Backpack Bucks

Backpacking into wild country can net greater success on bigger bucks.

Backpack Bucks

Some modern hunters have become lazy in the age of ATVs. Those willing to strap on a heavy pack and trudge into remote areas will typically enjoy better hunting for bigger bucks.

I’ve packed a lot of boned-out deer from a lot of nasty places, and many of those bucks were my best scoring of several species. Backpacking has taken me into many virtually untapped hotspots, including Alaska Sitka blacktails and mountain goat, Arizona and New Mexico Coues whitetails, California Columbia blacktails, and Colorado and New Mexico muleys. I might also include a bevy of spring wild turkeys, black bears and a couple bomber elk in the Rockies, but let’s stick to bowhunting’s most popular and readily available game animal — deer — as backpacking really does epitomize the best the sport has to offer.

Why go to all the gut-wrenching toil of trekking into remote areas, burdened by a heavy pack, when perfectly acceptable deer hunting is widely available in easily accessible settings? In the age of the ATV and all that they represent, the easy answer lays largely in solitude. The more involved answer is that with solitude comes less public lands competition — less competition leading to more approachable and often bigger-antlered bucks.

My success with Coues whitetail — arguably North American’s hardest-won archery trophy — drives this point home beautifully. While I’ve certainly enjoyed success with Coues on road-crossed ground, my best-scoring bow bucks (including two Booners) came only after 10- to 12-mile treks into rough-and-tumble wilderness. Those bucks, particularly during those January seasons when snow pushes them from higher, brushier country, had likely never seen a human.

Coues deer under the best of circumstances are darned tough characters. They’re the main food source of hungry mountain lions in much of their range — which tends to make them a bit neurotic. Add a season of rifle hunting and Coues can get downright impossible. Light hunting pressure resulting in even slightly calmer deer simply increases your odds of success.

Narrow Prospects

Finding a productive hunt area is the first step in the backpacking process, as scouting wilderness in the traditional sense poses obvious logistical challenges. A family backpack trip or inviting trout stream are great excuses to get into remote backcountry during summer to have a look around and survey general game sign. More realistically, though, you’ll likely enter these wilderness bowhunts cold, guided by home research or even hunches. I’ve certainly experienced strikeouts, but more often, if habitat is good and target species present in surrounding areas, getting away from the masses only improves bowhunting success.

Conservation department annual harvest statistics are a good place to begin research. Bowhunting success rates of 20 to 25 percent are exceptional and indicate real potential. Once choices are further narrowed, calls to regional game biologists can help glean useful information. If you’re lucky, a biologist will offer specific starting points, but more realistic is learning about preferred habitat and browse. I’ve also gathered useful info via National Forest managers who spend time in wilderness maintaining trails or fighting fire.

One overlooked resource is the Natural Resources Conservation Service. This federal agency collects data on flora and fauna on public lands nationwide. Sifting through NRCS reports can prove tedious, but often reveals specific food and water supplies, even game populations in specific areas. Visit www.nrcs.usda.gov for contact information to regional offices.

Once I’ve picked an area, I immediately order printed maps I can spread out and mark up with pencil. Basic Forest Service or BLM maps offer macro insight, revealing land status, access roads, trail systems, springs and waterways. Water is especially important during early seasons for obvious reasons (you’ll also need reliable water during extended stays).

For further detail look to U.S. Geological Survey topographical maps in 1:250,000 scale. These include overlaid contour lines, spaced every 40 feet in elevation, revealing terrain features like saddles, benches, bowls, meadows or cliffs. Widely spaced contours indicate flatter terrain, closely spaced contours mean steeper ground. They can also reveal a useful waterhole in gentle terrain, opposed to a spring in a steep defile, for instance.

Modern bowhunters also have the Internet at their disposal. One of my favorite innovations is satellite imagery. Aerial photographs provide real-time viewing of places you’ll be visiting. Sites such as USGS EarthExplorer and Terra Server are quite useful. More recently I’ve become addicted to HuntStand, which provides aerial imaging while also helping catalog prevailing winds to help approach promising areas more productively.

Getting away from the masses will likely make the hunting better; having the right gear will make the backcountry excursion more enjoyable.
Getting away from the masses will likely make the hunting better; having the right gear will make the backcountry excursion more enjoyable.

Gear Up

If you’re a serious bowhunter, then odds are good you already own much of the gear needed for a backpacking foray. Still, investing in specialized equipment can lighten the load and make for a more enjoyable camping experience. Of utmost importance is a well-fitted pack. Whether purchasing a new pack or adjusting a suitable pack you already own, consult a qualified backpacking technician to aid in proper fitting/adjustment. Without proper fitting you will suffer. A properly fitted pack also makes carrying heavier loads easier (including bagged meat while exiting the wilderness).

Other important items are a lightweight, highly compactable sleeping bag and ground pad, backpacking tent, stove, cookware and water filtration system.

My choice for sleeping gear is a down-filled, 30-degree rated bag (due to compact-ability) with Gore-Tex cover (to avoid my bag getting wet) and Therm-A-Rest-brand pad. I’ve owned a bunch of good backpacking tents, the best including aluminum poles (instead of heavier fiberglass), venting capabilities to prevent interior condensation, fly-proof screens so doors/windows can be left open on warm nights, and a vestibule so boots and gear are protected from dew/rain without intruding into sleeping space. A two-man tent weighing less than 5 pounds is ideal.  

Honest backpacking cookware folds/nests to minimize occupied pack space and is nail tough. MSR, Jetboil, Optimus and Snow Peak canister stoves have served me well for decades, and I splurged for titanium pots, pans and utensils (Snow Peak) because they’re as light as aluminum but tough as steel. Don’t skimp on a water filtration pump; choose something bulletproof and reliable from names like MSR or Katadyn. Getting sick from contaminated water (even seemingly clear water can harbor giardia/“beaver-fever” parasites) far from a road can turn dangerous.

I also add a solid headlamp (Cyclops Ranger XP) to my kit for returning to camp, field dressing or camp choirs after dark, compact backpacking lantern (Snow Peak), waterproof match case holding strike-anywhere wooden matches, compact first-aid kit (Adventure Medical Kits Ultralight .7), survival kit, collapsible canvas water bucket (for extinguishing fire or washing up), collapsible water jug, water purification tablets (in case of filter failure) and at least one Nalgene bottle for mixing powdered drinks.

Think Safety

It’s always important to remember where you are and the ramifications of your actions based on such remote surroundings. This includes handling knives, hatchets, fire or negotiating rough terrain. A minor injury in the wilderness can turn into a big problem because you can’t limp out on 10 miles of rough trail with a severely sprained ankle, or run to the emergency room for stitches after a slip of your knife. Approach every action with added caution.

While young I conducted countless solo backpacking trips, but now in my 50s I consider a partner more important to enjoying any wilderness foray. It gives you peace of mind in the event of an accident (someone to summon help), but also lightens the load (one guy carries the tent, another the cookware, for instance) and provides someone to share camp choirs and the overall experience. I still generally hunt alone, but know there is a level-headed friend in camp should I fail to return one night or another emergency arise. Pick this friend wisely. The wilderness is no place for companions who whine endlessly when it rains or snows or turns cold, slackers who refuse to gather firewood, help with dinner or dishes, or generally self-absorbed boors who eat more than their share or drink all the booze the first night out.

Keeping your way is an obvious concern in vast wilderness. A reliable GPS unit (and spare batteries), compass and topographical maps should be kept on hand at all times. Technology also serves to provide peace of mind. While enjoying Alaska Sitka blacktail adventures, for instance, my hunting partner and I split the cost of satellite-telephone rental in case of trouble in that potentially deadly landscape. The fly-in/drop-camp aspect of those hunts means you can’t hike out in the event of disaster, the sat-phone allowing summoning a ride should the unthinkable occur. Handheld SPOT units also include functions allowing you to summon rescue.

Fueling the Hunt

Eating well without breaking your back is easily solved, at a higher cost, or inexpensively with a bit more forethought. The easy route is simply purchasing prepared dehydrated meals from companies like Mountain House. This is how we normally roll on backpacking trips in Alaska, as they’re waterproof and self-contained. Yet common grocery-store fodder can easily substitute or supplement dehydrated fare. Ramon noodle blocks are excellent, easily expanded with bagged wild game meat. Also look to foods such as powdered mash potatoes, Stove Top stuffing, Knorrs Rice or Noodles and Sauce, mac-and-cheese and the like.

Canned or foil-packed meats, like chunk chicken, chipped beef and tuna — even peanut butter — are also welcomed, protein-laden treats. I always pack a plastic bottle of olive oil; used to fry Kodiak Island snowshoe hares and New Mexico cottontails, sea-run salmon or high-country trout. Worst case I use the oil to add flavor and welcomed calories to dehydrated meals. Of course, strenuous backpacking and bowhunting calls for energy-packed snacks. Jerky is excellent, as are salted nuts (which help replace salts lost to exertion), kipper snacks, sardines, dried fruit, trail mix and nut-laden candy bars. On most backcountry bowhunts I can’t seem to ingest enough calories. Finally, when working hard and sweating freely, water alone just doesn’t cut it. Pack plenty of powdered electrolyte drinks such as Gatorade or Wilderness Athlete’s Hydrate & Recover.

Backpacking isn’t for everyone — which is entirely the point to my way of thinking. Climbing into a heavy pack and slogging deep into remote public lands wilderness leaves the masses behind and transports you into high-quality deer habitat. It requires a bit more organization, some specialized gear and a little sweat equity, but the rewards are often huge.

Sidebar: Bowhunting-Ready Packs

ALPS OutdoorZ: The Trophy X pack-frame includes aluminum external freighter frame and heavy-duty Robic nylon lashing panel system with an ergonomic molded foam suspension system. The Trophy X Pack Bag—constructed of 1,680D ballistic nylon and 500D Robic nylon — adds modularity and customization for packing cargo, including fleece-lined spotting scope and cell phone pockets, drop-down bow pocket, front shove pocket, side mesh pockets, and rain cover. The pack is water bladder-compatible, and the lid boasts a pocket for quick-access items. Learn more at www.alpsoutdoorz.com.

ALPS OutdoorZ Trophy X Pack Bag
ALPS OutdoorZ Trophy X Pack Bag

Badlands: The Vario Modular Hunting Pack System is made to accommodate short or extended expeditions. It is offered with medium and large frames, with a design that makes it easy to build out as needed. The system keeps the frame tight to the body for balance, with a heavy-duty meat shelf situated between your gear and back for easy gear access and to optimize the center of gravity with heavy loads. The load-lifter system transfers weight through the internal frame and onto hips to minimize shoulder fatigue. Look for them in Vario 30, 50 and 60 models with 3,000, 5,000 and 6,000 cubic inch capacity, respectively. Learn more at www.badlandspacks.com.

Badlands Vario Modular Hunting Pack System
Badlands Vario Modular Hunting Pack System

Tenzing: The TZ6000 is bigger, stronger and lighter than comparable packs on the market. It includes 4,400 cubic inches of storage that quickly expands to 6,013 cubic inches as needed, but weighs less than 8 pounds. Twenty compartments and pockets organize your gear, the expanding meat pockets ready for a successful bowhunt. The lid doubles as a handy fanny pack, and separate compartment keeps your sleeping bags segregated. Two side compartments expand to hold spotting scope or tripod and the expandable meat compartment includes breathable material. Five specialized zip pockets keep hunting gear handy. Learn more at www.tenzingoutdoors.com.

Tenzing TZ6000
Tenzing TZ6000

Sidebar: Caring For and Packing Meat

Successful backpack hunts pose the obvious dilemma of preserving and packing meat. This is especially problematic during warmer early season hunts, though basic precautions keep meat fresh for days.

During field dressing, reduce deer to intact quarters after skinning, as leaving bone in helps meat remain fresher longer. Immediately cover all exposed surfaces with fine black pepper to deter egg-laying flies, allowing quarters to sit in a breeze to skin over and then covering with fine-mesh game bags. Hang meat in shady, breezy areas. In hot weather, hanging meat in shade near a cooling spring or running water helps keep it cooler.

For the pack out, carefully bone quarters to reduce weight, paring close to the bone and removing all eatable portions while creating intact bundles instead of many small pieces. Place boned meat in heavier meat bags. Avoid plastic trash bags in hot weather (acceptable in cool weather), as they cause sweating and quick souring. Heavy meat rides best if packed higher on your backpack instead of lower.

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