October 15, 2021
What started out feeling like a manageable load, now felt like an anchor. I was in agony. Every joint in my body hurt. The Kifaru Hoodlum pack on my back was top notch, easily allowing me to adjust the balance of weight between my hips and shoulders, but I was now at a point where it didn’t seem to matter where the weight was. Everything hurt, and my body was angry.
My son, Lane, had taken a bull just below timberline, the story of which is featured in this very issue of Bowhunter. What you won’t read in Lane’s story, however, is about the toll packing that bull out took on his ol’ dad. I’d hunted that country a ton in my younger years, and had experienced similar packouts in the past, but that was then. Now I’m in my late-40s, and I’m discovering firsthand that preseason physical preparation becomes increasingly important as we age.
We started with heavy packs that morning, dropping a spike camp about halfway along an incredibly steep, vertical climb. Upon recovering Lane’s bull that evening, the weight of my pack and the incline of the accent had already taken its toll. By the time we boned-out the meat and loaded it on our packs, it was well past dark. The good thing was the journey ahead was all downhill; the bad thing was the terrain was incredibly steep, and unbeknownst to me, the path I chose through the darkness was chock-full of deadfall. Every 10 yards of distance traveled meant covering 20 yards of ground; sometimes only to run into an impenetrable tangle in the beam of our headlamps, requiring us to turn around, head back uphill, and find another route.
Ironically, I felt like I was in fairly good shape heading into that season. I was on a running kick, and in lieu of hiking hills with a weighted backpack, I had been running three to four miles, several times a week, throughout the summer. I figured it would be an adequate substitute for my normal routine, but while the running regimen was effective for building overall endurance, it fell far short of properly conditioning the muscles and joints used to carry a pack in steep terrain.
I eventually made it down the mountain that night, arriving at our spike camp at about 2 a.m., but the ordeal exhausted me to the point of general uselessness for a couple of days afterward — precisely when it was my turn to try to get on a bull. To put it simply: I wasn’t ready for what the hunt ended up throwing at me. I fought through the soreness and made the best of the coming days, but I was far from my best, and I’m determined not to let fatigue have as big an impact on my hunt again this year.
While running to get in shape is definitely a worthwhile endeavor, when it comes to preparing for a Western bowhunt, it is no replacement for a regimen of good ol’ backpack cardio. And I’m not just talking about elk, sheep, or mountain goat hunts. I’m talking about any Western hunt. Whether you plan to spot and stalk antelope on the prairie or pursue muleys in the desert, if there is one thing you can plan on doing while bowhunting out west, it’s covering uneven ground with some weight on your back. How much weight will depend on what and where you are hunting, and potentially, whether you are successful or not on the hunt. Either way, you need to be ready for it, and the best way to do that in my book, is throwing weight in a pack and finding a hill.
Start out with light weight. I like to use sandbags that can be found at most hardware stores. I’ll fill one with about 25 pounds of sand or gravel, drop it in a pack, and start hiking some hills. If hills are scarce in your neck of the woods, a treadmill or stair-stepper at the gym is a suitable substitute. Just remember that conditioning your joints and muscles to hiking downhill is just as important as training to go uphill, so if you’re on a stair-stepper, turn around and walk down the steps for a fair portion of your workout.
As your body adjusts to the weight, add another 25-pound sandbag and do your best to find steeper terrain. Graduate your pack weight from 25 to 50, and then up to 75 pounds. The flatter the ground you have to work with, the more important it is to push your boundaries with weight and distance. Try to get an hour of hard hiking in several times a week.
One valuable tip to keep in mind is to continuously adjust the balance of weight on your body. If your pack has load-lifters (straps located above the shoulders that are designed to take weight off your shoulders and transfer it to your hips), don’t always use them. Let the weight hang from your shoulders until they become fatigued, then engage the load-lifters and transfer the weight to your hips until they start to feel it. Moving the weight back and forth trains your shoulders and hips, and keeps them from getting overly fatigued, or even bruised, under a heavy load of meat, should you suddenly find yourself in that situation.
Another quick tip that will increase the effectiveness of your backpack-cardio workouts is one that I picked up from Editor Curt Wells. That is to carry a dumbbell to replicate the weight of your bow and alternate hands while carrying it. A five to seven-pound bow doesn’t seem like much to carry, but that weight quickly adds up when combined with the weight of your pack while putting on miles over hill and dale.
Lastly, don’t forget to wash your pack before heading out on your Western adventure. Using the actual pack you plan to hunt with is good policy. There’s no better way to get intimately familiar with your chosen rig, but forgetting to wash a summer’s worth of human sweat off the back of it is a nasty smelling mistake that Western game won’t respond well to.