It goes without saying that a little goes a long way when it comes to preparing for a hunt, especially a mountain hunt where your gear and fitness can have a significant impact on your success and enjoyment. Through the years of my guiding and personal hunting I’ve noticed some things that work well, and more importantly the things that don’t. As a guide, I have the privilege of getting to ‘test’ and view a lot more gear and ideas than I would ever be able to recreationally. These are my observations, opinions and advice, and at the end of the day that’s all they are.
Being a successful mountain hunter can mean a lot of things, but generally you will need to have the right gear, shooting skills and a good physical and mental state. When all these factors are combined things seem ‘easy’ and you will feel success no matter how your hunt pans out.
Here I go over some basic rules for equipment and fitness for the mountains. Two factors that are pretty easily controlled before the hunt.
Good gear can greatly improve comfort and performance in the mountains, a good pack is essential for the dedicated mountain hunter.
Currently the modern hunter has more gadgets and gear available to him than he knows what to do with. I’m not a ‘tech’ guy nor will I ever be, and in the real wilderness I think it’s best to go as simple as possible with gear. For mountain hunts, there are a few pieces of equipment that are worth investing in, as they can be the difference between success and failure and at times even life and death. Then there are a whole lot of gadgets that do nothing but consume your money and time. My most important pieces of gear is rain gear and boots, followed by a good pack. The rest you can get by with until you can afford ‘better’ equipment.
Rain gear has come a long way in the last couple of decades and we now have a huge array of options. I’m not going to go into detail regarding brands but there are two main ‘environments’ you use rain gear in. ‘Wet’ (Coastal BC, Alaska, Scotland, Norway, parts of NZ) areas and ‘dry’ (Eastern NZ, Western North America, Central Asia) areas. These are broad categories and there will always be exceptions but you need to think how often will I actually be wearing my rain gear in your chosen environment. In a ‘wet’ environment you will wear your gear daily, in a ‘dry’ one it will sit in your pack most of the time. For a ‘wet’ hunt I go for durability and water-resistance over breathability and weight. This may be a bit against the grain of current thinking, but generally the most breathable rain gear out there is less durable and it just does not stack up (durability wise) when you are wearing it daily. If you’re heading to a wet environment (Coastal Alaska/BC or West Coast NZ) where getting wet and cold can become serious, I would suggest the heaviest duty rain gear you can find.
If you are hunting in a ‘dry’ environment the lighter and more packable your rain gear the better, as most of the time you won’t actually be using it. As a general rule (regardless of fabric type) the lighter/thinner rain gear is the more it breathes, but also the easier it rips. Heavy gear is more waterproof and durable but less breathable.
I generally now carry two jackets on back pack trips in wet areas (a heavy-duty jacket for wearing while hunting and a lighter weight one for around camp). Long cut rain jackets or high bib pants I think are a must. Without these you have a gap in your rain gear ‘system’ and will soon get wet around the waist/down your ass/back while moving and sitting in the rain.
Boots. If you’re going on a real mountain hunt (and I mean MOUNTAINS) you need real boots. There’s a trend toward light-weight gear in all aspects of hunting and I went down this route for a couple of years. Quality boots is one thing I would never compromise on. Full leather and with a good shank. Everyone has brands they prefer but make sure they fit well and that you have used them before you set off on a 10-day hunt. I use ¾ or full shank boots for nearly all my hunting, and prefer a stiff boot for foot protection, climbing ability and support under heavy loads. Stiffer boots are also much more efficient when climbing as all your energy is put into climbing not flexing your boots. Some people get away with wearing what I call ‘sneakers’ (light weight synthetic boots). I personally don’t advise people to use these in tough country as you can end up with injuries quite easily. Nothing will ruin a hunt faster than broken boots or feet. Most high end European and some American boot manufacturers make many models that are well-suited to the mountain hunter. It should be noted that the American brands that make true mountain boots, usually outsource the boot manufacturing to European boot makers. When talking to people about boots, look at the MODEL of boot, not just the brand. Most brands make far too many models and just because you friends says Lowas are the best, does not mean the Lowa running shoe is a mountain hunting boot.
A good pack can seem expensive but it comes down to how often you use it. If you are doing maybe 1 back pack hunt a year you can get away with an ‘average’ pack and some discomfort for a few years. If your wearing your pack 100-200 days year you will soon get sick of one that isn’t perfect for your body, try on as many as you can with weight in them! They all feel nice when empty. Generally internal frames are the way to go. There are some extra heavy duty external frame packs out there, but unless you are carry serious weight all the time internal frames are a better choice. Internal frames are usually more comfortable and allow better movement through tight bush/scrub. I like being able to take my bag off my frame/harness. This means you can easily wash you pack bag once it is covered in blood(which hopefully is often). If you are only going to have one bag, big is good. I would rather have a big bag that is half empty than a small one with gear hanging off it.
Having a light pack on the hill is essential to moving effectively and safety through rough terrain. Today the only limit to gear weight is money, and I’m sure you can find a carbon fiber toothbrush to save an extra 5/8ths of an ounce if you wanted. The MOST important factor to losing weight is take LESS gear. A carbon fiber bi-pod is half the weight of a traditional alloy one (and 4 times the price), yet learning to shoot effectively off your pack weighs nothing.
Learning to be comfortable with less gear is a part of being in mountains and you soon learn that you don’t need a fresh change of clothes every day. Your pack should be around 20-25kg(45-55lbs) heading into the hills for a 5-10-day hunt. If it’s much more than that you need to lose some crap! You don’t need fancy to gear to have a pack that weight, just smart packing will achieve it. Try and minimize gear on the outside of your pack. There is nothing worse than having to stop and re attach some gear that keeps falling off, or getting to camp and finding that your quiver full of arrows has gone missing on the walk in!
When hunting rough country, a heavy pack can pose a lot of problems, extra stress on joints and huge imbalance while moving through technical terrain. I can count on one hand the number of guys I know that can legitimately carry a heavy(40kg+/85lbs+) pack in rough terrain safely and efficiently(quickly). The only time your pack should weigh that much is when its full of meat and bone, and then you’re taking your time and enjoy the walk home anyway!
Guide Tim with a serious load on board. This is the only time you should have anything hanging off your pack!
Training to hunt has become quite a big craze especially across North America and it’s great to see people putting considerable effort into their training. Like most guides I am in a position where I generally don’t need to ‘train’ because I’m hunting often and keep fit (try to). One of the biggest things I see people miss with their training is ‘real world’ training. This is difficult for people who live in areas with no hills/mountains, but I would strongly suggest getting out in the hills with your pack on as much as possible (even if it means driving a long way to get there).
‘Hill fit’ is very different to ‘gym fit’. This is very noticeable in people who hunt a lot. There are people out there who don’t look particularly fit but will kick-ass on the mountain because that’s what they do regularly and there are also guys/gals that look very fit but struggle on the mountains. Remember that mountain hunting is an endurance ‘sport’ not a strength or power sport and this should reflect how you train. Being ‘fit’ will not only make your hunt physically easier it also greatly reduces chances of injury, and you will be able to make better calls in the hills. Being tired and worn out really impacts your mental judgement.
Walking in the mountains, just like everything else, is a skill. The only way to get better at walking is to walk! (funny that). Not on a treadmill/Stairmaster, or path. Get out into the rough country with a light pack, this is the best value training you can do. The biggest factor I see hunters struggle with is moving quickly and safely through difficult terrain. Many hunters I see are wasting A LOT of energy with the way they move and fall over all the time, which is very sapping on both mind and body. How many times have you seen a wild animal stumble or fall??
A walking stick/axe/pole really does help and all mountain cultures have their version. I’ll take a traditional ‘nibby’ stick (long wooden walking stick) or a walking axe over a modern ‘trekking pole’ any day. But a trekking pole is a lot better than nothing. Some people still prefer to take their training wheels (double poles) but personally I find this very cumbersome and one good stick is much better when sidling than two.
A good walking stick not only makes descents like this easier on the knees, but safer as well
It’s difficult to explain how to walk in rough terrain and I feel it is something that must be learnt from experience, and after a while it just becomes automatic and you don’t even have to look or think where to place your feet. I always try to be two steps ahead, that is you need to know where your next two steps are going before you get there. What you stand on can and will shift, and you need to be ready for that.
Being able to move efficiently through the mountains is far more important, than how much you can bench press, trust me!
I also am a strong believer in ‘total weight’. That is, you plus your pack. Counting ounces has become a big trend, but body weight is very crucial factor. On a recent hunt with a friend we worked out that my ‘total weight’ (me, gear, pack, rifles etc) was less than my hunting partners base body weight (he is not over weight by any means, just a bigger person than me). On unstable terrain, loose rocks etc I had a massive advantage because of this.
Most guys that walk a lot are smaller, and this makes sense look at trail runners/multi-sport endurance athletes etc. The smaller you are the less food you generally need to keep going on a 10-day hunt, and therefore having a lighter pack. I’m not suggesting anyone go out on some crazy weight loss diet but it is something worth considering before you spend $5k to lose 5 ounces off your rifle when you might be better losing 5lbs from your waist!
At the end of the day any training is better than none, and a little can go a long way to make your hunt easier on yourself and more successful. Fitness is only one factor toward being a ‘successful’ mountain hunter and don’t forget to put time into all other aspects as they can be equally important.
This is one of my all time favourite photos. I don’t know who this guy is, or who took the photo. But I think he earns the title of ‘Mountain Fit’
Do you think he has been counting how many vertical feet he did that day?
Has had enough electrolytes?
Heard of Sitka gear?
Been training for his hunt??
If he can do that, with that gear, we should easily be able to out perform him with all our mod-cons! When you feel worn out think of this guy, in his socks carrying out a whole Ibex…