Photo credit: Dave Barnett
Backpack hunting has been exploding for a number of years now with more and more hunters diving into this side of adventure hunting every year. It’s an immersing environment: The adventure, the unknowns and the best part — the gear. When I first started backpacking in the early 2000s, there was plenty of good gear to be had; however, the availability and selection were nothing like it is now. Getting into backpack hunting has never been easier or more comfortable than it is now, but the learning curve can still be steep and unforgiving.
Trying out and purchasing new gear is all part of the fun of backpack hunting and, really, your entire loadout should change every year. That’s just part of it. Yet, a lot of cold, sleepless nights and otherwise uncomfortable conditions have led to some not-so-startling realizations that were otherwise transparent to me amidst my budding excitement for this new adventure. In the following sections, I want to touch on some of the largest and most avoidable mistakes that I made early on that could’ve led to far more enjoyable hunting trips from the get-go.
Photo credit: Dave Barnett
Hands down, one of the biggest mistakes I made when first starting to dabble in the world of backpack hunting was trying to find budget gear. Now, I’m not saying that everything you buy needs to be high end — far from it, in fact. Initially, I wasted a lot of money on gear that just didn’t make the cut, but was notably cheaper than other competitive options. Yes, this got me into the woods and backpacking earlier, but it made for much higher costs in the long run and some heavy packs and uncomfortable nights.
At the end of the day, backpack hunting in and of itself is just not kind to the wallet. All of the exciting new gear is a blast to play with and, even now, I will trade out a perfectly good tarp or tent with a new one just “because.” However, there is an awful lot to be said for carefully researching your purchases, spending the money for quality gear and leveraging each item against your hunting style.
Really, some of my favorite pieces of gear are some of the cheapest things in my pack, but there are times when an investment will just need to be made. However, when speaking on hunting gear, you will typically find that the more you can budget, the happier you will be.
Looking back on things now I really wish I had photos of my packs from my first few backpacking trips. I distinctly remember one hunt even involving me packing around a full-size cooking pot, a hatchet and other undesirables that were definitely not intended to be carried around the mountains of Northern Idaho. When you are paving your way into an unknown area of a new hobby it can be daunting — particularly with backpack hunting. The gear choices are innumerable and the added pressure of having to carry everything you need to survive a night in the woods can quickly lead you down a road of overpacking.
Over the years, I have definitely become far more minimalistic in my packing approach and carry the absolutely bare minimum when it comes to gear. There are some types of gear that will always need to be carried, such as first aid, but there are definitely items where the cost of weight far outweighs the potential use or importance. As much as I can, I try to find multiple uses for items if possible as this obviously increases the perceived “value” of the item.
One of the best exercises that has allowed me to really dial my gear list has been comparing notes and lists from before hunts to after. After returning from a trip, I like to look at every piece of gear that I carried and evaluate the actual usage or potential need of use for each item. This allows me to quickly weed out unneeded gear while also allowing me to further explore various gear needs that may help me be more efficient.
After going through my pack everything stage, I decided to go full tilt to the opposite side of the spectrum and go extremely ultralight. This included 1/2” thick sleeping pads that are half body length and 40-degree sleeping bags. This led to some amazing pack weights, but some incredibly cold and uncomfortable nights. I still very much stick to the ultralight side of the spectrum, but can fully appreciate how much a few extra pounds in the pack can greatly increase my comfort and quality of life.
Generally going lighter with any piece of gear may have some potential setbacks and the reality of the situation is that you need to leverage the weight savings against the potential setbacks to see the item’s real worth. Additionally, at times, it is possible to dump weight in one item while adding weight — and comfort — to another all while keeping the final pack weight the same or nearly the same as what is what before. These are all just the fun parts of the backpacking puzzle!
This one never really bit me hard, but it certainly led to some frustrating moments. After all the research and reading you’ve done on every piece of gear you purchased it is also important to the efficiency of your trip to know how to actually use the item. Coming from personal experience, setting up your new ultralight floorless shelter in the middle of a summer thunderstorm at 9,000’ is not ideal.
Before any hunt, I like to run through the process of setting up/using each piece of gear several times. This obviously increases my familiarity with the items and also allows me to evaluate everything for any type of modifications or adjustments that may need to be made. Backpack hunting can be stressful enough and eliminating as many factors as I can before the hunt will always be worth the effort.
At the end of everything, there really isn’t a wrong way or a right way to backpack hunt…There is just your way. This whole adventure is simply getting out and enjoying the woods while discovering what type of backpack hunter you are. I would have never used floorless shelters 10 years ago, but now that is all that I own. The biggest point here is to explore and have fun with your gear and don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone!