If you are planning to hunt the mountains this fall, you need to start preparing now. Mountain hunts are different from most other types of bowhunts. The mountains will test your gear, your physical preparation, your shooting ability, and your mental fortitude. Fail any one of these tests, and odds are you will be coming home with an unpunched tag.
Although I have been fortunate to hunt the high country on several occasions for sheep, mountain goats, mountain caribou, and elk, I have found the mountains to quickly expose any weaknesses in my prehunt preparations. Regardless of whether you are planning a DIY hunt, or are going on a guided hunt, the prehunt planning and preparations for a successful hunt are basically the same.
If your hunt is an outfitted hunt, ask the outfitter for a recommended gear list. All outfitters have them.
Probably the two most important pieces of gear that need to be properly fitted to you are your boots and your backpack. There are several manufacturers of mountain boots and backpacks and I can’t imagine purchasing either of these pieces of gear sight unseen through mail order. If you don’t have access to a store that carries this gear, you may want to consider attending one of the annual hunting conventions that host vendors of mountain-hunting gear.
When hunting the mountains, you need clothing that can dry quickly. You will find that your clothes are going to get wet, either from sweat or from the weather. None of my mountain clothing is manufactured from cotton, because once cotton gets wet, it is almost impossible to get it dry in a tent. Consider shirts with pit zippers, and pants with vent zippers. These are great for reducing body heat and sweating while hiking.
For mountain hunting, I also recommend one or two trekking poles. They provide you with additional support when coming down slopes with a heavy pack. I use one with an ice-axe head that has come in handy when climbing up icy slides.
You will also need a good pair of binoculars. Don’t skimp here. Get as good a pair as you can afford. If you are planning a DIY hunt, a good spotting scope is also a necessity. If I am going on an outfitted hunt, my guide usually carries one, so I leave mine at home to reduce my pack weight.
Quality raingear is a must. I like the lightweight and breathable types made by KUIU and Sitka. I have used other brands of heavier, rubberized raingear, which are more impervious to rain but do not breathe. However, when I hiked in it, I got just as wet from sweating and found it to be of no advantage.
Staying hydrated while in the mountains is important. Some hunters use a bladder and hos00e arrangement in their packs that allows them to drink while hiking. I use a wide-mouth plastic bottle with a screw-off lid that is fitted with a filter straw. I store the bottle in a side pocket, so I can take a drink while I am hiking. You may also want to consider a lightweight, squeeze-type water filter that doesn’t take up much room in your pack and weighs almost nothing.
When it comes to gear preparation, the U.S. Navy SEALs have a saying: “One is none and two is one.” I always take two bows with me and leave one in base camp. If my bow breaks while in the mountains, I take some comfort in knowing that a backup is available, even if it requires me to hike back to camp, or have the outfitter fly it out to me.
I always carry two releases with me. I carry my spare release in my pants pocket and not in my pack. You may drop your pack during a stalk, and if you need your spare release during the stalk, you won’t have it.
I always take two identical angle-compensating rangefinders with me that have been calibrated to my bowsight. I keep one rangefinder, and I let my guide use the other one. If your guide has his own personal rangefinder, make sure that it is angle-compensating and that it reads identical to your rangefinder.
Your pack must be capable of supporting your bow for hands-free hiking. I carry my extra arrows in a plastic tube that is strapped to the side of my pack. The tube prevents the arrows from becoming bent or damaged in the event of a fall. I also carry a small repair kit with D-loop material, screws, spare sight pin, Allen wrenches, and string wax. I also take a 10 to 12-inch-diameter chunk of high-density foam that fits in the bottom of my pack for taking practice shots every day while on the mountain.
On mountain hunts, weight is a big consideration. When it comes to food for the hunt, freeze-dried is the way to go. In preparation for the last mountain hunt that I was on, I purchased a long-handled spork made from titanium that is specifically made for the commercial bags of freeze-dried food. It weighs next to nothing, and it makes eating out of those bags much easier.
Hiking in the mountains will cause you to expend many calories. If you just rely on eating freeze-dried food for three meals, you probably won’t be consuming enough calories to see you through to the end of the hunt. During a couple of mountain hunts, I had not been consuming enough calories and staying hydrated, and my body basically shut down. Marathon runners refer to this as “bonking.” In addition to the freeze-dried meals, I take my own high-calorie snacks, protein bars, and chews on every hunt. I separate them into one plastic bag of snacks for each day. I put the snacks for the day into easy to reach pouches on my pack belt. I force myself to eat a snack at least every couple of hours.
You will need a lightweight sleeping bag and pad as well as a knife, headlamp, and possibly a tent if your outfitter does not provide one. Your outfitter’s list will identify other gear items that I didn’t specifically mention.
Your physical preparation should start several months before you’re scheduled to hunt. You should confirm with your doctor that you are able to handle the physical challenges that the mountains will present before even considering booking an outfitted mountain hunt, or planning a DIY hunt.
I generally try to stay in shape year-round. However, at least three months before a scheduled hunt I start hiking with my backpack on. I start with 20 pounds in my pack and try to work up to 70-plus pounds for at least four miles before I leave for the hunt. I monitor my time and distance, trying to either reduce the time, and/or add distance. You can use bags of sand for weight. You should always hike in the boots that you’re going to wear on the hunt. I also wear the socks, shirts, and pants that I plan to use on the hunt. Now is the time to discover any issues with clothing items. I don’t want any surprises.
At some point, you need to pack all of the gear that you plan to take with you on the mountain into your pack. Strap your bow to the pack. Your bow should not move on the pack as you hike. A moving bow can sap your energy and throw you off balance. Now is the time to identify any issues with the pack and/or your method of packing.
If you live where there are hills available to hike, you should take advantage of them. When preparing for a mountain hunt, I make sure that I am hiking up and down hills. Hiking downhill with a heavy pack on helps to condition your knees. I always use my walking sticks while hiking. I also do some side-hilling to condition my ankles. If you don’t have hills available to hike, you can hike stadium steps. I generally try to do at least three hikes per week in the three months prior to leaving for a mountain hunt. I visit the gym on the off days.
I use a PSE Carbon Air 34 bow set at 66 pounds. My bow is equipped with a Spot Hogg Hogg Father seven-pin slider sight. Your sight should have a bubble level and be capable of 3rd-axis adjustment. A lot has been written about the need for adjusting the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd axes of your bowsight, so I will not repeat those details here. I also use a TightSpot seven-arrow quiver that can be quickly detached from my bow.
I shoot my bow year-round, and I generally use the months of January-March to try out any new gear items, arrows, releases, etc. I also use this time to work on my form by shooting a blank bale in my basement. As the weather gets better, I move out to my yard to get my pins set and calibrated to my rangefinder.
Based on the several mountain hunts I’ve taken over the years, it is more likely than not that you will be shooting uphill, downhill, or along a sidehill rather than on the level. So, you need to practice all three shooting scenarios. Learn to use the bubble level on your sight while practicing. I use 3-D targets, and I also practice shooting from my knees and from different positions and angles.
It’s hard to prepare mentally for the challenges that you will likely face on a mountain hunt. I try to build my mental fortitude while hiking during the summer months, which often present temperatures in the mid to high 80s with high humidity. Hiking in those conditions is not fun. The Navy SEALs call it “embracing the suck.” I try to remind myself that every step is going to bring me closer to my goal of a successful hunt. Enduring those conditions while preparing for a hunt will make them easier to withstand during your hunt.
When hiking up a steep hill, I break it into small chunks. I pick a rock or ledge partway up the hill. My only goal is to get there. Once I get there, I pick another rock or ledge. I do this over and over until I get to the top. It’s like the old adage, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”
I can’t think of a mountain hunt where my mental fortitude didn’t start to wane at some point. Your body starts to wear down from the hiking, you encounter bad weather, treacherous terrain, lack of animals, or maybe you even miss a shot or blow a stalk. It happens to everybody. It’s easy to become discouraged. Take one day at a time. After a tough day, I listen to music on my cell phone or iPod and look at pictures from past hunts. I also carry a Garmin InReach, which allows me to text my family and friends. This helps to lift my spirits and gets me ready to give my all the next day.
Proper preparation for a mountain hunt will not make your hunt easy. Every day you’ll need to meet the challenges thrown at you by the mountains. But I’ve had no greater sense of accomplishment than when I put my hands on a pair of antlers or horns knowing that I beat the mountains. Then again, as Sir Edmund Hillary said, “It is not the mountains we conquer but ourselves.”