Hunting has a way of making us forget about everything else on the planet. The singular focus of pursuing prey gives us intense purpose on the hunt, tapping into a primal instinct that seems to erase every modern distraction in our heads. The world could be falling apart around us, but when we’re in the wild and into game, nothing else seems to matter.
It’s an exhilarating feeling — not to mention a core part of who we are as humans — but it can also get us into trouble. If you’ve been there before, you know exactly what we mean. If you haven’t, you’d be wise to prepare yourself physically and mentally to make the right decisions and have the endurance required so that the moment you’ve worked so hard for doesn’t become a backcountry boondoggle.
Few things come easy in hunting, especially when pursuing big game. These animals didn’t evolve over millions of years just to let us wander into the woods and kill them. While it may work out that way on a rare occasion, big game pursuits typically take us to remote and rugged locations. If the stars align and you get a successful shot, the work ahead could be many times harder than what got you to where you stand over your harvest. If you aren’t prepared to properly field dress an animal and make the multiple trips necessary to haul meat off the mountain, you have no business being there.
We are fortunate to have things like 4WD vehicles and high-tech gear at our fingertips, but at the end of the day, mental and physical strength are your two most important assets. And like anything in hunting, learning from our own mistakes and the mistakes of others will make us more prepared to be successful — and safe — in the field.
Here are five common scenarios that can make a good hunt go bad in a hurry.
Injury can come in many forms on the mountain, and you’re foolish to think it can’t happen to you. Any injury, no matter how small, becomes all the more serious in the backcountry. We can’t overemphasize this one: being in peak physical and mental shape is the most important thing you can do to prevent an injury. Don’t wait until the fall. Start your training today.
Always carry a first aid kit and know what’s in it and how to use it. If you get a kill, do not rush during the field dressing. Hurrying through the process of dressing a big game animal is the quickest way to get a serious cut.
A heavy pack will make you more susceptible to missteps on the packout. Take great care as you haul your harvest, choosing each step methodically. Trekking poles are an indispensable tool to stabilize you under a heavy load and assist with creek crossings.
In short, if you get an animal down in the backcountry, go slow to go fast.
Not Eating or Hydrating Properly
We hear about hunters bonking and getting sick from improper hydration and nutrition all the time. It’s easy to avoid eating and drinking when you’re jacked up on adrenaline in hot pursuit, but adrenaline only goes so far. If you put off eating and hydrating until you’re exhausted, you’re asking for trouble.
Here is a great example of a good hunt gone bad. A solo bowhunter arrows a bull elk opening morning. He field dresses the elk, quarters it, gets all of the meat into game bags and hikes four miles back to camp with the first quarter. He didn’t eat all day because he was too distracted by the hunt and kill. He gets back to the truck soaking wet from rain, and instead of eating a proper dinner, he dries out with his gear in the truck and celebrates his opener success with a few beers before going to bed exhausted. The next day, he hikes in to retrieve the next quarter. After about a mile hauling it out, he wolfs down a sandwich and continues the 80-pound packout. Less than an hour later, his stomach turns and he starts to feel sick. Diarrhea quickly sets in, and he spends every step of every remaining packout miserable from dehydration and an upset stomach.
The lesson is simple: drink water and eat food, but not all at once. Make sure you pack as many calories as you can for every day of your hunt. An adult male can burn up to 5,500 calories a day backcountry hunting, nearly twice the normal amount. Carry snacks in a convenient location so you can eat small amounts throughout your hunt, and drink water throughout the day even if you don’t feel like it. Add electrolyte or flavor packets to your hydration bladder or bottle if it helps you to drink more water during the day. Whatever it takes, eat and drink small amounts consistently throughout your hunt and not all at once when you realize you’re hungry or thirsty.
Underestimating Your Distance
Whatever your quarry is, game fever is real. Big game fever has the added danger of luring you into gnarly country with an unrealistic perception of how far you’ve gone. Guaranteed, covering the distance it takes to get a kill in the backcountry will seem much easier on the way in and downright ridiculous on the way out, especially if you have to do it over and over to retrieve a harvest.
Know the country you’re hunting, carry a reliable GPS, and know how to use a GPS and read topo maps. Always carry a headlamp with extra batteries for hiking in the dark. Lastly, be aware of where you are and be realistic about your ability to get back to the truck and retrieve an animal if you’re successful.
Not Being Prepared for the Weather
Conditions can change in minutes on the mountain, but it doesn’t mean you have to abandon your hunt. Just be smart and know the forecast before you go in. We like to have enough gear in the truck for all conditions and also to swap out for any wet gear. Here are five must-haves that will help you on every hunt and especially when you get a kill in the middle of nowhere:
- A reliable 4WD vehicle with adequate clearance and good 10-ply tires.
- Breathable rain gear. There is plenty of packable, breathable rain gear on the market. Carry it in your pack even if you don’t think you’ll need it so you’re always ready for wind, rain, and cold conditions.
- Lightweight insulation. A lightweight down jacket and pair of pants can pack down to the palm of your hand, and the insulation value they bring can save your butt during long stationary periods or sudden storms.
- Great footwear. Have an extra pair of boots in the truck in case one pair gets wet, and break them in long before you hunt.
- GPS/Phone. A phone can double as a GPS and will allow you to call or text for help and check the weather if you have service. We recommend investing in a Garmin inReach, which will allow you to communicate with the outside world whether or not you have service.
Not Being Prepared for a Harvest
A backcountry big game hunter needs to go into the field prepared to be successful on every outing. Always carry a kill kit with everything you’ll need to process an animal. We recommend bringing multiple knives (consider carrying a replaceable blade knife with extra blades or a compact knife sharpener to sharpen traditional knives), a compact saw, enough game bags for all your meat, rubber gloves (not all guys use these, but they can be nice to wear over gloves if it’s cold), paracord, flagging, and a fire starting kit.
Also consider investing in a good rigid-frame backpack. A mature bull elk hindquarter weighs around 80 pounds. Tack on another hindquarter, two shoulders, backstraps, tenderloins, brisket, neck and all the trim meat plus the head/antlers, and you have over 300 pounds to get back to your truck. You’re not hauling it with a fanny pack, and hiking back to the truck for a frame pack is going to sap your strength before you even start to pack out the meat. Also be sure to familiarize yourself with your pack long before your hunt. We love to wear and train in our pack throughout the year so we’re totally dialed on the hunt.
Lastly, be realistic with yourself. Similar to responsible sportsman ethics, making good decisions about how far into the backcountry you hunt and if you take a shot in a remote location are about more than just that moment; it’s also about what it will take to field dress the animal, haul out a load, and return to your kill to repeat the process until the job is done. Hunting with a buddy is highly recommended, and if you hunt alone, make responsible decisions at every step to ensure you’re not getting in over your head.