My Top Gear Picks for Backcountry Elk Hunts

Here are several tools you’ll want to consider before hiking miles from the nearest road for elk.

My Top Gear Picks for Backcountry Elk Hunts

After dogging elk all morning, I weaseled in amidst several screaming bulls. I crept toward one of them with the thermals in my favor. Then, he bugled and simultaneously appeared at 70 yards and closing. Moments later, I buried a broadhead into his chest from 14 yards away. He collapsed 100 yards down the slope.

Welcome to the Backcountry

My version of backcountry hunting looks a little bit different than it does for some bowhunters. I don’t tent it miles deep under the stars. I usually stay at a campground in my camper. I’m a full-time freelance writer, and contrary to what some misconceive about outdoor writers, I don’t take off from writing in the fall and hunt every single day. Yes, I hunt a lot, but I have just as many assignments to juggle during the fall as the rest of the year. I need Wi-Fi and my laptop to turn in assignments every few days.

Given this arrangement, I do day hunts for elk anywhere from 1 to 4 miles deep. I leave very early so that I reach a location I want to hunt at daylight. I hike and hunt as long as I’m in the action. Then, I hike out, nap and write. I hunt a lot of afternoons, too. It’s a lot of work and sometimes a hassle to hike in and out once or twice daily. But, I’m often hunting areas just beyond where most day hunters reach, yet miles shy of where horseback hunters or spike campers are hunting. Plus, I don’t have the hassle of a tent, sleeping bag, cookware and other essentials needed for several days at a time. My style, like the others, has pros and cons. 

Now that you understand what my backcountry hunting looks like, let’s discuss some gear items that I value most when I’m miles away from the nearest road.

A High-Quality Pack

I felt as though I was going to collapse under the weight of the huge elk hind quarter, loins and 6x6 antlers. I was in excellent physical condition, but this pack-out was the most difficult thing I’d ever done. And my wife, who was hauling 70 pounds of meat herself, concurred. If you’ve never packed out an elk, I can’t begin to describe how difficult it is.

That obviously makes a high-quality pack No. 1 on this list. I need a backpack that can withstand a hundred pounds of meat and also fit me like a glove when I’m hunting and not hauling meat. It cannot be cumbersome, but it needs a good frame. It needs lots of adjustability, plenty of straps to secure the load and also load lifters. Weight is one thing, but how it’s distributed and secured is another.  

I can’t imagine using a cheap pack on a backcountry hunt. I’ve packed out elk with a few different packs. My favorite is my Mystery Ranch’s Sawtooth. It has the attributes listed above. It can haul a lot of meat, and I really like its Guide Light MT Frame, which is built from lightweight yet durable materials. This pack is exactly what I need for day hunts — it would work for an overnight stay in the backcountry, too. I suggest a larger pack, though, for 3- to 7-day outings. Mystery Ranch’s Marshall or Metcalf would be ideal for that. Whatever type of backcountry hunt you’re planning, don’t do it with a cheap pack. Trust me, you’ll regret it.

High-End Bow and Accessories

The backcountry is no place for a cheap bow or accessories. Unlike hunting from a treestand for whitetails in the Midwest, you can almost guarantee that you’ll lose your footing and smack your bow on the ground, rocks or logs. The backcountry is brutal on equipment, so you need a bow and accessories that can withstand the knocks and blows. 

For a bow, most high-end options available are designed to handle the gamut of bowhunting abuse. I’m currently shooting a Mathews Phase4. It has an ultra-rigid riser, beefy limbs and limb pockets and specialized built-in mounts for compatible sights, rests and the Mathews Bridge-Lock Stabilizer and LowPro Quiver. It’s about as bulletproof as they come. 

For accessories, I use a Spot-Hogg Fast Eddie XL, which slides directly into the riser and has arguably the most durable construction of any sight available. I use the Mathews UltraRest Integrate MX by QAD. Of course, I use the Bridge-Lock Stabilizer and LowPro Quiver. I have full faith in this setup for hunting miles from the truck. 

If I had to skimp on accessories or my bow, I’d get a less expensive bow. Hiking miles deep with a cheap sight or arrow rest on your bow is asking for trouble. You cannot afford equipment failure after working your tail off to reach a great hunting location deep in God’s country. 

Comfortable Yet Rugged Boots

While hunting on Kodiak Island, Alaska, a friend got blisters on his feet within the first hour. He turned around and hiked back down the steep slope. With money and time invested into a backcountry hunt, you can’t afford to have something like this happen. So, get good boots and break them in prior to your hunt.

I have a couple of favorite hiking boots. One is LaCrosse’s Lodestar. It’s rigged with a proven Vibram outsole for superior traction and control. It has a rubberized EVA Midsole for shock absorption, and the DuraFit Heel Cup secures your foot in place to reduce movement that could lead to rubbing and blistering. Overall, it’s a pretty lightweight and waterproof boot ideal for most western backcountry hunting. 

I also really like Danner’s lightweight uninsulated boots. If you’re doing more glassing than hiking, you might consider an insulated version. With Vibram outsoles and midsoles to give you excellent cushioning and responsiveness to all terrain types, these epitomize what you need in terms of comfort, support and traction. They’re also waterproof and breathable. 

These are great options, and there are others as good and maybe even better if you spend more. Just make sure you don’t go into it with $50 boots. Buy boots that will protect your feet and keep them in great shape despite days of hiking in difficult terrain. Again, be sure to break them in before your hunt. 

Athletic-Cut Layered Apparel 

There are numerous apparel manufacturers who’re producing athletic-fit camo apparel designed to maximize mobility, making hiking for long distances much easier; KUIU and Sitka Gear immediately come to mind. As well, these manufacturers offer layering systems, which is critical in the mountain backcountry. I’ve hunted elk in September in the Rockies from 20-90°F — temperatures are highly variable. You never know what a day will bring, so layering is critical.

I primarily use Sitka Gear, and the brand has clothing pieces designed for all types of backcountry hunting. The systems work well for me. Sitka Gear is pretty pricey, so if you’re on a budget but want nice gear, consider Huntworth. The brand has many different layers to choose from at more affordable prices.

A Hydration Pack 

Finally, don’t stuff a couple of water bottles in your pack and call it good. Get a hydration pack outfitted with a valved drinking hose. With it you don’t have to take off your pack in order to drink, and you don’t have to deal with plastic bottles. Simply drink from the hose and refill as needed. I used to do the water bottle thing, but the hydration pack is 100 times better. 

Along with that, I suggest getting a water-filtration device. I often use the Sawyer Squeeze Water Filter System to do refills. I’ve gotten water from some gnarly-looking sources in a pinch, and I’ve never gotten sick.

Nothing is more satisfying than a successful backcountry bowhunt. This big bull elk mentioned in the article was taken 2.5 miles from the road.
Nothing is more satisfying than a successful backcountry bowhunt. This big bull elk mentioned in the article was taken 2.5 miles from the road.

Gear Up for Success

There are several different ways to approach backcountry hunting, and the gear you need will vary as a result. For day hunts up to a few miles deep, the gear I’ve outlined has served me well. There are other things like first aid, flashlights, a GPS, but those are kind of a given. One thing I’ll add in closing is an Outdoor Edge changeable-blade knife such as the Razor Blaze. With it, you can skin and quarter or debone an entire deer or elk, and it’s lightweight. I won’t go without it. 

Nothing beats hunting in the backcountry, but your adventure can come to a screaming halt when you don’t have the proper gear. So, gear up right before adventure calls you into the unknown.

Photos by By Becca McDougal


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