Backcountry Hunting Tips and Fundamentals

I'll be honest here. Bowhunting the wilderness is not for everyone. The work and physical prep can be hard, and the seclusion of being out in the middle of nowhere can get quiet and very lonely. Food choices are simple and often non-appealing, at least after a couple days. The nights can be unbearable when traveling solo and sleeping in bear country. And the strain of carrying your complete camp on your back, along with must-needed hunting gear, can cause sore shoulders, hips, legs, back and feet. So, what's there to like?

For starters, the light hunting pressure found in the backcountry creates outstanding hunting action. It means peaceful adventure, without the annoying rat race of seeing droves of other hunters storming the roads. And it means incredible reward and gratification when you prepare, plan and execute your trip properly. For me, there's nothing else like it. But for others, it could be different. It depends on what they desire and how they prefer to hunt.

Currently, there's a strong trend in the outdoor world that revolves around "backcountry" hunting. But after talking to lots of enthusiasts on the subject, I realize many don't have a clear idea of what's involved. Some are more in love with the idea than what the wilderness entails on a day to day basis. The way I see it, they are setting themselves up for failure.

With that in mind, here are seven important steps anyone one should think about before embarking on a backcountry trip of their own.

Preparing the Mind

Like most things in life, mental state is everything when hunting the wilderness. If you tend to give up easily, allowing things like physical discomfort, boredom, home sickness, bad food, etc., get the best of you, then you won't do well as a wilderness hunter. When things get tough, you need to learn to buck up and stick to the plan. Remember your original goal, which is to successfully hunt the backcountry. But, most importantly, remember to enjoy the process of being out in the wild where few explore. Think of it as a blessing.

Basically, learn to enjoy things under the roughest conditions, and you'll do well as a backcountry explorer.

To help with this, plan a couple one or two nighters to test the waters so to speak. This will help strengthen your inner spirit for wilderness hunting, giving you time to acclimate, mentally and physically.

Getting in Shape

Routinely hitting the gym three months before your trip will certainly help, but the best way to do it is to adopt a lifestyle change. Try to exercise -- even if it's just lightly -- on a year-round basis. Walk and hike with family and friends whenever possible. Ride a road or mountain bike one to two times a week. Swim regularly. Lift light dumbbells and do push-ups and crunches a few times weekly. Go rove the woods and stump shoot with your bow. Do any kind of activity to keep your heart rate up, which will elevate fitness and speed up your metabolism.

You don't have to be in marathon shape for hunting the wilderness, you just need desire and good physical ability. This means toning up a bit so you can enjoy the experience and trek with a pack safely and more effectively. 

To help with this, you should eat healthier. Avoid greasy foods and eat less fast food. Consume lean meat and fish, wholesome and nutritious pastas and breads, and lots and lots of fruit and vegetables. Reduce intake of carbonated drinks in favor of more water. This will make you healthier, stronger and more suited for what you'll drink in the backcountry.  

Another tip is to streamline your diet a week or two before the big hunt. Acclimate your taste buds to be more in line with what you'll consume in the backcountry. Stick to plain foods and more water. This will reduce the shock of eating lesser foods and keep you focused on the hunt.

Acquiring Good Gear

Wilderness hunting demands high-quality mountaineering/backpacking gear with no exceptions. This means a big initial investment on your part. If money is low, then consider buying used gear but still high-end quality. Since camping essentials must ride on your back, and everything you carry must work to perfection or your safety and hunt could be in jeopardy, the absolute lightest, most-proven equipment becomes more of a necessity than anything else. Don't buy cheap here.

Beyond comfortable, supportive footwear, my backpack is valued as the most crucial piece of equipment. Why? Because if your body isn't comfortable while weighted down, you can forget about doing well out here. A well-designed, well-fittting backpack is priceless in this regard. After having a prominent backpack brand fail me out on the trail, I will no longer risk my safety or comfort on inferior products. After much research, the pack I now use is a Kifaru Timberline, which I consider the best of the best. Expensive, certainly, but worth every penny.

Other brands/gear I prefer are MSR tents, Jetboil Sol-TI stove, Petzl headlamps, Therm-a-Rest sleeping pads, Sitka clothing, Cabela's Ultra Space Rainwear, and Platypus water storage bladders.

Where to Hunt

This is a big one. Don't bank your valuable vacation time, money and months of planning on a second-rate spot. Research, research, and research more until you feel ultra-excited, ultra-confident about the area you want to hunt.

Of course, before settling on a location, determine how you'll hunt it. Do you want to hike in and then set up a permanent base camp? Or, do you want to spike camp and bivy hunt around each day, going from one camping and hunting spot to the next?

Base-camp hunting works in a variety of areas. But bivy packing is different. It usually requires more area that lends itself to easy trekking from one basin to the next, so you can access different populations of game.

For me, this means an area with "connecting" ridges, not hellacious canyons to complicate walking with a heavy pack on.

Preventing Altitude Sickness

This illness can ruin your hunt quickly, so be careful. Although there's no proven system for eliminating it -- and some hunters won't even feel the effects of high elevation -- it's widely accepted that slow acclimation to being up high works very well.

To do this, camp at a slightly lower elevation than where you'll be hunting, perhaps at the trail head if 8,000 feet or less. Do this for at least one night if not two before venturing out on the trail. While in camp, move around easily, allowing your body to adjust to the thinner air. You may notice a bit of lethargy, but that's normal.

Symptoms of altitude sickness include headache (throbbing kind), loss of appetite, stomach sickness, vomiting, feeling weak and lazy, not sleeping well, and feeling dizzy. Any time you feel the effects of altitude sickness coming on, get to lower ground immediately until symptoms subside. If the symptoms are mild, you can usually stay at the elevation you are at, but you must exert yourself little, if any, and drink lots of liquids until your body becomes acclimated and symptoms go away. 

Consuming a lot of carbohydrates prior to and during your trip can help as well. This includes eating lots of breads, cereals, rice, and pasta.

Also, you can ask your doctor to prescribe acetazolamide (Diamox). This speeds up how fast your body gets used to the higher altitude. Wilderness Athlete has a product called Hy-Alititude Advantage. I know a couple people that have used this with amazing success.

Safety

Some hunters like to go it alone but doing this in the backcountry just isn't wise. Travel in pairs if at all possible. Certainly you can trek out solo after setting up a base or bivy camp, but be sure to stay in close radio contact with your partner. Your life may depend on it.

If you must go solo, be sure you map out your daily hunting routes and give these routes to your family in case of an emergency. A PLB (Personal Locator Beacon) is a must for the single hunter but I take one along even when hunting with a partner. The newer units are so compact and light, there's no reason not to. This technology creates peace of mind as I know all I have to do if I break a leg or get really sick is to push a button and the beacon will send out a powerful signal to special satellites, notifying emergency crews of my exact whereabouts. A rescue will be on the way.

A compass, GPS and topo maps are also mandatory to navigate the backcountry, even in the most open country. Know how to use all of them in tandem. When fog rolls in, you’ll have to use the map and compass combo in order to get around.

Lightning is always a concern when hunting the wilderness, and you should do your part to stay out of harm’s way. Never camp next to tall trees, or along open ridges where you are a sitting duck for a lightning strike. Choose a ravine in slightly lower country. Never put your tent in a wash or runoff area, such as below a sheer rocky bluff where water can spew on top of your tent like a waterfall. I highly recommend reading books on basic compass navigation and mountain survival.

Also, bring a pack cover to protect your gear from getting wet in case of a sudden downpour. A small tarp can double as a pack cover and as an emergency shelter.

Lastly, when in bear country, be sure to pack a whistle and some bear spray. And at night, store your food up in a tree somewhere, well away from camp.

Meat Retrieval

This is one of those fundamentals few first-time enthusiasts really think about. But it's completely unethical and irresponsible doing so. God placed wonderful big-game creatures on earth for man to respectfully pursue, not to take from granted and ruin its sustenance. 

Bottom line here: carefully think about and plan how you'll get meat out of the backwoods without spoiling. With this, time is usually of the essence, so once game is down, you must go to work quickly and get the meat cooled or back to the truck and into a cooler.

The way I see it, if you’re hunting deer, you can bone it out and pack it out complete in one trip. A completely boned out mule deer with antlers will weigh about 80 to 90 pounds – a blacktail deer much lighter. Yes, it will be tough, but it can be done.

With an elk, you’ll need a buddy to help divvy up the 175-pound load. Otherwise hire a wrangler and pack animals to take on the chore. With elk, I say if you’re 5 to 6 miles in, you can haul out meat with a buddy. Beyond that it can get tricky and tough.

Always take along a minimum of five game bags. I prefer Alaska or Carnivore game bags. Four are used for meat, the fifth for my cape or as an extra. 

If nighttime temps are around 40 degrees, you can keep meat cool nearly all day. Monitor it all day and keep it in the shade. If temps go skyward, or if suddenly the meat feels warm to touch, you’ll need some waterproof sacks (not trash bags; they puncture and leak) to place the meat in a cold stream. Cabela’s and Sea to Summit offer dry sacks. Otherwise, you’ll have to transport the meat to a cooler immediately.

Back at my truck, I always have a couple coolers with several blocks of ice or frozen containers in it. Cooling the meat at the trailhead may seem like overkill, but let me tell you, it's not. It will help with the meat's taste and, most importantly, it could mean the difference between the meat making it or spoiling.

Embarking on a wilderness trip simply because it's the cool thing to do is often a case for failure. But when you plan, prepare and visualize for what it entails, things will turn out differently. Do this, and you just might realize how enjoyable and effective this form of hunting can be.

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