Pre-trip backpack hunt checklist: To do before you go

Glassing in the Flattops

This weekend is the start of Third Season for elk and deer. Steve and I liked what we saw last year in the Flattop Mountains in northwestern Colorado, and will be going back, along with Noel, my partner on my first successful hunt four years ago.

This is my sixth backpack hunt now, and each year I further refine my pre-trip to-do list. It’s not perfectly applicable to all locations, seasons, or hunting styles, but this checklist will get you most of the way there.

Game licenses

  • Choose a hunting zone, season, and species.
  • Apply for the draw (April) and/or purchase an over-the-counter tag (August+).
  • Read or re-read regulations that are specific to the location, season, species, and license.
  • Identify several specific areas to hunt, ideally under a range of conditions (e.g. severe fall, stormy forecast).


  • Finalize trip dates.
  • Coordinate travel plans with hunting partners.
  • Book airfare.
  • Book ground transportation.
  • Book pre-trip, intra-trip, and/or post-trip lodging.


Hunting gear

  • Sight-in rifle.
  • Practice with rifle to determine ethical shot distance.
  • Lightly clean rifle and optics, and sharpen cutting tools.
  • Place electrical tape over the muzzle to keep out debris.


  • Insert an empty memory card into camera.
  • Load data (e.g. topo map tiles, management boundaries) onto GPS or smartphone.
  • Top off batteries for all electronic devices by recharging or replacement; pack spare batteries, if appropriate.


  • Calculate food needs.
  • Purchase, prepare, and package shelf-stable food.
  • Purchase stove fuel.
  • Assemble first aid, foot care, and repair kits.
  • Create and print topographic maps.

For outside the field

  • Casual clothes and footwear
  • Travel food and drinks
  • Toiletries
  • Phone, tablet, e-reader, laptop (with chargers)

To leave in the car

  • Scale (e.g. WiseField Fishing/Luggage Scale) to weigh packs and meat bags
  • Rifle re-sight: ammo, cleaning kit, allen wrench for scope, sight-in targets
  • Multiple animal contingency: extra pack liners, knife blades, nitrile gloves
  • Set of hiking clothes + footwear that would be more comfortable for hauling out meat than primary clothing + footwear


  • Leave itinerary information with an emergency contact.
  • Update settings on satellite messenger and satellite phone.


  • Refresh on field dressing technique (I like this video best, and this one and this one, too).
  • Pack up gear
  • Purchase perishable food.
  • Pack up supplies.
  • Get a forecast for the hunting area(s).
  • Settle on a starting hunting area based on last-minute forecast.
  • Close up the house, e.g. set up email auto-reply, backup files.

What is this list missing? Leave a comment.

Posted in on October 30, 2018


  1. Eric H on October 30, 2018 at 5:36 pm

    Good luck!

  2. Jeff on October 30, 2018 at 5:48 pm

    Good luck on your hunt! I just filled my freezer with my second elk a few weeks back. How far are you and your partners willing to carry an elk back to your vehicle? We had three of us and it took us two solid days to carry three elk the 3-4 miles back to the truck. I don’t know how much further in we could go and still have it be feasible. That is a lot of weight and in really rough terrain… it would be difficult.

    • Andrew Skurka on October 30, 2018 at 7:34 pm

      Your second elk? Nice.

      Our outer range really depends on the topography. It’s a function of both distance and vertical, and to a lesser degree altitude. Ideally, it’s a short and flat trip to the car, and you didn’t put it down at 11,000 feet. You might think a downhill exit is fine, but it hurts on the way back, even with an empty pack.

      In 2015 I shot a cow almost 4 miles out and 1,500 vertical feet uphill of the trailhead (which is at 10,000 feet). That was at 8 AM. Noel and I didn’t finish until 10 AM that night, and we were exhausted.

      With both animals that I’ve shot, we’ve been able to pack out all the meat and our camp in just two round-trips each.

  3. Njål Kaavik on October 30, 2018 at 9:09 pm

    Im from Norway and I hunt a lot. Mostly red deer and caribou. I have perfected my list of gear:-) Stone Glacier backpack, Swarovski el 10-32, I also have the 8,5-42 but use the 10-32 because it fits in my pocket so no harness needed. And I never leave whitout my Leica rangemaster. Z packs tent, Cumulus sleeping bag. No more than 10 shots for my Sako carbonlight 308 and food for 5-6days. Recommend you use a bivy/survival bag to sit in when U glass. A good sitpad. Single use heatpacks are a must, if you are cold you move around a lot and thats a no no when hunting. Gear and rifle+food aprox 10 kg makes it easy to move around. I dont bring back any antlers, bone out my meat on spot with my knife. I also have a saw with me.

    • Jason on October 30, 2018 at 10:04 pm

      Stone Glacier makes an excellent pack, both for general packing duties and for hauling meat. I’m on the second season with mine, and it made packing a cow elk out essentially painless. Packing a quarter out (bone in) yielded a pack weight of ~110 pounds yet I experienced no undue discomfort over the 1.75 mile (and ~1000’ drop) hike back to the truck. It certainly sucked since she went down in a thicket of scrub oak and we started the pack out at 8:00 PM, but the pack performed with aplomb.

      And yes, a glassing pad is worth its weight in gold.

    • Andrew Skurka on October 31, 2018 at 7:38 am

      You’ve thrown down some coin on your kit. It’s pretty slick.

      Have a sit pad and heatpacks. Learned that lesson already. It doesn’t look that cold this year though (ranging in the 20’s, or -6 t -1 for you), so I should be able to sit out in the elements in my puffy jacket and pants.

      Question for you: I consider the rangefinder to be “suggested” but not “critical.” i.e. It’s not the first piece of gear you should buy, but along along the way it’s worth picking up. What’s your sense?

      • Jason on October 31, 2018 at 9:40 am

        My two cents: It depends, but I’d lean heavily towards critical.

        If you’re hunting dark timber, a rangefinder is largely unnecessary since shooting opportunities will generally be close and quick. Conversely, if you’re focused on spot and stalk hunting it would be hugely beneficial.

        An aspect to consider is whether or not you’re used to the type of terrain in which elk are typically found. Coming from the flat part of NC (GTHD!), I quickly realized that steep topography does weird things to my ability to judge distance. Having grown up on golf courses and being a competitive long-range rifle shooter I consider myself to be well above average in judging distance…at least in familiar terrain. Judging distance in Colorado was a laughably-bad exercise in futility. In my case, the rangefinder was critical to feeling comfortable in my ability to make a clean shot.

  4. Jeff on October 30, 2018 at 9:32 pm

    Did you de-bone in the field? We were pulling pack weights between 60-110 lbs with the bones in, though we cut off the hocks. And that was without overnight gear; we were camping at the truck for this one. It would have been another full load if we had overnight gear and a few days of food. Pack weights in that range are a different level of slow movement and pain.

    Next question is how do you keep your hands and feet warm? We had temps from the teens to upper 20s at 8000-10000 ft in Idaho and I could not keep my hands and feet warm while sitting and glassing. I might have to switch to boots with some insulation for next year- I had a full leather boot with two decently thick pairs of socks, but it wasn’t enough.


  5. Travis Briles on October 31, 2018 at 1:06 am

    Regarding your “Load Data” task…you might find this “Land Ownership” map useful for Garmin GPS :

    At least in northern Colorado, it seems very accurate at delineating private property boundaries, and appears to give equivalent info as the “Land Management” overlay option on and the “OnX” hunting map app.

    • Andrew Skurka on October 31, 2018 at 7:46 am

      If you have a premium account with GaiaGPS, which I do, you have access to Public Access Properties, GMU boundaries, and WIA Areas in Colorado. For the area we’re going, these are perfect, combined with the FSTopo 2016 base map.

  6. Steve Sims on November 1, 2018 at 6:15 am

    Get some boys! Hope you are both skillful and lucky.

  7. Bob S. on November 2, 2018 at 7:02 pm

    * Feed Oden =^.^=

  8. daniel m. on November 12, 2018 at 12:25 pm

    So how did it go? I love reading about your elk hunting adventures.

    • Andrew Skurka on November 12, 2018 at 3:56 pm

      I’m working on a hunt report. No success this year. Got very close on day 3, 50 yards in thick timber after stalking them for hours, but they got spooked before we could get a clean shot.

      • daniel m. on November 13, 2018 at 7:01 am

        Looking forward to it.

        If you get a chance every year and bag one sometimes you are doing well.

  9. Joe on December 20, 2018 at 7:27 am

    That Fred Eichler idea is amazing. Gotta remember he does that many times every year, though. We get good at what we do often.
    I’ve taken ~a dozen elk in 30 years, and if I cut as quickly and confidently as he does, I’d lose fingers for sure.
    I take my time–over an hour. I hunt alone though, and having an assistant makes a huge difference when taking an elk apart.
    Oh, and no way could I leave the heart and liver behind. I’d as soon leave the backstraps.

  10. Glen Acord on June 28, 2019 at 12:31 pm

    Just a few more pre-trip details which are probably obvious but satisfy my OCD desire for completeness:
    set up mail holding at (or in-person at post office)
    stop paper, milk, or other deliveries
    arrange pet care

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