August 25, 2021
Drop-camp hunts are usually superb because you get clear away from the hordes of other hunters. Also, such adventures are typically fun because the hunting is good and you’re usually out there with a great friend. Unless you decide to go solo.
Going solo completely changes the game. Whether you’re transported in by bush plane or boat, you are on your own in a potentially dangerous environment. If the proverbial manure hits the fan, the cavalry is a long way off. And when weather conditions are bad, help can take an eternity to arrive. In Alaska—the quintessential drop-camp destination—challenging weather is the rule rather than the exception.
When meat hits the ground, you’re on your own to process and pack it. When you fall and hurt yourself, it’s on you to get up and sort out a remedy. If your food stash is raided by a bear or a wolverine or your tent blows apart in savage rain and wind or you go down attempting a river crossing, dealing with the situation is entirely up to you.
A solo DIY backcountry hunt is debatably the last great adventure, the final fragment of a challenge such as the lone mountain men endured. It’s a wonderful way to test yourself, but it’s also a darn good way to find out how totally inadequate you are.
Expect the Unexpected
I’ve done a fair bit of solo hunting, but most of it has been spike camping for a night—or three—away from a big base camp. When I have meat on the ground, or the season runs out, or weather becomes nasty, I’m still in control of deciding when to head back to civilization. There’s always a task to keep you physically occupied and mentally in a good place: sitting long hours on a high ridge and glassing an alpine basin, boning out a bull elk, filtering water, or navigating the best pack-out route.
When you commit to a drop-camp hunt, the only chance you get to control your timing is when you book the bush plane or transport boat. And even then, the weather gods often stomp on your schedule. No matter that you’re tagged out, or out of food, or superficially hurt and significantly uncomfortable, or simply done with being out there alone, there’s nothing you can do except wait for your pickup date.
In September of 2020, I flew in with my good friend and crack bush pilot Zack Knaebel, owner of Tok Air Service, for a solo caribou hunt. I’ve been on some tough hunts, but as it turned out, this was one of the toughest. On the first day, I shot a very nice bull with a Browning X-Bolt chambered in the then-prototype 6.8 Western. Then came days of slashing rain and crashing winds. First, I was packing and processing meat. Then I spent the rest of the time hunkered down and exhausted—cold and wet much of the time—in a small tent on the side of a ridge above the timberline.
My solar charger went belly-up. My phone (with an assortment of movies on it) died. I finished my book. And then I faced days with absolutely nothing to do but endure the long, miserable hours. I won’t sugarcoat it: The experience was brutal.
This and other backcountry solo adventures have taught me to separate preparation into three categories: Gear, skills, and the mental game.
When you’re alone, you must have top-quality gear. If it fails, you fail. And maybe die as a result. Before diving into individual items of gear, I’ll just say that if all you take away from this column is that statement, your gear selections will likely be OK.
Solo hunters of yore would laugh at this, but I’ll say it: The single most critical piece of gear is a satellite emergency communication device. I use a Garmin inReach Mini, and it provides a world of comfort to you and your family in knowing that you can call in help if the situation turns catastrophic.
Gear should be selected for its durability, reliability, and suitability for use in the most extreme conditions. Pack a four-season, expedition-grade tent that will stand in gale-force winds. Use a premium synthetic—or treated down—sleeping bag that will keep you warm even when saturated. Carry a weatherproof lighter with a hot flame and waterproof tinder that will sustainably burn. Be humble enough to take—and use—trekking poles. They may save you from a disabling fall. Carry rain gear that will shrug off torrents.
Use a pack that won’t cripple you, even when heavily loaded. Include a rainproof cover for it. Choose clothing and boots that are comfortable, capable in any anticipated weather and terrain, and well broken in but still in good shape.
Use a capable knife that’s not inherently dangerous when your hands are numb with cold, you’re clumsy with fatigue, or your mental clarity is low from exhaustion or dehydration. To me, this rules out replaceable-blade knives. A strong fixed-blade knife is more versatile anyway, as it can be used to split kindling and accomplish other bushcraft tasks.
One final pro tip: Buy a lightweight down puffy jacket and puffy pants and vacuum-pack them. Keep them in the bottom of your pack, and you’ll always have something warm and dry to put on in case you get caught out overnight or all your clothing gets saturated with frigid rainwater. I use and love True Timber’s Strata set.
While actual hunting skills are always important, when you’re hunting solo, your bushcraft and survival skills are critical.
Before embarking on your adventure, study up on and practice the art of creating a comfortable camp in a good location, ideally well protected from the elements and with wood and water close by. Know how to find shelter quickly and how to quickly build a fire in wet, challenging conditions.
Practice and perfect your ability to load your pack, and make sure that when it’s full and heavy, it fits. Know how to adjust your shoulder straps and hip belt correctly and properly utilize the stabilizer straps. Why? Because a loose, ill-fitting pack can cause you to fall. Murphy’s Law dictates you’ll fall at the worst possible time in the worst possible place.
Practice awareness. When you’re on your own 70 miles from the nearest human habitation in rugged, treacherous terrain, with grizzly bears around, you need to always be on high alert. It’s one of the things about solo hunting I love the most; senses are heightened, focus is acute, and every element of the experience is enriched. Always remember, in emergency situations, you are absolutely on your own. Help is hours if not days away.
Finally, learn patience. When you’re alone out there, you owe nobody any time. If a rain squall hits as you find an ideal camp location, hunker down under a sheltering tree, wait it out, and pitch camp after the rain passes. Traverse dangerous terrain slowly; if you break a leg, you may be stuck there. Pack small, manageable loads of meat, minimizing the chance of injury and conserving your stamina, strength, and coordination in case you get into trouble and need those abilities to get through it.
The Mental Game
Here’s where most hunters get blindsided. As I mentioned earlier, a solo hunt can be liberating and wonderful, as long as you don’t begin to feel trapped. In my experience, hike-in hunts, where the hunter is in control of a fluid schedule and can adapt or pull out depending on the weather and hunting quality, are rarely mentally challenging. Drop-camp hunts are the opposite. When the bush plane or boat pulls away, you’re there for the duration. You’ll not be moving camp, at least not far, and you’ll come out when scheduled. It’s worth noting that it’s considered quite poor form to beg for early extraction.
There are a few things you can do to prepare. First, be aware that it’s not going to be easy. There will be times when you are exhausted and disappointed. Spirits will plummet, and there’ll be no one to lift them. Be cognizant ahead of time that you’ll have no conversation aside from the whiskeyjacks and blue jays. Most likely, you’ll have no connectivity via your phone, so wean yourself off any social media addictions ahead of time. Be prepared to treat injuries and illness without assistance, and without advice.
Bring failsafe entertainment such as a good long paperback novel. If you bring a phone or tablet with movies loaded on it, bring redundant power sources. Every solar charger I’ve used over the years has gone belly-up at some point—and always while deep in the backcountry. I’ve come to prefer premium compact battery packs. Bring at least two, with the highest power bank you can find.
There will be plenty of challenges. But as the old sage said, “The greater the challenge, the greater the reward.” Few things are as fulfilling as going solo and successfully accomplishing the hunt of a lifetime. Such hunts lack camaraderie, but they possess something no other experience can offer: the knowledge that with God’s help you alone faced and overcame the greatest challenges the backcountry could muster.