Have you ever had the good fortune of watching someone try to use a climbing treestand, or maybe a tree saddle, for the first time? Plenty of awkwardness and a certain amount of cussing will almost certainly ensue. Familiarity with hunting gear is a big plus, and its benefits don’t end where whitetail habitat stops and elk ground begins.
In fact, if there is one pursuit that prompts us to buy more gear than we probably should, it’s an elk hunt. The mountains demand specific gear, and most whitetailers-turned-temporary westerners, don’t own it. So we buy it, and oftentimes, we don’t really understand how to use it.
I’ll give you a very specific example from my own life. Last year, after eight days of hunting hard, a love-struck Colorado bull charged down a mountain and walked past me at 30 yards. When my hunting partner and I broke the elk down into manageable chunks of deliciousness, Tyler showed me how to turn my $600 pack into a meat-carrying machine.
It looked simple enough, and worked very well. What happened after I got home and tried to turn it back into a pack was embarrassing, however. I’d have had similar success trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube while being blindfolded and randomly stung by tarantula wasps. It made me realize that what I took as a pretty straightforward pack, was actually a highly-specialized piece of mountain hunting gear that I didn’t really understand at all when I made the 16-hour drive west.
Aside from packs, boots and clothing designed for mountain hunting are often misunderstood by bowhunters. Or at least, not fully appreciated and used properly. Boots are pretty cut and dry, but clothing — particularly clothing systems — often aren’t.
I know we all think we understand layering and what will keep us warm or dry (or both), but most mountain clothing systems are built around several different layers that allow for comfort no matter what the conditions are, or the effort involved during those conditions. Buying one piece of clothing in a system might be all you can afford, but you’ll get what you pay for in the high country. That expensive clothing that a lot of people diss is built for specific conditions and activities, and really can make a difference when used as it’s supposed to be used.
This may or may not matter to you on any individual hunt, but is worth a real understanding.
More than one bull has made it safely away from a calling setup because the shooter didn’t understand third-axis leveling on his site, or maybe wasn’t using a rangefinder with a built-in inclinometer. Shots in the mountains are hard-won, and blowing one is a total morale killer.
Knowing this, it pays to understand the kinds of shots you’ll take (likely angled) and the reality of what you have to do to make a double-lung shot in an up-and-down world. I don’t know how many conversations I’ve had with bowhunters who actually own a sight that is capable of third-axis leveling, yet they don’t even know what it is. That knowledge gap, which is not nearly as big of a deal in the deer woods, can be devastating in the backcountry.
Sleep is your best friend in the mountains, followed closely by nutrition. Both of these fuel hunting desire and attitude, which keeps you going when quitting is really tempting. The best elk hunters out there aren’t only the folks who are gym rats and running junkies, but those who keep a positive attitude and embrace the work involved.
This isn’t solely attributable to being comfortable in a bivy camp, but it’s certainly a factor. Too often elk hunters buy tents, sleeping pads or whatever based almost entirely on weight. While pounds and ounces are always a concern, if an extra pound can mean the difference between a sleeping pad or sleeping bag that actually allows you to sleep, it’s worth it because your performance throughout the hunt will get a tangible boost.
We’ve been led to believe the best mountain gear is always the lightest in weight, but that’s only partially true. It also has to work for us as individuals, and oftentimes that means we need to pay attention to weight, of course, but also what we need to be somewhat comfortable.
This goes for food choice too. If you buy backpacker’s food that is lightweight, but you hate it or your system can’t tolerate it, you’ve only gained a slight advantage in your pack’s weight. This is a Pyrrhic victory when your energy level drops to the point of no return or you’re burning through a pack of wet wipes every day while leaving a trail of GI carnage in your wake.
Your body is your best piece of equipment, and if you don’t treat it properly and understand how to give it what it needs to function for multiple days in the backcountry, you’re probably not going to kill an elk. It’s that simple.
Everything you bring into the mountains, from a GPS unit to an inflatable pillow, should exist solely to make your hunt more successful, but it can’t if you don’t know how to use it properly or if it’s just not a good choice for you. Think about this stuff as you’re rounding out your must-have gear list for your elk hunt, and make sure that you not only carry in the right stuff for you, but that you fully understand what it’s capable of positively adding to your hunt. If you don’t get there before you leave the trailhead, you might find that it’s too late.