The more time you spend hunting the backcountry, the more confidence you will build, and the more comfortable you’ll get venturing deeper and deeper into the wild. With the confidence to go where the screaming bugles or monster bucks lead you, you may find yourself waaaay back in there. If you have put in the time, planning, and physical conditioning to handle such an arduous trip, then more power to you. But, does there come a point where the return on investment just isn’t there? Is there a distance where you’ve crossed the line from an epic adventure to pure foolishness?
Obviously, this is a broad question that is largely dependent on your particular situation. Are you (and every member of your group) in the physical shape required to cover dozens of miles with weight on your back? Will the weather permit leaving meat hanging for several days if that’s what it takes to get it all out of there? Do you have access (either in your pack or from the land) to enough basic necessities like food and water? The variables to question are numerous, so this will have to be an article that forces self-evaluation and discussion, rather than an attempt to provide a black and white answer to the question of, “How far is too far?”. Let’s think through some considerations that can guide us in making the very personal decision of how far is too far.
CAN YOU GET MEAT AND CAMP OUT IN TIME?
This is the primary question that a hunter must consider when evaluating just how far they’re willing to go. Every mile you put between you and the truck is another mile you will potentially have to pack heavy loads of meat. Not only is that going to increase the physical challenge you face, but it also extends the time between the harvest and when you can get that meat on ice. What you are hunting and when you are hunting will make a lot of these decisions for you. There is a big difference between packing out an elk during the early archer season and hauling a mule deer during the peak of their rut later in the fall. You have to be realistic about what you can physically and mentally handle, and how quickly you can cover ground for the terrain you’re hunting in. If there’s a risk that some of that meat is gonna spoil before you ever get it back to the cooler, you’re probably too far and should backtrack to a closer basin.
Another deadline that you may need to consider is your commitments back at home. If you have a drop-dead deadline for when you must to be back to civilization, that’s realistically going to shave a day (or more) off the end of your hunt. You can’t hunt until the last light of the last day of your trip if you have 1-2 days worth of processing and packing once you get an animal on the ground. Factor that into your planning, and if you haven’t had success when there’s one full day of hunting left, consider beginning to work your way back towards the truck so that if you find success on that final day, you have a much shorter packout and can still get back in time. That said, don’t let “artificial” deadlines keep you from calling it quits too early if you don’t truly have to be out of the backcountry.
ALL MILES ARE NOT CREATED EQUAL
If you’ve spent any time in the backcountry, you’ve certainly noticed the vast difference in your ability to cover miles based on the varied terrain. A well-maintained forest trail is like a highway into the backcountry, while a steep slope covered in blowdown will slow your progress to an exhausting crawl. When you’re deciding just how far you’re willing to go, the type of terrain needs to factor into your decision. You can get an impressive amount of miles away from the trailhead if it’s 90% trail and one last little push up to your camp/glassing point at the end. But, if you’re just bombing straight into the woods and it’s non-stop thick, nasty, steep, off-trail hiking...even a few miles might be more than you should consider.
If you’re new to backcountry hunting, or an experienced hunter that’s headed into a new area, you need to realize that the pre-season scouting you may have done through maps, Google Earth, and onX may have given you false confidence about how much ground you can cover and how “deep” you should be hunting. Always be prepared to modify your plans when you get boots on the ground and can truly assess the terrain.
This leads to a quick strategy-hack that may help when your ultimate goal is to escape pressure from other hunters and find an undisturbed pocket of wilderness. As the popularity of backcountry hunting has grown, it seems every year there are more hunters willing to put in the work and get miles and miles away from the trailhead. That means you can either out-work everybody else and go that literal extra mile, or you can find a rougher place to get to that might be surprisingly close to the nearest road. If you’re having trouble getting away from people, instead of pulling out your map and looking for the next farthest ridge, look for that off-trail pocket that looks miserable to get to. Odds are, if you’ll backtrack and leave the trail for that spot, you’ll find that privacy you were looking for.
DO YOU HAVE WHAT YOU NEED TO GET BACK?
This may seem obvious, but it can easily be overlooked. Ask yourself if you have what you need to be safe and self-sufficient in remote locations, and also if you have what you need to get back to your rig that’s parked miles and miles away. If you’re hunting only a couple of miles from the truck, you can deal with some serious austerity and just grind your way back to comfort and safety. If, however, you find yourself in a truly remote area with many miles separating you and your vehicle, you need to think more carefully about things like your food, water, clothing, shelter, and emergency supplies. If you went too light on packing food and don’t monitor your rations for the multi-day hunt, you may find yourself lacking the calories needed to fuel your hike back to the backup food stash you hopefully have tucked away in your rig.
In many places out West, water won’t be an issue, but with increasingly dry conditions in many areas, or for those of us that hunt the desert, it’s common to have to haul every ounce of water you plan to drink. In my home state of Arizona, I have had to pull out of a hunt early because I burned through too much water too fast and had no way to resupply in the field. After spending most of the day trying to stay in the shade and ration what little water I had left, I ultimately realized that I barely had enough water to get me out of there safely. It was tough to accept that it was time to pack up camp and head back by headlamp to the half-case of extra water bottles I had waiting for me back at the truck. Frustrating? Yes. The right call? Absolutely.
Now is a great time for a quick PSA about having a backup source of water filtration if you are in a water-rich environment. If you’ve ever lost a water filter to an unexpected freeze (guilty), break, or malfunction, you know that sense of struggle that situation creates. It only takes one experience like that to make sure you never leave the truck again without at least two methods of purifying water.
At the end of the day, what’s too far for me may not be too far for you, and vice versa. You have to take all the considerations of your specific situation into account and make a wise and educated decision. My hope is that as you do this, you won’t just blindly commit to deeper always being better, but that you’d creatively search for the best place to hunt that matches what you want and are able to do. Don’t let ego decide how far back you’ll go. Instead, choose the best area, with the most potential to hold the critters you’re searching for, and don’t fixate so much on the numbers. Plan, prepare, and then go enjoy the backcountry.
Eric Voris is a passionate adult-onset hunter, the author of How to Hunt: A Total Beginner's Guide to Hunting Big Game, and the creator behind Late to the Game Outdoors. He is an accomplished writer, filmmaker, and content creator in the outdoors space, and spends his time chasing animals across the West. Eric lives in Arizona with his wife and three kids, dodging rattlesnakes and hunting together whenever possible.