Backcountry hunting is a relentless pursuit that lasts all year long. Even when the season ends, hunters pour so much effort into the planning and preparation for the next hunt. An incalculable amount of time spent looking at maps, the countless hours spent practicing our shooting, or the sacrifices of time made for pre-season scouting trips. These seem to always be in constant rotation.
However, an aspect of hunting preparation that many hunters overlook is intentionally planning for performance in the backcountry. While physical fitness is a huge part of that plan, I am referring to all aspects of our performance. From the consequences of packing too much weight, or not bringing enough food to fuel you all the way, to bringing specific gear for specific hunts. It’s all connected and affects our performance.
Planning for performance in the backcountry will help set you up for success whether you fill a tag or not.
“A goal without a plan is just a wish” — Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
OVERPACKING = OVERDOING
Last spring I ran into a first-time backpack hunter high atop a ridge, in some of the most rugged country in the Lower 48. We both had bear tags, but I’d later find out that this first timer never even left his camp to actually hunt. He was so physically and mentally exhausted that he was laid-up in his tent for the majority of the time that he was back there. I’d later find out down at the trailhead that his pack weight was 70-80 pounds for a week of hunting. He overpacked and paid the consequences.
Plain and simple, overpacking equals overdoing. Every pound of extra weight in our backpacks is extra wear and tear we are putting on our bodies. It can be hard enough just getting all of that gear packed to camp, but it doesn’t end there. We need to make sure that we don’t completely blast ourselves right out of the gate so that we can actually hunt after our tent is pitched, and then hopefully pack out a critter in the end. The lighter we can make our backpacks by “cutting the fat” the better we are going to feel. I’m by no means telling you that you’ve got to be an ultralight minimalist, but try and take a realistic approach with what you actually need.
- HAVE I EVER HAD TO USE THIS IN THE PAST? – An exception would be a First Aid Kit or your satellite communicator. Hopefully, you never have to use those for an emergency.
- IS THIS ITEM APPLICABLE TO THE SPECIFIC HUNT I’M GOING ON? – An example would be bringing a heavy 0-degree bag when you know the nighttime temps are in the 50’s.
- WILL BRINGING THIS MAKE ME MORE EFFICIENT OR AID IN MY SUCCESS? – For example, bringing bigger optics that allows one to stay put and survey a greater amount of the country in better detail.
- DO I HAVE CONFIDENCE IN THIS? – It’s really easy to bring doubles and triples of certain gear items because we lack the confidence in them and are fearful of them failing.
If it’s your first time backpack hunting, you may not be able to answer these questions. So what you should do is take some backpack trips if possible before your hunting season to gain the experience that enables you to assess these questions. And if that’s out of the question, at least just get out and test/familiarize yourself with gear. Whether that is in the backyard or at a local campground, no time spent being self-supported in the outdoors will be a waste.
FOOD = FUEL
It was last year when I really noticed. A good buddy and I were packed into the Arizona backcountry with high hopes of turning up a few spring bears. Each day that went by, I realized that around 2 p.m. my food bag was suddenly empty. Call it boredom or a starving Josh, but I was running out of food every day and bumming food off of my buddy. The food system that worked for me years back was not working anymore and I needed to reassess.
Why was I suddenly running out of food compared to when I first started backpack hunting? I realized that I am more active on my hunts now, and that I pack further into the backcountry. The result is that I’m using more energy and my fuel tank is running dry faster.
Food is fuel, and we need fuel for performance.
KNOW WHAT FOOD YOU’RE BRINGING
I despise counting calories. However, given the circumstances of my rumbling stomach looking for bears, it was one of the simplest ways to actually track how much food I was intaking. I did this many moons ago on my first backcountry hunts, but never kept with it or changed anything about my system until now. Back then I was packing about 2400 calories per day. That did it for me. As my performance elevated though, I needed to elevate the fuel.
Nowadays, I’m packing in the realm of 3500 calories per day on backpack hunts. Since doing so, I’ve felt much better, had plenty of energy, and am not bumming food off of buddies. The way I did this was really cracking down on bringing calorically dense foods.
A few of my favorite foods for the backcountry are…
- Salted Almonds: 412 calories for 1/2 cup
- Rolled Oats: 300 calories per cup. Add an almond butter packet and raisins for around another 220 calories. Total meal – 520 calories
- Flatbread Sandwich: Flatbread, almond butter packet, honey packet, 1/4 cup granola. Total meal – 520 calories
- Heather’s Choice Packaroons – 170 calories each
HARDER TRAINING = EASIER HUNTING
Physical fitness is an essential part of the performance equation in the backcountry. You will be met with heavy loads and rough terrain that doesn’t care in the least about your well being. Being fit will add to your enjoyment back there, which will help keep motivations high, and enable you to bring your best to the hunt. Remember, you are a guest in this country. If you want your performance to thrive, you’ve got to not only expend effort during the hunt, but also before it.
I’ll be the first to say that you don’t have to run marathons or be a crossfit machine to hunt the backcountry. Though doing those things will help greatly, and I encourage you to do them if you want. You can’t be in too good of shape right? To get down to the bare bones though, this is all about pack training and building endurance for uneven terrain with elevation gain and loss.
LOAD UP YOUR PACK
Take a few days a week and load up your backpack with weight. Try starting with 30-40 pounds at first, then build from there. Walk around your neighborhood, hit the local hiking trail, or jump on a Stairmaster. Gradually increase both the weight and miles as the weeks move by. I’d build on the miles first and then start adding weight after the fact. If you have to back off the miles with heavier weight in the beginning, that’s totally fine. This is going to help build the necessary muscles and stability that you need for backpack hunting.
IT DOESN’T HURT TO RUN
Along with the pack training, running is also great. I used to hate running. It hurt. What I found out, though, is that pounding pavement is what hurt me. With good shoes and trails instead of concrete under my feet, I can now run pain-free. What better way to prepare for running around the mountains than literally running around the mountains?
If you want to do more than just hike with a pack or go for a run, check out the free backcountry training plan that Exo Mtn Gear offers:
This free plan was purposely built to prepare everyone for backcountry or mountain hunting, even if they don’t have access to a mountain to train on, or a gym to train in.
IS YOUR GEAR HELPING OR HURTING YOU?
Gear and backpack hunting are like peas and carrots. Gear is such a huge part of the whole process and a lot of thought goes into every detail. After all, we are putting an immense amount of faith in our gear to do what it’s intended to do. But don’t just ask if the gear is doing what it’s intended to do. Consider how the gear relates to your performance in the backcountry. The two are absolutely related because some gear is better applied to certain situations than others. That has a direct effect on us.
The solution is to try and tailor your gear to the hunt you’re going on.
Consider boots. Big stiff heavy boots usually provide a great deal of support, but they also put more wear and tear on our muscles because of the added weight we have to pick up with every single step. If you don’t need the support of a stiffer, heavier boot for the terrain that you’re hunting in, then a lighter boot will aid in your performance and endurance.
In the case of optics, there’s no sense in carrying the added weight of an 85mm spotter on an elk hunt where you might only be able to glass 1,000 yards. It would make more sense to bring something smaller, or not a spotter at all and just run binoculars. Elk are big and quite easy to see. High country mule deer though? A bigger optic will allow you to hunt more efficiently in that situation. You’ll be able to save your energy for stalking, rather than covering the country on foot. Hunt smarter, not harder.
AVERAGE PREPARATION = AVERAGE RESULTS
Anyone going on a backpack hunt does some level of planning and preparation. Most hunters do some hiking before the season, practice with their weapon, pack some gear, grab some food, and go hunt. That’s general planning and preparation. It’s average.
But if you want to increase your odds of being successful, and also increase the enjoyment that you get out of your hunt, you need to plan for performance. Get specific with the way that you train, practice, pack, and perform. The effort you invest by being intentional will, sooner or later, pay off in the backcountry.
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.