Backpack Hunting and How to Get Started
By: Matt Wymer
My first few backpack hunting trips taught me many lessons. In turn, thought I would share some basic tips to help one avoid some of the misery that the lack of preparation can bring! Hopefully these tips will allow you to be better prepared to get into the field, and also have a more enjoyable time outdoors.
In my opinion, active management of trip logistics is critical to a successful adventure. Researching regulations, required permits, and land ownership must be done well in advance of the trip. While many hunters may be less than helpful with an actual hunt location, most are willing to help a new hunter understand regulations; and companies like OnX Maps are a great resource for researching land ownership.
Backpack hunting can often start from a trail-head one can drive to, but many hunts involve several layers of travel that could include, flights, floats, pack animals and more. Develop a robust checklist, tailored to each method of travel. Each method of travel can often require unique gear and must be noted in your checklist. It is likely smart to reduce complexity during your first few trips, since learning how to hunt in Alaska can be quite the contrast for people used to sitting in a deer stand in the midwest, for instance.
Itinerary / Trip Plan
Once your research is done and your trip is planned, create an itinerary and leave it with a trusted friend or family member. This can be a critical step in the safety of your hunt, so don’t skip it! Be as detailed with your hunt plan as you can, yet be sure to explain that trips can change at a moment’s notice (for example a pilot may decide to drop you in a different drainage than you originally planned). Ensure that whoever holds your itinerary understands the complexity of your logistics and the potential changes. Be clear about the method of check–in (i.e. Garmin inReach, Spot Messenger, Sat Phone, etc.) and the timing. Also, lay ground rules as to what you expect of them if you miss a check in or deadline. It is helpful for your itinerary to include the phone numbers of those who can bring help. Local Game Wardens, Search & Rescue, and a friend who has been in the area are a few examples of valuable contact info.
For your first backpack hunting trip, I’d suggest something simple, close to home, and one where as much information as possible is available. Add complexity as your skills and confidence grow.
Taking a few moments to sit down and think through what you’ll need for a hunt is something I have always done and has proven to be very helpful in not forgetting gear and equipment I need while in the field. If you end up in the high country without critical items, it is going to make the trip less than ideal. Quality tents, stoves, sleeping pads and more are expensive, but experience and time afield changes one’s mind about skimping on substandard equipment that you’ll be putting inside your pack. Since gear is expensive, sometimes its a good idea to look for friends who are willing to loan you items to test yourself, or see if there is a local store with a good rental department. We typically subscribe to the mantra of ‘buy once, cry once’ rather than wasting money on gear that either doesn’t last or doesn’t perform to the level you need it to. Don’t let not owning gear keep you from getting out there. Borrow, rent, gain knowledge and buy items as your experience grows. The Alaska Life Classifieds are a great place to find some used gear deals!
Next to boots, a quality backpack is likely to be one of the most expensive items on your gear list. A comfortable pack will make your trip MUCH more enjoyable. There are many great backpacking companies out there. While they make great backpacks for backpacking, they often fail when it comes to the demands of hunting. A backpack designed for hunting is the key to long term enjoyment. My two favorite hunting backpack companies are Exo Mountain Gear and Stone Glacier (while other team members at The Alaska Life use Kifaru as their preferred pack). There are at least 3-4 more good companies out there making solid hunting packs, but these two are proven winners for how I hunt. Get a good pack, research, try one, borrow, and call the companies to find the right pack for you. Also, because these packs are well-built, don’t be afraid to buy one that is lightly used or from a ‘closeout’ that some of these manufacturers offer from time to time.
Packing your Pack
Hauling heavy loads requires an intentional packing method. It is best to keep heavier items centered between the shoulder blades and as close to the back as possible. This helps keep the weight centered on your hips. Both Exo Mountain Gear and Stone Glacier have extensive videos on their website on how to fit, pack, and adjust their packs. They did not make those videos just for fun; use them! They are the experts at their packs.
I like to put my sleeping bag and pad near the bottom of the pack while placing the heavier items up through the middle, and spotting scope and rain gear in the external pockets, or near the top for easy access. The heaviest items are most likely your weapon, spotting scope, tent, stove, water, and food. Watch videos on how others pack their gear and try a few day hikes with your full load to get a feel for it. It’s not too complex, and experience will quickly take over. However, it is best to work through BEFORE heading out to remote destinations.
The web is flush with articles and content on boots and it is worth your time to both read as many of these reviews as you can, and also try on as many pairs of boots as feasible. The essential element is matching your type of pursuit to the right boot. Some terrain requires a stiffer boot than other, and weather plays a role in determining the proper amount of insulation. My current boots are by Crispi and I have been impressed with how well they fit right out of the box and their performance lines up with the type of mountain hunting I do. With that said, everyone’s feet are different and you have to spend some time getting this right.
What to Wear
A well designed layering system for backpack hunting is just as important as the individual layers you bring. Your first layer is the base layer. This layer is the closest to the skin and its chief job is to manage moisture (see my article on base layers for a deep dive on layering options) and provide some insulation. The hiking layers are what you’ll wear while moving. Insulating layers keep you warm while sitting and glassing, and rainwear keeps you dry when it’s nasty out. A proper layering system is easily adaptable to rapidly changing conditions.
Baselayers: Merino wool, synthetics, or merino/synthetic fabric blends make up the proper material for socks, underwear, and long underwear.
Hiking/Moving layers: Pants that are comfortable, durable, flexible, and dry quickly help protect the legs. I have found that pants with integrated knee pads are a must have for hauling heavy loads in rough country. My favorite next to skin t-shirt for hot, hard core climbing is a short sleeve, light weight synthetic tee. Sitka’s Core Light Weight long sleeve, helps protect the arms from bugs.
Insulation: An insulated vest or jacket, soft-shell, or even a heavier weight base layer all can play a role here. Tailor what you take based on the expected weather you might encounter.
Rainwear: I’ve written a lot about rain gear, and tested many options. A waterproof breathable jacket is something I always take. Weather can turn in a heartbeat, and its best to be prepared. I might gamble and leave the pants home now and then, but the jacket always goes with me. Rain pants become necessary the longer the duration of the trip, especially in climates like the PNW and Alaska. My go to, proven, rain gear for backpack hunting is the now discontinued Sitka Gear Dewpoint. Its light, durable, and keeps me dry. Look for something with similar specs and you’ll be headed in the right direction.
Being physically prepared for backpack hunting can make your trip not only more enjoyable but also likely less prone to injury. Some hunts require extensive physical conditioning and might not be a good choice for your first adventure. Find a program designed to make you mountain tough. Hitting the treadmill alone won’t cut it. Incorporating a weight-training routine along with hiking local trails and mountains with a weighted pack will do wonders to prepare you for the field.
Being physically ready, having a plan in place, and knowing all of your gear is good to go helps to put you in a great mental position to start the trip. It’s when the going gets tough, gear fails, or plans change, that mental strength comes into play. You will either roll with it and adapt, or you will curl up in a ball and call for help. In my opinion, mental toughness is the most crucial skill to successful remote pursuits.
A good physical fitness program will push you mentally, and help you increase this skill set. Packing, and repacking your pack, setting your tent up multiple times before the adventure, ensuring your gear lists are checked, and that all electronic components of your trip work and have new batteries, are all pieces of helping your mental puzzle be complete.
Practice and learn any necessary skills well ahead of go time. This includes route finding, navigation, and wilderness first aid. REI and many other outdoor gear shops offer courses on all kinds of back-country skills. If possible, take a few a classes to increase your confidence and skills. Better yet, take these with your hunting partner. The more time you spend together the better, and it allows the ability to see if compatibility issues could arise.
Meals & Snacks
Planning out your daily required calories is not the most exciting part of the process, but it is critical. Common meals consist of dehydrated dinners, oatmeal, trail mixes, food bars, dehydrated fruit, jerky, and candy bars. Always be sure to take a little bit extra in case your trip is unexpectedly extended. Figure out how you will prepare your food well ahead of time, and practice to ensure you got it down. There is nothing worse than having a long day in the field and having dinner time consist of confusion and frustration.
The best backpack hunting tip of all? Ask for help! Join a local hunting forum, and spend some time on a place like Rokslide.com. Good luck and be safe!
Some of the links on this website are affiliate links and if you go through them to make a purchase we will earn a commission. Keep in mind that we link these companies and their products because of their quality and not because of the commission received from your purchases. The decision is yours, and whether or not you decide to buy something is completely up to you.