Photo credit: Brady Miller
Growing up in the Midwest (Michigan), I grew up hunting whitetail deer from a tree stand. It wasn’t until 2014, when I ventured west to Montana for coyote hunting, that I quickly realized how big the terrain was both in the plains and in the mountains. Once I moved permanently to Montana in 2015, I dove in head first thinking I was prepared to pack in and hunt three miles away from the truck for three days, humping a 70 lb pack with minimal, if any, experience at surviving strictly out of a backpack—let alone trying to find an elk. Long story short, after being struck with what was the beginning stages of hypothermia, I quickly realized I had a lot of practice and learning to do before I decided to sleep in the mountains again.
Here are some tips that have helped me transition over to western hunting, which, in turn, can help you when preparing for your first—or next—western big game hunt so you don’t make the same mistakes as I did.
This is the number one factor when it comes to hunting out of your pack for an extended period of time away from resources. Many people year after year come to Montana as well as the surrounding states unprepared physically and, sometimes, mentally. Getting away from roads in unforgiving terrain takes a toll on the body, especially day after day, so you need to do what you can to prepare prior to showing up for a do-it-yourself style hunt or a hunt with a guide. Going to a gym is great, but you need to train for endurance while still being strong, so it can be complex. A training program that I’ve personally tested and continue to use is the MTNTOUGH pre-season program. This program is designed to push you past physical plateaus and callus the mental portion of your brain to keep you in the hunt. The programs designed from the team at MTNTOUGH have hints of CrossFit, weight lifting and cardio. I plan on doing an article strictly on the MTNTOUGH program in the future so be on the lookout for that!
Another critical area is having a major piece of gear fail while trying to fill your tag. I have always told people considering to hunt the West that the most important areas for comfort are your feet and back. Making sure that those two body parts are happy and, then, you will be able to go wherever you want to go. Take the time to research, try and then buy a pair of boots that will last you for years of rugged use in the West. Boots can easily ruin your day if not fitted correctly. If a pair doesn't fit properly or you don't take the time to break them in, then you could be in for a world of hurt. Don’t just go with a brand based solely (pun) on what everyone tells you; let your feet decide. Good socks matched up with good boots is a must-have.
The same goes for your pack. I went through three different brands before I finally settled on the one that fits my needs as a hunter. I prefer a pack that has a meat shelf such as the Stone Glacier 5900. This allows you to separate the bag from the frame so your meat filled game bag can be nestled on a suspended shelf while still allowing the meat to "breathe" when packing out, minimizing the chances of meat rot. Choose a pack based on what it feels like with an optimal hunting load such as 40 to 50lbs (a typical weight for a five-day fall hunt). Also, consider types of food, your cooking system, navigational aids, proper clothing layers, a sleep system and shelter.
Now, this doesn’t mean go flinging arrows and bullets at game animals at maximum range. But it is something you should practice regularly to understand what your realistic effective range is with either weapon. Sometimes, out West, your only opportunity between tagged out and tag soup may be right at the cusp of your current maximum range; however, if you practice some longer ranges to become a better shot at distance when at home, then, in turn, you’ll increase your odds of success when you hit the hills. Also, be sure to practice shooting at various angles—both in elevation as well as what angle the animal may be facing (quartering to, broadside, etc.). Knowing your weapon(s) to the full potential increases confidence, which will help make you more accurate.
Photo credit: Brady Miller
E-scouting has really caught fire in the past few years with the amount of technology that can aid you from home before you even touch down in the state you decide to hunt. With resources such as goHUNT, you can narrow down what state or what district you want to hunt based upon all of the information at your fingertips. Then, you can use Google Earth to virtually see what the canyons, valleys, rivers and coulees may have for resources like potential camp spots, water sources or vegetation that the animals are feeding on. You can almost see everything digitally and assess multiple approaches to your hunt. One thing I try to do when approaching a new area is to have multiple game plans, so if Plan A falls apart, then I can fall back on B or C and sometimes D.
This tip would’ve saved my hind quarter from the beginning stages of hypothermia if I would’ve put more thought into what I keep in my pack when it comes to basic survival. Some important items to keep in the pack are two to three different ways to start a fire (All-Weather cubes, petro cotton balls, Pyro Putty, lighter, etc.). Having multiple fire starters is fairly lightweight. When you’re wet or cold you can remedy that issue with fire. Next, I would recommend some sort of GPS emergency device such as a Garmin InReach Mini. Having an emergency device, in my opinion, is an absolute must if you decide you want to go solo or even as a group. For the cost, they are worth their weight in gold and can get you out of hairy situations. Lastly, I would recommend a simple first aid kit. Having a kit that has Tylenol, moleskin, luca tape, band-aids, Quik Clot gauze, water purification tablets and simple antibiotics is really lightweight. It doesn’t have to be overly complicated, but make sure it has the basic items. Or you can purchase a ready-to-go medical kit like those from Adventure Medical Kits.
These are what I feel are important areas that I wish I would have considered prior to doing my first western three-day hunt. Hopefully, this helps you out when planning your first or next western hunt. Be sure to leave a comment below on what you’ve learned from some of your experiences so we can learn from each other!
Stay safe and hunt hard!