Gearing up for a big game hunt in the mountains? Don’t scrimp on these 5 essentials
For a big-game adventure in the high country, you need the proper camping gear. Here are the fundamentals
Nick TrehearneIf you’re gearing up for your first mountain hunt, the camping equipment choices can be overwhelming. Hundreds of backpacks, tents, sleeping pads, stoves and trekking poles line the shelves of outdoor stores, and then there are the online shopping options.
Sure, you could visit your local camping store and ask for recommendations, but there’s a problem with that approach—what’s suitable for the average backpacker won’t necessarily be tough enough for a high-country hunter. Consider: When most hikers have already hung up their boots for the year, hunters are just getting started, often heading out in the worst of conditions.
And that’s when having just the right gear can make the difference between coming home early and hanging tough until your tag is cut.
Aside from boots, the backpack is the single-most important piece of gear for backcountry hunting, so it’s best not to pinch pennies. Cheap, poorly designed packs can be uncomfortable, even painful, to wear. They can also fall apart in your time of need deep in the wilds, leaving you with no way to carry your gear, meat or trophy back home.
Over the last decade or so, quality backpacks designed for hunters have become much lighter and more comfortable, yet tough enough to endure the rigours of the backcountry. They can also hold more gear or meat than you’ll ever be able to carry. Ideally, you want an internal-frame pack with a meat shelf that allows the heavy weight of the animal to ride snugly against your back. You should also be able to adjust the pack itself to ensure a proper fit.
Among the many manufacturers offering backpacks tailored for backcountry hunters, brands worth considering include Mystery Ranch (pictured), Kifaru, Exo Mountain Gear and Alps Outdoorz. Ultimately, it comes down to what feels best on your back when comparing packs. And don’t be scared off by the price tag—a good pack will last as long as your favourite bow or rifle, so it’s well worth the investment.
The next major consideration for the backcountry hunter is the type of shelter you want to bring into the high country. Choices vary from a four-season tent to a bivy sack to a lightweight sil-tarp, which is essentially a high-tech lean-to. The time of year, number of people in your group and how much weight you plan to carry will all factor into your decision.
Three- and four-season tents are the bread and butter of backcountry hunting. They’re stable in the wind and great in storms, and they let you sit up and move around while waiting out the weather or getting dressed. They typically come in one- to three-person designs, but you can get models that accommodate up to 10 people. Tents that are popular with hunters include the Hilleberg Nammatj and the MSR Hubba Series (pictured).
For those looking for more lightweight alternatives, one-person bivy sacks or sil-tarps are the lodging of choice. They’re quick to set up and convenient to use in areas that aren’t large enough or flat enough for a tent. While these shelters are suitable for an early-season hunt, I wouldn’t use one later in the season once there’s more likelihood of inclement weather. Popular choices for hunters include the Outdoor Research Advanced Bivy (top left), the Integral Designs Unishelter Bivy and the Black Diamond Mega Light Tarp Shelter (top right).
When it comes to sleeping pads, many people think of those old rolled-up pieces of blue foam. Luckily, we’re no longer stuck with only using those relics. With two common styles now dominating the market, all you really have to select are the specific features you’d like.
Self-inflating pads are, without doubt, the most popular style, and Therm-a-Rest is the brand that consistently leads the industry. Given the range of options, I suggest using the Mattress Selection Guide found on Therm-a-Rest’s website to choose the correct weight range, warmth and comfort rating for your trip. Since you’ll be in the high country during the fall when the nights get cold, your best bet is a four-season sleeping pad.
Less common is the new generation of foam pads, which have some major advantages over those old blue roll-ups. For starters, pads such as the Therm-a-Rest Z Lite (pictured) fold up like an accordion, making them much more compact and easy to strap to a backpack. They also feature heat-capturing contours to help you stay warm. Best of all, the foam can’t be punctured. All too often, a sharp rock or stick will puncture a self-inflating sleeping pad, or a seam will develop a slow leak, leaving you sleeping on the hard, cold ground for the remainder of your trip.
A hunt without hot food and beverages adds one more reason to quit early and head home—I know I’d be tempted to throw in the towel without my morning coffee. Whether it runs on liquid gas or compressed gas, you need a portable stove to quickly and reliably heat your food and drink.
Stoves powered by liquid gas—also known as white gas or naphtha—were long the only choice for backcountry hunters. Since the fuel canisters are reusable, these stoves certainly remain an eco-friendly option. However, the canisters have been known to leak, leaving you with cold meals and a gas-soaked pack. Plus, the stoves themselves are relatively large and heavy, and you need to bring along pots and pans.
These days, stoves that run on canisters of compressed butane are the preferred option. They’re small, light and easy to use, and they put out enough heat to boil water in just a few minutes. Many of these cooking systems are self-contained, complete with a pot, so all you need are the fuel canisters. I use a JetBoil Flash, but other good choices include the MSR Reactor and the GSI Pinnacle Canister Stove (pictured).
You may shrug off the need for telescoping hiking poles, but they can prevent a lot of wear and tear on your body during a backpack hunt. While you don’t need to constantly use them, you should have a pair strapped to your pack and at the ready when you encounter uneven terrain, head downhill or carry a heavy load.
There’s a wide array of hiking poles to select from, but they’re all fairly similar in design. Aluminum poles are the most common, and they’re generally the least expensive. But as with most backcountry gear, cheaper doesn’t mean better. Choose the wrong poles and you’ll be tempted to toss them into the campfire.
Carbon fibre or titanium poles are best, since they’ll rarely break or bend as aluminum poles will. As for the grips, most are made of cork, rubber or plastic, so your choice is simply a matter of personal preference. What’s much more important to consider is the shape of the grips—make sure they match the size of your hands and they’re comfortable to use. Proven brands include Komperdell (pictured), Gabel and Black Diamond.
The takeaway here? As with firearms, bows or optics, buy the best camping gear you can afford. Otherwise, you risk a cold, uncomfortable hunt. Or even worse, a failed hunt.