Backpacking Basics for a Wilderness Hunt

If you want to tackle the challenge of a wilderness hunt, start by learning these backpacking basics.

Backpacking Basics for a Wilderness Hunt

If I stop, close my eyes and look back, it seems like just yesterday. My best friend and I were on one of our many drives through the darkness to an early morning fishing hole. With fall hunting season right around the corner, most of our conversation revolved around the topic.

We dreamed of the cool, crisp air, along with sounds of falling leaves blowing with the wind. At this point, I hadn’t been that successful out in the field and was looking for any means possible to make things happen. The strategy of backpack hunting was brought up to get away from the crowds and hunt less-pressured animals. Maybe this would up our odds? As soon as it was brought up, though, I can remember shunning it. My exact words were, “I will never backpack hunt.” Just the whole thought of putting everything I needed into one backpack and then carrying a deer out with it sounded preposterous. It sounded like a stress test, both mentally and physically.

Little did I know that years down the road from that early morning drive would leave me longing for the very thing I said I’d never do. Yes, backpack hunting has grown on me in more ways than one. As I sit here today, I find myself an avid backpack hunter. If you’ve been curious about pulling off your first backpack hunt, you’re in the right place.

 

Why Consider Backpack Hunting?

Before we get into how to pull off your first backpack hunt, let’s look at why one would want to start backpack hunting in the first place. I mean, let’s face it, there are way easier ways to go about doing things than backpack hunting. Why would someone put themselves through the rigor of the backcountry? Living in the dirt and carrying around all of that weight is just not for everyone. Yes, it has its downfalls, like anything. However, there are several positives associated with backcountry hunting as well.

Hunting with camp on your back enables you to stay close to the animals.
Hunting with camp on your back enables you to stay close to the animals.

Getting Away From Crowds

First and foremost, backpack hunting is going to get you away from 95% of the crowd. Now, we are all under the same roof here, but when I’m hunting, I’d rather not see anyone. Plain and simple, most folks are not willing to load up a backpack and live out of it for an extended period. In a way, I don’t blame them. A posh truck camp is hard to beat sometimes. Coolers full of food and drink, chairs to sit on, and all of the other amenities that come with that scene. Most of the said crowd is usually going to stay within a mile of a road, at least that’s what I’ve found through the years.

For the hunter who is willing to go the extra mile and carry camp on their back, this gives you an edge on the matter. Instead of having to make a big hike in the morning to your hunting spot, you’ll already be there brewing up some coffee in the darkness of the morning. In a way, this will actually save energy if you think about it. It may have taken more work to get in there, but after that, all is good. On the off chance that I do see someone in the backcountry, a nod goes their way. They worked just as hard as I did getting back there.

 

Hunt Low-Pressured Game

If you’ve spent enough time in the field, I am sure you have seen the evolution of skittishness that comes over animals once hunting season has started. It happens every year. Game goes from being relatively calm and curious to on edge, more alert than usual. A natural cycle in the hunting woods. These animals are smart, and survival is their No. 1 concern.

What if there were little to no hunting pressure, though? What if a hunter could observe animals be animals and not have their heads on a swivel? You’d be able to hunt them much more effectively like this. The fact is, animals in the backcountry see way fewer people than the ones closer to roads do. This leaves them more at ease and more likely to go about their business as usual. I’d even throw out that it’s safe to say some have never even seen a person. Imagine that.

 

A Backcountry Experience

The first backpack hunt I ever went on was an archery Coues deer hunt in Arizona. My brother and I backpacked into a basin I found during pre-season scouting and were beyond optimistic for the whole experience.

On the way in, I remember having this nervous feeling in the pit of my stomach. Fear of the unknown has a way of washing over someone in times like this. All that aside, we pressed on. I got to camp and saw a few bucks immediately. It felt good, I have to admit. A great start to the whole experience that is backpack hunting.

That wasn’t what sealed the deal for me, though. It was what I saw the next morning. After rolling over and turning off my alarm, I was greeted with the most stunning front porch view a person could ask for. The high desert with the sun trying to creep its way over the mountains in front of us. All the while, there were rutting Coues deer just behind us. That is when I absolutely knew I loved backpack hunting.

Getting Started

So, now that we’ve established why someone might want to start backpack hunting, let’s get into the meat and potatoes. In my early years, I made this way more complicated. After diving into it, I realized that was just my ignoranc.

Backpack hunting isn’t complicated. The hardest part is making the decision to do it. Once you’ve committed to that, you’ll be fine, and the rest will fall into place. Aside from the mental aspect, there are some things to think about.

Here are a few: 

Essential Gear

Since I started hunting the backcountry, I have become more of a gear nerd than ever before. Let’s not make this more complicated than it is, though. To pull off a backpack hunt, you are gonna want a good backpack, boots, sleep system (shelter, sleeping bag, sleeping pad), cook system (stove, cup, etc.), and water purification (pump, gravity, purifier, etc.). Everything else runs pretty parallel with what you’d bring on any hunt.

Gear is something that I could talk about to someone literally all day. Trying to get as lightweight as possible, and different ways of eliminating one item here and there, are things that I nerd out about. Usually, the more lightweight one goes, the more comfort one is giving up. Comfort comes at a cost, and that cost is weight in your pack. So, when you’re packing gear, ask yourself, “Do I really need this?” Aside from a first aid kit/survival gear, if something rides in your backpack for three trips and you don’t use it once, chances are you can leave it at home. This way of packing is all mental.

Packing your backpack a certain way can yield to huge benefits with how a load rides in your pack during your hike.
Packing your backpack a certain way can yield to huge benefits with how a load rides in your pack during your hike.

Go Cost-Effective

In light of gear, let’s talk about a budget. I’m not going to lie, this stuff can get pretty pricey. It took me a year or so to acquire all of the gear that I needed for a backpack hunt. I’d just buy one item here and there. With social media and other media influences, it’s easy to fall in the trap of thinking that you need the latest and greatest. The fact of the matter is, though, you really don’t.

Hunters were backpack hunting well before any of these high-end companies existed. They did it in jeans, checkered jackets, and were probably tougher than anyone out there today. Items that I would not skimp on are your backpack and your boots. These are both things that will ride with you the whole hunt. Think of your boots like tires and a pack like the truck above them. A faulty item of either can make or break your hunt.

With the other stuff, though, if it comes down to buying a 5-pound tent or not going hunting at all, buy the 5-pound tent and deal with the heavier load. I carried around a 7-pound tent for years when I started backpack hunting.

Physical Fitness

Physical fitness is pretty big in the hunting world these days. I think it’s great. A bunch of folks trying to better themselves in the name of hunting. Backpack hunting is no exception to this, and if one wants to do so, physical fitness is something that one should definitely pay attention to. Just getting into camp can be challenging. Think about getting an animal out on top of that!

No, I’m not saying that a hunter needs to be a shredded ultra-marathon runner. It needs to be on the radar, though. Working on cardio and core strength will go a long way on a backpack hunt. Hitting the stair stepper with your backpack strapped on is a great way to prepare for the mountains. If you don’t want to go to the gym, load up your pack and hike a local trail, or even just around your neighborhood. I’ve done all of the above to prepare for hunts. Pick what works best for you and take action. You won’t regret it come game day.

 

Where to Go?

Where to go seems like it’s a pretty universal question throughout hunting. Bring backpack hunting into the mix, though, and it’s a whole new challenge. Backcountry areas are not the easiest to just go and check out like you would any other spot. They require a ton of effort, and in the case of hunting out of state, a person might not even get to do so until opening day.

Studying maps, both online and paper, is going to give you a great idea of what you are getting into. It will lay out a foundation of country to work with. Seeing trails and wilderness areas helps out a ton here. For me, I like to start looking for trails that head into the general area that I might want to hunt. Along those trails, I’ll look for potential camp spots, water and glassing knobs.

If someone can’t make it in for a scouting trip, calling the local game and fish or forest service can do wonders. Don’t just ask them where the deer are, though. Show them that you’ve been doing research and mention specific areas that intrigue you. I’ve learned a lot from doing this and spoken to some exceptionally generous people.

 

Final Thoughts

Since that early morning drive, my thought process on backpack hunting has changed completely. This is one of those times that I’m glad I didn’t stick to my guns, because I would have never experienced the amazing things I have. The main one being the adventure of it all

This is one of the beauties of backcountry hunting. Even if I hike into an area for a few days and don’t fill my tag, I’ve got a grin from ear to ear on my way back to the truck. It is so much more than the tag. It’s the experience and everything that comes with backpack hunting that drives me, and others I know, to continue doing it.

If you’ve been on the fence about trying it, my best advice to you is to hop over. With any luck, maybe this article will plant a seed in your head — it’s up to you to water it.

High-country mule deer buck killed by the author on a backpack hunt in Colorado.
High-country mule deer buck killed by the author on a backpack hunt in Colorado.

Photos by Josh Kirchner

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