It's easy to judge a book by its cover and many people do the same with hunting, assuming it's all about the kill and nothing more. But if you've ever hunted the backcountry you know it's multifaceted and at a bare minimum, the trophies are as much mental as they are physical. An opinion otherwise underestimates the mountain athlete and the entire sport of backcountry hunting.
For those of you who've trudged over deadfall, you can appreciate that sometimes the best path forward begins with taking a few steps back. It's a fitting approach before discussing backcountry hunting, since the term "backcountry" gets slapped onto the front of words like a cheap commodity, traded and devalued to the point it's practically worthless.
Backcountry hunting is a type of hunting that takes place in rugged, remote wilderness areas, far from civilization. It requires hunters to be in excellent physical condition and mentally tough, as they must navigate difficult terrain, and unpredictable weather and wildlife, for days on end.
It's all-immersive, and if you've never experienced it, hearing about backcountry hunting might sound like a tale from your grandpa, the whole, "Back in my day, I used to hike 7 miles every day, in the snow, carrying 50 lbs on my back..." Except the story is present day and actually true.
Backcountry hunting is no simple task; it's a unique practice that returns the best outcomes with high levels of physical and mental fitness. After all, you’re only connected to the outside world by what you're carrying right on your back. True backcountry hunting is a practice of survival, conservation, and harvesting hard earned organic protein.
If you think the benefit of backcountry hunting is about taking the shot, think again. In this article, we'll show you how the benefits of hunting reach far beyond a shoulder mount, examining how the sport improves mental health in 6 different areas.
How Does Hunting Help Mental Health?
Backcountry hunting promotes mental well-being by building physical strength and mental endurance in nature. This form of hunting sharpens decision-making skills, gives a platform away from technology, and has social bonding benefits.
On its own, just spending time in nature is filled with benefits for your mental health. Research shows that being outside improves our mood, gives us more energy, and lessens our physiological stress responses. Without the rigors of backcountry hunting, simply escaping into nature can lower your heart rate, improve your cortisol levels, bolster your immunity, and increase your attention span. Sounds like we should all head to the closest field, right?
Well, that's the problem. Americans spend around 90% of their day inside. No wonder so many crave hunting the backcountry. The mental benefits are numerous and too complex to cram into one small answer - so let's unpack several of the main concepts.
6 Mental Benefits of Backcountry Hunting
Backcountry hunting helps in more ways than one. It not only lessens physical stress responses, but it calms the mind. Going backcountry provides opportunities for stress relief, disconnection from technology, mental endurance, and lasting social benefits.
Although not entirely exhaustive, the following 6 benefits will certainly cover the distance in showing how its value goes far beyond a bow or rifle.
1. Backcountry Hunting Is a Form of Stress-Relief
In its crudest form, a day in the backcountry might look like this: setting a course, hiking, resting, looking at the weather, looking at your GPS, studying tracks, and setting up camp. There's no guarantee for a punched tag, so leaving a multi-day hunt may simply be a multi-day hike.
If you're physically and mentally prepared for backcountry hunting, you'll never leave empty-handed. Spending time in nature improves mental health by creating positive emotions, lowering physiological stress responses, and greater mental concentration. It's the whole sentiment of being in the right state to enjoy the journey rather than the destination. Of course, packing out meat makes it even better, but this is the distinction that should be made: backcountry hunting is more of a long meditation than a short trip to the shooting range. It's a spiritual experience, and that's where the real benefits live.
Dr. Randall Eaton, a psychologist who studies hunting and its mental health benefits, puts it like this, “...conscious and deliberate humbling of the hunter to the level of the animals is a virtually religious rite.”
The quiet and solitude of backcountry hunting can help reduce the stress and anxiety of everyday life because of how immersive it is with physical nature and human nature.
2. Has Benefits of Disconnecting from Technology
The busy, over-connected modern world has become a vortex of notifications and disruptions. Social media alerts interrupted by work emails, and screens in hand while laying in bed because we think it "helps" us wind down for the night; it's maddening. Where can you find a moment of conscious peace?
Backcountry hunting intentionally takes these distractions away and gives the hunter a method to unplug - barring emergency and navigational tech, you're communication with the rest of the world is far removed from life back home. When you step foot into wild spaces far remove from the world and home, you'll feel the power that comes with peace and nature.
There are positive and traceable positive effects of disconnecting from technology and social media on your mental health. This isn't a matter of opinion, in fact, there's a name for it. When you focus on the hunt and the physical world around you, your mind strengthens something called directed attention, or your intentional focus. According to the Attention Restoration Theory, mental fatigue can be restored and concentration improved when time is spent in nature. This theory proposes that natural environments encourage effortless brain function, which means that your directed attention is strengthened.
The feeling of living in nature is priceless. When backcountry hunting, you have a sense of escape and relaxation from everyday distractions.
3. Training for Backcountry Hunting Builds Physical And Mental Strength
Besides hunting and hiking, training for backcountry hunting can be an extremely rewarding process. Don't confuse rewarding with easy though, it's one of the most physically demanding activities you'll ever do. Nonetheless, the physical challenge is the driver behind the reward. Here's what we mean.
There are psychological benefits to challenging yourself mentally and physically in preparation for the backcountry offer long-lasting benefits that stretch beyond a hunt.
True-blue backcountry hunting is a demanding sport. It requires patience and knowledge of the land and wildlife. It takes time to prepare for a trip and create a backup plan if things fail, and they will most certainly fail in some capacity.
It can be as innocuous as grabbing greenwood for the fire or as serious as breaking your leg at high altitude. No matter the setback, be it mental or physical, you'll be forced to reevaluate and regroup at some point, and you never know how stressful the setback will be.
You need to be prepared with how to handle unknown stressors. This is where you need to pull through, this is where you're mental toughness will be challenged.
Mental toughness is a mindset that allows the individual to perform consistently when placed under stress. People can learn to be mentally tough by staying resilient in hard times and finding their passion. When someone is mentally tough, they achieve their goals and follow through with commitments.
If you've been around here much, you know that mental toughness is part of our DNA. It's mission-critical which is why we show our athletes how to build mental toughness through the MTNTOUGH mindset. It's a muscle we train like any other. Crafted with discipline and challenge.
While physical strength is critical to outdoor sports, you can’t truly have it without equal mental strength. This method of mental resilience becomes a lifestyle, where you never take the easy way out and push yourself to reach your goals.
4. Mental Toughness Obliterates Emotional Barriers in the Woods
Your mental state determines your hunting experience, even if you have the physical strength to do well. Days in the woods can be healing and invigorating, but some factors are out of your control.
While this article is largely exploring the benefits of backcountry hunting for your mental health, there's a massive disclaimer associated with this. If you aren't mentally strong, the same rules won't apply. For instance, what happens when you’re in the backcountry and disaster strikes?
Backcountry hunting can be dangerous for mental health if the hunter is not physically and mentally prepared. It's as important to prepare your mental fortitude as it is to plan for things like weather and gear.
Although solo hunting appeals to many, it's not taken lightly. Hunting alone requires an intrepid attitude – one that is resilient, positive, and confidence in themselves and their decisions. It's not just fun for entertainment; serious preparation and steady nerves are needed just to stay safe.
It's serious business and something that only the most experienced hunters should ever consider. Even then, hunting as a group is the way to go (more on this in a second).
You can still experience isolation in the backcountry even if you're in a group. But if you know how to handle it properly as a matter of preparation, you can work through it or possibly help your buddy get past it.
If someone is experiencing anxiety while backcountry hunting, they can practice mindfulness, keep a good sleep schedule, and be intentional when they set up camp. It is recommended to camp far from your vehicle on the first night to immerse yourself in the wood and reduce anxiety symptoms.
As exciting as it is to chase after the hunt, it's critical to plan effectively for weather changes, food shortages, and your physical boundaries. Having a mental toughness mindset means pushing yourself to achieve your goals, yes, but it also means having enough wisdom to know when to rest, especially in times of anxiety.
When you're prepared in every way - from your mind and body to the gear and team, hunters-anxiety will decrease.
There are frustrating moments, but they are what make you human. When you practice mental toughness, you learn where you need to balance your limits. If you are having anxiety, practicing mindfulness and trusting that you came prepared may alleviate symptoms.
5. The Social Benefits of Backcountry Hunting
As individual as this sport can be, backcountry hunting can also be social. Bringing your friends along for the physical and mental exercise that this type of hunting requires can strengthen the bond of brotherhood. Nothing knits a tight bond like overcoming adversity together. Besides, even the best hunters can experience a pang of fear when alone in the woods.
Backcountry hunting with friends can help hunters deal with homesickness and keep a positive mindset if they are not getting the results they are expecting. This positive social connection can improve your trip experience.
The social connection and community of hunting together have profound effects on our mental health. The Harvard Study of Adult Development shows our mental health can be greatly improved by having friends and social connections when solving a task, completing a goal, or in daily encounters improves a person’s life satisfaction.
It also found that those who were connected to their community had high levels of happiness. And these positive effects can be found in hunters both offline and online - hunting brings us together, regardless of how participating members connect.
Having a network within the hunting community provides invaluable support. You get advice from those who share your passion, hat tips for success, and words to get you back on your feet when things don’t go to plan. Few things are as empowering as camaraderie and guidance from a respected friend.
6. Backcountry Hunting Is a Goal
Off-season workouts are important. If you don't take the time to prepare physically and mentally outside the window of hunting season, you're entering a trip with zero confidence. Doing so is a quick way to bonk.
Bonking is a hunter's term that describes physical and mental burnout. Hunters "bonk" when they experience brain fog, mental confusion, panic attacks, and a physical breakdown. It occurs when the body and mind reach exhaustion. Bonking can happen to anyone, but those who prepare have a lower risk.
Getting physically and mentally ready for hunting season doesn't start in August. It doesn't even begin in June - it's a year-long process. And that goes for in-season too - think about it this way. Does an NFL player stop hitting the gym when their season starts? Does their training begin at summer camp? No way. The same rigor and thinking should be applied to mountain athletics. The real gains are made in the off-season.
Anything right before and during the hunting season is aimed at sharpening your off-season growth toward backcountry utility. When preparing for the upcoming season, your training needs to be consistent, but it needs to be varied. To have the appropriate strength, endurance, balance, and mental toughness for your backcountry hunting trip, you need to be strong in more places than just one.
To get the proper training, consistent gym workouts are a must. Within the entire Backcountry Hunter program, we cover the entire year of training to take the mountain by storm.
For instance, the MTNTOUGH Preseason Prep program has 80 days of workouts leading up to the season. It's purpose-led, taking your strength and conditioning, and of course your mind, to the highest level in your life.
So how is this a benefit? After training for 8 months, the moment you step foot in the field, all the benefits that come with achieving a goal will coarse through your veins. Any positive emotion you can assign to achievement is the benefit you'll feel.
Few have the mental toughness and physical strength to be consistent with something and see it through for 8 days, let alone 8 months. If they did, they'd understand the all-encompassing benefit that comes with achieving a goal and being so motivated in the process that you begin a new set of goals altogether.
How Can You Prepare for the Mental Challenges of Backcountry Hunting?
Backcountry hunting is packed with benefits for better mental health. It's a form of stress relief, gives hunters time away from distracting technology, improves physical and mental toughness, and promotes community connections. Training for the outing properly, as in year-long, brings the added benefit of achieving a difficult goal.
Hitting your fitness goals can be tough, we get it, but if you can train your mind to be consistent and focused, you'll do just fine in the backcountry. Every obstacle faced warrants further dedication, so having the mental determination to achieve success is the only path.
MTNTOUGH helps thousands of backcountry hunters and mountain athletes get one day closer to their best physical and mental strength before their journey into the mountains.
David Lindley, one of the MTNTOUGH athletes, knows the power of mental toughness first-hand.
“Those workouts no doubt helped me get in the mountains...” says Lindley. “Before I started doing MTNTOUGH, I hadn’t been successful in archery and now it’s been about four or five years into the program, into the community, and I’ve had success in only a short amount of time.”
If you want to step into the field with the mind and body of a professional athlete, start with a 14-day trial. It's free, so you'll be able to get a firsthand look at the entire Backcountry Hunter Program, and also get a taste of what the MTNTOUGH mindset is all about.