In September 2011, I had an opportunity to hunt with Dwight Schuh in Oregonâs Eagle Cap Wilderness, and he seemed intrigued with my light, efficient backpacking gear. I told him Iâve 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 Hanesâ 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, Iâve learned some valuable lessons regarding the selection of gear. âThe perfect backcountry gear system,â by my definition, is a backpack that contains everything needed to pursue, kill, and process game. Itâs 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. Iâll 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, youâll have a list to reference when you pack for your next hunt.
If youâre new to this type of hunting and donât have all the right gear yet, or are unsure what to list, donât worry. Use the wealth of knowledge available in books, magazines, and online to get started with someone elseâs list, and then adapt it to your own needs.
Keep in mind, not everyoneâs list is complete. Some only list what goes into their pack, but youâll see the most benefit from a âtotal system weightâ 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 letâs just start with one.
Iâve been known to commandeer my wifeâs kitchen scale to weigh the smaller items, and employ a good fish scale for the larger ones. This may seem tedious, but itâs 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 donât have. After that you can work on upgrading your gear as you find better options, and your budget allows.
Now itâs time to read ads, search the Internet, seek out the gear lists of others, visit trade shows, and talk with other hunters and retailers. Youâre not buying yet; you just want to see whatâs out there and what works. Compare your gear to whatâs 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 theyâre 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 Iâm currently using.
Iâve 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 didnât 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 theyâre 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 âno service, discount outlets,â and have to redo your research and spend new money on a better product, that discount you got on the first product wonât matter much. Even if you can return the item, youâve already wasted valuable testing time, not to mention money on shipping charges, if they apply.
Once youâve 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 Iâve 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. Iâd 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 momentâs 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 Iâm out there, not play âSurvivorman.â I learned that adding an extra pound and staying warm and dry keeps my energy focused on the real goal â hunting.
If youâve 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. Whatâs 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. Itâs the smart thing to do, but the truth is, I just canât wait to try it out. After the maiden voyage, keep an eye on the weather. If conditions will be similar to those youâll encounter on your hunt, itâs time for another camping trip. After all, you wouldnât 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 âdo-overs.â And donât forget scouting trips as another great time to test gear.
As with anything, practice makes perfect. While youâre out there, keep notes on whatâs working, what isnât, and whatâs missing. Todayâs vast technical gear options will allow you to hunt in just about any conditions Mother Nature will throw at you. If you choose well, youâll be dry, comfortable, and able to stay 100-percent focused on the real prize â your hunt.
Jeremy Johnson is an avid backcountry archery hunter. He lives in central Oregon with his wife and two daughters.