In my early days of backpack hunting, I was both inspired and intimidated as I read-up on the small amount of literature that existed on the topic at that time. The books and articles I read were oozing with adventure. Stories of hunts that sounded more like expeditions than hunting trips as I knew them.
Everything that I read recounted stories of hunters heading 10+ miles deep into the backcountry, which of course added to the inspiration and intimidation that I felt. These stories gave me the impression that “going in deep” was the only way to backpack hunt. Since then, and many backpack hunts later, I’ve gained much perspective in this area. And now I know that not all backpack hunts need to involve going in deep.
More Miles = More Commitment
In general, to backpack hunt is to commit. Whether it’s for a few days or more than a week, when we load up a pack and head into the mountains, it is a commitment and investment. We are investing our time, effort, and energy into a certain piece of country. Last I checked, the animals we pursue operate on their own schedule and don’t have any concern for the amount of time or effort you’re investing.
As the mileage gets higher, the cost of our commitment grows greater. If it takes you 7 hours to hike into a backcountry camp, you’ve spent a lot of time and energy, but you haven’t even started hunting yet. If that is what has to be done, then absolutely do it. Just know that you’re also now at least 7 hours from the vehicle. Meaning that if for some reason you wanted to pop stakes, hike out, and head to a new location that you’re gonna burn another day. For someone with only 7 days to hunt, you’ve spent nearly 2 full days of time and effort not hunting. And we didn’t count the time involved in packing-in to a new spot if you did decide to pack up camp and move.
You also have to consider your level of commitment once an animal is down. Most likely, you will have multiple trips to get your camp and meat back to your vehicle. This investment of time and energy is now compounded by added weight, often added stress, and many times paired with the fatigue of the hours hunted and miles hiked that you’ve already completed before the shot. Which brings me to my next point…
More Miles = Greater Consequences
Along with more commitment, more miles also means greater consequences. This goes for both success and for potentially dangerous situations.
As we discussed above, when an animal lays at your feet, the physical consequences on your body are going to increase dramatically with the increase in miles you have hiked before this point. I bring it up again here, because it is worth repeating for those that have not dealt with the consequences of packing an animal out many miles in mountainous terrain.
It is easy to talk about packing out an elk 5+ miles in mountainous terrain. But until you’ve done just that, you have no idea what is involved in such an effort.
If you want to increase the miles, you’re going to need to increase the training. It’ll help lessen the chance of injury and make your trip much more enjoyable. More miles are not for the weak of heart. It’s for the dedicated.
The risk for injury doesn’t necessarily go up with more miles, but the consequences you’ll deal with if you are injured are 100% related; especially if you’re solo. If you or a hunting buddy experiences an injury while miles-deep, that hike back to the truck is going to introduce some challenging times. Or, perhaps, hiking out is not an option and you’ll be forced to hit that S.O.S. button on your InReach (or similar device). Consider the deepest, most remote place that you are planning to hunt, then ask yourself...
“What will I do if I experience an injury that limits or completely removes my ability to be mobile from this point?”
Plenty of guys think, “that’ll never happen to me”, but those are the individuals that may be most susceptible to the “unexpected” situations. Many listener’s of Exo’s podcast, the Hunt Backcountry Podcast, have shared such stories.
More Miles (Doesn’t Always) = Less People
You’d think that heading deeper and deeper into the backcountry would mean that you will deal with less and less people. While that logic definitely makes sense, don’t be so quick to count on that assumption as fact. Because of the allure that comes with going in deep, many people may be committed to the same plan as you. Perhaps you, and many others, actually end up hiking past an immense amount of good country and good animals on your quest to add distance from other hunters.
A good friend of mine experienced this on a recent hunt in Nevada. He hiked through a ton of great looking country, only seeing a few people hunting along the way, and thinking that he’d pass those few people and have the deep country all to himself. However, once he got way back in there, hunters seemed to be on every ridge and in every pocket. Going in deep may mean that you are competing with other die-hard hunters, and often with horseback hunters and outfitters.
More miles doesn’t mean less people, and it also doesn’t mean more animals. Just because you’re double-digit miles into the backcountry doesn’t mean you’ll be tripping over deer. Distance is not a definite gateway into better habitat and less pressured animals. The better habitat might actually be a few miles from the road. All of that stuff that a lot of hunters going in deep just walk past and that most day hunters don’t ever make it to.
It seems like most day hunters won’t break the threshold of 2 miles and these fellas heading in deep are going at least past the 6 mile mark. That country in between can oftentimes be a sweet spot with less pressure. Animals know this.
Backcountry is Backcountry. Plan Accordingly.
The definition of “backcountry” might be different from person to person, but the fact of the matter is backcountry hunting is backcountry hunting. Whether you’re 3 miles in or 15 miles in, the motions of what you’re doing are exactly the same. A hunter that is just a few miles away from his truck may experience the same amount of beauty, challenge, and adventure as the hunter who’s 10+ miles deep. And maybe the guy who’s closer will actually have a better hunt.
All of us have our own reasons for why we backpack hunt. Be it trying to get away from hunting pressure, testing our minds and bodies, or the pursuit of better hunting. One of the reasons that we all share in common is “the experience” as a whole.
Finally, keep in mind that there is a difference between the things that we need to do and things that we simply want to do. In most cases you don’t need to put on more miles for better backpack hunting. You may only need to get a few hours away from the road to have a successful hunt. But maybe you want to go deeper.
Personally, I want to not see anyone while hunting. I want to be in good habitat with a good density of animals. And I want to soak up everything that backpack hunting offers. Whether that puts me 3 miles in or 12 miles in, I’m going to plan accordingly and not look back. The experience will be grand at both ends of the spectrum.
Josh Kirchner is the author of the book, Becoming a Backpack Hunter, as well as the voice behind Dialed in Hunter, a blog that not only documents his own journey, but provides gear reviews, tips/tactics for western hunting, and encourages other hunters to chase and achieve their goals. Josh is a passionate bowhunter that has been hunting with his family since he was a small boy. When he is not chasing elk, deer, bear, and javelina through the diverse Arizona terrain, he is spending time with his wife, daughter, and two herding dogs.