Author: Skip Knowles
Backcountry hunters obsess about fitness and losing weight for hunting season, but it is their gear that should be on a diet. Last week my low-fat hunting gear put me on the kind of adrenaline feast we all crave like fried chicken and pizza after a day in woods.
For 20 minutes, I watched as two central Utah bull elk butted heads, fed, scratched their itches and generally just enjoyed being elk. Less than 20 yards downhill on that murderously steep mountainside, but two miles from my truck, I came to full draw and slowly stood from a crouched position. The 20-yard pin went from one bull's armpit to the next, and I filled with lusty satisfaction.
Four days, I told myself. In four days these big spikes would be legal, along with the 40 or 50 more elk that had tried to run over me in the black timber that morning. The juvenile bulls were the best trophies this spike-only part of Utah has to offer, and such good-eating I carry black pepper, salt and matches in my pack to light up a chunk of loin should I score.
But that's about my only indulgence. Everything else, from my knife to my boots, bow and backpack quiver are on the less-is-more plan of shedding pounds. Getting far off-road means seeing more animals, and now, more than ever, hunters are looking to lighten their load to go farther afield in search or unharassed game.
At the top of this echelon is Ryan Jordan, a super-mobile backpack hunter whose position as editor of Backpack Light magazine allows him to implement the most cutting edge backpacking gear to his passion for hunting. His tireless legs and a willingness to eat balls of butter also help. But more on that later.
"Hunters have this mentality of cabin tents and horse packing, double burner stoves and cast iron skillets," Jordan says. "There will always be a faction of those who go for the camping experience and want amenities. Ultralight, though, will appeal to more hunters as outfitter pressure increases."
Besides, "amenities" are a matter of perspective. Heavy gear that keeps you from hunting where you want to go hunting comfortably is not an amenity. I am a determined hike-in hunter, but simply not that tough. Not tough enough to carry unneeded pounds. Not with a left knee that lost all it's cartilage on the chukar-filled hills of the Snake River years ago.
Every year I meet the 'real' tough guys deep in the forest. I am amazed to bump into hunters with huge, heavy, military surplus canteens, Rambo-era knives, full-sized flashlights and thick canvas pouches hanging from their belts. Monster binoculars with metal showing through paint chips, and a brass hinged-lid compass that could double as a canoe anchor.
On their feet, massive brown logger boots that suggest steel toes. I call them the chargers. They scour the country like nomads, seeing deer and elk butts all day and having a great time. Bugling all the while as they charge around as though public-lands elk don't flee in terror from that noble note. Not great hunters, but avid outdoorsmen, I consider them elite because they are intrepid enough to get the hell away from the roads, and stalwart in their determination.
Tougher than I, that lot. I would cry myself to sleep if I had to carry all that antiquated, overbuilt equipment. As a group, hunters could stand to steal a page from the highly evolved gear of elite backpackers, the guys who saw the handles off their tooth brushes and drill holes everything they can to reduce weight.
The modern hunter tends to know about titanium rifle barrels but not titanium cookware. We know about featherweight bolt actions but not featherweight cook stoves.
The reason to go ultralight is simple. Rifle and bow hunters who lighten up will see more game with the same amount of effort. Those two bull elk I encountered on that Utah mountainside were at ease because I was not supposed to be there. At 10,000 feet in Utah's open, arid country, getting away from people, roads, ATV's and the 90 percent of hunters that are mentally chained to their trucks is all it takes to have such encounters with regularity.
The bulging veins in the face of a big herd cow elk were another nice mental snapshot from that morning. At 12 yards that elk had not seen me, leading the entire herd right past. Half a mile away, my son sat within 40 yards of a large herd as they settled for their midday bedding.
We had hiked in over a mile before even entering the treeline, then hiked down into a vast bowl for another mile. It was a spot we'd learned the hard way: by wearing out boots. But my son had killed his first deer, a 3-point, in this area two years prior.
In Utah, like most of the West, almost all alpine territory is prime deer and elk habitat. You don't have to study maps searching for springs, classic food sources or any other classic topo map clues to finding big game.
Nope. What you need is simply to lighten up and start hiking away from roads. It is that simple. The further you get from the roads, the more game you are going to see. I no longer find animals by searching for ideal habitat; I simply look at road systems on maps and pick out the spots where pressure will move the critters. It is always where those little lines on the topo maps get real close together.
I watched those two elk bed down, and crept away to come back for the Thursday elk opener. They were gone by then, of course. Even that far from roads, some chargers had come through and spooked them out (I found their boot prints). I could hear the elk in a lower bowl area, downhill yet another mile, and I planned my next ultralight assault, consoled for the time being by the knowledge that all the ultralight gear in the world does not make elk meat any lighter to pack out.
Losing weight by lightening your load becomes an obsession and a lot of fun, unlike fad-diet frenzies. I now find myself intolerant of heavy, clunky, gear ("stupid" or "gorilla" gear, I call it) even when not hunting in the backcountry. Even when hunting an east coast tree stand for whitetails on a soybean farm 100 yards from the ATV trail, I do not want to be laden down with extra pounds anymore than I want to trout fish with a thick, heavy, "stupid" fly rod and oversized reel.
So start Slimfasting your gear and your knees, your feet, and ultimately, your trophy room, will thank you. It is best to break the ultralight hunter down into two categories:
1) THE DAY HIKE-IN HUNTER:
Overnighters benefit the most from ultralight technology, but day-hiker-hunters can reap huge weight savings, too. Besides, we all ultimately day-hike from even our spike camps.
This is where we are so lucky to live in this age, where seam sealing and textile technology have brought clothing weights down to near nothingness. Packable Gore Tex shells that weight ounces, thin, wicking thermals and socks that no longer need liners, for starters. High country is cold country, even on warm September days. It can be seventy in the sun and a squall will roll in, spray wet snow all over you, and drop the temperature over 40 degrees in just a few minutes.
Wear the comfortable light camo gear that you love, but bring one piece of heavy-duty protection in a lightweight package if you are in the backcountry. I pack a Cabela's Dry Plus camo pullover. It is my backup bulky insulating layer, yet also a breathable waterproof foul weather coat, and I wear it strapped across the top of my backpack style cat quiver. It breaks up my outline so animals often do not recognize my human form, resembling more a misplaced totem pole in the woods.
Most of the time it stays strapped there all day, but when those high country squalls hit it is a savior. I have hunkered under trees and hiked out in freak September blizzards in that coat because it is windproof, waterproof, has a ton of dead air space and most importantly, an insulated hood.
Keep your core warm and you hands and feet stay warm; the thickest gloves and boots mean nothing when your body sucks your blood from your extremities to preserve your core.
I have not worn heavy wool hunting pants or coats for years, though they are great for still or stand hunting anywhere you are near a road. Wool can be great for duck blinds, but for the ultralight hunter it is heavy, bulky, and neither water nor wind proof. Unacceptable, except as socks.
Pick the lightest pair of boots you can, focusing on bulk and thickness of soles rather than height. Figure out how much tread, waterproofing, support and insulation you need, then go with the lightest model that FULLY meets those needs. I am currently in love with a pair of Hi-tec's V-lite series in early season, and Cabela's Outfitter scent control models in late season. The V-lites weigh almost half as much as a normal pair, though they lack stiffness and torsonial rigidity. Pick light boots, but not cheap ones. Do not cut corners here.
Food is heavy! And it smells. On one recent trip I toted a sandwich bag full of trail mix (raisins, nuts, M&Ms) and realized I'd made a rotten choice later in the day after spooking animals. Opening my fanny pack, the peanuts reeked even through the plastic bag, and after consuming it all I realized my pack was noticeably lighter.
Avoiding heavy foods is easy; picking great light ones is not. Look for anything that is low in moisture content. Focus not so much on the weight but density of calories; go for concentrated calories.
On my favorites list for day-hikes are: jerky, freeze dried anything, candy bars (heavy, but not for the amount of calories you get, and compact), dried fruit (banana chips are vitamin, energy rich, and almost weightless), almonds, Harvest Power Bars. I will never give up my peanut butter sandwich, so I go with whole wheat bread and a thin layer of jelly and lots of peanut butter.
In the field, eat the heaviest stuff first. Do not ration your water, either, drink it as you get thirsty so you have almost none left for the hike out. I carry Gatorade, and my last ascent I store it all in my belly. It does your body no good to reserve it and is the heaviest thing you carry.
I pack only five arrows, and plan to switch to mechanical broadheads soon because they do not snag on brush nearly as much while endlessly sneaking through steep backcountry terrain. They also reduce the risk of cutting yourself while you are out there where no one can hear you scream. Rifle hunters should think about the most ammo they've ever fired in a day of big game hunting, add two cartridges, and make that the amount they carry. A look at the new short-action .270 and .300 caliber rifles is a no brainer in weight savings, too, as is the switch to a high quality but compact 30 mm objective lens scope.
When thinking light, I do not care nearly so much about the quality of glass optics as the lightness. A monocular is ideal, but I drew the line at squinting, and pack a teeny pair of Pentax binocs.
In that little fanny pack (lose the big lower lumber monster packs...less is more) carry a filled bottle of water with an auxiliary filter so you can get more water should the chance arise. Also pack the lightest GPS you can afford (both Garmin and Magellen are shrinking them every year), a small plastic compass, a little wind-proof lighter, and compact space blanket.
Throw in a compact LED light like the Petzl brand head-strap lights. And please, consider ditching grandpa's Bowie for a composite handled folding knife with a 3.5-inch blade. The Gerber EZ-out skeleton blade folder, one of my favorites, comes in at under 3 ounces.
2) THE OVERNIGHT/BACKPACKER:
Used to be, just getting back in a few miles meant much better hunting. Not anymore, with outfitters leading pack strings into every major drainage out West these days. To take the hunt to the next level, think like Ryan Jordan. This is the domain of the modern ultra-predator, the bivouacking, backpacking, most mobile of hunters, and the ultralight overnighter.
Jordan carries everything on him while on the hunts, following the animals and camping where he needs to that night. He's been doing it for 10 years in the Bozeman area, and foot soldier competition is minimal.
"Montana is entrenched with horses and day hunters and they think I'm nuts, backpacking solo," Jordan says. "But when outfitters bring in 20 horses and 10 hunters, they are going to hammer an area badly, so the motivation is there."
"It keeps me more mobile, I can travel long distances from trailheads, and it gets me into the animals," he explains. "I've hunted with pack stock, but your ability to sneak in and camp among animals is greatly increased when you are solo, light and mobile. A pack group is high-impact, and not conducive to being out among the animals."
When he hunts, Jordan camps on ridges where there is no room for livestock. This serves to elevate your smell, too, up out of the valleys where it swirls, and also gives him a vantage point into multiple valleys at dawn. For example, Jordan sometimes hunts the Gardner area north of Yellowstone, where a lot of elk hang in both the Buffalo and Blue Creek drainages.
"So I camp on the ridge between them, and can look in both drainages and follow them anywhere," he says.
Hunting alone is the ultimate challenge, but in grizzly country it's good to have backup when it's time to pack a critter out, which is the biggest issue for the solo backcountry hunter. In areas north of Yellowstone bears are trained like Pavlov's dogs to come running for a kill when they hear a rifle crack.
"You get them on your tail quickly," Jordan says. "One time, we shot an animal, hung the elk, next day, the tree was torn up. You hear stories all the time of bears sitting under the tree and charging when hunters show up."
Jordan was charged by a grizzly on Sioux Creek and hosed the bruin down with bear spray. It ran forward into the cayenne cloud, spinning around at 30 feet, leaving Jordan convinced the bear knew the drill.
Bear, er, keep in mind that Jordan represents the extreme minimalist. His gear consists of:
Jordan hits the trailhead at 20 pounds or less by going with true lightweight internal frame hunting packs, and coming back with a different, beefy external frame pack or mules to hump his kill out of the woods. Kifaru makes some of the best hunting packs.
How little can you handle? While not a good idea for blowing snow conditions, Jordan packs a Kifaru para tarp/poncho that doubles as his sleeping tarp and rain/snow jacket. In colder conditions, he goes for a four-sided pyramid tarp like those by Black Diamond (the mid or Mega light) and indulges in a floor protection mat. He gets away with an ultralight sleeping bag high in the mountains by integrating his clothing and sleep system.
"You do not need to crawl in fresh clothes. Wear the clothes you're wearing to sleep," he says.
Go for a hot meal only at night, bringing a tiny small canister stove and 1 liter titanium pot. Bring freeze dried (light!) packaged dinners, and keep it simple. Start the morning with a nice strong cup of coffee to feel human and get going on granola bars, nuts or cold cereals, snack on high fat foods during day, and carb load with a pasta or rice dish at night.
"For breakfast and lunch I choose foods that do not freeze and are high in fat; sausage, cheese, butterballs in cinnamon and brown sugar," he says.
For hydration, Jordan packs a chlorine water treatment kit by Aqua Mira that minimizes waiting.
Get an LED headlamp. They're wonderful and the light often weighs less than the batteries. Colors are good. Green or red preserves night vision for night hiking, while blue has good battery life, almost as much as white light and shows blood very well.
Jordan goes with a Garmin Ghecko 301 GPS, and prefers Cabela's Pinnacle insulated Gore Tex mid-height boots with fabric uppers.
"I do not use a full leather boot anymore and in fall it's sneakers if there's no snow," he says. "When you have 15 pounds it's not stressful (on your feet)."
When you come back to pack an animal out, switch to supportive backpack boots.
He also suggests a sling from Kifaru, which keeps the gun handy, but on the pack.