Getting Further Back …
11 Steps to Improving Your Hunting Success
The following is the text of the seminar given by Patrick Smith, President of Kifaru International, at the Rocky Mtn. Elk Foundation Annual Convention on February 17-20, 2000
Good afternoon. Thanks for coming. I’ll set the tone for this talk by giving you a subtitle: “Making Meat on Your Own Two Feet”. I’m going to talk mostly about backpacking up and in to where the game is. We’ll talk about how to get meat and horns back out. We’ll discuss “Living”, and living well not “surviving” while we do it, even if you get lost. And about the equipment, the techniques and the preparation to do this well.
Why backpack in? Well, how about because it’s simply the most successful way to take elk. By getting in further than the motorized crowds, you put yourself in the best posssible position for success.
I suppose everybody in this room already knows that. Perhaps some of you already are backpack hunters. Perhaps some of you have tried it and suffered, and gave it up. (That would have been mostly because of inadequate, antiquated equipment, and to some extent technique that was not up to the task either.) And, perhaps some are here to learn how to get started. All of you will gain something of value here. Everyone will see and hear about equipment alternatives that make all the difference in enjoyable, sustained backpack hunting. And, you’ll get a lot of advice on techniques that work too. No matter your age either. You can pack in. There is equipment now that compensates enough to keep you doing it. I’ve been doing this a very long time. If I sound like an advocate for hunting on foot, that’s because I am! And not only because it’s the most successful method. I feel freer unemcumbered by vehicles. I get to camp in absolutely pristine places, not at the busy, muddy end of the road. The possibility of seeing your elk from the tent door is very real. Nightime among the elk is supercharged with the promise of the dawn. As a backpack hunter, I experience the full-time freedom of the hills, just as the elk do.
So, in addition to a much higher quantifiable success rate, in terms of filling your tag, backpack hunting has much in its favor that is not quantifiable. It has elements that are just plain…well, good for the spirit. Packing in to hunt puts a buffer between civilization and wilderness. Packing in let’s you join, not visit, the wilderness and accept its terms. You sever the tether to town. You share the turf with our elk friends. You are in there among them, on much more equal terms. You will be on shared ground, not visiting from the end of the road. And that is exhilirating, energizing. And somehow a lot fairer. A snug, warm modern backpack camp is cleaner, remoter and more appropriate to the ideals of fair chase. Just plain more satisfying all around. And, you can place your camp overlooking exactly where you think elk will be at dawn!
Let me give you a little background on myself. I’ve been what you might call a live-off-the-land wanderer since I was 13 years old. I Founded Mountainsmith, the backpack company, and owned it for about 15 years. Now I’m the president of Kifaru International, specializing in putting before HUNTERS all that I learned adapting my personal Mountainsmith packs. I’m in the field about 150 nights a year, virtually all with a means of collecting my supper from the land. I was a reader from a very early age, and was enthralled by the self-sufficient explorations of men like Daniel Boone—the so-called Long Hunters. Men who lived in the wilderness and provided for themselves with their rifles. On foot. There weren’t any 4-wheelers in those days. I’m still perfecting those arts. And I can assure you that hunting on your own two feet is still the most successful way to do it.
I also taught wilderness survival for about 10 years. So if you have any questions on that subject that we don’t cover in the course of this talk, then just ask away.
I produced two elk for the freezer back in the ’98 season, both in Colorado. One was one of those herd-thinning tags our Division of Wildlife issued. This, despite the warm and dry weather that was partly responsible for the poor success experienced by many other hunters. I say the weather was only partly responsible because I agree with Charlie Meyers of the Denver Post who placed half the blame on laziness—not getting off your pickup seat or 4-wheeler seat and going in afoot to roust out some elk. They were still “up there”. They didn’t “come down” so the motorized crowd could get at ‘em.
I was successful because I went up and in to where the elk were by backpacking in. It’s the most mobile method of all. And the most productive. Still is. Always will be.
Even horse outfitters can do no more than provide a “base camp” that’s hoped to be closer to the game than say a car camp at the end of the road. Better? You bet! They are limited though, by the fact that horses can’t go where a man on foot can go, and by the weight and bulk and complexity of setting up a horse camp. Ed Gordon, a Kifaru customer, tells the story of Elk hunting a couple of seasons ago. No elk within get-to distance from camp. But every morning the spotting scopes revealed a six by seven patriarch on a ridge about three miles distant as the crow flies. This wonderful elk was obviously bedding over there; he was never there any other time of day. Rough country getting over there. Couldn’t move the horse camp. No backpacking gear for a couple of guys to move over there. Too rough to hike it in the early morning darkness. Ed plans to be ready to backpack next time. Plans to be his own MOBILE base camp. I’d suggest to my horse outfit colleages that they take a few packs and lightweight tents so that willing clients can be more mobile.
Backpack hunting gives you the most options and is the most successful hunting method available. If you run into game at the end of the day, you can make camp right there, ready to take care of business next morning. But generally I like to backpack in to where I think the game is and setup a base camp. Then I’ll “day pack” out of base camp, taking enough gear for all day and any contingency. My pack should be capable of carrying a heavy load of meat/horns, etc. back to base camp. Or even back to my vehicle, as day packing can certainly be done staging from a strategically placed truck, especially if you know the area and know where the elk are. May as well make that first trip back a productive one. I recommend a big enough, capable enough daypack to cover all contingencies for a full day in the field, and maybe even a bivouac!
WHAT TO TAKE—either backpacking or day packing. 1) fire starter and small head lamp with extra batteries and replacement bulb (fire and light are essential, especially if you become lost). 2) compass and/or G.P.S. and map. 3) orange survey tape. 4) knife. 5) wire saw. 6) large baggies and a trash bag or two. 7) first-aid stuff. 8) binoculars 9) food and water 10) clothing sufficient for any contingency. 11) couple of little heat packs. 12) a few paper towels. 13) small metal container to melt snow in.
SAFETY- Let a responsible person know where you’re going and when you’ll be back. They should call 911 if you don’t make it by the last chance scenario you agree on.
STAY FOUND – Use a map and compass or G.P.S. As backup I wear a little wrist compass right on my watch and use it constantly. LOOK BACK as you go along. I’m quite serious. Be aware of the landmarks behind you – you’ll need to follow them when you retrace your route to come back out. Imagine what they’ll look like beneath a foot of new snow too. Besides, you just might see an elk back there! Don’t get cold, put on your hat before you shiver.
If you get lost or weathered in or nighted out: find a sheltered spot like the base of a big spruce tree, scoop the snow out and get a nice fire going. Cover the floor of your nest with fluffy boughs and settle in. Dig out your little metal container and brew up some spruce needle tea. The most important things to do are stay put, keep a warm fire going and stay hydrated, and in that order. The worst thing you can do is bolt out of there in a panic. That has killed more hunters than all the other factors in hunting deaths combined. Relax.
Come morning you can work on whatever the problem is. Just know that you can go on like this indefinitely. You won’t die. You have shelter, warmth and water. And if you get hungry enough you even have a rifle with you! Lastly, if you’re there because you’re totally lost, you will be found.
All of the above discussion assumes that you have been daypacking when this “survival” situation commenced. Of course if you’re hunting with your full camp on your back – big pack mode – you just set up camp and wait out whatever it is as if you were at the Hilton. Some hunters, myself included, do this often. You can penetrate the length and breadth of your entire hunting area in absolute confidence.
So. TIP No.1—BACKPACK IN. Or at the very least DAYPACK. Or BOTH.
Do some backpacking in the summer and early fall. Find the game. In a dry year they’ll still be there come hunting season. But scope out where they’ll go if it’s a good snow year. Go there too and find campsites, ambush sites, glassing sites and so forth. Accustom the critters to your safe presence. Find that big bull. Then try to come back and get him come hunting season. Camp there. I mean backpacking in. Rediscover the self-reliance of the untethered world. Get on the same terms with it as the elk. Become better woodsmen and you’ll be better hunters. I guarantee it.
While scouting take your gun or bow and SHOOT. Shoot rocks. Even better, shoot small game. Marmots in summer, then grouse, rabbits and squirrels. Become a hand loader if you aren’t already and load small game loads for your elk rifle and use it! I cannot recommend this enough. You’ll get very good with that piece. You’ll also condition the big game to no-consequences shooting. And your scouting will become more immediately purposeful—and frankly, a lot more fun. A couple of rabbits in the pot on a scouting trip makes you feel really self-reliant. And in fact you really will be. Hunting is hunting. Make squirrels and rabbits worthy game. They’ve fed generations of our ancestors and honed their hunting and shooting skills in the bargain. Scouting and small game collecting at the same time is unbeatable as a tune up for the season. You’ll love it. Backpack in and spend the weekends leading up to big game season scouting and practicing in this manner. See below for an addendum on small game loads for most calibers. Also some field cooking Tips for small game.
Marmots are usually excellent practice for long-range shooting. They taste rather like pork. Shoot rocks too. Then don’t forget to pace off the distance—you’ll want to hone your range estimation skills. I have a range finder now, still ambivalent about that. But, at the very least they make standard calibers more viable than ever, even for long shots. Thus, really lightweight rifles, without muzzle brakes, are to me, at the forefront again. Still have to practice, and still have to know the drops.
Squirrel and rabbit hunting, especialy squirrel, is excellent practice for off-hand shooting – and I’ve taken a lot of elk off hand. If you can learn to hit squirrels you’ll be well prepared. Again, hand load your elk rifle and use it – you’ll never regret it.
Shooting/hunting is a calling. Do it right. Practice and scout at the same time. And backpack in, honing that skill too!
TIP No. 4—ACCURACY
Of course practice is the single biggest contributor to accuracy. But I’d like to suggest some practical technical Tips to go along with the practice.
–Hand dexterity–When the time to shoot arrives at last, you’re in a bit of a pickle if your hands are semi frozen from the cold we usually associate with hunting season here in the West. But you simply can’t shoot well with bulky gloves either. I highly recommend the lightweight polypropylene gloves from Manzella Company. They’re thin enough to provide excellent dexterity on your trigger and also have a thin pattern of rubberized dots splashed across the palm and fingers for reliable grip on your rifle. These gloves used in conjunction with Kifaru’s Hand Warmer pouch will take you well below zero while providing ready to go trigger dexterity. The Hand Warmer is like a muff—your hands actually touch each other inside, unlike individual pockets, thus providing much greater warmth and allowing the use of these highly nimble gloves. You can even toss one of these little heat packs in there and warm both hands, as well as your chest, in brutally cold conditions! The Hand Warmer Pouch will also carry your binoculars in its special pocket on the front.
–Shoot off Pack—you simply can’t always find a tree limb or boulder. Besides, they’re too hard to work right anyway—you need padding. Ergo, use the pack you should be carrying as a shooting rest. In addition to the stuff we talked about above, I like to put really lightweight but sort of bulky stuff in my pack, especially if it’s a day packing ramble. Plump but slightly soft. When shooting off your pack slide the rifle right up to its trigger guard so that it balances on the pack. You don’t want to muscle it at all. You can change the elevation of the rifle according to whether you place it at the narrowest part of the pack or the widest or off the top for the sitting or kneeling positions. If you do have a boulder to shoot off of, you’ll still want to plop your pack down on top of it and shoot off of the softer backpack.
–(Show Rifle Rain Cover) – I’m sure we’ve all shouldered a rifle for an important shot and-to our dismay-found a puck-like disc of snow blocking the front lens on our scope. The barrel was probably half filled with snow too, which doesn’t exactly give me confidence in an accurate shot. Try my Rifle Rain Cover if it’s snowing or you’re wiggling through snow-laden brush and branches. It pulls off in a nanosecond and protects the bore too.
TIP No. 5—COMFORT—You can’t hunt well if you hurt. Don’t be intimidated by backpacking in. Modern internal frame backpacks are worlds better than the hip crushing shoulder crunching external frame packs we all know too well. Internals have won the battle at comfortably carrying heavy weights. They are also quiet, they don’t break at the welds so you don’t have to carry your load out in your arms, they don’t hang up on trees, bushes and rocks. They don’t knock your scope out of alignment, and they are a lot more compact for day hunting. They’ll go anywhere far more unobtrusively. They make far better shooting platforms too, as there’s no encircling ring of hard metal that will bounce you’re shot into the next County if you try to shoot off it. They cost a lot less than a 4-wheeler too. Nobody in the mountaineering world- where heavy loads and good balance are critical carries externals anymore. When you think about it mountaineers have the same requirements we do in terms of heavy loads and good balance.
So internals are what I went with when I decided to build hunting specific packs. There is another factor hunters must consider: quietness. This pack (hold up Long Hunter ) doesn’t squeak or rattle like all externals and even a lot of internals.
The truth of the matter is that the gear backcountry hunters need goes beyond the needs of regular backpackers or even mountaineers. Where we go has worse weather and no trails or established routes. It’s generally steeper, has millions of blow downs to negotiate and there are certainly none of those cute little bridges across the streams. Both we and our gear have to be a cut above. And we have to do it all quietly.
One last thing on packs. Any really comfortably built pack should carry the weight on your hips-not your shoulders. This is far less tiring and far more comfortable. But keep the waistbelt quite tight so it can do its job. The pack stretches a bit as you go along, so periodically tighten the belt a fraction of an inch or so. If it feels like its sliding down a little, hoist it up and hitch it up a skosh.
Just as important as a comfortable pack are comfortable boots. Get the best ones you can find and break them in BEFORE hunting season.
TIP No. 6—STAY WARM and DRY and TRY TO GET SOME EXTERNAL HEAT—This topic is related to Comfort, above, but important enough to warrant separate treatment. You can’t hunt well if you’re cold, wet and exhausted. A backpack camp doesn’t have to be a survival camp. About 10 years ago I invented an ultraliteweight tent system heated by ultralightweight wood burning stoves. I’ve been using them myself and also leading group trips in them ever since. They’re now available to the general public under the Kifaru label. Check them out. Instead of huddling in your clammy sleeping bag each night slowly wearing out, you can get just as warm and dry in these tents as if you were at home. Getting warm and dry and rested each night is a huge factor, both physically as well as psychologically, to success—to having the will and the energy to really push at finding game each day. The tents are Tipi shaped and come in three sizes, soon 4. All allow you to stand inside which greatly enhances your overall physical comfort over the long term. All have a clothes drying cord inside which, in combination with the heating/cooking stove, will allow you to thoroughly dry out your clothing each evening. I’ve found that in cold weather you wear down quickly unless you can expose yourself to an external heat source for a goodly period each day. You can’t eat enough to counteract this deterioration either. These heated tents are just the ticket!
On the issue of clothing select quality synthetic items that keep the snow and wind out. And don’t hesitate to wear it inside your sleeping bag! This will dramatically extend the low range of your bag and you won’t have to carry in such a big, heavy bag either. Just be sure you dry out the garments first!
A lightweight light in the tent will enhance not only your mood but also your efficiency at preparing meals, tending to chores, planning the next day’s hunt and generally keeping you from getting worn down.
A feather weight chair pays back its weight many times over by letting you rest while sitting in camp instead of slowly wearing down because you’re having to hold your body up with no support. (SHOW CARGO CHAIR). Many other portable chairs on the lines of the Crazy Creek design are available. I suppose the greatest advantages of the Cargo Chair are lighter weight, an anatomical back because it utilizes your own backpack for that purpose and of course the fact that you can carry an elk quarter on it when not using it as a chair. Use the Cargo Chair to catch some rest during the day by sitting on it while you glass. It makes a terrific shooting brace too.
Eat well. Drink plenty of fluids. Do both BEFORE you feel hungry or thirsty.
TIP No. 7—GO LIGHT—We tend to take too much stuff when we backpack into the boondocks. Perhaps it’s because we feel just a little bit insecure out there. This is especially true of clothing. A lot of folks carry a complete change of clothing, undoubtedly for the purpose of changing into dry duds should the first set get wet. As long as you can dry the clothes you’re wearing an extra set represents several pounds of overkill. I usually carry only an extra pair of socks.
Take lightweight food. Freeze-dried is certainly light, and it’s getting tastier. You can also visit the dried foods section at the store. If you have a tent and wood stove you can cook Rice-a-Roni the 30 minutes it calls for. You’ll have the stove fired off anyway-getting warm, drying the one set of clothes you have brought in, etc.. And you don’t have to bring a gas stove and fuel at all-saving all that weight. Remember, the fuel, if its wood, is already there.
Use as few pots and utensils as possible and find lightweight ones. Here’s a scenario for 2 guys:
1 pot w/lid – lightweight aluminum
2 lightweight forks or spoons
your hunting knives
2 plastic cups
1 more pot without lid for cowboy coffee
Many times I’ve fried grouse in a pot (and not a “specialized” skillet) then used the same pot for Rice-a-Roni. You can even add the Rice-a-Roni to the grouse and let the grouse bubble along some more right with the rice. Throw in some freeze-dried carrot chips and a little soy sauce and you have a pretty good one-pot meal.
You can find dried beef in the grocery store to substitute for the grouse in the scenario above. Oh yeah, and you’ll need a little cooking oil in a small nalgene bottle. Salt & pepper, etc,
Weigh your gear, including clothing, and put the weight on it with a magic marker. When packing in take only the lightest gear. This goes for clothing too. Layers of light clothing works better than that huge five lb. parka anyway.
Use a lightweight rifle! My Rifles Inc..300 Weatherby weighs 6 lbs. with its Luepold 3×9 Compact scope mounted. It’s a dynamite setup. At 2500 bucks it’s still a bargain. Our website has some essays by me on the subject of Rambling Rifles – lightweight back packing rifles that will still handle all chores. I promised my readers recently that I would check out .358 Winchester as a candidate for Alaska Rambling Rifle. Well this is it. (show rifle). It’s a switchbarrel. The barrel that’s on it now is in .358 Win. Inside my pack is its 7 mm-08 barrel. In the .358 Win configuration it weights a tad less than 5 lbs with the 2X7 Luepold Compact scope mounted. Weight with its 7mm-08 barrel installed is 4 lbs. 10 oz. Accuracy and speed is excellent with both barrels. And, when taken down, the whole set-up fits inside my Spike Camp daypack.
I like this concept so much – I think it’s so useful for backpack hunters – that I’m going to produce these rifles for sale. We should be ready for orders by about mid-summer. They’ll be available in just about any short action caliber.
In any event, a lightweight rifle that you practice enough with to shoot just as well as you shoot a heavy rifle is a great boon to hunting the backcrountry!
On the subject of scopes, I’ve never failed to hit at any distance and in any light with a 2×7 Luepold Compact. This little unit weighs a half-pound less than any so-called normal scope and handles recoil up to .375 H&H just fine. Remember that Jack O’Connor, Elmer Keith, Warren Paige and all the greats from the past used 21/2 and 4x scopes with less optical quality than the little Luepold 2×7 I’m speaking of. The only reason I’m not using a 4x Compact right now is because I shoot a lot of small game up pretty close and the 2x on a 2×7 works better than a fixed 4x. And frankly, my Weatherby with 165 grain bullets really can shoot far enough to warrant 7x or even 9x of magnification. I’ve successfully shot to its full distance potential at 9x. I’m not about to carry a full extra pound or more to get 14x. That’s a varminting scope and completely unjustifiable for big game and backcountry conditions.
Sleeping bag: a mummy bag is the only way to go. Yes you can get used to it. That’s part of the purpose of all those scouting trips. A 15 or 20 degree mummy bag is very lightweight and fine for the first two seasons. Perhaps a 5degree bag for the third season. Clothes (if dry) worn inside extend the range of these bags.
Sleeping pad: weight vs. rest is at issue here. Here’s the very best option I’ve found: an ultralite weight Blufoam closed cell full-length pad beneath an Ultralite shorty pad from Thermarest Co. The closed cell pad backs up and protects the Thermarest. It’s the one you sit on during dinner (unless you’re using a Cargo Chair). Put down the Thermarest only at bedtime.
Pillow: use a small stuff sack with your parka inside. Yes, a pillow is very important in terms of getting rest. But this method is far lighter and less bulky than bringing in a real pillow. It really works too.
Head gear: no need for massive, heavy items. A polypropylene stocking cap and a fleece headband along with a ballcap in a synthetic material such as Supplex plus the hood on your lightweight parka will set you up for anything. Sleep in the stocking cap to conserve energy.
Ammunition: six or seven cartridges are plenty. Twenty comprise an additional pound you’ll have to carry.
TIP No. 8—TRANSPORT– The subject is meat hauling. Where the rubber meets the road. Where the work begins.
If you’re far enough in that you’re looking at days to get your critter out, BONE HIM OUT.
If you’re carrying quarters at least remove the hide and hooves.
A cargo rack on your pack is a great asset. So is a stand-alone pack frame if you’re concerned about messing up the pack bag with some blood. (Show Long Hunter) . For example the frame removes from this pack bag for that purpose.
Don’t forget to take survival and first aid items on your meat-ferrying trips. Also contingency clothing.
TIP No. 9—GET IN SHAPE—Hunting is and should be physical. Your best results as a hunter are achieved if you’re in good enough shape. Good enough shape to walk quietly over that next ridge where the elk are waiting for you.
If you follow my tip of spending the summer and early fall out scouting/backpacking/small game hunting you’ll be on your way toward being in the kind of shape you should be in to hunt most effectively. But you should do something physical during the week too. About four days a week of physical activity is about right. So put on a weighted pack and climb the stairs for 30 minutes. Or go to a park; try to find one with some hills.
Ethical hunting is a way of life. I think it demands a commitment that includes a proper level of physical fitness. And you’ll be more successful in your hunting.
TIP No. 10—BE ALERT—We’ve probably all had the experience of going down to the stream to get water, sans rifle, and up pops an elk. Ergo-take your rifle with you.
On the hike into your happy hunting grounds be especially alert. If your rifle is strapped to your pack your chances of getting an effective shot off in time are just about nil. One option is to simply carry your rifle in your hands. Yep, that’s a real drag on a long hike under a heavy pack when there aren’t supposed to be any elk where you are anyway. But elk have their own rules and I’ve taken them where they weren’t supposed to be on several occasions.
Another option is Kifaru’s Gun Bearer system. (Show Gun Bearer). This is the fastest and also the safest rifle carrying method there is. It also puts the rifle’s weight on my hips instead of on my shoulder thus saving me some energy. Its speed of mounting has enabled me to take elk on several occassions when otherwise I would have been too slow.
One last comment on alertness: have your rifle in hand when you peek out of your tent in the morning.
TIP No. 11—BE UNORTHODOX—I was wild boar hunting in California with Craig Boddington. It was canyon country with thick brush in the bottoms of the canyons. Brush so thick you couldn’t even push your way through it, much less see any hogs in its tangled recesses. And we were having no luck at all finding hogs. So we started throwing rocks down into the brushy bottoms of the ravines. Eventually a big old boar popped up and trotted up the opposite side of a ravine. He was good eating. That trick hasn’t worked for me yet on deer or elk, but I’m still trying when all else fails.
CONCLUSION—Whether you use the latest gear we’ve talked about in this seminar or a tarp, your 20 year old frame pack and your 10 lb. 30-06, I encourage you to get further back in. And on your own feet. Get back to the basics of two feet and some sweat. You’ll be a far better hunter. It’s the pinnacle of hunting, the elite way to do it. And the most successful.
Do you have any questions?
We’ve allowed some time for you to come up and look at all this stuff, so feel free to some on up and handle it.
Thanks for coming, and good huntin
Patrick Smith of kifaru.net