10 Essentials for Hunting The Backcountry
Are you about to go for your first backcountry hunt? Your challenge should you choose to accept it, is to take only essential backcountry hunting gear and not pack in gear your not going to use.
This sounds simple and obvious, doesn’t it?
Backcountry hunting dictates that you’re often walking some serious miles. Any extra weight is going to affect your calorie intake, hydration requirements, and can even play on your mental state.
This becomes even more evident when you have successfully taken an animal and you’re suddenly faced with a huge carry to get home. If you’re about don your backpack for the first time and embark on your maiden hunting trip, that’s Awesome!
Just be aware that most gear lists on the internet (just like mine below) have been slowly forged over years of amazing hunting adventures.
I have honed my hunting craft in most case purposefully. There have also been times where I have been tested and refined by experiencing a close call or a cold night.
So there really is no substitute for getting out there and doing it. As a result, today I’m more comfortable in the backcountry with fewer comforts. I have worked out in my own mind the difference between my needs and wants.
As a natural progression, my pack weight has reduced. So use this list of “10 Backcountry Hunting Essentials” as a foundation for your own essential list.
Be ok with your pack, maybe being a little on the heavy side, to begin with. Don’t fall into the trap of needing all your gear to be top of the line.
We have all been there.
Rest in the knowledge that the more you hunt and the deeper you venture into the backcountry. Your sharp edges will be knocked off and your “top of the line gear” will be tested and so will you.
You are about to become a refined, honed, polished example of a backcountry hunter, just be sure to enjoy the journey.
To save you a bit of time, at the bottom of the article I have linked to each item so you can start building your own essential backcountry kit .
- Down Insulated Jacket
- Game bags
- Hunting knife
- Knife Sharpener
- Sleep system
- Backcountry Stoves
- PLB (Personal Locator Beacon)
#1 – Down Insulated Jacket
When your hunting, there’s nothing worse than being cold or having to move to stay warm? It takes your attention away from the reason your in the backcountry and all it takes is s flick of movement from a cold and tired hunter for a deer to realize something’s not right and slip away.
So to in order to combat my long-running battle with the cold I now pack an insulated down jacket on all my multi-day hunts. For overnight missions, if I can see it’s going to be in the 50’s. I’ll pack an insulated down vest.
What I love most about these is they pack down small, and for their weight offer incredible insulation. They are ideal to put on under a rain layer if your stopping for a good amount of time. Especially if you’re on the spotter or binoculars.
At the end of a day of hunting, they make life around campsite a lot more comfortable. Where these come into their own, is through their ability to be integrated into your sleep system. With the extra warmth they offer your core, it means you are able to use an insulated jacket to boost your sleeping bag or quilt’s R-value in colder temperatures.
Alternatively, If you’re looking to cut weight from your sleep system. What I like to do is, pack a lighter weight sleeping bag, then use my insulated jacket to achieve the same level of warmth.
I find this little trick works well in spring and early fall where the temperatures don’t quite justify the added weight of a big loft sleeping bag or quilt.
#2 – Binoculars
After trekking in miles to get to your hunting area you want to be able to conserve your energy where possible by hunting smarter.
What I mean by this is
One of the simplest ways of doing this is by letting your eyes do some of the walking.
Using your binoculars allows you to scout miles ahead and locate animals long before they know a human is in the area. You’re also in a position to identify areas that would attract deer at those key times of the day.
For all my hunts I pack my favorite pair of binoculars (Geovid 8 x 40). These have a rangefinder built in and are a little heavier than I would like.
In order to cut weight, it would mean sacrificing good optics. I have used inferior binoculars and the difference is night and day. It’s one part of my kit I won’t compromise on.
I also love that these are two essential backpack items rolled into one, which means it’s one less item to go into the pack.
These make it more convenient when it comes to ranging a deer. With a push of a button, I know how many yards away a deer is and there no chance of losing an animal in the transition between binoculars and rangefinder.
#3 – GPS
Knowing how to hunt with a map and compass is an important skill to learn. Unfortunately, it is a craft which is disappearing with our reliance on technology.
My personal view is, that if you intend on being a competent backpack hunter. You should take the time to master this first before jumping in and buying a GPS.
Hunting with a GPS has been a game changer for me. It has given me the confidence to venture far and wide, knowing at any stage (batteries dependant) I can follow my footsteps back to my campsite.
In the past, I have owned and used the likes of the Garmin Inreach which are great for keeping in touch with my family on multi-day hunts. Where the inreach is a standout performer is the ability to text helicopter operators for pickups as it sends your exact location.
They are also handy for receiving up to date weather forecasts. The downsides are the need to be on a monthly subscription which isn’t cheap and the screen resolutions are not up to the level of a dedicated GPS.
This is why I now hunt with a dedicated GPS.
I settled years ago on the Garmin Rhino 650 which has a built-in radio and topo maps. (These have been superseded by the Rino 750’s) This means you can identify slips, cliffs, and clearings that you have scouted on google earth.
This much like the binoculars is two applications in one. While it does mean they are a little on the heavier side, they are perfect for my hunting needs.
They have a built-in compass, breadcrumb tracking, waypoints. It also has a point and go function which if used alongside a rangefinder is awesome in getting you almost exactly where you shot your deer so you can start tracking.
The built-in radio has a range (line of sight) of 5 miles so what they offer for shared hunting trips is the ability to track your hunting partners progress. If you decide to split up for one reason or another or guide one another in on animals you can talk or text your buddy in on that trophy.
#4 – Game Bags
In my early days, I would stash a couple of black rubbish bags in the top pocket of my pack. I would use these to store my venison and chuck them in my pack to carry out. This is still very common practice today with many hunters.
I understand the theory, but if your traveling for more than a couple of hours, you’re asking for trouble. If you think about it, the deer you have just shot is still piping hot!! I’m still surprised by how warm they are when I’m elbow deep.
When you place the cuts of venison into your plastic bag it has no air to circulate around so it will begin to sweat against the other cuts and create the perfect environment for bacteria to grow.
If you’re not in a rush or you’re in overnight. Gut the deer as soon as you can. This act in itself removes a lot of heat from the carcass and also allows airflow through the gut cavity.
You can speed this up further by finding a stick to hold the gut cavity open and hanging it from a tree overnight. Just be sure to have sufficient cover over the open cavity to stop those pesky blowflies from doing what they do.
If you’re needing to pack the venison back to camp you should quarter your deer and chuck the hind legs into separate muslin cloth bags (like hams). The rest of the prime cuts like the back straps, rib eye fillets along with front quarters can be boned and out into another bag.
With a knot tied at the top of each bag makes it easy to hang from a tree overnight back at camp.
Note, where possible I hock the back legs and leave the skin on and bone in. I find the meat tastes better when it’s had time to hang in the chiller for a week before I cut them into steaks.
If your needing to lose some pack weight you can always bone these out the next day.
So ditch the plastic bags and grab yourself some muslin cloth bags from your local outfitter.
If you’re little tight for cash I have used a pillowcase before. They are not as effective as muslin cloth but it’s a heap better than a black rubbish bag. Just make sure you check with your wife it’s an old one and not part of a set because it will never be the same.
#5 – Hunting knife
There are some really great option if you’re looking for the best hunting knife for deer hunting.
Asking a whitetail hunter what’s the best knife is and you’re likely to get you a whole lotta different advice.
For example, my favorite knife is a drop point fixed blade. I bought this 12 years ago with some money my mother had given me when my Nana passed away. It’s been on many hunts with me over the years.
Unfortunately, while it’s been a superb performer when slicing thin bits of salami and tasty cheese on the mountain. When it came to dressing animals in the field it has struggled to get into tight bone joints.
I have since replaced this with a knife that has been a real asset to the hunting I do. It’s a boning knife which has made life in the backcountry breaking down deer so much easier.
If you’re in the market for a new knife, you will have thousands to choose from and there are three main categories for you to consider.
Fixed blade hunting knife
There are some grossly oversized Fixed blade hunting knives that really won’t work when it comes to deer. One that springs to mind is the legendary Bowie design.
Yes, they will still be able to remove the entrails of a deer. Do they work well? I don’t think so.
For whitetails and any deer for that matter, having a blade that’s longer than 4 to 5 inches tends to be more of a hindrance.
A lot of knives feature the traditional Clip point blade design.
I’d advise any deer hunter to avoid this design at all costs for the following reasons. With its sharp, thin tip that sits above the spine of the knife, it is often the first point of contact with an animal when you begin field dressing a deer.
If you’re not careful they are susceptible to nicking parts of the gut bag and intestines if you don’t give yourself enough room with your fingers as you open up the paunch.
This becomes even more difficult if there has been a period of time from when you have shot your deer and recovered it as the paunch has swelled with gas. To help mitigate this from happening I recommend you look into a Drop point blades.
They are not as sharp at the tip and greatly reduce your chances of slicing through the skin and the organs beneath.
Folding hunting knife
These have been a popular choice over the years with hunters and cowboys alike.
For years these have been tucked into front pockets of jeans or with an appropriate holster attached to belts and taken everywhere.
What I don’t particularly like about folding knives is that they do tend to pick up dirt and blood and animal hair in the grove that the blade folds back into. This isn’t a big problem but if you like your blades to stay sharp, it is an area that you will have to continually keep clean.
Changeable Blade knife
I have never owned a knife with changeable blades other than a box cutter I use for drywall as a carpenter. We do know that within the deer hunting marketplace these are a fairly recent addition and I have read a lot of mixed reviews.
There is nothing better than being able to have a razor sharp blade to dress an animal.
But I feel that these thin blades would be susceptible to snapping if used outside of their single purpose design and don’t seem to offer the versatility that a deer hunter requires backpack hunting.
If you have used or owned one I would appreciate it if you could leave a comment below with your view so we can share your knowledge on knives like this.
#6 – Knife Sharpener
Before you head out on a backpack hunt I hope that as part of your prep you are making sure your knife has a good edge on it. It is not uncommon (for me at least) for the blade of my knife to become dull as a result of camp duties.
So when it comes time to break a deer down that I have just shot it can be a real struggle and a pain in the you know what, if I don’t have something on me to restore its edge.
The steel that accompanies my boning knife is superb but is considerably heavier than my diamond sharpener. If I’m looking to drop a little weight the steel will be first to go.
What I love about the diamond sharpener is that is folds away nicely and you can also wrap an old inner tube over its handle to assist in fire lighting around camp.
For shorter backcountry trips you may even be able to manage without one and rely on the sharpening you have done prior to heading out.
#7 – Headlamp
Seeing in the dark is not a strength of mine.
As my favorite and most successful time to hunt is in the last hour of light. More often than not this will mean I’ll be doing a fair bit of walking in the dark.
Unless of course, I have fluked an easy deer earlier in the day. Historically I have been a LED Lenser purchaser over the years. If I’m completely honest I’m probably guilty of buying into some of the hype around their products. For the most part, however, they have served me well.
LED Lenser lead somewhat of a headlamp revolution in trekking and hunting circles with their early CRE technology. In the last few years though, we have seen the headlamp market tighten up as companies have opted to outsource production to overseas.
A lot of their technological advances have been reversed engineered, adopted and refined by competitors. For us hunters, we get to reap the rewards as price points for great headlamps continues to drop.
What To Look For In A Good Headlamp.
There are two main things that you should consider when choosing a good headlamp.
The last thing you want to feel is like you have a brick attached to your head as you pack out a deer in the dark. Sure, there are exceptions to this, for example:
Evening hunts, where you’ll have an opportunity to spotlight and shoot an animal after dark.
For this, it may be necessary to use a larger headlamp in order to provide enough light to identify and shoot a deer.
For backpack hunting though, a headlamp that offers a minimum of 300 lumens should be lightweight and compact enough to pack in anywhere.
Just be sure to check that your headlamp has a waterproof rating as the last thing you want is for it to be unreliable in heavy rains.
Battery run-time is an important consideration, and unfortunately, because manufacturers are using a self-serving definition of “run-time” it’s one of those things that is often misrepresented.
For this reason, a headlamp reported abilities and performance varies considerably across the various brands. Unfortunately, I have learned this lesson the hard way.
I was once stuck halfway down a cliff face when my headlamp flicked twice to let me know the battery was getting low. Only for it to die 30 seconds later.
Just imagine for a moment that you’re suddenly standing, in the pitch black with your pack on and a rifle slung over your shoulder. Fortunately, the moment you were surrounded in darkness, your hands had found a lonely but solid clump of tussic to tightly hold onto.
With no room to slide your pack off and fumble around for spare batteries and no idea where to place your foot next.
What would you do?
If it had been solo hunt it would have meant a long and lonely night on the cliff face until there was enough daylight to move again. Thankfully, my buddy was on the ground with a spotlight and was able to guide me down. Step by step.
You can avoid this and other life-threatening situations completely by choosing a good headlamp. Notice I didn’t say most expensive.
Big and bright isn’t always best. You do want a headlamp that doesn’t suck through the batteries.
The more lumens your headlight has the more power it’s going to draw. To compensate for this the battery pack will need to be bigger and so on and so forth.
Try and choose a headlamp that has between 300 and 600 lumens. This will allow you to look ahead approximately 100 yards which is ample. It will also mean you won’t have to carry so many spare batteries on your backpack hunting adventure.
The awesome thing about having a good headlamp is it also gives you the confidence to push further. knowing you’re able to rely on your headlamp to get back to base.
#8 – Sleep System
Sleep is one of those things you tend to take for granted until you have a rough night.
No amount of coffee, chocolate or supplements can make up for it. Which is a lesson most of us quickly learn once we have children.
A quality sleep system which consists of a sleeping pad, Down Sleeping bag or Quilt, is one of, if not the most important choices for any backcountry trip. These are important for obvious reasons like warmth, comfort, safety.
However, getting good quality sleep after a big day on the hill hunting deer, most importantly allows your body to recover.
It’s normal for the first-night backcountry to be a little unsettled as your in a foreign environment and your sensors will be heightened.
One night like this followed by another day of hunting and a nip of whiskey around the campfire is enough for me to have a better sleep. That is of course unless your buddies got to sleep first and is snoring, preventing you from entering a deep sleep.
It’s during deep sleep that your body works hard to repair muscles, organs, and other cells. It also releases the hormones Prolactin is which has anti-inflammatory properties that are important for recovery of joints.
Packing a pair of earplugs and an inflatable pillow can make sleeping in the backcountry feel like a king. For shorter excursions say, one or two nights you can probably improvise using spare clothes as a pillow but I have found that on week-long hunts, it’s the little things that can make a heck of a difference and well worth packing them.
Sleeping bags and Quilts
As hunters, we often gravitate towards sleeping bags and quilts that offers the greatest amount of warmth which in a simplistic way makes a lot of sense.
Today I’d like to challenge this notion….just a little.
When we do this we end up halling more gear than we should and neglect looking at our sleep system with a holistic view. We overlook the 3 season conditions we are going to be hunting and pack for 4 seasons.
We all know it’s essential to be warm and trust me when I say this. Spending a night unable to sleep because your shivering is miserable. Our sleeping bags/quilts and sleeping pads can be some of the heavier items in our packs.
But on top of this most of us like to pack either a down insulated jacket and pants if not both to keep ourselves toasty warm while on the spotting scope or cooking and hanging out around camp.
By simply incorporating these into your sleep system along with gear like your beanie, balaclava, merino sock and base layer they become multi use items that will allow you to reduce your sleeping bag or quilt loft and shed pack weight.
Best Sleeping Bag
When looking for a sleeping bag you want something that is sub 2.0 pounds and is filled with goose down.
Anything that offers a comfort rating of 20f (10c) will be adequate for late autumn and early spring hunts and you will be able to boost this in colder conditions through using the method above or thermal liners that are available.
#9 – Backcountry Stoves
These come in different shapes and sizes and should be selected to best suit the hunting conditions you hunt. There are two main categories of cookers. Backcountry Cooking systems and Stoves.
Backcountry Cooking Systems
Cooking systems such as Jet boil, MSR Windburner, and the Primus Lite are priced fairly similar and offer comparable performance.
These are designed to boil water quickly and efficiently and pack away perfectly inside themselves making packing easy. They are designed primarily to boil water which is why they are not so good when it comes to cooking food.
They can be temperamental to adjust to a simmer which is important when your cooking in order have an even distribution of heat.
I learned this lesson the hard way with a pasta sashay on the first night of a 3-night hunt.
I had to put up with pasta lumps in my cups of tea and coffee for the rest of the trip which was as enjoyable as it sounds.
If your running dehydrated meals then these are perfectly suited.
If you’re after a little more flexibility with you outback cooking then a stove top is a great way to go.
They are typically far less bulky and pack down to a fraction of the size of a backcountry cooking system like the Jetboil.
MSR PocketRocket Deluxe is a leader in this field and you can read our review here. The beauty of these is you can shop around to find lighter compatible cups or pots and build out your own system.
Stoves typically have better control over heat output so you will have a few more food options other than dehydrated food sachets.
# 10 – PLB (Personal Locator Beacons)
If you have read any of my other articles you will work out pretty quickly that I’m a huge advocate of packing a PLB when hunting. Not because I have ever found myself in a position where iv need to use one.
But when you’re in remote backcountry hunting spots it’s not hard to imagine how things could turn for the worst if a couple of things didn’t go your way. Instead of opting for a subscription tool like the Garmin inreach (which are great) I chose a dedicated PLB that can be easily stored in my bino bag. You can find our PLB review here.
I figure if you have a tumble and it’s tucked at the bottom of your pack it could be out of reach which would be no good to me. Having it attached to my chest means that I wouldn’t need to move to much to activate it and get help on its way.
You can find my review here with some real examples of hunters, hikers just like us that are alive today for being prepared.
10 Backcountry Hunting Essentials Wrap Up
So there you have it, those are my 10 Backcountry Hunting Essentials.
If you think there is something I have missed, that you wouldn’t leave home without. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.
If I notice a common theme I’ll add it to the list or switch one of my essentials out for yours. 🙂