It seems that those who hunt also pursue many other outdoor interests; 4-wheeling, fly fishing, camping, hiking, and shooting. But how many of those hunters have taken the next step and combined their love of hunting with backpacking? Based on my experience, not many.
Sure, there are areas in our state that have become pretty popular destinations over the last few years for mule deer hunters. Even though it seems like a lot of people are in the backcountry, compared to the rest of the deer hunters there are very few.
In our elk hunting area, we have never seen another hunter. And we nearly always tie a tag on at least one elk every fall.
Think It Through
Hunting for the day near a road is one thing. Hunting for several days and living out of your pack is something else entirely.
Probably the number one thing to put a lot of planning and thought into is getting your deer or elk out of the woods in a timely fashion. This means having the fitness and proper pack to carry heavy loads. It means having some way to communicate with a packer or your hunting buddies to come help you. It also means that not everyone gets to punch their tag every time you’re out.
Just like prioritizing your daily to-do list, you need to prioritize your packing and preparations list. By focusing on the biggest priorities for your hunt you will ensure the big things are taken care of. Often the little things take care of themselves or aren’t that important anyway.
You can’t expect to travel with a pack, let alone pack out meat and your camp if you are not fit enough to do it. You must spend some time hiking, running, and carrying a pack before you jump off into the wilderness.
You don’t need to be Superman, but you do need to be able to put on five miles a day with a heavy load. I’m not going to tell you how to train, but I am going to tell you that you must train.
It’s never a bad idea to contact an outfitter or a packer that will come in and haul your elk out of the woods. Give them the dates you expect to be in the woods. Work out a way to contact them to let them know you have game down and where it is.
This will require you to have something like an InReach system you can link to your phone and get texts out with. You may want to investigate renting a satellite phone for even more reliable communications.
If you are a HAM radio operator and can reach a repeater from your location, you may be able to have someone call the outfitter for you. You’d be smart to make arrangements prior to the hunt with another HAM operator if you are relying on radio comms for assistance.
Your Gear Selections
Every backpacker has a concise list to be sure the items being carried have a purpose or multiple uses. When backpack hunting, it is even more critical. You have to remember that you will have the added weight of a rifle and optics, meat care supplies and likely the weather will be colder and wetter than your typical summer backpacking adventure.
You will also need calorie dense food to help you function in the cooler temperatures and to have the energy to hunt hard. Let’s assume you have some backpacking experience and you have a squared away packing list.
Let’s put together an additional list you need to jump off the trail and head into the deep woods after deer or elk.
Shelter and Sleeping
Fall is colder and usually wetter. Think about a good synthetic bag rated for 15-20 degrees and good insulated sleeping pad. My preference at this point is a 20-degree quilt and an insulated air sleeping pad.
Your three-season backpacking tent is fine for hunting. However, keep in mind that things get wet, and it will be much colder than your summer outings. Take a lightweight tarp to string up and store gear under to give a little more space in the tent.
We have graduated to a tipi-style tent and a wood stove over the years to provide lots of room, heat, and a way to dry our clothes. The tent set-up is a bit heavier, but we make up for it by not needing as many clothes and lighter sleeping bags.
By all means, layering is the way to go. I prefer merino wool for my base layers as well as my long-sleeve tops and long johns if needed.
Here’s my typical clothing list for a week-long backpack elk hunt in early November.
- Merino Wool Boxers
- Merino Wool T-Shirt
- Synthetic Material Outdoor Pants and Belt
- Light Fleece Pullover
- Wool Socks
- Warm Hiking or Hunting Boots
- Ball Cap
- Leather Gloves with Wool Liner
- Rain Gear (to wear or have in pack): Boot Gaiters, Rain Jacket, Pants, Mitts
- Merino Wool Boxers
- Merino Wool Long-Sleeve Shirt
- Merino Wool Long Johns
- Heavy Wool Shirt
- Extra Pair of Wool Socks
- Silk Scarf and Fleece Beanie
- Bleece Balaclava
- Warm Easily-Packable Coat
You are obligated ethically and by law to harvest all the meat from your game animals. But that means you must be prepared to care for that meat. For the backcountry hunter, I highly recommend you learn how to break down your animals using the “gutless method.”
Quite simply, you skin half the animal and lay the hide on the ground behind the animal. Then separate the front quarter (shoulder) from the carcass. Separate the rear quarter from the carcass. Cut out the backstrap and tenderloin and take all the neck meat. Roll the animal over and repeat the process. Next, remove all the meat from the bones of the legs and bag.
I prefer to bag miscellaneous and ‘grind’ meat in one bag and bigger cuts like roasts in another bag. You now have your animal boned and ready to pack out without dealing with getting into the ‘guts.’ The meat cools quickly and your loads are compact. Compact but heavy.
I use Kifaru Meat Bags for almost all my hunting. They help keep the meat in a vertical tube in your pack and will hold about 50-75 pounds of meat.
I recommend the Havalon knives for efficient meat care. They are super sharp and lightweight. Just be sure to always cut in a straight line and don’t pry with the blades.
Likely you won’t have any cell service where you hunt. You can tether your cell phone to an InReach unit to text your outfitter or packer or summon help if needed. The nice thing about the InReach systems is that they also transmit your coordinates via email to a pre-loaded list of contacts. Shoot your packer a message where your elk is down and they can bring the stock right to your bagged up meat.
You may also opt to use a handheld HAM radio. You need to be licensed, but the process is pretty easy even for those not inclined to tech and electronic lingo. Most likely you can hit a repeater in your area and get in touch with someone to contact your packer or outfitter. HAM’s are a very helpful bunch and will gladly act as the contact for you if you set things up prior to your trip.
The last option is a satellite phone. As long as you have a bit of southern sky exposure you can probably get a call out. The phones are expensive and heavy, but provide peace of mind for you and those back home.
In the Pacific Northwest, the woods are wet in November. I always have a small Gerber hatchet in my pack to allow me to cut into an old stump or standing dead tree to get to some dry wood so I can build a fire.
The outsides are always wet. I also carry lots of firestarters should I end up spending a night out or taking longer on the pack out and I need to warm up or dry out a bit.
Take a map and compass. Your GPS is awesome. But it will die or not work when you need it most. Learn to use your map and compass, and you’ll never have to worry about where you are or how to get back to camp.
Headlamps are crucial. I have yet to break down an elk in the daylight. Every elk has come out at last light and we spend the next 2-3 hours boning out the meat and then making our way back to camp.
You cannot hold a flashlight and run a knife safely. My favorite light at the moment is a Zebra Light that puts out 200 lumens with a single AA battery.
There are many other headlamps out there with similar stats. Get something super light and super bright for all your backcountry travels. Bring extra batteries.
Remember, you also have a rifle or bow or handgun to add to your overall loadout. I’d find the lightest stainless steel, synthetic stocked rifle I could afford.
With those things in mind, why not venture a little further from the road and get back where the critters live? You’ll likely enjoy higher success rates and have the woods to yourself. Opt for a two day trip at first. Find what gear works for you and what doesn’t. Keep fine-tuning your list and venturing a bit further and you’ll find grand adventure as well as fine hunting.
Do you want to want to hunt backcountry? Tell us where you want to go. Leave a comment below.