Each hunt is a unique adventure. Just as seasons, animals, and conditions change — the gear and preparations you make for each hunt should also change. But what are the essential items that never change? What specific things should you carry on every hunt? That answer will vary for everyone, but this article will outline the things that go in my pack 99% of the time, to provide an example of essential gear that you may consider.
For context, I will be hunting 5 species in 5 different states this year. That will include day hunts for whitetail deer in the midwest, to an extended mountain hunt in Alaska for mountain goat, as well as backcountry hunts for elk, mule deer, and bear.
Before I share WHAT I carry in my pack for each hunt, let me quickly highlight the importance of HOW I carry these essentials in my pack. When it comes to these smaller items, modularity is key. As you will see below, I like to organize my essentials in to a few key categories and I have found that utilizing our K3 Stash Pocket accessory is a great way to organize and access the essentials.
By organizing items into self-contained "kits" — such as your kill kit, your medical kit, etc — you can quickly move each kit of gear between packs if you use multiple bags. There have also been times I have removed my first aid kit from my hunting pack to take it on family adventures when I am not carrying my Exo pack.
Except for my game bags, all of the items in my Kill Kit are stored in a single Stash Pocket. The kill kit isn't something that I need to access frequently, so I store my game bags in the bottom of the hydration compartment that is on all Exo bag designs. I hang the Stash Pocket that contains the rest of my kill kit items from the mounting point that is sewn to the top of the rear hydration compartment on Exo bags. This keeps my kill kit secure, but out of the way from the gear that I access on a frequent basis in the main storage area of my pack.
The contents of my Kill Kit are...
- High-Quality Game Bags: The specific size/model of my game bags may vary based on the animal I am hunting and if I plan to quarter or de-bone the meat for that specific hunt. The Argali High Country Pack is shown here.
- Fixed-Blade Knife + Sharpener: I like a strong fixed-blade knife with quality steel. Shown here is a prototype from Chris Reeve Knives; you can hear more about this knife on our podcast with Tim Reeve. For a sharpener, I have been using the same DMT DiaFold Sharpener for 10+ years.
- Strong Cord + Figure 9: I always carry some extra cord in my kill kit in case it is needed to hang meat bags or tie-off animals while I am working on them in steep terrain. Obviously, this cordage has countless other uses as well. The Figure 9 Carabiner is super handy for setting/holding rope tension or using in place of knot-tying that can by tricky to undo quickly when your hands are a mess from working on an animal.
- Contractor Bag: Countless uses. In cooler weather, I sometimes use it to keep my pack's load-shelf free from blood when hauling meat. It also serves as a ground cloth to set meat on, an emergency pack liner, a gear cover at night (for gear that doesn't fit in your shelter/vestibule), etc.
- Gloves: No explanation necessary here. (These bright orange gloves with gripping texture are my favorite, but I ran out of them after a successful bear hunt and didn't have them on-hand for the photo taken above.)
- CR2 Battery: I replace the CR2 battery in my rangefinders each year, so it is probably redundant to carry an extra. But things seem to go wrong at the worst time and I don't ever want to be caught with a dead rangefinder. Plus, I have given my extra to a hunting partner that wasn't so careful about changing his battery before a hunting season.
- Bluetooth Camera Trigger: Almost every hunter carries their cell phone to capture some memories these days. With a bluetooth camera trigger you can set up your phone, get in position, and then "trigger" your camera without dealing with timers or other ways to try and capture your photo. It weighs nothing, costs little, and is super handy to capture the memories that you've worked hard to create.
MEDICAL & FIX-IT KIT
In the next K3 Stash Pocket, I have a bunch of items to fix both body and gear. Everything pictured above fits in one K3 Stash Pocket, which I connect to one of the quick-access locations inside the main bag on my Exo pack.
The contents of my Medical and Fix-It Kit are...
- Fire: Bic Mini lighter, tinder, and waterproof matches inside of an empty Nuun Hydration canister.
- Zip-Ties: Countless uses.
- Tapes: Leukotape (for blisters and the like), Tenacious Tape (to patch clothing, tents, sleeping pads, and other gear), Duct Tape (numerous uses), Electrical Tape (covering your rifle muzzle and many other uses).
- Chapstick: Yes, for your lips. But it can also be used for bow strings, lubricating stubborn zippers, and more.
- Colgate Wisps: Leave your toothbrush, toothpaste, floss, and toothpicks at home — these little guys do it all.
- Backup / Emergency Headlamp: The Petzl e+LITE is a great backup headlamp to keep around. In addition to white light, it has a red light SOS strobe, and a built-in whistle. It also comes in a small waterproof canister.
- Various Medical Supplies: Medications (pain reliever, antihistamine, anti-diarrheal, sleep aid, etc), ointments (burns, anti-bacterial, etc), bandages, gauze, tweezers, thermometer strips, wound closure strips, emergency trauma dressing, QuickClot. I created my first aid kit for my needs and preference, but if you want an off-the-shelf option, I'd highly recommend the various offerings from Adventure Medical Kits.
I start every hunt with drinking water in the pack, as well as a way to collect, transport, and filter additional water from natural sources...
- Water Bottle or Bladder: Take your pick. I use a variety of options but grab an HDPE Nalgene more often than not. (The HDPE version are lighter than the more common Tritan Nalgene bottles.) My favorite bladders are from Platypus and Hydrapak.
- Water Filter: Sawyer Squeeze, Katadyn BeFree, or Platypus QuickDraw (pictured above). They all work well and each has pros and cons. Sawyer used to be the best option, but I'd grab the BeFree or QuickDraw first these days.
- Water Collection & Storage: I always like having a large-capacity container with a wide-mouth to collect "dirty" water — either to filter immediately, or to store and transport to filter when needed. I repurposed a zip-top Hydrapak bladder as my primary dirty water reservoir. (The small section of tube with connectors on each end allows me to connect the Hydrapak bladder to the QuickDraw filter.)
The items included in this section are not part of a specific "kit", but they are essential items nonetheless...
- A Dry, Warm Clothing Layer: The specific item I pack changes based on the conditions, but I always have a dry, warm clothing layer in my pack. Even on warm weather trips, I'll have something that can provide ultralight warmth, such as the Outdoor Research SuperStrand Hoodie, pictured above.
- Wet Wipes: Traditional TP is a thing of the past. (Quick tip: Keep your wet wipes in your jacket on cold hunts.)
- Headlamp: Don't spend time outdoors without one.
- Emergency Communication: A device like the Garmin InReach should be a constant companion for anyone who ventures away from populated trails and heavily-used recreation areas — even if you are only going for a quick day hike close to home.
- Trekking Poles: They're a must. Navigating steep terrain, hiking with heavy packs, improvised shooting support (with Wiser Precision Quick-Stix) and more. (Quick tip: Wrap some Leukotape and electrical tape around your trekking poles, so that you always have some available.)
- Calories: Always carry some food. Always. A go-to in my pack is the delicious, natural, 700-calorie Range Meal Bar.
ON MY BODY
Alright, so this gear isn't "in my pack", but these are things that go with me on every hunt. Inside my FHF Gear Bino Harness, I have...
- Hunting Tags/License: The back pocket of the FHF Harness is a perfect spot to put your tags/license. And by keeping it on the harness, my documentation is always with me, even if I drop my pack for a stalk.
- Notes From Home: That blue piece of paper in the photo above. It is a note that my wife snuck into my bag on a hunting trip about a decade ago. I still carry it with me, along with some small notes from my kids.
- Binos: It took me forever to realize the importance of good glass and save up for some Swarovski binos, but now you'll never find me hunting without them. Also for the binos, a LensPen and Aziak Bino Clamp.
- Rangefinder: A critical piece of gear for every hunter. I have tried a lot of rangefinders and in my opinion, SIG dominates this category. I have a high-end model (the KILO 8K), but even their budget models are the best in their respective price category.
- Wind Checker: Yup.
- Phone & Offline Maps (Not Pictured): Communication, navigation, photography, reading.. there are a ton of reasons to have your phone in the field. An onX Hunt subscription and offline maps are certainly a constant companion for me. That said, hopefully, you are trying to disconnect from the constant distractions of technology while you're outdoors. (Quick tip: Add "download offline maps" to your pre-trip checklist to ensure you don't forget to download that data before you loose cell service.)
There are several "honorable mentions" that I didn't include on this list. For example, a small sitting/glassing pad and a battery powerbank are things that I pack more often than not, but these aren't things that I take on every hunt. The gear I shared here are the things that always bring, not often bring.
I know that some hunters will carry far less, and some will always carry far more. Hopefully, we are all making informed decisions based on experience, not just what someone else said we should do.
Get out there. Learn some lessons. Try some new things. Figure out what you need, so that you can stop worrying about the "what if" scenarios and just focus on enjoying your time in the outdoors.
Mark Huelsing is the host of the Hunt Backcountry Podcast and works at Exo Mtn Gear — though he's never been able to figure out his job title. Connect with Mark by sending him an email (mark at exomtngear.com) or DM @MarkTheFark on Instagram.