column By: Jack Ballard | March, 19
To put their loads in perspective, imagine dropping 1,500 pounds on an average horse. In fact, that is exactly the ratio of weight to load (a 1,000-pound horse carrying 1,500 pounds) borne by sherpas. Aztec messengers, trained for the task beginning in childhood, commonly carried 50 pounds over 15 miles per day at high elevations.
Want to dramatically increase your flexibility as a hunter? Carrying a camp on your back is far more realistic than most hunters realize. Exercise scientists have determined that a load of around 25 percent of an individual’s body weight at a pace of about 2 mph results in maximum efficiency for moving stuff with muscle. Of course, the workload increases in steeper terrain and on uneven walking surfaces. Nonetheless, backpacking a 35-pound load (more than sufficient for a three-day hunting excursion) two to five miles into the backcountry is a perfectly achievable proposition for a reasonably fit hunter.
There’s no limit to the season, terrain and distances over which an ambitious backcountry hunter might undertake a backpack hunt. But in my experience, the effort is most worthwhile when undertaken in mild, dry weather. Backpack camping in wet, cold conditions is not only uncomfortable, but weather increases the workload in terms of additional heavier clothing, weightier sleeping bags and a stouter tent.
Ambition and optimism are attitudes frequently associated with the American psyche. A “can-do” outlook is needed to hunt with camp on your back, but it’s easy to turn an adventure into an ordeal if a hunter attempts to push beyond his or her limits. In all but the easiest terrain, it’s a major effort locating a backpack camp more than six miles beyond a trailhead. Locating a bivouac just beyond the day-hunter’s range (about two to three miles) usually gives the pack-bearer the greatest return on his sweat equity.
Along those lines, let’s be clear that although remote areas in the Rocky Mountains have a siren’s beckon to backpack hunters, this approach has a much broader application. Productive deer or bear habitat beyond the reach of day hunters east of the Rocky Mountains represents a superb place to hunt from a backpack camp, often in terrain that’s much easier to navigate than high-elevation haunts in the western mountains.
One fall in early November, I took advantage of an extended spate of fair weather to hunt whitetails in a wilderness area in Virginia. A comfortable hike took me to a secluded creek bottom that provided a level place to pitch a tent, gin-clear water for drinking and washing, and stunning scenery in a colorful hardwood forest. I encountered two other hunters at the trailhead but didn’t bump into a single hunter in the backcountry. I failed to spot a whitetail buck that met my standards, but that delightful trek is one of the most memorable backpack hunts of my life.
If the hunt results in shooting game, the load-bearing portion devoted to meat retrieval often represents the greatest challenge of a backpack adventure. Do not underestimate it in terms of time, exertion and discomfort. Ultralight backpacks that may adequately handle a load of 25 pounds may become severely stressed and uncomfortable when burdened with 50 pounds.
When it comes to packing out meat, you’ll probably find yourself opting for fewer, heavier loads than multiple trips with a lighter burden. Think carefully about your pack’s capabilities with heavy weight. I currently use a Slumberjack Deadfall pack (slumberjack.com) that’s reasonably lightweight at just under five pounds, yet it capably carries heavy loads of meat.
One fall, after dropping a good-sized bull elk, I transported its flesh, cape and antlers to my vehicle with a backpack. Distance from the kill site to the Tahoe covered about two miles. About half of the hike followed a well-used game trail on a consistent contour of the mountain before descending some 400 feet into the head of a drainage and then rising to where I was parked. For a backpack hunt, the distance and terrain for the meat-hauling were quite modest. Nonetheless, it took three roundtrips of more than 70 pounds at two hours each (not counting rest time) to get the meat out of the lodgepole jungle, and an additional trip to carry the antlers and cape. Scheduling time for meat retrieval and having a clear-eyed estimate of the effort involved is imperative.
A hunter’s backpack will be used primarily to carry gear into the campsite and meat from the kill site. If a pack that is not a “hunting” model fits your body and needs, don’t pass it over. There is a lot of quality backpacking gear that’s not “hunting stuff” but is equally serviceable on an elk hunt or a summer alpine trout-fishing adventure.
Shaving weight wherever possible decreases the workload and increases the enjoyment of a backpack hunting trip. It also reduces the potential for trip-scuttling occurrences such as blisters, joint inflammation and pulled muscles. One common mistake in this regard is needless duplication of equipment. A hunting party of three needs only one water purifier and a single cooking stove. Does everyone need their own first-aid kit, spare headlamp batteries and toothpaste? It’s also possible to double-up on things like GPS units, cell phones, clotheslines and cameras.
Food, water and clothing are other necessities where hunters commonly increase weight unnecessarily. If you know you’ll be camping near a reliable water source, you’ll save eight pounds per gallon by acquiring your water onsite using a purifier versus packing it in. Commercially produced dehydrated meals have improved dramatically in taste and quality in the past decade. They are not cheap, but they provide a “real” meal with very little weight (look at alpineaire.com for an appealing array of such products). No matter the menu, discard all unneeded packaging to shave bulk and weight before hitting the backcountry.
As your primary shelter, think carefully about a tent. If confined to its interior by a downpour, a little extra space is a welcome luxury. As a rule of thumb, I opt for a shelter that’s rated for one more person than the size of my party (e.g. for two guys, I like a three-person tent). I prefer a tent that’s not camouflage and don’t mind bright colors. The last thing I want is another hunting party pitching a camp 100 yards from my tent they did not see.
As a confirmed citizen of the twenty-first century, I’m sure glad I do not make a sherpa’s living, humping heavy loads at high elevations in a primitive transportation industry for days on end. Instead I’m a happy modernist who ladens his back primarily for more rewarding pursuits like hunting the backcountry from a backpack hunting camp.