a pound. If hunting with a friend, I really enjoy my Big Agnes Copper Spur UL3. When sharing the weight with my partner, this setup yields only a pound-and-a-half in my pack.
A good sleeping bag is a must. Depending on the time of year, I carry my 0-degree bag, perfect for colder October and November hunts, or my 30-degree bag that I often use from summer into late September. Regardless of which bag I choose, it will add two to three pounds to my overnight kit. Another must: a quality sleeping pad that keeps the cold ground from robbing you of precious heat. Today’s high-end pads weigh from one to two pounds while providing 2.5 to 3.5 inches of insulated air mattress for comfort and warmth.
After a hefty, calorie-rich lunch at my rig, I forego cooking a hot meal that evening. I figure I can get by for 24 to 36 hours by eating granola and protein bars, which allows me to shave another pound or more off my load by leaving my stove at the truck.
Not needing cooking or camp water and just requiring drinking water, I leave the bigger pump or gravity-style water filter at home and instead carry a Katadyn BeFree water bottle. I just have to scoop water from the source and it’s filtered while I’m drinking. This system weighs only two ounces and shaves another half-pound from my pack. Another lightweight option is a Steripen, which uses UV rays to kill bad bacteria in any water container you choose.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
As I mentioned earlier, the rigors of an extended backpack hunt have been the demise of more than one tough guy in the mountains. I’ll even admit, in the past, I’ve struggled on these types of hunts. Packing heavy loads in steep terrain is physically demanding. Couple that with not sleeping well and living off backpack food and it’s easy to see why backpack hunting is hard.
To do any type of backpack hunt, even those short overnighters, you have to be willing to be a little uncomfortable. We all should be able to do that for a day or so. Taking this minimalist approach, you add only five to seven pounds to the weight of your daypack.
These short one-night trips serve as good training and offer needed preparation for extended excursions in the future. Little by little, these nights in the backcountry show you the value of being on the mountain longer and condition you to embrace the uncomfortable nature often encountered while backpacking. The experience of these short trips is invaluable, and your confidence will grow. Soon enough you’ll be thirsting for more.
Backpack hunting is truly an amazing experience. In my opinion, spending the day hunting, in no hurry with nothing to do but hunt, and surviving the elements is euphoria. And it’s a feeling that can be found regardless of the duration of your hunt. Hunting the mountains has become much more popular in recent years, and getting away from other hunters, especially on public land, can be difficult. That’s where tactics like the ones described in this article become supremely valuable. Putting yourself in position to spend more time during peak hours in the woods can be just what you need to set you apart from the competition.
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.