The woods are full of stories of unprepared hunters. Some indicate just plain carelessness, like forgetting a knife. A few are downright hilarious . . . provided it didn't happen to you. The best one I know of involves a hunter who had just arrived in camp in the Ethiopian high country. The intended quarry, a mountain nyala -one of Africa's greatest and most elusive prizes- walked across the meadow below camp. The hunter and his guide grabbed their gear and rushed into position for a shot, only to discover that the rifle's bolt was still in the gun case back in camp. The hapless hunter got a shot all right -two weeks later! A few such stories aren't funny at all, with tragic consequences ranging from spoiled game to lost hunters suffering hypothermia and worse.
The gear you need to take afield depends heavily on the situation. You don't need a whole lot of stuff to sit in a treestand a few hundred yards from your house. Other excursions, such as backpack hunts and any hunt into remote country or severe climate becomes very gear intensive. To some degree you need to be able to predict what you're getting yourself into . . . and then project both the best case and worst case. Hope for the best, but pack your gear in preparation for the worst.
Whether you create written checklists or just work against mental notes, I find it helpful to divide the necessary gear into four categories: What you need to locate and harvest your game; what you need to take care of your game; what you need to keep yourself comfortable no matter what the weather does; and gear you need to get yourself out of trouble if something goes wrong.
Getting Your Game
Most of this is obvious . . . until you forget something you really needed! Binoculars should be mandatory. A spotting scope may or may not be necessary, but on long-distance trips I almost always take one. It can always be left in camp if the terrain doesn't suit its use. These days, I almost always have a compact rangefinder in my daypack. Think about game calls -not only calls for deer and elk, but a predator call is a handy thing to have almost anywhere.
Make sure your firearm or bow setup is complete. Did you remember a sling, and perhaps a bipod or shooting sticks? Take plenty of arrows and/or ammunition. Every guide I know has stories about hunters running out of ammo when success was at hand! There is simply no excuse for this! I usually take a minimum of two boxes of shells on a hunt, so that I'll have plenty to rezero with in case I take a fall or experience a miss that I can't explain. Whenever I leave camp and am actually hunting I usually carry about 20 rounds, enough for any hunting situation and some emergency signaling if necessary. You should have a cleaning kit in camp, and make sure you take the right screwdrivers so you can tighten up bow sights, scope mounts, or whatever.
Every time you go hunting you should anticipate success, and have everything you need to properly care for your game. In some circumstances, the required gear may be as minimal as a good knife and sharpening stone or steel. In other cases you may need game bags, coolers, bone saw, and a good hoist to simplify handling. Obviously the heavy gear will be left in camp or in your truck, which begs the obvious question: How are you going to get your game out of the woods? You shouldn't go hunting -and should not turn loose a bullet or arrow- unless you know exactly how you will recover your game. Numerous options range from dragging to game carts to hiring horses . . . but, if the latter, arrange for pack stock up front! If my game can't be dragged out easily, I prefer packing on a packframe -boned meat, quarters, or whole depending on the size of the animal. But that's me; your recovery plan needs to be based on your physical capabilities. Good photos are an essential part of the hunt, so at a minimum I pack a compact camera, extra film, and extra batteries.
Warm and Dry
Especially out West, weather can change very quickly, so even on early fall hunts I pack warm clothing, good raingear, and boots that will keep me dry in snow or rain. Not too long ago I went on an elk hunt with six hunters, and only half of us brought sleeping bags. They gave the outfitter a hard time for not providing a gear list, but, really . . . ! A good sleeping bag should be the first thing you pack unless you absolutely know you will not need it. Plenty of extra socks, warm headgear, and gloves should go along on almost any North American hunt.
Now, when you leave camp for a day's hunt, you don't want to load yourself down with gear. But you never know what the weather might do, so you should never leave a warm, dry place without being prepared. Raingear should be mandatory, and good raingear also provides an extra wind-breaking layer when it's cool. I usually stuff a wool watch cap, gloves, and a silk kerchief in my pack. The latter is a great tip; most heat loss is from the head and neck, and it's amazing what a silk bandanna around your neck will do for you. In the mountains I also stuff dry socks and long underwear in my daypack. After climbing a hill it always gets cold when you stop to glass. A fresh, dry layer-or even a dry T-shirt-works wonders.
Just in Case
Anticipate the unexpected. Whenever you leave camp, consider that you might not make it back that night. This isn't necessarily ominous. You might take game just at dark and need daylight to take care of it properly, or you might spy a big ram or bull in a basin that you can't quite reach before dark . . . so you sleep with him in anticipation of the morning. If you have an extra layer of dry clothing you'll probably be fine . . . with a couple more things. The basics are a flashlight with extra bulbs and batteries and something to make a fire with. I carry a little butane lighter, but waterproof matches are the old standby. I always carry a canteen, and either a filter or purifying tablets should be included. A few handfuls of trail mix won't weigh much and will get you by. In colder weather a space blanket can, literally, save your life.
Depending on where you are, make sure you have what you need to determine where you are . . . and find your way out of the woods. A compass is another essential, and you may want to team it up with topographic maps and a GPS. I carry a small first aid kit with Band-Aids, antiseptic, and such . . . and I have a big and very complete first aid kit that I take into camp on more remote hunts. With these things should go a basic knowledge of both survival skills and first aid. The blaze orange most gun hunters wear is as good as anything for signaling, and is a good item for camo-clad hunters to have in their pack.
My daypack is probably heavier than it needs to be . . . but I've rarely been without something I really needed, and I've learned from those occasions! Every situation is different, so the required gear changes constantly. The important thing is to think . . . and never assume someone else, whether a buddy or a guide, will have the gear you might need!
Arguably the most experienced hunting writer alive today, Craig Boddington has hunted big game in 29 American states, five Mexican states, and seven Canadian provinces . In addition to his vast North American hunting background, he has been on 46 African safaris and has thoroughly hunted 25 different countries, effectively spanning all six continents.
He currently lives on California's Central Coast when he's not away hunting or on duty with the U.S. Marines. His work includes numerous magazine articles as well as 14 books on hunting and shooting (several of which can be obtained through Cabela's).
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