Backpack Hunt Gear List || Before the shot: Clothing, optics & calls

My backpack hunt gear list for big game is identical to my gear list for a normal backpacking trip with similar conditions, with the notable addition of hunting-specific items. In this five-post series I list and explain this extra clothing and equipment, and make them available for download.

Last revised: October 30, 2018

Backpack Hunt Gear List: Before the shot

With the exception of a lucky outing, finding the game often constitutes the bulk of most hunts. In fact, about 75 percent of hunting trips in Colorado end without having taken a shot or packed out meat. If it were that easy, it’d be called shooting, not hunting.

Optics and safety clothing are needed to find game. Below is my gear list, followed by more in-depth selection discussions.

  • Critical = A must-have, no exceptions
  • Suggested = A valuable addition, few reasons not to bring
  • Optional = Not critical, but worth consideration
  • Depends = Contingent on trip objectives, conditions, and/or other selections
  • Unnecessary = Unlikely to need and/or can be improvised
Safety clothing, optics, and calls, plus a hunting license

Safety clothing, optics, and calls, plus a hunting license

Safety clothing

When hunting in Colorado with a rifle or muzzleloader, or with a bow during rifle season, hunters are required to wear:

  • A blaze orange hat or head covering, visible from all directions; and,
  • At least 500 square inches of blaze orange above the waist.

During rifle season, I would suggest that non-hunters abide by these regulations as well. Incidents of trigger-happy hunters are very rare, but always sad. During archery season I’m much less concerned — bow hunters need to be more certain about their shot placement and they need to be much closer to their target.

For my first year of hunting, I purchased an inexpensive cap and vest package, both with hook-and-loop closures, and have since upgraded both. My new cap fits better and has a more secure plastic snap closure. My vest is heavier, but it does not get tangled as easily (because it is stiffer) and it has a few convenient exterior pockets. The WFS model is overbuilt and can be lightened with scissors, a lighter, and a sewing awl.

What, no camo?

I do not own a single camouflage item, and I do not see that changing soon. Last year I was successful while wearing my normal backpacking clothing (plus my hunting cap and vest), and more than a few big game animals have been taken by hunters wearing blue jeans and flannel.

This is not to say that camouflage is not effective. For bow hunting, it can be very advantageous. But for rifle season, the benefit seems more marginal. If I identified primarily as hunter, I would buy camo clothing and equipment. But for now there are still many ways in which I can improve as a hunter without investing in a new wardrobe.


Binoculars and/or a spotting scope will help find game that are effectively invisible to the naked eye. But they are of little help without a good lookout or if there is no game around. In that sense, optics merely complement pre-trip scouting, hunt strategy, and understanding of wildlife behavior.

If money and pack weight were not a factor, I would carry binoculars as well as a spotting scope. But backpack hunting (and my budget) has limitations, and binoculars are the all around better choice. Plus, in the areas I have hunted in Colorado, binoculars have so far been sufficient. I imagine spotting scopes to prove their worth in big landscapes with lots of visible terrain, such as Alaska, the desert Southwest, and even Colorado’s eastern plains or western slope.

My Pentax binoculars are high-end compacts, and appear to be phasing out. In retrospect, I wonder if mine are “stupid light” and if I should have purchased a heavier pair with a larger eyepiece and objective like the Vortex Diamondback 12×50 that would be a relative joy to use for hours on end.

A rangefinder could be very useful, especially for longer shots when a bullet will have greater drop. But, personally, I have a 200-yard self-imposed limit until I spend more time at the range, and a .308 drops only about two inches over that distance.


The rut normally ends in Colorado before the first rifle season in early/mid-October, and so too the window during which game calls are a reliable hunting tactic. In later rifle seasons, calls can still be useful, however.

I should probably learn to use diaphragm calls, like the Primos Elk Select, because they are lighter and more versatile. But before my first season I had enough to learn, so I went with the Primos Hoochie Mama instead. I made a 4-foot sling with 3-mm cord so that I can hang it over my shoulder for easy access.

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6 Responses to Backpack Hunt Gear List || Before the shot: Clothing, optics & calls

  1. Eric H October 27, 2016 at 7:36 am #

    Thanks for the list Andrew. I have the Vortex Diamondback 10×42, and they work great for extended glassing. Will be using these lists to assist me in a Montana mule deer hunt in a few weeks.

  2. Adam from WI October 27, 2016 at 7:38 am #

    Just returned from a New Mexico elk hunt of my own. My optics were the Vortex Diamondback 10×42 and I couldn’t have been happier. Extra weight was easily worth it for my own eye comfort.

  3. Isaac R October 28, 2016 at 11:54 am #

    Having owned nearly that exact pair of binos, I can verify that they fall into the “stupid light” category. They seemed ok for backpack hunting until I sheep hunted beside a guy with a decent set of 10×42’s a few years ago. He made it very clear what I was missing by consistently spotting more game than me. Much of that it turned out was simply because they were more comfortable and easy to use, so he had them glued to his eyes more than I did. However, the increased resolution and magnification also came into play. Not only did he constantly locate animals more often and further away, he also was able to quickly determine legality, observe behavior, etc. It was educational to say the least.

    To top it off, the Pentax fairly quickly failed when the eyepiece loosened and unscrewed. I was a little shocked to see that the lens inside appeared to be held together with goopered on hot glue. Truthfully, anything in optics that is <$500 is really considered consumer grade… high end starts well into four digit territory.

    After going to several increasingly more expensive sets, I currently use a set of mid range 10×42's (Zeiss Conquest HD) and wouldn't dream of going back to a smaller pair at this point, even on extended mountain backpack hunts.

    Fully agree on the camo BTW. Even though I "primarily identify as a hunter", I own little of it, and have never found it to be an issue. Fieldcraft trumps clothes color by a large measure.

    • Andrew Skurka October 28, 2016 at 12:05 pm #

      Three seems like a consensus. Guess I will need to go bino shopping before next year.

  4. William April 19, 2018 at 9:24 am #

    I started hunting in 2012 and came from more of a backpacking background. Agree with most of the gear list the biggest exception would be the optics.

    Honestly the most expensive single piece of gear you carry into the field should be your binos. Swarovski is the gold standard, good intermediate brands are Steiner, Vortex, Leupold. The main issue with keep glass is light transmission. All 10×42 binos will seem similar in the store but at dawn, dusk, and looking into shadowy areas during the day are where you will see major differences.

    Spotting scopes are very helpful in all western hunting although not absolutely necessary where they really come into play are units with antler restrictions, they allow you to determine if a deer or elk is legal before you cover 2 miles to get closer.

    Another piece of gear I would deem absolutely essential is a bino harness, you should be pulling your binos out constantly and a strap around your neck works for about 15min before you neck starts to get sore and you put your binos back in your pack. Look at FHF, Alaska guide creations, marsupial, and kuiu.

    I would also add that while a range finder is not absolutely necessary in wide open areas, like CO high country it’s very difficult to estimate ranges. It’s quite possible that while you have decided that you only want to take 200 yard or shorter shots that you end up taking a 360 yard shot because the terrain is deceptive. This comes into play even more if you are shooting at a steep angle. Last year I killed an elk that was a couple hundred feet below me cross canyon. The LOS distance between us was 300 yards but because bullet drop is dependent only on the horizontal distance, the bullet drop was more like 215. You can certainly just always hold low when shooting at angles but it’s nice to know how much.

    • Andrew Skurka April 19, 2018 at 9:48 am #

      Good comment, thanks.

      My hunting partner and I recognized these weaknesses and have taken steps to shore them up as funds and desire have allowed. Before last year’s hunt he bought a range finder, and we both had bino harnesses. Before this year’s hunt I will definitely be upgrading my binos.

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