By Dwight Schuh
Recently, a friend of mine who likes to hunt far off-road by himself as much as I do asked me if I had ever been afraid or intimidated in the backcountry. Thinking back over my many wilderness adventures, I must admit that some have got a little hairy, maybe even foolhardy.
One memorable sheep hunt in central Idaho definitely comes to mind. I had packed 30 miles from the trailhead with my llamas and set up a camp. Then I hiked another 10 miles from camp down a gnarly canyon in search of rams.
Sliding and stumbling down a scree slide, I stopped to rest and ponder the situation. Sure hope I make it to the bottom, I thought. If I get hurt here, I’ll never make it out alive. And nobody will ever find my bones…
Over the years, I’ve found myself in many similar situations, and have often questioned my intelligence. But have I been scared? Let’s be honest — I was not born fearless. In fact, as a young boy I was afraid of the dark, unknown places, heights, wild animals, and much more. But over the years I have conquered my fears, and for the past 50 years I have confidently trekked the backcountry with no worries. So in response to my friend, I said, “No.”
To a large extent, worry-free hunting comes from planning. Preparedness. Here are five of the most common physical elements that cause fear and worries, along with practical ways to conquer them. (In my next column, I will look at the mental aspects of worry-free hunting.)
Not long ago a friend of mine told me his companion, who’d packed only light cotton clothes for a September elk hunt, got so cold during a snow squall he (the companion) went home early. Whether the calendar says August or December makes no difference in the mountains, so plan your camp and clothing to cover the gamut of weather. And prepare a good survival hunting pack, too. If you guarantee yourself reasonable comfort during the day, a welcome camp each night, and security in case of emergencies, what’s to worry about?
Every year, media are filled with accounts of lost hunters. Some accounts end happily. Some do not. Navigation skills can eliminate virtually all “lost hunter” sagas, yet, sadly, many people give backcountry navigation no thought — until they’re in trouble. Before you ever leave home, study maps to learn the lay of the land you’ll be hunting. And never set foot off-road without a reliable GPS and other navigation tools. One day, an acquaintance of mine bragged he’d quit carrying a compass because he never needed it. The very next day he got caught in fog, and ended up wandering five miles in the wrong direction before the fog lifted and he got his bearings. Worried about getting lost and stranded? Why? The right tools — and skill in using them — will keep you on track.
According to Wikipedia, falling is the second-leading cause of accidental deaths worldwide. Those were not all in the American wilds, of course, but I think the principle applies here. One stumble on a rock or slip on a wet log can produce a broken bone, or much worse. The danger is real, and should always breed caution. Trekking poles are always a good safety measure, but good old caution and common sense will prevent most falls — and worries.
Can anything be more miserable than diarrhea or other intestinal distress in the backcountry? Tainted water is the most common culprit. To prevent problems, pump or treat drinking water, and boil cooking water. In camp I often purify water with a filter, but in my hunting pack I carry iodine tablets just because they’re smaller and lighter. Even the purest-looking water can contain pathogens, so never take chances. Purify it, and enjoy your hunt.
In the minds of many inexperienced outdoorsmen, wild animals pose a huge threat. After all, the wilderness teems with bears, mountain lions, rattlesnakes, and wolves. These are bad news, aren’t they? Well, not really. Sure, predators can do harm, but animal attacks are rare. I don’t have room to expand on animal behavior and avoidance here, but the information is available through dozens of media. Do some research on wild animals and other backcountry concerns, and walk the backcountry with no worries.