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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.