With another Fall hunting season on the horizon, I am once again getting my gear prepped, shooting my bow, and scouting country — both on foot and digitally. It's what I've done for years and it seems like just yesterday when I was just getting into this whole backpack hunting thing. I can almost feel the anxiety that I had back then as a new backcountry enthusiast. But with time, passion, and dedication comes growth. Before you know it, you're no longer a newbie anymore. Looking back on my journey, and the journey of fellow hunters, there seems to be a certain path of growth for backpack hunters. Reflecting on this journey reminds you how far you've come and helps you recognize those little victories throughout the years. This journey is the Evolution of a Backpack Hunter.
While everyone has an evolution that is unique to them, there are some similarities that most hunters will go through on the journey. Here are some of the common ways that this journey of growth tends to evolve over time.
In the Beginning (1-2 Years)
Do you remember when you first started backpack hunting? Everything was so fresh and new. The questions were endless and the craving for the experience was about as potent as it can get. I remember binge searching online and reading everything that I could get my hands on that shined a light on backpack hunting. Hunting forums were pretty big back then, so I'd also private message random people on those forums that were more experienced than me. The people that had seemingly "been there and done that." These days, it seems hunters are achieving this same thing through social media. It's a beautiful thing being able to message literally anyone you want. The experts are right there in front of you.
After countless hours of research and getting my gear together, it was time for my first trip. I first started by "backpack hunting" at my truck. This was my way of tiptoeing my way into the pool, rather than just jumping in. From there, I went on my first actual backpacking trip. My wife and I hiked 7 miles into an area, spent one night, and hiked back out the next morning. Both of us were pretty psyched that we actually did it. That right there though gave me the confidence to go on my first actual backpack hunt. "Baby steps" in full effect.
My first backpack hunt was in January. My brother and I hiked into an area that I had scouted a few weeks earlier. My pack was way too heavy, my mind was gnawing at me, and I was questioning my sanity.
"Was I cut out for this? How would I actually get a deer out of here?" Sound familiar?
Once we got out there and started through the motions of actually hunting, my mind was put at ease and my heart grew a little bigger by the end of it. I knew this wouldn't be the last time I did this.
Getting Confident Now (3-4 years)
Once we got through that first trip, our confidence level shoots through the roof. Suddenly, we weren't as apprehensive to go on these adventures. Quite honestly, it had become the opposite — now these backpack hunts were the thing we thought about all year.
Extended backpack hunts in upwards of 10 days now seemed like an option. New gear was bought regularly, new areas were being scouted, and out of state backpack hunts became a regular thing. There were even some folks starting to ask US for advice. Imagine that.
Confidence in your abilities as a backpack hunter is like a key. Once you have that confidence, new doors of possibility open up immediately. For me, areas on my Arizona maps that I never looked at before were now being considered. The "what's over the next ridge?" mentality was a part of me. These were spots that I never bothered paying attention to because they were too far from roads. But what was once a barrier, now became a welcome sign.
This was the stage where I first went on an out of state backpack hunt. It was a trip to Colorado for elk. We packed in for 10 days and had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. The confidence that we'd acquired back home was now absent. Being in a different state in different terrain can bring you right back down to zero. All of the feelings I had as a newbie were rushing back over me. Just like in the beginning though, once we were back there, and put ourselves through the motions, comfort came rather quick. By the end of this hunt, I remember thinking to myself, "now I feel like I can go anywhere." Suddenly, there were no boundaries to my backcountry hunting.
You've Got This (5+ years)
Backpack hunting is now your new normal. It used to be separate from other hunts you did throughout the year. Backpack hunts stood alone. Now though, they are part of your "normal". From nutrition and exercise, to how one looks at and scouts country — it's all done in the reflection of backpack hunting. You've also built up undying confidence in the gear systems you've put together through the years. Thinking like a backpack hunter has become natural to you.
In terms of confidence and comfortability, this is where it's at. Backpack hunting for me, and others I know that started off with me, has really just become hunting. There isn't a question of "should you pack in or not?" If there's a spot that I want to get to, I just go. No questions asked. I believe that there is no other time where you'll enjoy backpack hunting more. The questions have been answered and the experience has been had. Now, it's just about enjoying the ride for as long as you can.
Sitting here and looking back on where I've personally come from in my backpack hunting journey is pretty gratifying. I'm so grateful that I've gotten to see the places that I've seen and spent time with the people I've shared the backcountry with. When you spend 10 days with someone back there, you'll get to know them pretty quickly. More times than not, they're cut from the same cloth as you. They've now become a solid hunting partner.
Aside from getting to know others, you get to know yourself. More than a few times, I've worked out my own mental battles that I've brought with me from city life. Things that I couldn't make sense of at home begin to make sense back there. It's hard to hear yourself think in the concrete jungle. In the backcountry though? You can hear just fine. You can think more clearly.
It's been absolutely therapeutic back there for me — both mentally and physically. Your limits will be pushed on backpack hunts, and I think that's a good thing. And upon your return, I truly believe that one comes back a better person than when they left. After all of that self-reflection and soaking in what's around you, a realization hits. It was never about the hunt. No, it's about far more than that.
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.