“Coming out heavy. The good kind of hurt.” Those phrases and past memories were running through my mind on a cool October morning in the high desert of Arizona. The previous evening I had shot a bear in a canyon that had “unforgiving” written all over it. Now, early the next morning, we slowly made our way towards that bear. With dawn beginning to reveal the full reality of the terrain, it became more and more apparent what we were getting ourselves into. The pre-season dreams of notched tags and heavy packs were being met with reality. The next 9 hours would lend a new perspective.
As good as it is to desire these heavy pack-outs each year, it’s important to realize what we’re getting into. This “good kind of hurt” is possibly carrying 100+ pounds through steep and rocky terrain over a great distance. Hopefully you’ve trained, but experiences like these cannot be fully replicated with a treadmill or stairmaster. You’re not in the safety of your own home, gym, or local recreational hiking trail. If you spend enough time in truly wild places, wild things are bound to happen, so you have to control what you can.
Let’s discuss a few safe pack out practices to follow, which can minimize the risk of injury when coming out heavy…
EMBRACE YOUR LIMITS
Walking up on that bear was surreal for me. It was quite literally the biggest bear I had ever stood next to. Putting my hands on him provided such a feeling of accomplishment. That feeling is one of the things I love about hunting. In that moment, riding high on adrenaline, I felt like I could carry this whole damn bear out myself. But having done this quite a few times before, I was quick to come back down to reality and share the load with my buddies who were there to help.
First of all, let’s call a duck a duck here. Hunting can fan the smallest spark of macho pride into a roaring fire of bravado — especially when it comes to proving how much weight you can handle. If you’re not careful, your pride can get the best of you.
Everyone has a limit and it’s important to recognize that. Don’t worry about what you saw on some Youtube video. You are your own person with a unique set of capabilities and experience. There is nothing wrong knowing your limits and making an extra trip with lighter loads.
I’ve heard stories of folks packing such heavy loads and wrecking their bodies so badly that it took the better part of a year to recover. Carrying an immense load like that through the mountains will not go unnoticed after the fact. Wellbeing and longevity are more important than not having to go back in to retrieve an extra load.
Although hunting packs are capable of carrying serious loads these days, that doesn’t mean that you have to push past your body’s limits.
MAKE THE BEST MOVES
After soaking in the excitement and processing the bear, we were ready to start making our way out of the canyon. At this point, it had been 5 hours since we left the truck. We had already done a lot of miles, with a good amount of climbing, and there was much more to come. A couple hours into the heavy hike back, the heat and exhaustion began to take a toll — now on steep and loose gravel, I took a few slips and falls. I ended up in a tangled jungle of manzanita brush, needing the help of my friends to pull me and my 80-pound pack up and out of the mess. Each time one of us fell, I feared for the worse, hoping that there were no lacerations or broken bones.
The more physically exhausted you become, the more you mentally fatigue as well. Both your decisions and your movements are compromised. This is not a good thing when there is an incredible amount of weight in your pack and you are traversing through difficult terrain. And if you’re alone, the stakes are even higher.
Even when you are tired — especially when you are tired! — pay attention to where you’re putting your feet on every step, and don’t take risks you don’t have to take. The possibility of injury is much higher when you are carrying extra weight and dealing with compounding fatigue.
Be critical of your route selection. Study the terrain to find the best and safest route possible. If that means a slightly longer hike, then endure the extra distance. It’s worth it. The best moves are those that reduce risk, even at the expense of an increase in distance. There is a time to find the shortest route between two points, but that time is not when you have a compromised ability to navigate treacherous terrain because of a heavy pack weight and a mix of mental and physical fatigue.
DON’T GO DRY
Surrounded by cliffs, we were forced to climb out of the canyon opposite to the side we wanted to. Reaching the top, we skirted around, dropped back into the canyon, and then crossed the bottom and finally exited on the side we needed to be on. That was a 4-hour process that left our water bladders and bottles dry. Thankfully, we found a stream and had a water filter with us. Even after filling up, one of my buddies still ran out of water on our final ascent out of the canyon. He became quite dizzy and battled other signs of heat exhaustion. It was a reminder to always take hydration seriously, before, during, and after a pack out.
Packing out an animal is downright demanding on your body. If you are going to be running on all cylinders, your hydration is essential. I have experienced dehydration that causes dizziness, cramping, and even a loss of mobility in the arms and legs. Not the best ingredient for a safe pack out.
Here are some keys to stay hydrated…
- Just Bring More Water – It might be the desert kid in me, but I ALWAYS carry a 3L water bladder. It is better to carry the weight of extra water than to hike without water.
- Have a Water Filter – Whether backpack hunting or not, having a lightweight water filter with you can save your rear end should things get real. Be sure to test your filter before using it in the field, so that you know how it works (if it’s new to you) and as a function-check to make sure it is working in general.
- Pre-Game – If you know you’ve got a pack out ahead of you, try to pregame on your hydration. If possible, locate a water source before you breakdown the animal and begin to consume water while processing the animal. Starting your heavy packout with a proper level of hydration will help you avoid cramps and prevent a situation where you are trying to “catch up” to prevent dehydration during the hike.
- Electrolytes Matter – Along with water, it’s important to also be adding electrolytes into the mix. Electrolytes are minerals that help control and balance fluids in your body. They play a vital role in things like muscle contraction. There are several ultralight drink mixes out there to ensure you’re getting electrolytes in your system to keep everything operating smoothly.
SLOWER IS SMARTER
This is a simple tip, but perhaps the most important. Just slow down.
In general, I’m a point A to point B kind of guy. I put my head down and go. On the bear packout that I have been discussing, rushing was not something that would have benefited us in the least. In fact, it likely would have hurt us even more. So, we tackled the hike in sections — taking breaks when needed. The moments we spent resting in the shade, drinking some water, and enjoying a small snack to refuel was critical. Forcing myself to take these small breaks was a struggle at first, but it was a strategy that ultimately paid off.
Completing your packout isn’t a race to the finish line and there is nothing wrong with going at your own pace. If you’ve got to stop every 100 yards, then by all means do it. You’re the one in control and you know your body best. Sure, it’ll take you a bit longer to get back to your rig, but that’s fine. It’s better to get there fairly unscathed later in the day than going faster and risking potential injury from pushing too hard. I promise you, you’re not any less of a man or woman by taking your time. You’re just smarter.
“One step at a time.” That’s what I kept telling myself as we climbed on all 4’s up the last ascent. It felt like we’d take two steps forward and then slide back about as far as we’d come. At this point, we were at the 8.5 hour mark and beat to a pulp. Seeing the top of the rise was gratifying beyond any amount of words I can write here and I was flooded with emotion when we hit the top. I was so glad that my friends were okay, despite some heat exhaustion. I felt bad for putting them through all of that. But I know that they, like myself, tend to be a glutton for punishment. We learned some valuable lessons on this one, and looking back now, realize that it was a special type of “fun.”
Opportunities to pack out animals are opportunities that we only get so many of. Make the most out of all of them, stay safe, and embrace each of them “one step at a time.”
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.