The Hiking Hunter: Backpacking Your Way to Sportsman’s Paradise

Eventually we all get tired of hunting in crowds.  Seeing another hunter behind every tree and over every ridge wears thin, and we start to look for ways to have big chunks of country to ourselves.  There are two main ways to accomplish this- one involves money, the other involves muscle.  Either you pay someone to fly or guide you to a lightly populated spot, or you suck it up, put your stuff on your back, and hike away from the guys who can’t or won’t do the same.

This doesn’t have to involve a major expedition miles and miles away from pavement.  Generally, if you can hike in for the better part of a day and set up camp, you’ll put yourself out of the reach of the day hunters who have to be back at the trailhead by nightfall.  You can start out from your spike camp at the same time everyone else is leaving the parking lot, and be miles ahead of them.  Also, you might be able to use them to drive animals to you if conditions are right.

Of course, if it were really easy, everyone would be doing it.  So, you’ve got to count on spending a bit of money for additional gear, and put in the work it takes to get your stuff into the backcountry.  Before you begin the process, there are a few things you should know:

  1. Backpacking isn’t for everyone.  If your idea of roughing it is no room service, if your idea of exercise is drinking lots of caffeine to get your heart rate up, or if every meal has to include at least three courses, fresh salad and dessert, you might not be a good candidate for this pursuit.
  2. If you don’t know someone who can lend you some gear while you experiment with backpacking, you’re going to have to buy some, and good gear isn’t cheap.
  3. Bad weather is almost a given.  While good gear helps, rain, wind, and sideways snow will involve discomfort.
  4. If you do take an animal, you’re going to have to know how to disassemble, debone and protect the thing and get it all out safely and in a manner that preserves its edibility.

Gear:

When choosing gear, nothing’s more important than good boots.  You’re going to be carrying extra weight over varying terrain, you’re probably going to get your boots wet, and if your feet aren’t happy, you won’t be happy.  Get comfortable, waterproof  boots, break them in before you carry extra weight, and learn everything you can about socks and blister avoidance and care.

The next vital issue is shelter.  Any tent will suffice in bluebird weather, but when conditions get lousy, you don’t want to find yourself in a $40 Walmart special.  High quality tents will stand up to heavy rain and wind as well as snow load, where your bargain-basement items will leak and fold up.  Unless you’ll be hunting in the very late season and/or very far north, a three-season tent will probably suffice.

You’ll also need a good backpack, and here you’re going to have to choose between internal and external frame models.  Most hunters favor beefy external frames, for several reasons.  You can carry a lot of weight, they make for a stable platform when dealing with awkward loads like hindquarters, rib cages and antlers, and it’s easy to lash loads down with a frame.

However, if you have a good-quality internal frame that fits you well, don’t despair.  I use an internal frame pack for just about everything short of a moose hindquarter, and haven’t had a problem yet.  I think you’re better off with an internal frame pack that fits you well rather than with a cheaply made or ill-fitting frame pack.  You can secure some pretty large loads in a good internal frame as long as you’re creative, and pack a good supply of parachute cord.

Beyond those basic needs, you’ll need to borrow or acquire basic backpacking gear such as a stove, cooking gear, binoculars, sleeping pad, and all the camping gear you need for your comfort and safety.  In addition, you’ll need your hunting and field dressing gear as well, and all of that stuff adds up to a significant amount of weight.  Keep in mind that, when it comes to high quality backpacking and hunting gear, lightweight stuff costs more than heavy stuff, and this holds true for just about anything you’ll want to put on your back.

Your final challenge happens after you take an animal.  If your normal mode of operation consists of dragging your deer to the pickup and driving it home or to the butcher’s shop, you’ve got some additional steps to learn.  Properly caring for the carcass and trophy require you to have the knowledge, tools and supplies close at hand. In addition to merely gutting the animal, you’re going to have to open and possibly disassemble it.  You’ve got to keep the meat clean and cool, keep bugs and flies away from it, and possibly secure it from scavengers.  If local laws allow, you can debone the animal (there is the video about Chronic Wasting Disease below that has a pretty good primer on deboning animals) saving a lot of packing-out weight.  And if you plan on having a shoulder or full body mount made from the hide, you need to know how to properly remove the hide or cape, how to prep it for taxidermy, and how best to remove the horns or antlers.

The details of carcass and cape care are beyond the scope of this piece.  But, if you’ve got knowledgeable friends, pump them for info.  If not, before you head into the field, check with your game processor and taxidermist for assistance.  In most cases, they’re only too happy to help you out- the last thing they want to see is you walking through their front door with your game meat or trophy in an unsalvageable condition.  They can give you invaluable help so you can avoid losing meat or a once-in-a-lifetime trophy.

If this idea still appeals to you, get started now to prepare for next hunting season.  Borrow or rent some backpacking gear, read up on places to go and how to get there, and work on your physical conditioning.  After a few trips, you’ll teach yourself how much gear you really need, and what you can safely live without.  Nothing prepares you for backpacking like backpacking, but in a pinch you can work out on a treadmill or stair climber while carrying a pack.  When opening day rolls around, if you’ve done your homework and researched your hunting areas, you can separate yourself from the teeming millions on the road system and enjoy a true wilderness experience, and, if you’re both lucky and good, bring back a trophy and lots of great memories.

(Photos courtesy of Dan.., deborah.soltesz, Al_HikesAZ, nonsooth and Beyond the Trail [Gary])