All photo credits: Josh Kirchner
What's the first thing that pops into your head when I say backpack hunting? Maybe the first word that comes to mind is awesome, hard, or rewarding, but I bet one of them isn't "January." Am I right? For me, this is one of my favorite times of year to backpack hunt. That might be because I live in the Arizona desert and our January, in terms of temperatures, is reminiscent of what a lot of folks know as springtime. Highs for us during this time of year average between 60 and 70 degrees with lows in the high 20's to mid 30's. Oh, and I forgot to mention: There’s also something else going on that time of year as well—the Coues deer rut. And one of my favorite ways to hunt them is in the backcountry.
My response to that question is "Why not?" As long as you are physically able and have the drive to do it, I say do it. Backpack hunting offers a hunter a few things. The biggest one is an immense drop in hunting pressure. You will most likely be hunting deer that either haven't been hunted a lot or hunted at all for that matter. A drop in hunting pressure is also going to bring something else to the table: solitude. No roads, no cell phone service—just the quiet that is the mountains and rut-crazed Coues bucks. This is the perfect way to reset yourself mentally and enjoy some adventure with your bow and a dream.
The name of the game this time of year is finding does. Don't worry about where the bucks are. During the rut, they will show up like magic to soak up the potent smell of does in heat. I like to pick my camp spot in relation to where I am finding the most does. By centralizing your camp spot to where you can break off to a few different vantage points to glass, you will maximize your chances of finding that love struck buck. I am not always using a trail to find these spots either. I look for big chunks of roadless country, park off the side of the road and hike in. These areas are often overlooked by other hunters. One of my favorite things this time of year is waking up, walking less than 100 yards, and plopping down with my optics and tripod to glass. This saves a ton of energy and time by not having to make a big hike every morning. Not to mention, you can catch a few more Zs as well because you don’t have to wake up as early.
Water is something you definitely need to plan ahead for. You have a few options here. You can either spend the time scouting your intended hunting area for natural springs/other water sources or you can pack water in ahead of time. Arizona can be a tricky place with water. If a map is telling you that there is a spring or creek in your hunting area it doesn't always mean that it is full or running. It can be dried up. I don't know about you, but that is not something I want to bank my hunt on. So, while you are out scouting for deer, you also need to be scouting for water. Oftentimes, I will not even worry about it and just spend a morning packing in a few gallons of water before the season. By doing this, you are not only eliminating the chore that is filtering water, you are maximizing your hunting time. With water already stashed by camp, you don't have to go spend valuable hunting time filtering. This is huge in my opinion because during the rut you can see bucks literally all day long. But you have to be there to see them. In the end, you have to do what you have to do and I have done both, but do enjoy having water stashed ahead of time.
For these December/January hunts, I usually get by just fine with a lightweight merino base layer, midweight merino layer, and a puffy jacket. Like I said earlier, the temperatures are usually in the 60's during the day and 30's at night so you shouldn't have to worry too much about bundling up a ton, especially if you are hunting the desert areas. Northern Arizona can get pretty cold though, which is important to keep in mind. Most days, I do not pack rain gear either. We usually get a front or two that moves through this time of year, but, in general, it is pretty dry out. As far as footwear goes, I am a huge fan of lightweight trail hikers like Salomons. Not only are these super comfortable, but they are usually pretty quiet as well and I can actually stalk deer with them on. Anytime I can do this, I do. Cactus thorns are not fun when you are creeping along the desert floor in your wool socks.
Shelters and sleeping systems are largely put together with personal preferences in mind. I know some people who go without a shelter and throw their pad and sleeping bag right down where they end up any given night. For me, though, I like to run an ultralight backpacking tent and prefer the two person models. It's just a nice little place to get out of the wind and have a sort of base. If it does rain, it's an added convenience to have a place to stash your backpack and other gear to keep them dry along with yourself. I'm not big on floorless shelters as of right now, but maybe my opinions will change on that in time. If that is your cup of tea, have at it. With sleeping systems, I prefer a 20 degree down quilt with a sleeping pad that has an R-value in the three to four range. I like to go with a 20-degree model because most of the time it isn't going to drop below that temperature where I am hunting. It also keeps the weight down and takes up less room in my pack. If it is going to be on the colder side of 20 degrees then I will pack in a liner and sleep in my clothes. I have also used hand warmers in my liner in a pinch and they work great to heat up the inside of your bag.
More insights on sleep systems for the backcountry can be found here: Getting comfortable sleeping in the backcountry
This isn't as much backpacking related. Rather, it’s related to Coues deer hunting in general and it’s going to be your ticket to the big show. Quality optics are an absolute must for hunting these little desert whitetails. They are best found by staying back and observing a large chunk of an area with your binoculars or spotting scope. 15x56 is a very popular bino magnification among die-hard Coues hunters. A lot of hunters will use these to scan with and then pack a large spotter to really key in on bedded deer. However, with backpacking, I like to keep the weight down and run 10x42's on my chest and I also pack a very small 11x33 spotter. I really enjoy the wider field of view that I get from 10's and, once I spot deer, the small spotter is just enough to let me know if I want to go after a buck or not. I am by no means an inches guy though so keep that in mind. If you are, you might want to consider packing a bit more spotter in terms of magnification. To see a great in-depth discussion on what optics to carry on a hunt, you can check out this article: Why carrying multiple optics are essential for locating more deer.
As I write this, I’m reflecting on my last backcountry hunt of January. This is always a bittersweet time of year for me. It feels like my year actually ends at the end of January instead of December because of these archery deer hunts we have. Now the waiting game starts, the anticipation builds up once again, and the tune replays itself until next season. Time is a precious thing and we are all limited to it. Spend your time doing the things that you love to do and that you want to do. If you have been kicking around pulling off one of these backcountry Coues deer hunts or any hunts for that matter, do it. You can easily start your Coues deer research for next year on goHUNT's INSIDER research platform. Their Filtering 2.0 and Unit Profiles are sure to give you a great start in picking a unit. The first morning that I woke up on my first backpack Coues hunt, the view that I had from my camp is one that is burned into me. Since then, the backcountry has always called me and I try to answer it as much as possible.