Finding the Perfect Backcountry Gear System
June 04, 2012
In September 2011, I had an opportunity to hunt with Dwight Schuh in Oregon's Eagle Cap Wilderness, and he seemed intrigued with my light, efficient backpacking gear. I told him I've had a lot of practice at researching and selecting equipment over the last three years.
In 2009, my house burned down, along with all my hunting gear. A year later (as related in Cameron Hanes' April/May 2011 Bleed column), rogue hunters stole all my gear in the backcountry. Both tragedies forced me to research and buy all new equipment.
Throughout these experiences, and through years of serious wilderness elk hunting, I've learned some valuable lessons regarding the selection of gear. "The perfect backcountry gear system," by my definition, is a backpack that contains everything needed to pursue, kill, and process game. It's a system that allows you to hunt deep into the wilderness, under any weather conditions, and will sustain you for five days or more before having to re-supply.
Whether your game is backcountry, treestand, or day hunts, these methods are universal. I'll use my backcountry system as an example.
Start by writing down a detailed list of every item you must take on your hunt, right down to the string you tie your tag on with. This serves two purposes. First, it gives you a baseline to work from when researching new gear. Second, when you finish building your new gear system, you'll have a list to reference when you pack for your next hunt.
If you're new to this type of hunting and don't have all the right gear yet, or are unsure what to list, don't worry. Use the wealth of knowledge available in books, magazines, and online to get started with someone else's list, and then adapt it to your own needs.
Keep in mind, not everyone's list is complete. Some only list what goes into their pack, but you'll see the most benefit from a "total system weight" measurement, which includes all the items you walk in with, minus your naked body.
I use an Excel spreadsheet for this task. Include each item, listed by brand and model, weight, and/or volume. Create separate lists for each type of hunt (i.e. one for elk, one for mule deer, etc.). They may contain a lot of the same items, but for now let's just start with one.
I've been known to commandeer my wife's kitchen scale to weigh the smaller items, and employ a good fish scale for the larger ones. This may seem tedious, but it's worthwhile. Here is an excerpt from my 2011 backcountry drop camp elk gear list:
Research is where the rubber meets the road. Start with any items you don't have. After that you can work on upgrading your gear as you find better options, and your budget allows.
Now it's time to read ads, search the Internet, seek out the gear lists of others, visit trade shows, and talk with other hunters and retailers. You're not buying yet; you just want to see what's out there and what works. Compare your gear to what's new, and never succumb to pride and think your way is the only way. There is much to be gained from respectful, humble collaboration among hunters, young and old.
I keep my gear lists on my computer and smartphone so they're always handy. When I see a cool new product, I can make an informed decision as to whether it deserves a place in my pack by comparing its features, benefits, and weight to what I'm currently using.
I've found it very beneficial to deal with retailers who know and personally use the products they sell. These guys can make specific recommendations on equipment based on the type of hunting and conditions you intend to use it for. This will help you avoid ending up with a closet full of stuff that just didn't work.
I do appreciate all the catalogs, advertisements, outdoor stores, and gear websites. These are all valuable tools that keep us up to speed on the new advances in the industry. In fact, with a publication like Bowhunter, I make it a point to read every ad. They give me ideas on how I can improve my odds of success through better equipment. That said, while marketing claims are helpful, on their own they're not enough to earn my dollar. Retailers have to be able to fill in the blanks on the fit, function, and best application for the gear they sell, whether on the phone, online, or in person.
This also puts a new angle on cost. If you make one wrong decision by buying from the "no service, discount outlets," and have to redo your research and spend new money on a better product, that discount you got on the first product won't matter much. Even if you can return the item, you've already wasted valuable testing time, not to mention money on shipping charges, if they apply.
Once you've narrowed your search down to two or three possibilities, write down the pros and cons of each. Consider how they will help you succeed as a hunter. Weight, size, noise level, functionality, durability, and price can all be factors in this decision. In my experience, having all the facts down on paper helps me make the best decision.
Of course, we all heavily research larger purchases such as a bow, tent or pack, but I've seen some great gains by scrutinizing the smaller items. Ounces add up to pounds, and less space equals a smaller pack.
Here are a few improvements I made to my list above as a result of my research and collaboration with certified gear maestro, Mike Monnin, from CaptivateM Outdoors:
I replaced my 15-degree sleeping bag with a 30-degree bag and planned to lay my raingear under my pad for an added insulation barrier. I'd sleep in the insulated pants and coat I already have. Weight savings: 15 oz. and considerable pack space.
I decided to leave out the pack cover and switch to a lighter, waterproof compression sack. Anything that has to stay dry can go in the compression sack, the rest can get wet. A liberal treatment of Badlands waterproofing spray on my pack repels moisture well for an added measure of protection. Weight savings: 10.5 oz. and pack space.
Most of the time, lighter is better, right? Not always. Function sometimes outweighs weight. Remember, the ultimate goal is to tie your tag on an animal, so if a little extra weight gives you a better chance of achieving that goal, so be it.
One example I can give you of weight versus functionality is my tent. I prefer to pack an adequate tent when hunting in the high country for more than a couple of days as opposed to my former method of using only a bivy sack. Weather in the mountains can get ugly at a moment's notice. On one hunt, a week of foul weather with only a bivy sack and a wet down sleeping bag for shelter, forced me to employ survival skills to stay alive. Yes, I survived, and even killed a bull, but my intent is to hunt while I'm out there, not play "Survivorman." I learned that adding an extra pound and staying warm and dry keeps my energy focused on the real goal — hunting.
If you've diligently followed the steps of listing and research, the buying part will be quick and easy, if not painless. Honorable business practices dictate you buy your gear from retailers who helped you decide on the proper gear in the first place. They earned your dollar. If I have to pay a few extra bucks to a retailer that knows the gear they sell, and offers exceptional customer service, I will. If their assistance makes me a better bowhunter, I consider it money well spent.
So, you get home with your new gear. What's the first thing you want to do? Try it out, of course! My backyard has served as the initial testing ground for all of my camping gear. It's the smart thing to do, but the truth is, I just can't wait to try it out. After the maiden voyage, keep an eye on the weather. If conditions will be similar to those you'll encounter on your hunt, it's time for another camping trip. After all, you wouldn't want to be miles from civilization and find out something is missing or wrong with your new gear. Even reputable manufacturers can make mistakes. With backyard camping, the commitment level is low. If something fails, retreat to the comfort of your home.
Do the same thing with your clothing. Hike around and shoot your bow in all weather conditions. This will help you catch issues with your clothing that might hinder your hunt before they become issues you have to deal with for a week. Remember, once you leave that trailhead, there are no "do-overs." And don't forget scouting trips as another great time to test gear.
As with anything, practice makes perfect. While you're out there, keep notes on what's working, what isn't, and what's missing. Today's vast technical gear options will allow you to hunt in just about any conditions Mother Nature will throw at you. If you choose well, you'll be dry, comfortable, and able to stay 100-percent focused on the real prize — your hunt.
Jeremy Johnson is an avid backcountry archery hunter. He lives in central Oregon with his wife and two daughters.