By Cullen Zion THC Field-Staff
Summer is here, and to a backcountry hunter that means backpacking and scouting trips to get your body and gear ready for the season. My favorite place in the world is sitting on top of a ridge above timberline with the sun slowly rising watching deer and elk come to light on the wide open slopes at 12,000+ feet. This love of the Colorado high country drove me to start backpack hunting, and it has now turned into an obsession. It has also carried with me across state lines to hunt places like the wilderness areas in Arizona, and anywhere else I can put and boots on. I have come to love wild areas of other states, and appreciate the beauty that these remote areas have.
There are a few different ways to hunt the backcountry. One is with livestock, and if you are one of those hunters, you can consider me among the jealous. I like many am limited to what I can carry myself, which isn’t all bad. By carrying your own camp you are only limited by where your legs can take you, and you have the freedom to attack the backcountry however you choose. Two ways to do this are by bivouac hunting, or packing into a location and setting up a base camp. True bivy hunting involves carrying all of your camp and essentials with you while you hunt, and your camp is where you choose it to be that particular night. Bivy hunting is extremely effective, but it is for the toughest of the tough backcountry hunters. This is where you have to take a true minimalist mentality, and only take what you need to hunt and survive. The more common strategy is to pack into a location, setup a camp, and hunt in the general area of that camp. This doesn’t offer the complete freedom of a bivy hunt (although you can pick up and move whenever you want), but does allow you to get away from people and have a few creature comforts.
Besides being physically fit enough to hunt the backcountry (that is a whole other topic), you need to decide what your essentials and non-essentials are. No matter what strategy in the backcountry you use, the basic essentials are the same. You need food, shelter, clothing, and your hunting gear. Once you break those down, the essential vs non-essential debate can begin. For me, this is what I consider to be my essentials.
This is the area I struggle and play with the most. You have the delicate balance of shaving ounces, while still providing your body with enough calories to keep you going on extended hunts. Where I really run into my problems is that I want to eat healthy foods, but they don’t necessarily always have a great calorie to weight ratio. I usually keep my food to around 1.3 lbs. per day, and never want to go over 1.5 lbs. per day. I try to also get at least 2,200 calories per day and would love to get to 2,500 plus, but haven’t found the right food combinations yet. I also like foods that are quick, and that I can eat on the go. What I’ve personally found for my body when hunting hard is that high calories carry priority over “healthy” foods. My typical day of food would consist of Poptarts 1st thing in the morning, a snack/bar mid-morning, a peanut butter, honey and bacon wrap for lunch, another snack/bar mid-afternoon, and a Mountain House for dinner. For longer hunts I will also throw in some Fritos to eat throughout the day because they are light and really high in calories. Other than the Mountain Houses for dinner, all my foods can be eaten while on the move. Really what you pack for food is all personal preference, and what your body needs. The baselines I would recommend are under 1.5 lbs. per day, and over 2,000 calories per day.
This is where bivy hunting is a lot different than packing into a location and setting up camp. Also, as with clothing and gear; the lighter it is, the more expensive it is. For a quick hunt, a 1 man tent works fine for me. If I’m going to be out for an extended hunt, I prefer a 2 man tent. They are more comfortable, allow more room to dress and move, and allow you to store more gear. There are affordable options with companies like North Face for 2 man tents in the 3-4 lbs. range. If you want to get closer to the 2 lbs., the sky is the limit on the amount of money you can spend. There are also floorless tipi options that offer more room and a different experience like the ones from Kifaru and Seek Outside. I just recently purchased a 4 man tipi from Seek Outside that I have used a couple times this summer and will use on my extended hunt in Colorado. It offers a little more comfort and room, and you have the ability to stand up and move in the tent.
The same goes with sleeping bags. You can find good quality sleeping bags in the 3-4 lbs. range that are fairly affordable. Once you start getting less than 2 lbs., the price goes up exponentially. Another factor in weight and price is the temperature rating of the bag. I use a 15 degree bag, and it can get me through pretty much any backcountry hunt I go on. I hunt mostly archery, so even in the high country of Colorado I usually won’t see the temperature drop below the mid-20s (there are exceptions). If you need a little more warmth and need to go to a zero degree bag, expect to pay and carry a lot more. For most archery seasons, a 15-20 degree bag would work. Rife hunters later in the year will really have to evaluate the area and elevation they are hunting to make sure they have a sufficient enough bag.
A sleeping pad to me is one of the most important pieces of my camping gear. I am primarily a side sleeper so thin pads will wear on me on an extended hunt. For a one or two night trip, I can go light with a foldable pad like a Therm-a-Rest Z-Lite or a thin ultralight blow up pad. Usually I will opt for a 2.5 inch thick blow up pad. You can find fairly affordable pads like this that are at or slightly above 1 lb. If I’m packing in for a long hunt, and know I’ll have a base camp type of setup I will sacrifice extra weight for comfort. For these long hunts I will carry in a 3.5” thick large pad. It adds about 14 ounces to my pack, but it is well worth the extra comfort and better sleep.
A water filter is a must have anywhere you are hunting the backcountry. Some of the areas I hunt in Colorado I could safely drink straight out of the creek, but I don’t want to risk it. Water pumps now are light, can filter water fast, and I just prefer to play it safe so I know I won’t be stuck up on the mountain sick. Then you have your toiletries. I usually carry a travel size tooth paste, and a small tooth brush. I also carry a scent free deodorant and a pack of scent free wet wipes. Wet wipes can be debated as to whether or not they are essentials, but a hobo bath in the backcountry can go a long way with both your smell, and as mental pick-me-up. Some people may need more in terms of shelter and comfort, and some need less. The most important thing is to get out there and test your shelter and setup BEFORE the season starts. Sleep is one of the most important factors on backcountry hunts. If you are not getting rested, your performance will suffer drastically.
This is a great time to be a backcountry hunter; there are multiple companies out there offering great clothing options, and you can find clothing on almost any budget. Like all backcountry gear it is a balance of quality/weight vs cost. The biggest thing to avoid in the backcountry in cotton! There are a lot of people who take pride in “hunting in blue jeans”, or just like to bash spending money on performance hunting clothing. That’s all fine and well on a day hunt where you can get wet and cold and just retreat to your truck. That mentality doesn’t cut it in the backcountry when you are miles and hours away, and you are stuck in wet clothing that won’t dry. Even the old school backcountry hunters who hunted long before all the performance clothing arrived on the scene used other materials like wool.
Now days, there are lots of options like merino wool and synthetics to choose from. Personally I have come to really love merino wool. It is not as tough as synthetics, but dries quickly and I can hunt multiple days in the same clothes with very little smell. What you pack in terms of clothing is entirely dependent on where you’re hunting. For my Colorado hunt, this is typically the highest temperature range of any of my hunts. I will have a base layer, mid weight shirt, insulated jacket and my rain gear. I will also usually pack an extra base layer shirt, one change of socks, and one change of underwear. These are all merino wool and I will typically rotate and wash each pair every few days. For early archery seasons I hardly ever pack a jacket because I can use my rain gear as double duty for both rain and wind. If it’s cold I can throw on my mid-weight shirt and/or insulated jacket (a vest is a good option in lieu of an insulated jacket as well), and put on my rain jacket as a wind breaker.
Also, one of the most underrated pieces of clothing/gear is boots. Buy the best boots you can within your budget. A good pair of boots can make or break your hunts. They can be the cause or the cure for sore joints, sore feet, blisters, and can be the difference in being able to push up that next ridge. Like other clothing, there are many great boot manufacturers out there, I switched to Kenetreks a couple years ago and haven’t looked back. This is all about personal preference, but finding clothing that will work for multiple situations will help you save weight and space. Unfortunately, finding out what works and doesn’t work for you is sometimes found out the hard way.
You have to have your bow or rifle, you have to have your field dressing tools, and you should have some sort of first aid / emergency gear. I believe that a good first aid kit is absolutely necessary for backcountry hunting. You can buy lightweight kits like Adventure Medical that has almost everything you could need. I also like to throw in some moleskin because there is nothing worse than fighting blisters in the middle of the hunt. For field dressing tools, I will usually just carry a knife, game bags, and about 50’ of paracord. I used to carry a bone saw too, but anymore I use the gutless method, and like to do European mounts with antlers. I personally just don’t need it or use it, but that is entirely a personal preference.
After that, your “essentials” are completely dependent on where and how you are hunting. Optics fall into this grey area. If it is later in the archery season and the elk are down low and rutting, I will only carry a set of 10x binos. If is early season and I’m up above timberline, I will have my 10x binos, a small lightweight spotting scope, and a small tripod. If I’m hunting somewhere like Arizona for deer, it is a completely different ball game. In Arizona I will go in heavy with optics, just for the simple fact that I am spending 90% of the hunt glassing. This can add a lot of weight, but the fact that I’m sitting and glassing most of the time means the weight mostly just affects me on the hike in, or when moving camp. Game calls also fall into this grey area, but are a pretty minor addition to your pack.
Non-Essential gear is all debatable and varies person to person. The optics I listed above could easily go into this category, but depending on where I am hunting I do find them essential to finding and harvesting the animals I’m hunting. Non-Essential items are things I may carry, but don’t feel that I have to in order to find/harvest an animal. The reason to carry these items is to add to the quality of your hunt. Non-Essential items are things like cameras, extra optics, solar power, electronics, repair equipment (bow, rifle, tent, etc), game calls, decoys and creature comforts.
Cameras are one item that I go back and forth on because they can add a lot of weight, but they also help capture all the reasons that I love the backcountry. You are able to capture the landscape, animals, and document the hunt. I personally love photography and videos so this is an area I will add the weight (and cuss it when I’m tired and feel that extra weight).
Solar power is just convenient, and is definitely not an absolute necessity to have. I take solar power when I’m going to be packed in more than a couple days. I have been slowly upgrading my gear so pretty much everything I have (phone, head lamp, camera, etc.) can be changed with my solar setup. I would recommend a setup that is not much more than 1 lb. Solar power is also another area where backcountry guys are seeing more and more options, and it is starting to get more affordable.
Today’s electronics can be very valuable in the backcountry. In recent years I have started to really take advantage of the great GPS and mapping software that is available. A good GPS with good topo maps can not only help find your way, but can also help with your hunt. I use my GPS with shaded relief 24K topo software a lot to find benches and draws to hunt in heavy timber areas. Learning how to use this effectively has really increased my success especially with elk hunting, in fact I would not have killed my Colorado bull last year (also my best bull to date) if it weren’t for this. Emergency beacons are something I jumped on a couple years ago. I do a lot of solo backpacking trips in the summer, and also solo backcountry hunts where I have little to no service. I have a Spot Messenger, which you can use to check in or upload a custom message to. There are getting to be a number of options with these, some will even pair with your phone and allow you to text. These are very nice for people with families at home, or people who go solo a lot.
I also like to carry repair equipment with me every time I pack in. It does add weight, but it is pretty minimal, and it sure beats having to waste hours or even days to go get something repaired. For my tent I will usually just carry some patch material. For my bow I will carry an allen wrench, some serving string (which has multiple uses), d-loop cord, and some fletching glue. Fletching glue can help save a lot of things; it works with tent patches, repairs a torn fletching, and a couple years ago it held pieces of my water filter pump together and salvaged my hunt.
Some of the creature comforts I will carry are extra things I may throw in if my pack isn’t too heavy, and if I am packing in to establish a base camp. It will include things like a water bottle at camp I can use for drink mixes, a 2 man tent footprint I will set up as a tarp cover for storing fire wood or cooking under when raining. I may also bring up a lightweight titanium pot/pan setup up so I can cook mushrooms or grouse (or even back straps) that I may find up on the mountain. These are all little things that make me more comfortable, but I can easily leave out if I’m already at my desired pack weight.
Included is a list of all the items I would have on my typical 5 day backcountry elk hunt. The camping and hunting gear will change depending on where I’m going, how long I’m staying, and what I’m hunting. I use this spreadsheet to get a good estimate (usually within 1/2 lb. or so) of what my pack weight will be, and it helps me keep my gear organized so I don’t forget anything. I try to keep my total pack weight under 40 lbs. for any hunt that is 5 days or less. I have been upgrading gear and equipment for a number of years now, and I used to have a lot heavier pack weight when I was first starting out. I started out getting the best quality gear within my budget. Then every year I evaluate my gear, and decide which item or items I can afford to upgrade that will give me the most bang for my buck. The biggest items to upgrade that can instantly save you multiple pounds are pack, tent and sleeping bag. After those it can get a little more difficult because upgrading other items may only save you ounces, but slowly upgrading and saving ounces can turn into pounds. A very important thing to remember with all gear, make sure you use it and test it before you take it on your hunt. Faulty gear or gear you do not know how to use will end your hunt very quickly in the backcountry.