In this third part of the Hunter Performance Series, I’m going to discuss a variety of tactics and strategies that can enhance your effectiveness and enjoyment as a backcountry hunter. Many of these concepts will be useful for any mountain athlete or wilderness traveler. In Part 1 we covered conditioning and in Part 2 our focus was gear. Now we are taking those elements into the field.
As with many of the topics I cover at The Lifetime Athlete, I must begin by saying that this won’t be the most comprehensive list of considerations known to man. It’s simply a collection of tips that I’ve gleaned from my experience and that I hope you can find useful. For today’s post, I’ll highlight a few points about each area, but you can take a deeper dive into this content in the companion podcast, Episode 209, if you are so inclined.
Goal: What’s your goal with this hunt? It’s helpful to clarify your objective in the hunt. Are you seeking a mature, trophy-class animal? Just going after the best high quality protein, aka meat? Or maybe your quest is for the most enriching experience whether you harvest or not. Will you be alone with your thoughts, communing with nature, or enjoying fellowship with a friend or family member? Any of these goals is totally legit, and you certainly might be shooting (pun intended) for all of them. Regardless, it’s a great idea to identify your goal(s) before heading out and to make sure that others, if present, are on board. Only you should define what your own success looks like. These days, after almost 5 decades of practice, I do fairly well in all categories. But far and away I value the experience of the outing over everything else. For me, going into the field is a time of renewal and reconnection with my primitive self. I crave and value this immensely.
Camping Style: What type of camping setup will you be utilizing? Think through your setups such as a trailhead or truck base camp, a backcountry base or spike camp, or a mobile bivy method. There are pros and cons of each. Naturally you’ll have this planned ahead of time, and you’ll have your gear, expectations, and preparation adjusted accordingly. Truck camps, or even cabins, can be downright luxurious, but you may be doing a lot more walking as you are day-tripping (usually in darkness) more miles to and from your hunting area. A backcountry base camp requires a bit more work to establish, usually with pack animals, multiple backpack trips, or in limited capacities via motorized assistance. However, once you are “in-country” you may not need to rack up as much mileage in your hunts. A spike camp takes it further and gives you a few creature comforts from which you can mobilize in more remote areas. And a mobile, lightweight setup with your camp on your back lets you roam, find, and follow animals as you desire. And, depending on your circumstances and location, there is nothing wrong with a day trip if that’s what you’ve got. But since I’m focusing on backcountry hunting in this discussion, I’ll state that camping, planned and executed well, makes those aforementioned goals more easily attained. And, your conditioning and gear selection will be of critical importance in relation to how comfortable and effective you will be in the field as well as how likely you are to achieve your specific goals.
Training Your Gut: Is your gut used to the foods you will be eating in the field? This is an interesting topic and it warrants thoughtful discussion. Your gut function, in other words your digestive and metabolic efficiency, can and should be trained. The two most important considerations here are ensuring that your nutrition in the field is optimal and that your system is familiar with it. These things simply cannot be overstated. You need to be sure to have enough calories and that you are eating a macronutrient ratio (carbs, proteins, and fats) that both meets your needs and is consistent with your recent dietary patterns. Of course your food should be palatable and lightweight, but you don’t want to surprise your gut with new or different levels of fiber, spice, processing or macros. Shocking your system can result in heartburn, cramping, bloating, constipation, endless flatulence, or worse…disaster pants! Don’t do this to yourself. Carefully plan out your backcountry food and spend a few weeks eating some of it in your daily diet and getting used to it before you hit the trail. You won’t be sorry. I can think of so many stories when I or someone else failed to do what we just talked about, and ended up surprising their guts in ways that ranged from humorous to downright disastrous!
- Featured in the Pod:
- The story of the guy who hiked with nothing but candy bars.
- The total gut lockup a dude experienced with a new energy bar.
- How I bonked in the Grand Canyon because I couldn’t stand my food.
- The great bean soup elk hunt debacle!
Weapons Discipline: Are your safety practices automatic and consistent? Perfect discipline with weapons (firearms, arrows, knives) is a no-brainer and it’s second nature to experts in the field. Safety always, always comes first. Know when your firearm should have a round in the chamber, and if it’s not likely that it is going to be fired, don’t chamber a round. There can be exceptions to this rule, such as when in bear country, but use prudent judgement. Muzzles are always pointed in a safe direction, and never swept across another person. Riflescopes are for shooting, not as a replacement for a binocular or spotting scope. With broadheads, be careful when changing or tightening them…handle them with all the care anything razor sharp deserves. And with knives, never get in a hurry, keep them sharp, and use good technique when cutting. All these things seem so basic but there simply must be no laxity or compromise in safety practices. Educate those who don’t abide by this standard, and if it pisses them off, don’t hunt with them anymore.
Using Trails and Roads: Do you know when to use trails and roads versus bushwhacking? When you are navigating the backcountry and your goal is to generally move into or through some territory, take advantage of established logging roads, hiking trails, or even game paths whenever they are available. This is true even if the trail is a little further than a more direct route. Inevitably, established courses of travel will require less energy than heading off-trail by a factor that is several fold. Hiking off-trail through rough terrain is a big part of what backcountry travelers do, but the energy expenditure can be exponentially higher than cruising along graded roads and switchbacked trails. Obviously, these options are not always available but it’s wise to meter your energy carefully so when you need to create your own course over deadfall or up and down mountains, you are fresh for the task. Cruise easy where you can, knowing you’ll need to, and be able to, do plenty of bushwhacking when the situation requires it. Don’t senselessly waste your precious energy, no matter how fit you may be.
Stalking: Can you go slow enough? Still-hunting is an interesting term. It’s the traditional descriptor of creeping along, taking a step, and looking, listening, and smelling your way through an area (which is usually but not always forested). Some like to call this “timber sneaking” or “sneaking and peeking.” This is apex predator stuff. Animals (prey species) whose senses of sight, hearing, and smell are superior to yours, and who live in a place 24/7 are hard-wired to detect your intrusion into their habitat long before you even know they are there. When you are on the sneak, go slower than you think you can or should, then slow down some more. Use your eyes, ears, and nose, and your instincts, more than your feet. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked right up on an animal using this approach. A lot of hunters even remove their boots and stalk in socks, particularly when they have spotted an animal and are making their final approach. You can never be too stealthy in these situations.
Speed Reserve: Do you have the ability to go fast when necessary? This is a term I borrow from the track world. The runner with the greatest amount of speed reserve usually wins the race. This applies to backcountry hunting scenarios quite frequently. Be physically and mentally prepared to turn on jets if needed…but always be safe and not reckless. Train for what you expect to do and be wary of doing that for which you have not been trained. This point bears more consideration. When you hear the term “fair chase” in regard to hunting, that’s a term with multiple meanings but it really implies that you are using your own abilities and senses and not employing artificial means such as most things motorized and electronic. And when we “chase” animals, it’s really just the expression of going out and going after game, not trying to run them down for miles. But, there are times when an animal is moving in a certain direction, or wind is changing, or light is fading…and you need to get somewhere NOW. It’s a good idea to have a little speed capacity in your athletic system so you can call upon it, get there safely, and not be so gassed you have no chance of getting steady for a shot. All this depends on your style of hunting but it is a common reality in western big game spot and stalk hunting. Make sure you can easily step on the accelerator if the situation calls for it.
- Featured in the Pod:
- The incredible Lifetime Athlete elk end run!
Wind: Wind is king! Sometimes you can fool an animal’s eyes, although not for too long. You can get away with a little noise here and there, especially with elk in the timber. But you can never cheat the wind. If you feel the wind at your back, it’s game over. Your scent will immediately alert and alarm any animal whose olfactory senses far exceed that of the human. Play the wind. Don’t even go into a situation if the wind isn’t right. Learn to judge wind, how it is affected by terrain, sun/shade, rising and sinking thermals, and the like. Become an expert in wind and your hunt success will increase to a multifactorial degree. Also, don’t hate the wind. While it’s not pleasant to be out in high, consistent winds, it can have a positive impact on your hunting. High wind concentrates animals in leeward, sheltered areas and can make your approach from a downwind direction both silent and scentless. A lot of guys don’t even go out if it’s windy, but I’ve had a lot of success in these conditions.
- Featured in the Pod:
- The cliffhanger elk harvest.
Communication System: Do you have an effective and agreed upon method of communicating with your partner(s) in the field? Develop and practice a communication system. In most situations, I’m not a big fan of using radios or phones, and in many places it is illegal to do so anyway, depending on the context. But the voice stuff matters. The human voice, spoken in an audible and normal tone, is a totally foreign sound in the backcountry and it travels very long distances. My policy is consistent with most accomplished hunters I know. Whisper only. Very softly. Using only key words. Not too often. This policy is even great for any non-hunter in the backcountry because it enriches your immersion in the natural world. These days I mostly only hunt with a few close comrades and we all know the drill. But if a newbie is on the scene, you need to be a hardass about this policy. You can be kind about it, but tell them how important not talking aloud is, and if they blow it, they don’t get to come out with you again. Like many of my peers, I’ve had several experiences where we’ve hiked for miles to get into a prime hunting spot, and then some greenhorn talks out loud and we’ve seen the hind end of our quarry hauling ass into the next county. This is one of those rules you don’t want to budge on. If you are using hand signals, by all means keep them simple. A few gestures like “yes, no, left, right, up, down, stop, go, all good, it’s over,” and maybe only a few others will suffice. Make sure you practice and agree upon these things with your partner(s). I’ve got a couple great stories about situations when I had no idea what the hell someone was trying to convey with a disco-dance airport terminal direction.
- Featured in the Pod:
- The camouflage semaphore day.
Attitude: Are you always ready and in the game? This is a very interesting phenomenon. It’s great to be in the backcountry and do a little mountain meditation. That stated, if you are there to hunt, be aware that concentration can occasionally lapse, even among the best of us. Always be ready — for anything — but especially for an animal to appear. Keep your predatory instincts tuned, and turned on. This is a skill to be practiced, but it’s also an instinct. Modern life can dull this sense. Polish it. I’ve seen guys put their heads down and hike hard for miles, with the idea in mind they are hiking to the hunting spot, all the while walking past or spooking animals they did not expect to be along the route. Here’s a Zen voodoo tip…work on being able to go from thinking hard and concentrating on being aware (looking, listening, smelling, sensing), to simply not thinking at all, and letting the environment and all its happenings filter through your inner beast. This type of existence can sometimes be in conflict with the modern hunter armed with a cell phone or GPS unit. If you are going to be checking maps, weather, ballistics apps, and the like, try to do it efficiently and in a limited manner. The same distractions that extensive research shows negative impacts on health and workplace productivity can take you out of the hunt in the backcountry. Tech is awesome. Nature is better.
- Featured in the Pod:
- The arrow that went to Cancun!
Injuries and First Aid: Are you prepared if something unforeseen happens? We always hope nothing catastrophic, or even just inconvenient happens out there, but be prepared just in case. Murphy has a way of showing up from time to time. Being prepared means having a first aid kit and having some skills/training/practice in basic interventions. It also includes survival in the presence of injury, weather, hypothermia, dehydration, etc. Make sure your gear fits the outing, you are familiar and confident with its applications, and double check everything is in your pack and in good repair. If something got used, replace or replenish it immediately upon return and triple check before heading out again. Some items might never be used, and you’ll be tempted not to tote them around. Don’t. Keep your first aid gear, space blanket, lightweight tarp, puffy coat, etc. in there. You’ll be forever thankful when you need to pull any of that stuff out and you’ll have a sense of security knowing it’s there.
Meat Care: Can you give meat the care it deserves? This is one of the biggies for backcountry hunters. It’s a rabbit hole of a topic and one which I think I’ll dedicate to a separate diatribe. Suffice to say that keeping meat clean, getting it quickly cooled, and hauling it out are critical concerns for the backcountry hunter. I’ve learned from a lot of great experts in this art, and I’m still learning. Doing this right is what it’s all about and it’s a major part of the field to table journey which we all cherish so highly. Just make sure you do what you do well (to the best of your ability) and we’ll revisit this in proper format soon.
Reverence: Are you respectful of animals and nature? Of course you are. Backcountry hunters are some of the most ethical, honest, and hardworking people I know. They are fun to be around and they have an understanding of conservation to the greatest degree. Backcountry hunters hold a reverence for animals, wild places, and rugged living like no other. They appreciate and hold dear the opportunity to hunt and travel the backcountry, and to be able-bodied. They prepare seriously for their athletic lifestyle and look forward to every experience. Being a backcountry hunter is a privilege to be cherished…and to be promoted as one of the pinnacles of the human existence, especially in this modern world. If you are already one of us, I wish you continued great success. If you are joining us, all I ask is that you take to heart the things I’ve talked about, and be willing to learn as you go, especially from those with much more experience and expertise than me. Thank you for being with me today!