Photo credit: Brady Miller
Whether you are stalking big game animals in late August or late December there is an age old question that everyone asks; do you drop your pack or not? Dropping your pack for the last 100 or 200 yards of the stalk can either be a great decision or a horrible decision. There are several factors to think about and every situation is different. Let's talk about the pros and cons of dropping your pack when finishing a stalk on a mule deer, elk, mountain goat or other big game western animal.
When it comes to dropping your pack, there are several positive reasons when it can be a smart decision to do so. First, taking a pack off your back frees up your mobility and will ultimately allow for a better shot. Not having a pack on your back will allow you to shoot your bow or rifle as you would in your backyard, free from the pull of shoulder straps. Another reason to drop your pack is to lighten your load. Packs can often weigh between 20 and 50 lbs or more when fully loaded with gear. When walking with all that weight on your back, you often make more noise than you would like to, especially when you are less than a few hundred yards away. Not having the weight can allow you to be quieter, lighter on your feet and to maintain better balance. Dropping your pack also reduces your overall profile and outline. This can benefit your stalk by allowing you to crawl undetected in less vegetation height or stay hidden and broken up behind smaller trees, bushes or rocks. Dropping your pack can be very beneficial to your stalk, but also can cause its own problems.
Though dropping your pack has its benefits, there are also some reasons that I don’t always drop my pack on a stalk. The biggest negative that comes along with dropping your pack has to be the return factor. Time and time again, I find the most animals and get the chance to spot and stalk in some of the steepest and most unforgiving terrain that the Rocky Mountains has to offer. Whether you make a successful stalk or not, having to go back to get your pack often has you hiking uphill or downhill in the wrong direction. This is not a big deal if you have harvested your game, but if you need your pack to continue to move with the herd, you will wish you just left it on your back. Another negative repercussion of dropping your pack is your lack of gear and water. Typically, like a lot of hunters, I carry my water bladder in my pack. When I drop my pack and leave it behind, I will be without water or other important gear for the entire stalk. Most of the time, this is not a huge deal; however, I have had stalks in the middle of the day where a sip of water could have allowed me to be more patient and wait longer or times where I wish I had my raincoat as a quick storm popped up at high elevation. Overall, you carry this gear to utilize it when necessary so leaving your pack behind can cause problems. The final negative of dropping your pack has to do with finding your pack or should I say losing it. When you drop your pack, it is always a good idea to mark where you dropped it on your GPS. This way you can make your moves on a deer, elk or other big game animal and always have the peace of mind that you know exactly where your gear is.
Now that you see some of the pros and cons, you may be wondering what you should do. The answer is it depends on the biggest factor, which is the animal behavior during the stalk. I am specifically referring to stalking on either a bedded animal or an active one. If an animal is bedded, they typically are going to be on high alert using their ears, eyes and nose to detect danger. If you make a mistake, get picked off or the animal hears you while bedding, they often will get up and quickly flee to the next basin or even the next county. On stalks like these, you understand where you should drop your pack and where you have to go and can make a good decision on what to do. Where dropping your pack becomes really complicated and has come back to bite me time and time again is with animals who are standing, feeding or moving. Animals such as elk, for example, create problems for me because they can move over a lot of terrain in a short amount of time. When they are on their feet, I always keep my pack on my back because I do not want to have to go back for it or hike miles without it as I dog an elk herd.
In conclusion, though dropping your pack is not a huge decision to make on a stalk, it can make a difference and definitely should be something to think about. Every stalk is different and every stalk requires good planning, good execution and some luck to be successful. Sometimes, having your pack on your back will be the best move and, sometimes, it won’t be. Overall, since I have been burned so many times, I keep my pack on my back unless I really have to take it off for a belly crawl or extremely calm and quiet day. I have a pack that I love and that is comfortable so wearing it often seems second nature. Whether you drop your pack or not, have happy stalking this hunting season.