Frozen. Stuck. Staring at a map. Looking over terrain. There are a dozen ideas about what to do next, but you can’t seem to pick just one and then act on it. It almost feels like a trance. You realize valuable hunting time is slipping through your fingers while you try to make up your mind, but you question yourself... “Which move is the right one?”
If you spend enough time in the backcountry, you’ll eventually experience choice paralysis. Where does it come from? How do we fight it? Is it possible to maximize every day you have in the backcountry by quickly and confidently making choices without agonizing over the potential pros and cons of each one? I believe it is, but it’s going to take some forethought.
WHY DOES THIS HAPPEN?
I’m not a licensed psychologist, so I won’t presume to go into the extreme detail of what our brains are doing when we’re overwhelmed by options. But, I will say from my own experience that there are at least a couple of issues that work together to get us stuck. One is simply physiological: you’re in a depleted state. If you’ve been hunting hard in the backcountry for at least a couple of days, your brain is not firing on all cylinders. You may be in a caloric deficit, you probably haven’t slept as well as you normally do, and you’ve been putting your body through some pretty rigorous stress. After a while, this will slow down your ability to think quickly and make decisions.
The second thing at play is your subconscious knowledge that energy is a precious and finite resource back there. So if you’ve been hunting one area for a couple of days and are debating whether to press on further or just be patient where you’re at, in the back of your mind you’re doing a cost-benefit analysis of potentially expending that energy. This is especially hard if there are animals where you’ve been; maybe the stalks haven’t worked out or the bucks just weren’t the caliber you’ve been looking for, but the question of leaving critters to maybe find more critters adds to the frenzied debate between your ears.
What can we do about these physiological factors? Eat...eat a lot! Okay, that’s an oversimplification, but making sure your hydration and nutrition is truly dialed in is a huge step towards preventing this kind of paralysis. And it’s not just about fueling your body with calories to keep hiking, you also need to factor in just how greedy your brain is for caloric resources (the brain uses roughly 20% of your daily energy expenditure). Your brain also loves carbs, so don’t deny it that precious macronutrient in the backcountry for the sake of preserving your abs.
I have a theory that Pop-Tarts make for better decision making. Seriously though, make sure the food in your pack is stuff you like to eat! I’ve been on so many hunts where I can actually see the progression of more and more leftovers in my food bags simply because I couldn’t bring myself to eat one more chalky plant-based protein bar. Pack the stuff that makes you open that bag and think, “oh sweet, I have _______ in here!” And don’t forget to hydrate early, often, and likely more than you think you need to do. Water is free in the backcountry. Drink up!
PREVENTION IS THE BEST MEDICINE
I’m all for flexibility and following your instincts in the backcountry, so I’m not about to advocate a rigid “spreadsheet approach” to hunt planning. But, I also know that pre-determining as many decisions as possible will massively reduce the wasted time and undue stress of struggling to figure out what to do next. The cat is out of the bag on having plans B, C, D, etc. already plugged into your map and ready to go in case plan A doesn’t pan out. But, I find taking your planning a step further will reduce this kind of choice paralysis.
Personally, I like to have already mapped out my various “if...then…” plans. For example, if I’m in Plan A and I haven’t seen what I’m looking for by the middle of day 2, then I’m going to bounce over to Plan B which is just the next ridgeline over. If I arrive there and find there are three groups of other hunters, I’m going to pack back out to the truck and drive to Plan C...and on and on the planning goes. There’s always room for flexibility, there’s always the ability to decide to give plan A one more day because you saw a massive track or heard a deep, growling bugle. But, whenever I think it might be time to try the next thing, I know exactly what that next thing is and when I should make that move.
JUST DO IT
No matter how much planning you do before your hunt, you’ll still run into the occasional moment where you’re left debating with yourself (or your hunting partners) and you just feel frozen by the decision. At the end of the day, doing something always feels better than doing nothing and seems to help snap your brain out of the overthinking loop of death. After several rounds of struggling for what seemed like hours in the middle of the day with what I should or shouldn’t do next, I decided to develop a bias towards action. I give myself five minutes (literally set a timer on my phone) to weigh my decision. If I’m still feeling unsure at the end of that five minutes, I go. I throw on my pack and head to the place I was debating if I should go or not.
The beauty of that system is not that it works every time. I’ve certainly hiked over to a new ridge or glassing point only to find there were no animals to be found and I would have potentially had better chances sticking it out in my first spot. But, what it does is snap the brain out of that paralyzed feeling. Even if I have to backtrack to where I was before, I can at least stop wondering...I’ve checked that potential spot off the list. There’s no more “what if I go over there” because I’ve now been over there.
Now, if your decision is not to stay vs. go but is A vs. B, you’ll have to come up with your own system for making those decisions quickly. If all things are truly equal and you can’t think of a compelling reason why one option is clearly better than the other, maybe something as simple as flipping a coin can make the choice for you. And then do some advanced planning as you make that decision: “okay, it was heads so I’m going to A...I’ll spend the morning glassing there and if nothing shows up, I’ll leave for B by 1:00.” Each decision will have its own nuances to consider, but the idea is to find a system that works for you to keep you from losing valuable time and energy wrestling with a decision.
AT THE END OF THE DAY, IT’S AN ADVENTURE
There are no guarantees in hunting, and just as many hunters have lucked into the buck of a lifetime as there are hunters who made all the right decisions to get theirs. When all is said and done, you’re never going to get every single decision right. You’ll also never fully know if you got it right or not, because who knows what monster bull moved into the drainage right after you left? Don’t agonize over each and every choice. Give yourself a couple of minutes to look over the maps, consider the pros and cons of the options before you, and then just commit to one of them...for better or worse, that is the decision you’re going with. Pour all your efforts into that choice, and see how it plays out.
A long hunt is basically an endless series of decisions, which can be mentally and physically exhausting. But aside from that dream buck or bull, you’re also looking for an incredible adventure. Enjoy the process, make the best decisions you can with the information you have, and just get out there and have a great time.
It seems every time I’ve stopped worrying about doing it all right and just leaned into having fun out there, I relax and end up hunting much better as a result.
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.