All photo credits: Josh Kirchner
All photo credits: Josh Kirchner
If you've spent any amount of time on a western hunt, you probably have a good idea of how physical these hunts can be. Just the act of hunting in these vast and rugged landscapes can be enough to break someone down. I've seen it with my own two eyes. That doesn't even factor in if you are fortunate to get something on the ground and fill that tag in your pocket. The first year I hit the ground running with this hunting stuff, I was left winded, sore, and wanting more. Because of that, I started to take my physical fitness way more seriously. No more did I want to be limited by my physical ability. I wanted to know that if I saw something way off in the distance that I would be making my way over there without a question.
I think when you look at the surface of this topic, the first advantage that you might think of is being ready for the pack out—and for good reason. Those of us that have been fortunate enough to party with a backpack full of meat know this well. I want to point out something else, though, that some folks might not think of and that is safety. The vertical country that often accompanies these western hunts can be dangerous. There have been many times where I found that my physical condition saved me from a nasty fall or helped me balance across unstable terrain. Having a strong core is critical for navigating this country. That doesn't include when you throw that heavy load on. When you are preparing, don't think that you only have to lift weights. Spend time working on your balance and flexibility. Yoga is great for this. Many of us who spend a ton of time in these mountains can take this for granted. Complacency is the enemy.
The first archery elk hunt I ever went on took place in the backcountry of Colorado. In many places, Colorado had two directions: up or down. This was very different from the deserts that I call home and I was feeling that. Even after preparing all year in the gym and on the trail, I still got my butt handed to me out there. However, I enjoyed myself and was forever thankful for the dedication I had throughout the year. Yes, it was tough, but I could do it. My training had paid off. I briefly thought about how the whole trip might have gone had I not cared about my physical fitness level. It was a scary thought. The thought of covering 10 to 12 miles a day for 10 days with no preparation and in that vertical country? That is a thought that I don’t want to come to fruition. That is a huge advantage of being in shape for your hunt. You are going to be able to enjoy yourself way more out there and worry more about hunting and less about catching your breath or being sore.
I am a firm believer that doing grueling workouts helps with your mental game in the field. Think about it. When you are powering through a nasty workout, you are pushing through something both mentally and physically. In a lot of cases, this is you doing something that you don't necessarily want to do, which I think is great. I think exercising this area of your mind is what will help you push through tough situations and tough hunts. Adaptation in the face of adversity.
When you hear the phrase "get in shape," I think it is only natural to jump right to the thought of going to the gym. The gym is great and I love it; however, you don't have to hit the weights to get in shape for your elk hunt. In fact, you can much more easily simulate what you are going to encounter out there by not hitting the gym. By loading up your pack and hitting the trail, you are working on all of the muscles that you will be using on your hunt because you are doing the exact thing you will be doing out in the hills. Throw in some air squats, push-ups, and step ups at the top of the hill? Now, you've got yourself a sweet workout.
Another thing that you can do to avoid the gym is to bring the gym to you. Well, not the whole gym, but maybe a few things. You can accomplish a lot with a set of kettlebells and a bag of sand. If you want to get adventurous throw in a bosu ball. A bosu ball will help immensely with your balance. Spend some time researching kettlebell workouts and go from there. You can also do a lot of this with a loaded pack as you progress in your training. After doing your home workout, go for a jog or hit the trail as I talked about above. Just because you aren't at the gym, doesn't mean that you can't prepare for your hunt.
There is a ton of emphasis put on physical fitness in the western hunting world right now. Scrolling through Instagram will show you this easily. People are constantly posting pictures of themselves in the gym getting ready for the season; however, I never seem to see them posting photos in the field getting ready for the season. Scouting and learning to be a good glasser are just as important—if not more important—than being in shape. Learning the biology of the animals you pursue is going to give you the tools to understand them better. That's cool and all that you can run 10 miles and bench 300 pounds, but can you find animals? What about your stalking skills? The only way to get good at that stuff is to be out in the mountains. I am all for being in shape—and remain an advocate for it—but it is not the end all be all. I'll put money on a strong mind over a strong body any day of the week. Do you think our ancestors were working out in the name of hunting? They were probably too busy learning how to hunt.
I am so glad that I started taking my fitness level into account in my early years. Because of it, I have not only felt better overall but feel like I can go anywhere I want. I don't look at a mountain and think of how hard it is going to be to get up there. I think about what awaits me at the top. Dreading a pack out is not even in the picture. Instead, I’m looking forward to it. Recently, I was fortunate enough to fill my spring bear tag here in Arizona. The country was steep and the terrain was difficult. On the way out of those craggy and timber choked canyons, I smiled. I smiled not just because I filled my tag, but because I was so grateful that I was able to put myself in these places and under these circumstances. Getting back to the truck unscathed and knowing that I just did what I did was so rewarding. Rewinding to before I started caring about my fitness level, I could never see myself doing something like this. While being physically fit is not everything, it is definitely not something to turn your head at. Have you ever heard anyone say, "I wish I were in worst shape?" Probably not.