When my buddy Paul Deuling drew his Alberta bighorn permit, we figured his best option for a ram was to head deep into the Willmore Wilderness—on foot with me joining him. Heading 50 kilometres into the mountains for 10 days with only what you can carry on your back requires some careful planning. It’s a fine balancing act of not taking too much, yet making sure you bring what you need to survive.
Add to that the fact you’ll need to carry out the meat and trophy horns if the hunt is successful, and you begin to realize what a monumental task you’re taking on. No, extended backpack hunts are not for the ill-prepared. But with a little knowledge and a lot of planning, they can be well worth the effort. Just ask Deuling—he took a great eight-year-old ram on day five of our hunt.
High-tech fabrics are key. Your clothing needs to be durable, and able to effectively wick moisture and dry quickly. I’ve become a real fan of base layers with silver or some other antimicrobial additive to keep scent down. As for socks—I bring two pairs on a 10-day hunt—merino wool is my choice. A windproof micro-fleece, down jacket and Gore-Tex jacket will suffice to keep your upper body warm, and I’m a huge fan of pants made of hardy Schoeller fabric, coupled with Gore-Tex rainpants for wet days. As well, I always wear gaiters in the mountains to prevent debris and moisture from getting in my boots and up my pants.
Foodstuffs will be among the bulkiest and heaviest items in your pack, as you’ll need to bring a good number of calories to keep you going. Plan on carrying about one and a half pounds of food per day, depending on the weather—you’ll need to consume more calories when it’s cold out. On my backpack hunts, breakfast is typically two packages of instant oatmeal or some cereal bars. For lunch, protein bars, chocolate bars, jerky and trail mix are my favourites, while a hearty freeze-dried meal is a must for dinner. By keeping meals simple, you only need a small stove, one pot to boil water, a cup and a spoon. You’ll also want to bring a couple of one-litre bottles of water; I carry a four-litre water bladder in case I camp away from a source of fresh water.
Tents, sleeping bags and sleeping pads must not only be lightweight, but also compact. Bulk becomes a real issue on extended trips when everything must be carried on your back. I prefer a tent with carbon-fibre poles, as they are more durable and lighter than aluminum. A dual-wall construction with plenty of ventilation is a must, as is a vestibule. For early-season sheep hunting, a down-filled, mummy-style sleeping bag with a rating of 0°C is perfect. Later in the season, I use a -8°C bag.
I prefer a 7,000-cubic-inch pack for extended trips. Internal frame packs are definitely better suited to multi-day trips with moderate weight on your back, but few are designed to bear the extra load of a boned-out sheep—it’s not uncommon to carry more than 120 pounds when packing out game. You’ll therefore need a pack that’s up to the task, such as the Mystery Ranch Kodiak. When packing, position the heavy items so they’ll be midway up the pack and close to your back, with lighter, bulky items above and below. By keeping most of the weight close to your core, it’s easier to carry the pack and maintain your balance. I also always use hiking poles to help keep me steady. They’ve saved me from injury many times, and kept me in the game.
Your rifle is the most critical piece of equipment on a hunt, yet it’s the most awkward item to carry. While many packs have systems for attaching rifles to the side, I simply lash mine on the back with a couple of nylon straps, ensuring it’s centred to improve balance. And the lighter the rifle, the better. My favourite backpacking gun is a custom-built Rocky Mountain Rifle from Dawson Creek, B.C.’s Corlane Sporting Goods Ltd. It weighs in at a scant six pounds.