Mountain Hunter Safety

In his 30-year search and rescue career, Jason Revisky has seen more than his share of emergency operations. Based in Big Sky and Bozeman, Montana, Revisky led and assisted in hundreds of rescues throughout the wild country that makes up the northwestern portions of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

Gallatin County Sheriff Search & Rescue Training Coordinator Jason Revisky

Revisky, a veteran climber and backcountry skier, first started as a search and rescue (SAR) volunteer when he was 22 years old after meeting a group of SAR volunteers who recruited him during a chance encounter after rock climbing. He soon joined the Gallatin County Sheriff Search and Rescue (GCSSAR) team as a volunteer, became a paramedic, and eventually focused on helicopter short haul rescues.

Today, Revisky is a staff member for GCSSAR training the next generation of SAR volunteers in his role as Training Coordinator. Gallatin County Sheriff Search and Rescue oversees SAR operations across one of Montana’s most populous and fastest growing counties, Gallatin County. With a booming resident population and hundreds of thousands of tourists recreating in the county every year, there is rarely a dull moment for GCSSAR volunteers. In 2021, Gallatin County Sheriff SAR volunteers went on 134 calls, including 34 searches and 69 rescues.

From routine searches to high-stakes rescues, Revisky says the SAR team sees it all.

“It’s not what you might expect,” Revisky explains. “Some days it’s an intense mountain heli-rescue and other days you’re looking for an elderly lady with dementia who wandered off in her neighborhood.”

In the mountains, unpredictable weather, remote and rugged terrain, wildlife, and throngs of people enjoying the outdoors all contribute to a high rate of emergencies in the county. For hunters who spend much of their outings off trail stalking game in quiet corners of the mountains, the risks to life and limb can often be higher than a typical recreational user. As Revisky’s fellow SAR teammate Richard Gauron puts it, “You’re usually off trail on a scavenger hunt, and minor injuries in remote mountainous terrain turn into massive injuries.”

Members of the Gallatin County Sheriff Search and Rescue heli team during a rescue operation north of Yellowstone National Park. Photo courtesy of Gallatin County Sheriff Search and Rescue.

Gauron joined GCSSAR’s dive team as a volunteer in 2010, conducting underwater search and recovery operations in Montana’s frigid rivers and alpine lakes. His work with the SAR team and his passion for the outdoors helped to steer his career path, leading him to work as an alpine guide in Alaska and a ski patroller in Montana. He continued to become more involved in SAR and is now the GCSSAR Valley Manager, which is responsible for coordinating SAR operations in the heart of Gallatin County’s most populous places. He is also an avid hunter and says his SAR experience heavily influences how he handles himself when hunting.

“Friends make fun of me for how much gear I carry hunting,” Gauron jokes. “I’ve seen too many things go wrong for people. I don’t mind carrying a few extra pounds if it means I have everything I need to be safe if things go sideways.”

Gauron always packs a kill kit with a saw (to cut bones and wood for a fire), a smart phone, a small battery charger for electronics, a Garmin satellite communicator and watch, a large medical kit, an emergency bivy, a rain jacket and pants, extra insulation, bear spray, and a pistol.

“You never know when you might need to spend the night in the backcountry,” he adds. “I make sure I’m always prepared for it.”

Both volunteers emphasize the foolishness of thinking it can’t happen to you. Revisky recounts rescuing goat hunters who had followed a herd into severe but navigable terrain. A snowstorm blew in and iced over the entire mountain. Suddenly, an exciting hunt became a harrowing experience that required a full SAR extraction.

“There was zero visibility and they were completely trapped,” Revisky remembers. “You have to have self awareness of moving into terrain that can have serious consequences. It’s all about wargaming what could happen, what could go wrong, and how you would get out of it. Even something simple like carrying crampons could’ve prevented that situation.”

Revisky says there is a simple mindset that can make all the difference in helping to keep you safe on the hunt: Plan for the worst day, not just the best.

Equipment at the Gallatin County Sheriff Search & Rescue Headquarters

Here are Revisky’s and Gauron’s primary safety tips for mountain hunters, in no particular order:

Be physically fit. Mountain hunting requires every ounce of strength and stamina you have, especially if you’re lucky enough to harvest an animal. Be serious about training for your hunts, and be prepared to deal with an animal if you get a kill. If you’re coming from a lower elevation, make sure you allow enough time to fully acclimate before you start charging into the hills.

When you’re hunting, walk mindfully and make every step count. Even slight missteps can lead to serious injuries. Wet rocks, slick logs, and deep bogs can all ruin your day in one false step.

Invest in quality apparel and carry it with you. Revisky says there are countless times his teams have gone into a SAR operation for a hunter, located a vehicle, and looked into the backseat to see all the gear that would’ve prevented the emergency if it had been in the hunter’s pack. Quality, lightweight, packable gear is easy to find these days. There is no excuse to not have all the gear you need in your pack. Mountain nights get cold quickly even in the dry heat of September, and a mountain snowstorm is never out of the question in any month of the year.

As Gauron puts it, “Carrying quality gear could make what would’ve been a serious situation just a fun story at the bar.”

Watch the forecast. Mountain weather is incredibly dynamic and can change from sun to snow in minutes. Check the point forecast for where you’ll be hunting before you lose service so you know what you’re getting into, but also know that mountain forecasts can change by the hour. If you’re not prepared for every condition — heat, cold, rain, wind, and snow — you shouldn’t be in the backcountry.

Be able to build a fire. Revisky worked for years as a hunting guide, and said he was always surprised at how cold his clients would get in the mountains. Being able to start a fire is absolutely essential to staying safe. Carry a bone saw that can also cut branches, especially when downed wood is soaking wet. Also be sure to carry reliable fire-starting materials in your pack, whether it’s vaseline-impregnated cotton balls, fire gel, or white fuel.

“When you’re tired, decision making is compromised,” Revisky says. “You’re not operating at peak mental performance. Have reliable fire-starting materials in your pack and know how to quickly start a fire in challenging conditions.”

Understand how to navigate a topo map. We are lucky to live in a time when accurate GPS maps are available at the swipe of our smartphones, but a map does nothing for you if you don’t know how to use it. Learn how to accurately read a topographic map and spend time e-scouting where you will be hunting. Our perception of mountain terrain changes with every step we take, and it’s unwise to solely rely on just a map or just a visual. Gauron looks at it as integrating technology with a old-school skills: “Look at your map, but then take a look around for visual reference. You may look at a waypoint, but it doesn’t necessarily equate to what you see on the ground. Practice deliberate route finding and deliberate walking. Sometimes the right route may take more time.”

Regarding which technology to use, the best tool is the one you’re proficient with. Whether you use OnX or Gaia or any other digital topo map applications, make sure you know how to use the app. Also be sure to download off-grid maps to your phone so they’re available without cell service, and carry a small battery charger to ensure your phone always has juice.

Do not assume you can find your way back out by the way you came in. Gauron uses an example of a hunter who needed rescuing when he became lost after a snowfall. He hunted into the mountains over snow assuming he could follow his tracks out. When the storm passed and the sun melted out the snow, he became lost and required rescue. Lastly, if you do get lost and people know the general location you’re in, stay there. Do not try to hike further. You could hike further in the wrong direction, and it could also prevent help from reaching you at your last known whereabouts.

Carry bear protection and understand the risks of hunting in bear country. When you’re hunting big game, you’re doing everything you’re not supposed to in bear country: sneaking around quietly in game-rich areas. Hunters get mauled by grizzlies every year in the West. Make sure you’re doing everything you can to prevent an attack and to defend yourself if charged.

Always carry bear spray in bear country and know how to use it. Make certain the canister is within the expiration date. Expired bear spray does not work properly. It is also well documented that bears will often charge twice, so carrying a second can of bear spray is never a bad idea.

Many western hunters also carry a pistol in grizzly country, and there is no shortage of firearm options and holsters available to safely carry a pistol when hunting. Being able to fire a warning shot at an aggressive animal is another arrow in your quiver, but understand that hitting and killing a charging animal is a low-odds endeavor. If you do carry a pistol, make sure you are proficient with your firearm. In fast-paced, high-stress situations, a firearm can quickly turn from your protection into something that could accidentally injure you or your hunting partners, or worse.

Learn about bear behavior and how you should respond to an aggressive animal. You always want to deescalate first, but be prepared to protect yourself if charged. At the end of the day, you’re in their world so be mindful at every moment. As Revisky puts it, “You just don’t know what’s there in their world. It’s like swimming with sharks; there’s only so much you can do.”

Carry a satellite messenger or personal locator beacon. While you might balk at the thought of shelling out a few hundred dollars for a satellite messenger or beacon, the investment could literally save your life in an emergency in remote country.

Revisky and Gauron both call these devices game-changers. A satellite messenger allows you to communicate with the outside world, whether that’s to tell a loved one where you are or that you are safe and taking longer than anticipated if you’re processing and packing out an animal. They can also track your location, which can be monitored by friends and family, taking much of the worry out of a stint in the backcountry for all involved. Most importantly, satellite messengers and personal locator beacons allow you to be found by SAR when the devices are turned on and in tracking mode if you become incapacitated. They also enable you to easily send an S.O.S. if you are conscious and at risk of losing life or limb.

Most SAR teams require staff and volunteers to carry a satellite messenger in the field. The devices also are a huge benefit to SAR team operations because they drastically reduce the time it takes for SAR to find a missing person.

“If we had a missing person before this technology, we would be running to all the possible trailheads to find their vehicle, and then we would have to try to find the person,” Revisky says. “In the case of missing hunters, they’re often wearing camouflage, which makes them even harder to find. If you have one of these devices turned on and in tracking mode, we know exactly where you are. It shaves so much of our response time out of it, and it also helps us to know which resources to send.”

Lastly, while we all like to keep our hunting spots close to our chest, let someone know where and when you’ll be hunting. A great spot doesn’t mean much if you don’t make it out to hunt another day.