Spot & Stalk
Aug 26 2021
By Brian Strickland | @backcountry_brian
It had been a long week and in some ways a disappointing one as well. Not only did I misjudge one of those “slam dunk” shots at a solid P&Y Colorado bull on opening morning, but two days later I added insult to injury when I also blew an easy sneak on a bruin while his head was buried in a patch of raspberries. Although bull elk are more glamorous than your average, run-of-the-mill black bear, this bear was far from average. The weight of either in my pack would have been a nice ending to a long week in the backcountry.
I don’t know about you, but backpacking deep into the wilderness is my style of hunting. Regardless of whether it’s with a gun or bow, if I have a heavy pack on my back and miles of untapped wilderness in front of me, I feel totally at home. Teddy Roosevelt summed it up best when he stated, “The farther one gets into the wilderness, the greater is the attraction of its lonely freedom.”
As fitting as Roosevelt’s words may be, there’s more to a do-it-yourself backpack hunt than just throwing on a lightweight pack and pressing forward. The fact is, the realities of this endeavor have a way of driving the unprepared back into reality. Weather, injury, exhaustion and overall tough hunting conditions can all play a role in the outcome of the experience. With this in mind, here are some troubles to avoid when planning your next DIY backpack adventure bear hunt.
The Mental Game
Although having the right gear is no doubt a huge aspect of a successful backpack hunt, having the right mindset is perhaps even more important. Backpack hunting is more than just an idea; it’s really a mental grind. Even in game-rich areas, having the mental fortitude to grind it out as hard on the last day as you did on the first is what separates the average backpack hunter from those who seem to find success virtually every season. Mental toughness is developed over time by testing your limits, suffering, getting comfortable with being uncomfortable and having a can’t-quit attitude, regardless of the situation.
For most backpack hunters, mental toughness is achieved gradually, by experiencing the ups and downs of several hunts over time. Although you may like the romantic idea of a 10-day backpack hunt to start with, it’s far better to build up to such endeavors by doing several shorter ones instead. Not only will these trial runs test your equipment and your overall planning ability, but they will also begin to build the mental fortitude needed for much longer adventures.
As simple as it might sound, being properly hydrated is a huge part of a successful backpack hunt. But to be honest, it’s something that I and many others fall short of much of the time. The fact is, it’s extremely easy to get dehydrated in the high country. Not only is your mind consumed with finding and getting close to game, but warm temperatures coupled with higher elevations are killers on the water bottle. Failure to keep the tank full cannot only lead to heatstroke, energy loss and reduced mental capabilities, but in severe cases, it can lead to hypothermia. Ideally, you want to drink around three-plus liters of water a day when hunting in the backcountry, and when it’s warm, more is obviously better.
Personally, I like to leave the trailhead with a three-liter bladder full of water, and also pack empty bladders to fill once I set up camp. After a long day, be sure you drink enough water in camp, even if you’re not thirsty. It’s also good to drink plenty before you head out the following morning. Although water sources are relatively easy to find with a little research before leaving home, in dry years it’s best to do a little preseason scouting to ensure you have access to this liquid gold.
Although it is something that is often overlooked by many heading to hunt out west, it really shouldn’t be. Altitude-related illnesses can be a very serious issue. I’ve personally never experienced it, but I have been on hunts where it could have had severe consequences for others.
The most common is Acute Mountain Sickness or AMS. While it only occurs in about a quarter of those who live at lower altitudes and then sleep at altitudes greater than 8,000 feet, the risk increases significantly for those who sleep at altitudes greater than 10,000 feet. Although it’s impossible to know if you are one who will be affected by it, there are things you can do to prevent this backpack hunt killer.
Symptoms of AMS typically occur within the first 12 hours and will range from mild to severe depending on the person. They will also generally worsen after the first night in camp at higher elevations; however, they will typically resolve on their own with rest, fluids and not increasing your altitude level. The most common symptoms are fatigue, throbbing headache, dizziness, shortness of breath, difficulty sleeping, and in some cases nausea and vomiting. If symptoms persist, it’s a good idea to start descending to lower elevation.
The best way to avoid AMS is to ascend to higher elevation slowly. Although this can take time away from your hunt, it’s the best method to avoid AMS altogether. I’ve known several guys who sleep at the trailhead for one or two nights before heading to higher elevations. Doing this gives your brain the ability to acclimate. You also might consider hunting high but sleeping at a lower elevation, but this is certainly tougher on the body. If a slow ascent to higher elevations is unavoidable, your next bet solution would be to get a prescription of acetazolamide. It’s designed to increase your body’s ability to acclimate to higher elevations.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly. having realistic expectations will bring you back wanting more. Regardless of how prepared you are both mentally and physically, and how well equipped you are with the latest lightweight gear, these types of hunts are a challenge. Six miles might not sound that far at first, but when you throw in an extra 2,000-, 3,000- or 4,000-foot jumps in elevation, it will be a grind.With this in mind, pick locations to hunt that will suit your ability and style of hunting. Similar to developing mental toughness, start with shorter, more manageable trips. That may mean only a mile or two from your truck at first. But believe me, packing out the hide and blueberry-rich meat of a fall bruin will be more manageable, realistic and a lot more fun.