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Guidelines for a successful backpack hunt

 

Trail packing out a large mule deer
Trail packing out a large mule deer buck on a backpack hunt. Photo credit: Trail Kreitzer

Last year, I was approached by a fellow I’d attended high school with; he’d drawn a good mule deer permit here in Utah and was asking for advice on getting started into solo backpack hunting. I am by no means an expert, but over the past 12 years I have been backpack hunting, mostly solo. I’ve grown to love it, even crave it, and have been fairly successful. Here are a few ideas for anyone wanting to get started.

Prepare for complete solitude

First things first, you have to get over the fear of hunting solo and the idea of spending nights out completely alone. I remember the first night I did on my own. I spent most of it tossing and turning, listening for every small creak or twig snapping. I was completely spent the next day and didn’t feel like putting any more time into my scouting efforts, but I stayed. Then I stayed another night, and the next weekend I spent three more. By the end of that trip, I found that I was feeling more confident, sleeping fine, was seeing more animals and loving it. It’s like anything: preparation and executing a plan over and over again allows you to stretch your comfort zone. Preparation is key!

Gear yourself up

The most critical component of backpack hunting is having the necessary equipment to do so. Get the best, lightest equipment you can afford. I tell my wife all the time, “My life literally may depend on my gear, so if you would like to keep me around, I need good gear.” Good equipment can be pricey, but in my opinion, if you are serious about increasing your chances at hunting and regularly harvesting, it’s a must.

I can break my gear down into four key categories: pack, sleep system, food/water, and equipment.

1. Pack
 

KUIU ULTRA 6000 pack
Select the correct backpack size based on the duration and type of hunt. Photo credit: Brady Miller, goHUNT.com

To me, the three most important things about selecting a pack are size, frame/durability and comfort. The majority of the backpack hunting I’m doing is 3-5 day trips, and I bet the majority of you reading this likely would fit into the same category. It’s generally weekend hunting with perhaps a few days tacked on. I’ve done 10 days, but those types of trips are the exception rather than the norm. A pack that is 4500-6000 cubic inches is about the sweet spot for me. It allows me to pack everything I need and nothing I don’t. A pack frame has to be durable enough to regularly handle 30-50 lbs, and occasionally a lot more. I’ve had pack frames break and fall apart during a hunt -- and it’s not fun. I won’t use a pack unless the frame is sturdy, and if it’s lightweight, that’s a huge bonus.

The last thing for me is comfort. I like a pack that has some versatility and allows me to adjust it to fit me (i.e., torso length). There are a lot of brands on the market, and everyone is different, but for me I’ve narrowed it down to a few: KUIU, Mystery Ranch, Exo Mountain, Stone Glacier and Kifaru. All of these three have both pros and cons (e.g., weight, comfort, price). A few other options might include Gregory and Osprey packs. These two brands, although geared more for recreational backpacking, build comfortable, well-built packs capable of handling 30-50 lbs. They may not handle the extreme weight as the other brands listed, but might be a good option if you have a backup meat hauler pack.

2. Sleep system
 

KUIU mountain star two person tent
Photo credit: Brady Miller, goHUNT.com

A sleeping setup is comprised of some sort of shelter, sleeping bag and a sleeping pad. Ninety percent of the scouting and hunting I do are solo, early-to-mid season, and for me, the easiest and most effective system is a bivy sack, an inflatable sleeping pad and a good bag. The thing I like about a bivy is that it’s quick, and you can sleep on any flat spot big enough. An old deer or elk bed on a steep slope is nearly the perfect size.

I have used an Outdoor Research Alpine Bivy for several years and had great luck with it. It’s just over two pounds, is made of GoreTex, and it has a single pole to keep it off of your face during inclement weather. During good weather, I sleep with my head out and the lid completely open. I often get asked why I don’t prefer a one-man tent and what I do with my pack and boots at night. For me, I don’t like that hassle of dealing with tent poles or trying to find a spot big enough for a tent. I regularly hike at night and I don’t want to take a lot of time to get into bed. With a bivy I find a suitable spot, and I’m in bed within minutes.

I always carry a rain cover for my backpack; it’s like a huge shower cap for your bag. At night I put my clothes in my pack, lay my boots sideways on top and cover the whole lot with my pack cover. If I’m in bear country, I hang it.

Continued below.

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If a tent would allow you to feel more comfortable and get you out there when otherwise you may not, there are a lot of good options for tents. I’d recommend the Big Agnes Flycreek 1,2,3, Seedhouse or Slater, MSR Hubba and KUIU's Mountain Star or Ultra Star. A good single or even a two-man shelter should be around 2-4 lbs.

Sleeping pads have gotten significantly more comfortable and lighter in the past several years. I prefer an inflatable pad. It may take me five minutes and my own breath to inflate, but they are very comfortable, super lightweight and packable. I’ve been using a Thermarest Neoair Xlite for the past two years. The long pad weighs 1 lb and is 2.5 inches thick when inflated. The horizontal baffles keep me up off the ground and very comfortable. There are lots of options at a variety of price points for these types of pads from companies like Big Agnes, Nemo, Pacific Outdoors and Thermarest.

Also, I do not carry a pillow; however, I always pack a high quality, packable down jacket for the chilly early morning and late night glassing sessions, and I then I stuff that into my sleeping bag stuff sack for a pillow at night.
 

Down sleeping bags
Photo credit: Brady Miller, goHUNT.com

One of the most expensive pieces of gear is a sleeping bag. If you are trying to get set up and want to pinch a penny, in my opinion a sleeping bag is not the place to do it. A good sleeping bag will allow you to sleep comfortably and may also save your life. I like a down sleeping bag, but it must be coupled with a waterproof bivy or tent. They are generally warmer and lighter than any synthetic material. The higher the fill, the more efficient and warm it will be. Look for a bag with 850-900 fill range.

Having multiple bags for a variety of weather conditions would be ideal, but given the associated cost, I needed one bag that can do almost everything. For me, I chose a bag in the 15-degree range. It’s warm enough for late season use and fine for early season, unzipped or open. There are some great options for sleeping bags. KUIU has recently released their own bags with a water-resistant treated down, and I’ve heard great things about them. I have been using a Marmot Helium 15 for several years and have loved it. In recent years Marmot released the Plasma, which is slightly lighter and has a higher fill. Western Mountaineering and Montbell also make great bags that would be worth looking at. My ultimate setup for a sleeping bag is: down, 850-900 fill, 15-20 degree temp rating, around 2 lbs total weight. When setting up camp, I simply throw my bivy out, inflate my sleeping pad, slide it inside and throw my sleeping bag in.

3. Food/water
 

Backcountry food
Photo credit: Brady Miller, goHUNT.com

I’m not going to touch much on food, other than that my personal preference is one Mountain House freeze-dried meal for every day I’m out. I eat those for dinner. For breakfast, I’ll pop some energy bars, and for lunch, I carry pre-made bacon, peanut butter bagels, jerky and trail mix. To boil water, I use a Jetboil Flash Stove.

Generally, I do not pack a filter or water purifier. Instead, I use iodine tablets and a small drink mix packet to dilute the taste. In very arid locations, where good running water sources are not available, I have used an MSR Sweetwater Filter with iodine tablets. Another note concerning water is that I do not use a Camelback or Platypus-type bladder. Although I know lots of people who use them, I have had too many problems personally with leaking bladders, hoses and mouth pieces. More than once I have felt water leaking down my back from a bladder that has failed. I carry individual plastic water bottles and just drink and fill them as I go. This may cost me some weight, but it has served me well.

4. Equipment
 

Zeiss Diascope spotting scope
Zeiss Victory Diascope 85 mm spotting scope. Photo credit: Brady Miller, goHUNT.com

We’ve all heard someone say, “You can’t kill what you can’t see,” and that’s usually followed by “buy the best optics you can afford.” Both are true, and having good optics will certainly serve you well, but adding a tripod and binocular adapter for it will make a tremendous difference. Seven years ago, my brother bought me a Leica tripod adapter for my binoculars, and I could not believe the difference it made. I was able to glass more comfortably, longer, and saw significantly more wildlife. It’s been huge for me. Sometimes I will sit in the same spot and glass for an entire day (or even days) if I know there is an animal I want to take in that area, and a good, sturdy tripod is a must.

For several years, I packed around a heavy Bogen all-metal tripod. It worked great, but I dreaded putting it in my pack. A few years ago, I started looking for a new, lighter tripod. I looked at a lot of different models, most of which were really good options. In the end, however, I was turned on to a company called Feisol. They make high-quality carbon fiber tripod legs and heads. The leg diameters were larger than most, and they weighed less than comparable models. I selected the CF 3301 model with the added center post, and this model goes as high as I need it. Bogen Manfrotto and Outdoorsmans Tripods are a few other options that are comparable. Also, I would note that I use a Leica 10x42 Ultravid binoculars and a Vortex Razor 20-60x65 spotting scope.
 
Obviously, there are other items that you will need, but the items I’ve listed above are what I would consider the core. Below is the entire list of my typical items.

Category

Item Description

Packing

Backpack

KUIU Ultra 6000 Pack with rain cover

Shelter

Bivy Sack

Outdoor Research Alpine bivy

Sleeping

Sleeping Bag

Marmot Helium 15-degree sleeping bag

Sleeping Pad

Thermarest NeoAir Xlite long sleeping pad

Clothing

Boots

Crispi Wyoming or Guide boots

Pants

Sitka Ascent pant

Base Layer Top

Sitka Core T-shirt SS

Base Layer Top

Sitka Core Zip T

Mid Layer Top

Sitka Traverse hoodie

Insulation Layer

MontBell Alpine light down parka

Hat

Sitka hat

Rain Jacket

Outdoor Research Horizon rain jacket

Rain Pant

Revel pants

Beanie

Sitka Jetstream beanie

Gloves

Sitka Shooter gloves

Socks

1 pair sock liners and 1 pair wool socks

Weapon

Weapon

Hoyt Matrix or Winchester .270 WSM

Gear

Binoculars

Leica Ultravid 10x42 binoculars

Spotting Scope

Vortex Razor 20-60x65 spotting scope

Rangefinder

Nikon Rifleman range finder

Tripod

Feisol CF 3301 tripod with Bogen head

Bino Adapter

Leica tripod binocular adapter

Digiscope Camera

TinesUp Scope Cam camera and adapter

GPS

Garmin Map 62 GPS (new batteries)

Phone

Phone w/waterproof sack

Knife

Havalon Piranta knife

Saw

Folding game saw

Rope

50' P-cord with beiner

Marker and Tape

Sharpie with a few feet of duct tape wrapped around it

Bear Spray

Pepper spray

Game Bags

2 pillowcase/game bags

Cooking & drinking

Cook Stove

JetBoil flash stove

Utensils

Industrial Revolution spork

Ignition

Small Bic Lighter

Water Treatment

Iodine tablets

Food

Energy Bar

Powerbars

Lunch

Bagels

Energy Gel

GU

Dinner

Mountain House

Jerky

Venison Jerky

Survival

Headlamp

Petzl Tikka Plus 2 headlamp

First Aid Kit

Small Adventure Med Kit-custom

Tylenol

Five Tylenol, extra strength

Fire Starter

Waterproof lighter w/Vaseline-soaked cotton balls in a film canister

Hygiene

Toilet Paper

in ziploc bag

Face wipes

50 wet wipes in plastic bag

 

5 Comments

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Daniel M. - posted 3 months ago on 08-30-2018 11:25:52 am
goHUNT INSIDER

Thanks Brett! Making it out West for my first trip this year to chase elk. Wouldn’t have even known it was possible withou a guide if it wasn’t for guys like you and the tolls you’ve created.

Appreciate what you guys are doing.

Brett H. - posted 3 months ago on 08-30-2018 10:59:09 am
goHUNT INSIDER

With airlines it depends on what animal I'm going for. For deer, I'll bring a cheap plastic (aka light weight) 55 liter cooler. On my way there I pack it full of gear, especially things that can break or my backpack food for the trip, etc. Use the space. Throw a couple locking straps to ensure it stays together. Check it as baggage. (FYI - no fuel or bear spray allowed)

On the way back I find that cooler will often hold a single de-boned deer most of the time and it comes in right at 50lbs. I cut and freeze the meat ahead of time (chucks in ziplocks). No ice, it's not allowed. But frozen meat will last forever packed together. If you have room in the cooler (I usually don't but sometimes we split a deer among us) then I throw clothes in there to fill space and add insulation. If there's extra meat that won't fit or I'm over weight, I throw the excess meat in my carry-on. Often figuring that out right at the ticket desk weigh-in. As long as meat is frozen, you can carry it on a plane. Doesn't need to be in a cooler, but they do want it in plastic bag. They won't let unfrozen meat on a plane. You'll get stopped at the security scanner if not frozen. I stuff the frozen meat in a duffle with clothes around it, maybe a paper bag around it for insulation and to contain cold air coming off the frozen meat. I think the last time I did it I had 30-40lbs in my carry-on (bigger deer that year). It always stays frozen solid, even after multiple flight connects etc. My door to door travel time might end up being 12 hrs when you factor everything in. Everything in the carry-on is still frozen. Might have a little frost on it, but that's about it. Just insulate it with what you have. Planes are pretty cold.

Elk...whole different story. I have always driven when I shot an elk, but assumed I would just go to a processor and have them ship it frozen. Gets expensive.

Weapons.....if archery, I have my bow in an SKB case. Not the super expensive ones. This one costs like $125. The heavy duty ones are expensive and heavy. So they take up 8-10lbs more of your checked bag weight allocation, which is valuable weight I want to use. I never needed a bomb proof case, just a decent one well packed, which I could do with the lighter SKB. I put the bow in the case and usually all my hunting clothes and more around it. Pack is solid. Roll up your clothes so they are tight and solid. The case will end up solid as a brick. I then take that case and place it in a huge, yet lighter weight duffle. Again, not bomb proof. If I'm still under the 50lbs weight limit (I usually am) I throw other stuff in the duffle around the bow case (boots, jackets, etc). This helps protect the bow case and it looks less valuable. Sometimes I throw a locking strap around the whole thing, just to make it solid and in case there's a zipper failure. I've taken probably 20 flights with this setup. Never had an issue yet. TSA will inspect it after you check the bag. So be smart about fragile items or sharp items (broadheads, knives, etc). You don't lock it. If you do, they will cut it off. They need to inspect it, usually after you check the bag. You can request them to inspect it in front of you and then they put a zip-tie where a padlock goes. I've tried TSA locks, but they cut them off too. I often do bring extra zip ties, figure why not, they're cheap.

Gun...different story. Check and double check with TSA and your airline. You would be surprised how many people don't know the rules and think it's something else. I often get conflicting information, even at check-in. You will need to have your gun in a hard, locking case, with at least two locking points. You should NOT be able to pry it open on one end. You can store ammo in the case, but confirm that. You will need to have a lock for it, a NON-TSA lock. They don't want anyone having access to a gun, including TSA. When you get to the airport you declare it's a firearm. After ticketing they often walk me to a TSA office. Sometimes it's close and 2 seconds, other times (SFO) they walked me to another floor. At that one I waited 15 minutes before getting to my inspection. They will inspect the gun and case, tag it as inspected, allow you to put the lock on it and they take the bag. I usually do the same as I described with my bow case. I place the hard case with the gun inside a duffle. The lock(s) are on the hard case, not on the duffle. TSA will indicate the case and duffle have been inspected. Usually a sticker and often red zip ties. No one can open it after that. Once I had TSA state they will inspect it without me and I requested to be present. You just never know how they will put it back to gather (i.e. you want to ensure your rifle scope is property padded.

Expensive items (optics, range finder, etc) I always carry-on both ways. You're allowed two bags, so you have a lot to play with. Packs and duffles are better for carry-ons because you can squish them into overheads and less likely to be gate checked. Hard bags not so much and you risk the chance of them wanting to send it below for a gate check, which I won't do if my valuables are in there.

Primary backpack....I've often made it a carry-on. If checking it, make sure you put it in another duffle or at least a plastic bag (like they do with car seats for kids). You'll lose straps and get burn marks from conveyer belts if you don't. I prefer a light weight duffle, this way if I need an extra bag on the way back because I shot something I have another bag to play with.

This year I'm hunting 5 days archery in one state and 5 days of gun in another. I figure I'll put the gun and bow in hard cases, strap together and in that big duffle. If I have extra weight, put more clothes in there. Should be interesting. It's the first time I'll do both.

Daniel M. - posted 3 months ago on 08-30-2018 09:16:55 am
goHUNT INSIDER

Cheers for the insight, helps to know when you're on the right path.

Curious what you do with you back pack when flying to location. Do you pack it as you would going into the field and then hand it over to the airline? Do you pack a suitcase with your gear and check you back pack separately? How do you protect your gear from damage/theft, but also get it there..

Robert H. - posted 3 years ago on 09-27-2015 08:41:32 pm
Colorado
goHUNT INSIDER

Brett you had some good points as well as the original article. As far as a water bottle just use a Gatorade bottle they are way lighter. I have used a tent in the past but looking at the new tarp from Kifaru.We will see how that works out. I have thought about and have bought the iodine tabs and some of the drops that do the same thing but just bought a MSR Hyperflow that is so light and pumps so much water I believe I will stick with it! Conveince matters vs the weight, Those Platypus water containers are very light and one of my close friends used them on his goat hunt this year and he would not use them again. They suck to fill and empty. I did buy two Marmot Plasma 0 degree bags while I could find them and the helium 15 and all were on sale this spring. Gotta love all of the stuff we buy to make the trip lighter and more comfy. Good stuff to read and learn from on here. Gonna have to try the English muffins from Whole Foods..I like them better anyways. Got to try out my used but new to me Kifaru Bikini frame on my Timberline bag this year elk hunting and I believe it fits better than my Duplex frame. Maybe I have not figured it all out but it seemed that way to me. I had to make some adjustments during my trip but overall I am pretty impressed. Next year is right around the corner so I will be fine tuning the pack and staying in shape. Keep sharing all of us!

Brett H. - posted 3 years ago on 09-16-2015 10:20:10 am
goHUNT INSIDER

Great write up. After doing a couple of these backcountry trips I've refined my equipment down to nearly the same list. Couple minor additions:

Sleeping: I used to be a bivy guy, but I'm moving more towards a 1 man tent. They're so light and small these days. Advantage is 1) if you get more than a day of rain. Bivy's get old if you have to deal with a lot of rain. Tent protects and allows things to dry out a bit. 2) in early season the hunt is mainly morning and evening, leaving a big part of the day open. I'll often take a nap and having a screen tent over you makes it much more enjoyable, simply to keep the darn flies off you.

Water treatment: Iodine tablets all the way. I'm done with filters. Although I do recommend bringing flavored electrolyte tablets (citrus). Taste great and totally covers up the iodine taste.

Breakfast: you didn't have it listed. I often brought it in the past and never ate it, especially if at altitude where I might be feeling a little off the first couple days in the morning. Now I eat one granola bar, which I can do as I'm hiking in the dark.

Lunch: The bagels hold up well and are decent, but they become bricks over time. I found if I buy large english muffins (good ones from the bakery at a Whole Foods) then I enjoy them more. Not quite at heavy and hold up a little better. Adding the cooked bacon and a little peanut butter goes a long way. I'm always surprised on day 5 I'm still able to eat them with relative enjoyment vs choke it down simply for food. (REI sells great little peanut butter or almond butter packets for single use.)

Folding game saw: little too heavy for such minimal use. I use a cheap metal wire saw, which you can buy at Big5. Weighs nothing and doesn't take up space. Takes little longer to cut, but gets through skull caps, etc.

Underwear: worth calling out separate from base layer. Merino wool is truly amazing. Firstlite is all I've used thus far. I'll wear one pair and bring a second, alternating each day. I'll air the extra pair out each day back at camp. This setup lasts a full week with virtually no stink.

Base Layers: Merino Wool has been the best by far. Synthetics stink way too much.

Hygiene: If I'm going for more than a weekend I'll bring a mini plastic toothbrush and toothpaste. Also 1/3 of a bar of scent free soap. Most days in the mountains I need to make a water run mid-day. Washing up helps mentally and keeps you scent free.

Water Container: Bring three 32oz containers. One hard Nalgene and then two collapsable platypus bags. I like three separate ones because depending on the hunt plan for the day I can leave some at camp. The plastic bags are hard to fill, using the Nalgene to fill them is easier. I wouldn't go all platypus. They collapse when filling solo.

Pepper Spray: I don't bother any more. I won't carry a big can of it and odds are I won't be efficient with it anyway. Most bears you see ahead of time and can avoid. The one that surprises you will come in so fast I doubt I could grab the spray and get him in the eyes.

Great writeup! Wish I had this a few years ago. Would have saved me a lot of money in upgrades and buying gear twice. What's the saying, buy once, cry once.