Top

Backpack hunting: My evolving approach

Originally I thought that hunting would be an extension of the backpacking season. Like in the summer but now with a rifle in hand and in the pursuit of elk and deer, I wanted to roam deep in world-class wilderness areas and to camp in different spots each night.

But I’ve learned that this approach is perhaps more romantic than practical, because the ingredients of a great backpacking trip are often at odds with those of a great hunting trip. And so to improve my odds at filling my chest freezer, I’ve made multiple compromises to the backpacking experience.

1. Aesthetics

The Gore Range and Indian Peaks are dramatic, with 13,000-foot peaks and deep glacier-carved valleys. But they’re hard to hunt, and three years ago we abandoned them for aesthetically subdued Morapos Creek, where the elk herd is bigger, where harvest rates are higher, and where the topography is less of a hindrance.

Red Mountain, a 13’er, which hovers above South Willow Creek in Colorado’s Gore Range, GMU 371

GMU 12 is relatively unspectacular. But there are more elk here.

2. Consecutive days out

I used to leave the trailhead with enough food for the entire hunt. But at two pounds of food per day (on top of 35 pounds of hiking gear, hunting equipment, and water), my pack became annoying cumbersome, especially when hiking at altitude, uphill, off-trail, or in snow.

Now, I carry just two or three days of food, and restock at my vehicle when it’s convenient or when my food bag is empty.

Food for a 5-day hunt weighs about 10 pounds. By circling back to the car halfway into the hunt, I lighten my pack by five pounds, which is noticeable.

3. Remoteness

Areas that are difficult to access — due to distance, vertical change, vegetation, or lack of trails — are more likely to hold game. And I’m more capable than most in getting to these places.

Even so, I try to hunt relatively close to the trailhead (within about 5 miles and/or 2,000 vertical feet of gain, depending on the conditions), because hauling meat from such areas would be epically long and hard, to the point of being impractical (at least without a horse and/or a lot of vacation time).

To haul out a cow elk in 2015 that I shot just 4 miles from the trailhead, Noel and I both had to hike 12 miles, climb 3,200 vertical feet, and descend 4,400 vertical feet. Two-thirds of this distance and vertical was while carrying packs that weighed 60 to 70 pounds.

4. Base camp

By carrying my camp on my back, I’m more flexible and efficient than hunters who sleep in a base camp. I can hunt where the game or my gut take me, and sleep nearby when it gets dark. And I wake up and go to bed where the action is (or where I think it is), and avoid tiring hikes from or back to a fixed camp each morning and night.

But the conditions in the Colorado Rockies in October and November can easily overwhelm a backpacking hunt setup. In most years, temperatures fluctuate around freezing, high and shady slopes are already snow-covered, and storms temporarily suspend hunting and blanket the area in snow. Every year, the nights are long. Within a few days, we have damp clothing, damp boots, and damp sleeping bags.

This year I found the solution, courtesy of Noel: a supplemental base camp. This allows us to “reset” both physically and mentally, by drying our gear and getting out of the weather for a while.

Conditions in October and November can overwhelm a lightweight backpack hunt kit. Reset physically and emotionally at a supplemental base camp.

Gear list: Supplemental base camp

If I’ve been sleeping in a small, damp, and unheated tent for several nights, a basic base camp is a treat. Noel’s consists of:

Guide Gear Teepee Tent – 14′ x 14′, which is shockingly large and well designed for its $120 MSRP. It can fit three people plus gear comfortably, or four plus gear snugly.

Mr. Heater MH18B Portable Propane Heater ($135), which seemed to be a good size for the tent and which was more user-friendly than a portable wood stove.

The cure for damp feet and boots: a portable propane heater.

Dust pan and brush, to sweep up snow and dirt that gets tracked into the tent.

Boot mat ($20), which served double-duty: to better distribute the pressure under the center pole, and to collect melted snow off our boots.

Make sure the base camp is also stocked with:

  • Clean water, which may have to be insulated in a cooler on colder trips;
  • Extra stove fuel, to avoid tapping into your backcountry supply; and,
  • Portable battery packs, to recharge smartphone, inReach, GPS, etc.

How have you evolved as a backpack hunter? What other items are critical in a hunting base camp? Leave a comment.


Disclosure. This website is supported mostly through affiliate marketing, whereby for referral traffic I receive a small commission from select vendors, at no cost to the reader. This post contains affiliate links. Thanks for your support.

13 Responses to Backpack hunting: My evolving approach

  1. Chris K November 26, 2018 at 11:15 am #

    Just swap the heater for a fire and you’re one more step closer to being a traditional hunter of the mid-late 20th century. Lol. I think the backcountry basecamp is a splendid idea except hauling everything around.

    What do you do when you get a prize elk? Haul back to the basecamp or the truck? Anyway I look at it, it would be multiple trips or sore backs.

    • Andrew Skurka November 26, 2018 at 3:07 pm #

      It’s not a backcountry base camp. We left it at the trailhead.

      If/when wet get elk, the process is very situational. Last year, it was just Steve and me, and as soon as we put down our bull we started working on getting it out. But this year there were three of us to start, and if we’d put down one elk early in the hunt, I think we’d have hung up the game bags in the backcountry and have continued to hunt.

  2. Luke November 26, 2018 at 1:50 pm #

    How far was your supplemental base camp from your vehicles? I looked into Kifaru and some of those brands that make lightweight tipi style tents, but the costs are significantly higher. The tipi you linked to is much more affordable, but a fairly hefty 17 lbs.

    • Andrew Skurka November 26, 2018 at 3:06 pm #

      During this hunt, about 5 miles max, which is about a 2.5-hour round-trip given the vertical involved and the trail conditions (a lovely combination of mud, horse ruts, and 6-12 inches of snow).

      To get that tent (and the heater, which is equally important) into the backcountry, you need a horse or a lot of vacation time (i.e. so you can afford to lose two half-days hiking it out and hiking it back). I struggle to justify it for other scenarios.

      I’m not yet sold on the virtues of a backcountry base camp, again unless you have a horse or a lot of vacation time. My camping kit is only about 5 pounds (1.5-lb shelter system, 1.5-lb sleeping bag, 1-lb pad, 0.5-lb stove system). Yes, a base camp would save me that weight, but I lose a lot of flexibility if I leave it behind. Also, a backcountry base camp seems like it enables even more epic meat-hauls. If you set up your camp 4 miles from the TH, and then you wander another 3 miles from it, you’re looking at 7 miles to get back to the TH, or 21 miles miles of hiking total for a 2-man team (each trip, one quarter plus some smaller cuts). And you still need to pull your base camp out afterwards.

      • Luke November 28, 2018 at 12:27 pm #

        We hunted the east side of Unit 12 during the first season and did a base camp style hunt. We carried in 2 2-person tents for 3 adults and my 13 year old son and set up in a nice area with water that we used the year before. We were about 3 miles in from the truck and would venture another 1-2 miles from camp. It was nice not to have a lot of extra weight from the tents and sleeping bags. Although my son has hunted and backpacked before, this was the first time putting the two together for him and the temps got down to around 5 degrees at night, so I was glad that he was comfortable in camp.

        We were limited being stuck in one area. We saw elk the first morning, but we weren’t able to get a shot and there were several other hunters around the edges of the aspen and openings that were watching. Unfortunately we actually watched some of the elk walk right over by the other hunters. By mid day Sunday it seemed that nothing was moving during the day, but there were fresh tracks in the snow each morning. Due to the location of our camp, we decided not to push too far to the dark timber we thought they might be in. As you mentioned, we would have then had a very long pack out, even if it was split four ways.

  3. PS November 27, 2018 at 3:58 am #

    How’d the Monarch 5’s work out in the field?

    • Andrew Skurka November 27, 2018 at 3:10 pm #

      Huge improvement over what I had.

      Glad I went with the 8x, not 10x. I was still seeing elk 4-5 miles away before my buddies, but I didn’t feel like the field of vision was too small when we were stalking those cow elk in thick timber for 5 hours.

  4. David L November 27, 2018 at 1:54 pm #

    This is some of the most realistic analysis of what real backpack hunting is like. Especially the challenges of doing it without horses. I look forward to these articles every year!

    I have to agree with the backcountry base camp setup being problematic. When I started years ago I went all out with the Kifaru tipi and woodstove – all 12 pounds of it. Eventually I figured out that it was the worst of both worlds. It was too heavy and fiddly to set up or haul around very far so I only got a couple of miles in before giving in to gravity. So not far enough to really get away from the pressure yet it was a grueling hike. The wood stove was great once you got it set up but only burned for 30 minutes or so and sent out sparks burning holes in everything – including a very expensive sleeping bag. It was a pain to cook on too.

    It was such an ordeal that I never moved camp and might as well have hunted from a vehicle. In fact the vehicle may have been preferable as I could change areas more easily.

    Recently I have gone to a system much like Andrew’s. A light duty base camp (as opposed to a palatial walled tent) and two or three nights in the field with a backpacking tent. My first three nights out this year it snowed and everything got wet no matter how careful I was. Being able to dry out any down, yourself, and your equipment is huge.

    My big mistake this year was the topography problem. I was so excited to be hunting a draw only unit, and finding an obscure corner of it, that I ignored the contour lines being all scrunched together. It was beautiful when I got there and I didn’t see another hunter all week. But it was steep, rugged, and covered in blow down. Very tough conditions on foot. Even horses would be challenged in places. Maybe goats would like it. 🙂

    I really do enjoy hearing about how your experience evolves. It’s a real challenge out there. So many details to get right.

    • Andrew Skurka November 27, 2018 at 3:07 pm #

      “The worst of both worlds.” This is what I speculated about a backcountry base camp, and I’m glad to hear someone else say it who has tried it.

      At Morapos I met two other hunters who had packed in a base camp about 90-120 easy minutes away from the TH. They had came back to the TH, where they had a better base camp. Their backcountry camp was having humidity issues, and they needed to dry out. But I remember thinking, What’s the point of having a backcountry camp that’s only 2 hours away from the TH? It adds one additional round-trip for one person (at the start and end of the hunt, assuming you don’t try to move it), and tethers them to a particular location (which had not produced much for them yet, not even many tracks).

  5. dmitrym November 28, 2018 at 10:16 am #

    Excellent read, thanks for posting. I’ve been hunting out twice, both times with a base camp that included a massive wall tent, wood stove, the whole 9 yards. There’s something appealing about backpack hunting though.

    How did you like the buddy heater? Looking at the setup, it probably ran intermittently. The nice thing about woodstoves is that it’s vented so no concerns about CO, but with a propane setup, you’d have to be very careful.

    • Andrew Skurka November 28, 2018 at 10:30 am #

      We ran the heater on low, and turned it off before bed. It has a CO detector and auto-shutoff, but we didn’t want to find that it was faulty. The tepee tent has protected vents, and we had those open as well. We were still plenty warm in our clothing and bags — we weren’t trying to get it t-shirt temperature.

  6. Jake B November 29, 2018 at 11:19 pm #

    I too have shifted toward a roadside base-camp. Where I hunt in Montana animal activity seems to pick up about 2-4 miles from the road. In the past I’ve backpacked in, only to find on later trips that animals pass through the only place where it made sense to pitch a tent. I also suspect that my scent traveled further still into the hills at night as I slept, effectively bumping the game farther from the road and making them harder to find. While a roadside base-camp now means a longer walk in the dark in and out of the woods, I’ve found that the morning routine goes a little faster, it’s easier to have access to dry gear, and there’s less to carry during the day. For a slight guy like me the several pounds of shelter/cookset/etc. means I don’t have to choose between bringing all of a deer’s meat home (rather than the minimum required) and making it to the cooler in one trip — a huge time saver when I’m trying to fit everything into a weekend.

    On the other hand, for a trip with ample time and a backcountry destination that was likely to hold deer or elk, a lighter hot-tent setup like those at seek outside still sounds so nice! Dry socks in the backcountry in November. No doubt there a bit fiddly, as David L writes.

  7. Andy December 11, 2018 at 4:52 pm #

    Trailhead base camp is the way to go. I’ve hunted extensively from one here in the East. I hunt a fairly large roadless/wilderness section of National Forest 1.5 – 2 hours drive from my home. The last 6 miles is not maintained in the winter and not uncommon to have a foot of snow on the ground. Can be a pain but the 4×4 Tacoma w/ chains on all four tires is a beast. I have a 10×12 canvass wall tent w/ non-collapsible wood stove (Garret and Alexandra Conover’s book, “The Snowwalker’s Companion” is fantastic about this kind of set up. The wood stove and breathable cotton tent allow me to start warm and dry every day no matter how soaked I am the day before. I’ve experimented with propane but I like the wood better. and while I have to hike back to camp each day the combination of not carrying anything but a small fanny pack and being fresh and dry from my palatial accommodations every morning make it a joy. I could go on and on about the details of the set up but just read the book if your looking for the ideal trailhead base camp.

    Thanks for this Andrew! I’ve followed you since the first book and learned a ton.

    Peace,

    Andy

Leave a Reply