column By: Jack Ballard | May, 19
In the previous issue’s column, I outlined the basic practicalities of hunting from a backpack camp. This missive will tackle the topic in a more specific fashion, addressing just what goes into my pack for a backpack hunt. Although the equation invariably involves some basics, modifications in relation to distance, number of days and expected weather dramatically affect what winds up in the pack, and the weight thereof. Here’s the skeletal list and the considerations related to each item.
I touched on this subject in the last column, explaining that a pack not only needs the capability of comfortably containing your gear on the “in” trip, but it must also handle meat-moving chores on the exit. As I generally aim to keep my pack weight at 35 pounds or less, a midcapacity (4,000 cubic inches or 65 liters) or expandable backpack is the design of choice. Expect quality packs with this capacity to weigh between four and seven pounds.
Trip length and weather, though, may necessitate a larger pack. Hunting in colder weather simply demands more stuff: heavier clothes and sleeping bag, a tougher tent, more fuel and more food. A week-long expedition requires more pack capacity than a three-day outing, particularly for food, fuel and things like spare batteries.
Lugging around a full backpack as a daypack after reaching the base camp is a pain. Some backpacks utilize a removable daypack as a compartment to the main pack, such as the Mystery Ranch Metcalf (mysteryranch.com). Another alternative is to attach a separate lightweight fanny pack to the top of your backpack, or fill it with gear and stash it inside.
The weight range for adequate shelter on a backpack hunting trip is considerable. On the extremely lightweight end, a solo or duo hunting party may opt for a tarp shelter. These range in price from $50 to $500. For the latter figure, a hunter can get into a Big Agnes Onyx Tarp Carbon (bigagnes.com) that has a trail weight of 6 ounces (no, that is not a typo). On the more economical side, Slumberjack’s Satellite tarp (slumberjack.com) weighs in at 26 ounces and retails for less than $100.
If the forecast is favorable (no or little precipitation and reasonable temperatures), I am happy to use a tarp for shelter. Much of what a person seeks to keep out of his sleeping space in the summer, primarily bugs and other creepy-crawlies, is a nonissue when hunting. The downsides of a tarp are the absence of meaningful heat retention and limited protection in strong winds.
For predictable protection from precipitation, wind and cold, a tent is the way to go. Four-season shelters are designed to shrug heavy snow loads and remain upright in extremely strong winds. This is normally accomplished with sturdier fabric, multiple stake-points and extra, more durable poles. Now thoroughly qualified as an “old guy,” if the conditions demand a four-season tent, I’ll probably not tackle it on a backpack hunt unless there is some very special species involved.
For the sake of weight comparison, my three primary options for shelter include a Big Agnes three-person, three-season tent (about six years old, 126 ounces), a bombproof Coleman Exponent three-person, four-season tent (about 20 years old, 145 ounces) and a solo tarp that’s actually the rainfly from a North Face tent (about 20 years old, 18 ounces). Hunters currently acquiring gear have more lightweight options on all accounts, but when a hunter finds a shelter that really suits his needs, I’m a believer in the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” maxim, even if it requires a couple of extra pounds. In addition to the shelters noted above, some people like a bivvy sack; essentially a moisture-repelling cocoon in which to place your bag. If you sweat more than most, as I do, a bivvy tends to trap too much moisture and create a damp sleeping space.
Sleeping Bags and Pads
Let’s get something important out of the way up front: Those little numbers on sleeping bags advertising their minimum temperature ratings are not standardized across brands and fail to recognize the vast differences between outdoor folks in relation to cold tolerance. At best, they offer some very, very general guidelines. Additionally, when sleeping on the ground, what’s in between the sleeping bag and the ground (tent floor, sleeping pad, nothing) will have a profound effect on an individual’s warmth independently of the bag’s “cold rating.”
The minimum temperature at which I can comfortably pass the night in a sleeping bag and base layer is generally 20 degrees above the bag’s advertised minimum temperature. That also assumes a sleeping pad betwixt my backside and the ground. The two sleeping bags I use for hunting are both filled with quality, goose down insulation. One is an older -20 degree bag in which I slept in the crater of Mount Kilimanjaro with the overnight temperature a shade below zero degrees Fahrenheit. It weighs just under five pounds. The other is an Eddie Bauer Kara Koram (eddiebauer.com) that is rated for zero degrees and weighs right at three pounds.
A sleeping pad is more than a cushion. It also provides valuable insulation between the ground and the slumbering hunter. My household has a host of sleeping pads, mostly of the inflatable or “self-inflating” type. When space is not a premium, an inexpensive, discount-store pad is often used. It’s wide and long enough to accommodate my entire sleeping bag and weighs just 13 ounces. The other is an inflatable that takes up about the same amount of space in my pack as a bag of five English muffins and tips the scale at 25 ounces. When bivouacked under a tarp, a cut sheet of construction plastic is added as a moisture barrier between the ground and my sleeping pad.
Stoves and Cookware
A hot, substantial meal sure tastes good in a backpack camp. But the accoutrements necessary for gourmet backcountry cooking can weigh a man down in a hurry. For solo hunts in warm weather, my entire cooking kit often consists of a single steel cup. It holds 28 ounces and weighs less than 4 ounces. It can be used to heat or boil water over a tiny campfire.
If a stove is wanted, I add an MSR Pocket Rocket (msrgear.com) and a single canister of fuel. Cup, stove and fuel weigh 22 ounces, with plenty of fuel for a three-day trip for two hunters when used sparingly. I also have a higher capacity, more stable canister stove and a GSI Outdoors cook set (gsioutdoors.com) with multiple pots and pans. It’s a nice set-up for a larger party but stove and cookware are 45 ounces without fuel. There is no end to the culinary niceties available for backpack camping, but this is one of the easiest places to add a significant amount of unneeded mass to a hunter’s pack. As noted in the previous column, prepared backpack meals can be expensive but offer tasty entrees with minimal weight.
A hunting trip requires numerous small pieces of gear. I always carry a knife, two means of starting a fire, a paper map, 10 cartridges, a headlamp, toilet paper, a simple GPS unit and a first aid kit. Some extra clothing items, such as an additional base layer, a pair of socks and a packable down jacket also burden my pack. As is the case with a cooking kit and food, beware the temptation to add unnecessary garments and “stuff.” The bull elk you’re chasing on a backcountry adventure really doesn’t care if your socks stink or your base layer is the same one you were wearing two days ago. To precisely manage mass, I weigh every item in my pack on a scale and keep a running tally on a sheet of paper.
A backpack hunting camp is an efficient way to get beyond the range of most of the hunting pressure in many places. If you purchase wisely and plan well, there’s no need to make it a physical ordeal.