Hunting by Backpack

Backpack Hunting

I have been an avid backpacker and a dedicated hunter since I was about 12 years old. It’s no surprise that these two hobbies, which often bumped into one another, eventually combined into hunting by backpack.

Over twenty years ago, after just graduating from high school, I took a job with a hunting outfitter. We took our clients with packhorses into the Wyoming wilderness and set up big canvas wall tents to use as our base camp. A big tent was nice for creature comforts and such, but it seemed that we would spend a good part of the day riding/hiking into an area in pursuit of the animals we were hunting. If the wind or weather wasn’t just right, our effort was wasted, and we spent additional hours into darkness riding/hiking back to camp.

Pack animals were loaded with game and gear for basecamp hunting
Pack animals were loaded with game and gear for basecamp hunting

I had the thought then: “Gee, it would be nice to hike into the area and stay a few days, rather than devote so much effort traveling back and forth to a base camp”. From that initial thought, I spent the ensuing years in putting together gear from the realm of backpacking that was practical and applicable to hunting, learning what worked and didn’t work by trail and error.

My early attempts at lightweight backpack hunting were an adventure, to say the least. In good weather, I would throw an old army surplus down sleeping bag (no pad) and a blue utility tarp into my pack along with a single burner propane stove, some cans of pork and beans and hike off into the woods. The WWII era bag seemed to be 90% feathers and the quills from the feathers protruded through the lining poking randomly into my skin, making any amount of time spent in the bag pretty miserable.

On one October outing, a surprise rain squall made its way through the mountains and that WWII era cotton shelled down bag seemingly soaked up every drop of rain that fell. My futile attempts to use the utility tarp in the wind to keep out of the weather compounded my frustration. As the chill of dawn came, I emerged from my terrible tenement with a resolve to make drastic improvements in my gear. I can still smell the stale, soggy, and musty smell of that wet sleeping bag.

This Military gortex bivy with an early holofil sleeping bag keeps you dry and warm but not much room for gear when used alone
This Military Gortex bivy with an early synthetic sleeping bag keeps you dry and warm but there’s not much room for gear when used alone.

I subsequently got to a warmer, but bulkier synthetic sleeping bag, a closed-cell foam pad, and a surplus Gortex bivy sack. I bought my first internal frame backpack and traded in my clunky propane cylinder and burner for a MSR Whisperlite stove, as it was much lighter weight and more packable. I stuck with military surplus because it was cost-effective and durable gear, and the fact that most of it is camouflaged, worked perfectly for hunting. Rain and sleet were again the measuring stick as I had set camp at ten thousand feet in the Uintah mountains of Utah. That storm socked in and kept me in my bivy for nearly two stir-crazy days. I was warm and dry but had plenty of time to scheme about how to improve my gear.

I began to read up on light, ultralight, and thru-hiker blogs and websites to find equipment that could work better for me as a hunter. The big 4 that seemed to be crucial were: sleeping bag, pad, tent/shelter, and backpack. The advent of water-resistant down and lighter shell materials restored my trust in down sleeping bags for the best warmth to weight ratio. I also decided that due to the foul weather that was inevitable in fall outings, I wanted to be enclosed in a tent.

Hunting in the Uintah mountains of Utah routinely puts your camp at ten thousand feet elevation
Hunting in the Uinta Mountains of Utah routinely puts your camp at ten thousand feet elevation

Although a bit dated, my current choice is the Easton Kilo3p tent. Check out updated options in this year’s top 10 backpacking tents reviewed here. The Kilo, while discontinued, lends deluxe space when going solo, and still has ample space for gear and a hunting companion. Finally, throw in a Big Agnes Q-core SLX pad, and a Sea to Summit Thermolite Reactor Sleeping Bag Liner for colder nights, and I finally found an appropriate balance of weight to comfort ratio for me. To this, I added merino base and mid-layers, and selected jacket shells with more technical fabrics that performed better in changing hunt conditions.

Backpacks for Hunting

I first chose big packs like the Gregory Denali for its huge hauling capacity and 150 lb load rating. This seemed ideal for carrying my gear and minimizing trips back and forth into the backcountry hauling game out. It worked well, but with two major drawbacks. First, because it was a bigger pack, so I tended to pack more gear than necessary. This made me slower on the trail, less mobile, and unwilling to make large elevation changes in pursuit of game. Second, when successful in a hunt, hauling the game meat out was exhausting because the game meat would slump into the bottom of my pack because there wasn’t a reliable way of securing it despite the extra straps and load lifters. This disproportionate weight distribution put extra strain on my back, hips, and knees and made the trek out close to dreadful.

As backpack hunting has evolved, so have the packs. Companies like Kuiu, Mystery Ranch, Seek Outside, Kifaru, Stone Glacier, and Exo MTN Gear have completely transformed backpack hunting with innovative and functional designs adapted to hunters.

Mystery Ranch Beartooth 80 with load shelf extended with antlers
Mystery Ranch Beartooth 80 with load shelf extended with antlers

My current hunting pack is the Mystery Ranch Beartooth 80. This rugged pack has the capacity to carry my gear for extended hunts of 4-5 days. There is a breakaway overload feature built into the pack which allows the bag to expand away from the frame to carry meat, antlers, or hide. This eliminates the need to put meat inside the pack bag and makes the heaviest of loads more stable and closer to your back (same fundamentals as regular backpacking), so carrying a very heavy load becomes a lot easier.

A light initial pack weight is essential for backpack hunters. You need the ability to navigate rough country off-trail, having plenty of endurance, speed, and agility. Because seasons are often short, you are forced to brave whatever weather conditions persist.

Because seasons are often short, you are forced to brave whatever weather conditions persist
Because seasons are often short, you are forced to brave whatever weather conditions exist.

My total pack weight for a 3-4 day hunt is around 26-28 pounds. This may not seem remarkable to a seasoned backpacker unless you consider the extra gear specific to hunting, such as binoculars, spotting scope, field dress kit, and weapon of choice, etc. These trappings can add up to be a significant portion of your pack weight.

When planning how much weight I may need to carry on a successful hike, I evaluate distances and terrain and then add 50-75+ pounds of game meat for my pack to haul out. Regular backpackers aim to come out much lighter than that when they start, but as a hunter, I fully intend to come out MUCH heavier than I went in, so it’s important to keep the pack light from the beginning.

Mule Deer
Mule Deer

Efficiency is the key to a successful backpacking trip or a hunt. I keep careful inventory of what I take, what was used, and what could be left behind for the next trip. In the present day, the aforementioned hunting companies and many others offer more and more options for gear using technical fabrics in numerous camouflage patterns. Many offer their own versions of backpacks, clothing, sleeping bags, and tents. I can’t help look back on my own gear evolution with a little nostalgia, grateful to the backpacking community for paving the way for me to enjoy the outdoors to the fullest.

About the Author

Sven Peery is an all-season outdoorsman who enjoys backpacking, camping, hiking, skiing, and snowshoeing. He is also an experienced hunter and fisherman who is not afraid to wander off the beaten path. His wanderings have led him to hike and explore the vast trails of the High Uinta Wilderness, Wind River Range, and the Frank Church Wilderness in Utah, Wyoming, and Idaho respectively. Sven spent 8 years with a county Search and Rescue team in Northern Utah. His training includes man tracking, wilderness survival, backcountry, cave, and high angle rescue. Whether hiking in National Parks with family, rising up to 13,527 feet elevation of Kings Peak, or dipping nearly a mile below the rim to cross the Grand Canyon, he is always ready for the next adventure!
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34 comments

  1. Killing wild animals is your hobby?
    How sad.

    • Killing them with your credit card is not the moral high ground you might think it is.

    • What a rude comment, I for one thinks this was a wonderful article about hunters and backpackers alike. And how they both love and experience the great outdoors

    • Vegetarian 45 years here. No issues with hunting. Animals are free, not in pens or cages. Being on the lam for the duration of hunting season vs being on death row.

    • Do you eat meat? Wear leather? Take gelatin-capsule supplements?

    • I suppose you’re a vegan??? Guess what, traditionally beef cattle are slaughtered for your consumption. Before you judge consider the effort it takes to chase your dinner 4 miles up hill and then have to pack it out in weather conditions that are less than what’s expected driving to the store and shopping for 20 minutes.

    • Provided you eat what you kill (or give it to someone who will) and are following the applicable laws and regulations, I don’t see any ethical issue with hunting. The meat is free-range, raised on organic food sources, ethically slaughtered, and, if you hunt near where you live, locally-sourced.

  2. I enjoyed the article, and would like to see more on this subject.

    • I’ll add my vote to more of these types of articles. I enjoy both backpacking and hunting and I am trying to bring them together as well.

  3. My brother told me on one elk hunt backpacking trip, he took inventory of every single thing he had along–176 items. Although many of them were specific to his hunting expedition, he reflected that the elk had everything it needed just by itself. He was in their environment, he was the interloper and he required a bunch of gear to survive where the elk managed just fine. He backpack hunted often, mostly for the excuse to spend time camping the wild and that hunting got him hiking to places he’d never have attempted to go otherwise. If he got an elk, that was the bonus–a year’s supply of meat in the freezer. If he didn’t get one, it didn’t matter, he had a wonderful time.

    I joined him on a hunting trip in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. I was secretly hoping he wouldn’t bag the family meat supply because I didn’t want to carry it a dozen miles to the trailhead through as much vertical as the Grand Canyon (I was also using that expedition as a shakedown for an upcoming Grand Canyon hike). We never saw an elk but the camaraderie, the scenery, the autumn leaves, the haunting sounds of elk bugling in the distance will stick with me always. It was awesome!

    • Fred Bear said: “Go afield with a good attitude, with respect for the wildlife you hunt and for the forest and fields in which you walk. Immerse yourself in the outdoor experience. It will cleanse your soul and make you a better person.”
      What a wonderful memory. Elk or no elk, it sounds like it was a successful hunt.

  4. Enjoyed the article and would love to see more of this type of content. An extended hiking/hunting trip has been rising on my wish list for trips. Will hopefully be able to plan on in the next few years.

  5. I really enjoyed reading this article.

    As someone who has Backpacked for different kinds of hunting opportunities,it was great to see another person’s growth.

    Under 30 pounds Base weight is a heck of an accomplishment!

    • Backpacking gear is a continual evolution. When I was younger, I believed that hunting (and backpacking for that matter) wasn’t fun unless you were somewhat miserable. I am still learning, but as I have gained some age and experience, I have come to appreciate gear that offers some creature comforts without huge weight penalties. It’s much easier to hike farther and stay out longer.

      • My brother reminded me of a conversation I had with his son when we were all backpacking together in the Mission Mountains Wilderness about 20 years ago.

        He asked me, “Uncle David do you backpack much?”
        I replied, “No, usually I day hike.”
        Then he asked, “Have you ever backpacked?”
        I replied, “Yes, that’s why I day hike!”

        At that time, I thought backpacking was something to be endured in order to get to beautiful and noble surroundings. Once I figured out how to lighten my gear so as not to torture myself, the backpacking became an enjoyable part of the journey.

  6. I think it’s really refreshing to read about what it’s like to be a wilderness backpacker. It really makes me want to get out there with you. Very different from the current long-distance thru-hiker vibe on so many levels.
    The hunting part doesn’t bother me at all because it’s responsibly done and the meat is consumed.

  7. Great article. As a hunter and a hikers I enjoyed the information provided. Its nice to see real world experience on what works and what doesn’t. It helps other hunters/ hikers make an educated decision on gear choices without spend a lot of money on gear that doesn’t work. I will be looking forward to the next article on this topic.

  8. How do Hunters feel about external frame packs? I always hear thru hikers scoff at them saying that they are heavy, you can’t scramble with them, and get caught on everything when crashing through brush. I hear Hunters still use them because of how well they carry loads. I imagine you guys have to leave the trail and scramble up rocky areas and go through dense brush in pursuit of game.

    • Very good question. The truth is there are arguments for both amongst hunters. For me I would consider the terrain that I will be traversing. If there are a lot of hills, cliffs, and boulders an internal frame with the over load feature will help you balance with the load being closer to your body and your bodys natural center of gravity. I have never used an external frame pack for packing game, but would probably agree that an external frame would likely get hung up in the thick brush when traveling cross country/off trail.

  9. That’s a refreshing view of backpacking in the context of hunting. I tend to keep my hunting separate from my backpacking here in the eastern part of the country, with base camps the closest we ever come to actual backpacking during the hunt itself. It’s really cool to see the combination in your article. Nicely done.

  10. A great read on something I’ve wondered about – off route backpacking. If you are doing a “fair chase” of the elk \ deer, keeping your focus on the game movement, how did you prevent from getting lost from camp pre-GPS days?

    • In the “old days”, I relied mostly on topographical maps and a compass for navigation both in planning the trip and while in the field. There are some good articles on the subject on this site. In the West, it’s maybe a little easier to keep your bearings by paying attention to prominent land features to guide you in and out of the back country. Today I do most off trail navigation by GPS. If I’m in completely new/foreign areas I take pictures ahead and behind me for added reference before diving into the great unknown.

  11. Excellent article Sven – thanks to you and Philip for posting it.

    Your backpacking hunting evolution was interesting to read.

  12. Here in the UK we have a saying (IF THE CAP FITS WEAR IT!) What Bob said was SAD. If you feel guilty so you should. All life is precious.

  13. Thank you, Sven: There is a life value in growing, producing and obtaining one’s own food and not exclusive having to use the market. I enjoyed the excitement of growing up in Washington DC, but I made sure my kids had the opportunity to spend their childhood living on a farm nestled in the deep Northwood’s surround by the rivers and lakes of Wisconsin.

  14. I think we probably take hunters for granted when they deserve our thanks. Anyone who has seen the damage caused by deer or wild boar overpopulation should understand that hunters are our only practical method of control
    I was reading that the number of active hunters is dropping over time. If people stop hunting, what then?

  15. Having a life-long case of wanderlust and having recently contracted Adult Onset Hunter Syndrome (AOHS), I thoroughly enjoyed this article. I would very much like the REI crowd and the Cabela’s crowd to stop yelling at each other and work together for sustainable management of our nation’s wild places.

  16. Good article. Thank you to Sven Peery for penning this informative missive outlining a different philosophy of backpacking, involving foraging, issues encountered, and current solutions. It certainly helps to look at things from a different perspective and lessons learned which could be incorporated in my own future backpacking endeavours.

  17. Well hunters do more to preserve nature than recreational outdoor users. Their hunting permits go to preserving the wild both on a state and federal level. In addition they help control the overpopulation of some wild life which otherwise would lead to disease and death.

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