Pre-hunt precautions and care items
As I sit here writing, the anticipation of chasing elk is at an all-time high. It’s hard to believe that it's already mid-September. Before I leave for an upcoming archery elk hunt, I thought it would be good to run through some final pre-hunt precautions and care items.
If your feet hurt after one day of hiking, the chances of sticking out a hunt for multiple days is slim. I have had blisters the sizes of a half dollar on both heels during a hunt and it’s grueling; every step hurts. My feet are something I prioritize when I am hunting.
The most common issue is failing to adequately break in a new pair of boots. We all love new boots — perhaps no one more than me — but I also know better than putting on a new pair of boots and hitting the trail on opening day. Breaking in a pair of footwear for backpack hunting requires...backpacking and hiking in them! It’s not enough in my opinion to wear them around the house and office. If you can, you need to wear them in the types of terrain you will be hunting. This will allow you to pinpoint any hotspots, pinch points or causes of pain (perhaps a protruding seam of strange flex). If you can’t hike and use your boots in the types of terrain you might be hunting, wear them as much as possible. Go to your local football stadium and climb some stairs. Heading downhill with a full pack full of elk meat is not a great time to find out that you have a pinky toe that is being obliterated. Whatever you have to do, break your boots in.
The two areas that blister most often are the heels and the pinky toe. If you are getting pinky toe rub and blistering, the boot is either too narrow or too short and I’d suggest you try another boot/size. In a properly fitting hunting boot your heel should not slide up and down inside the boot as you walk. Your heel should be locked into place. If not, painful blisters commonly appear within a short period of time. The easiest way to avoid this is to buy the proper size and the second is to break your boots in.
There are a couple ideas I have for people who may still be experiencing heel blisters for a poor heel cup/lock. One option: buy an aftermarket insole that will reduce the volume of the inside of the boot. SheepFeet, Superfeet or Sole all make a variety of insoles that can change the fit just enough to alleviate heel slip.
Another option is to try a thicker, full-cushion sock or, even, a poly liner sock and a medium weight merino sock like the Darn Tough Hunter 2011. A thicker sock can reduce the slip in some cases or a poly liner sock and medium weight merino sock over it can reduce friction between your skin and the boot/sock and transfer that friction between the two socks. I should note that you should do yourself a favor and begin with a quality merino sock. The days where we all suffered with cotton gym socks is over!
Tightening your boot laces can also help heel blisters. Specifically, tightening them just above the top of your foot. You don’t want to overly cinch down your laces over the top of your foot, but from the top of your foot to the top of your boot. This can help you create a better heel lock. For some boot tying tips, you can check out a great video here.
It also helps to stop from time to time during your day to adjust your socks and retie your boots. As your feet heat up and swell and your laces and boots expand, it can change the fit. Just like readjusting your pack can help it ride more smoothly, the same is true for your boots.
Lastly, one of the best pieces of gear I have in my pack is a good length of Leukotape. Luekotape will stick to your skin and it lasts for days. I typically wind a good length of it around my trekking pole rather than carrying a whole role. I’ve used it to cover hotspots, blisters and even cuts. At the first indication of a hot spot, a chunk of Leukotape over it can save you a lot of pain down the road.
I remember a mule deer hunt in southern Utah where I had chosen a relatively arid area to hunt. In order to hunt the spot I wanted to, I was packing water up during the summer months and stashing it. Opening weekend arrived and I found that some of my stash had been replaced with a few dollars and a note that said, “Thanks for the water, we are sorry but we were in a bad way.” I understood but was still agitated. I decided that I would ration the water I had left and hunt the rest of the week. I hunted hard for a few days, covering a lot of ground, and watched my water intake to try to make it last. This was not smart and one evening I began to feel tired, dizzy, developed a massive headache and eventually began throwing up. All are classic signs of dehydration. I had to hike out in really rough shape in the middle of the night; not fun.
You normally should consume about two liters a day, but if you are backpack hunting or if it’s warm out, it’s more likely that you will need much more. I’ve found that I feel better when I am drinking between five and six liters a day while I am hunting. Hydrating yourself well before you begin your longer hikes also gives you a head start and ensures you will feel better along the way. It’s also smart to drink water as you go. Taking in six to 12 ounces every 20 minutes will keep you hydrated and operating at a higher level the entire day.
Planning for your hydration needs is a key component to your hunt and, in reality, it’s probably the most important. Do not embark on a hunt without accounting for your water needs.
As stated, water is a critical component to feeling good on a backpack hunt, so we know we have to stay hydrated, but contracting a waterborne illness will also ruin your hunt very quickly. Viruses, bacteria and protozoa can all exist — even in clear running water in the backcountry — and can make you very sick. Most notably: Cryptosporidium, Giardia, Salmonella and E.Coli. Common symptoms for all of those can be stomach cramps, severe diarrhea and vomiting. Every year, I have people tell me that they are hunting a very remote area where they are not worried about issues with waterborne illnesses. My reply is that I’m sure that’s the case, but would you trade a few ounces of weight in your pack for peace of mind and the insurance that you will remain healthy? I know I would.
Some of my favorite water filtration and purification products are the Sawyer Micro Squeeze, the Katadyn Hiker Pro, the Steripen Classic 3, Roving Blue Ozone Pen and Aquatabs purification tablets. If I have clear good flowing water, I will regularly use the Steripen, ozone pen or the tablets alone. If the water is standing or a little murky, I will use both a filter and a form of purification.
Mountain sickness shows up in the form of shortness of breath, headaches, tiredness, dizziness, trouble sleeping and vomiting. Serious cases can be life-threatening. When you climb up into higher altitudes there is less oxygen and a person has to breathe faster to compensate for the shortfall. The heart must then beat quicker and, even though that increases oxygen levels, it's often not comparable to the person's level at lower elevations. In addition, fluid can leak from tiny blood vessels and possibly build up in the lungs and brain. The results can be mild, severe or even life-threatening. Almost anyone can have issues with altitude sickness over about 8,000’ and some people are at a much higher risk.
Hunters at a higher risk are those who live at or near sea level who ascend too quickly and have not taken time to acclimatize to the elevation. Every year, we hear multiple accounts of hunters travelling to the intermountain West who miss days of their hunt due to altitude sickness.
So how do you prevent it or treat it? The best way to prevent it is to ascend slowly. If you have plans to hunt the high country at 10,000’ plus, consider arriving a few days early and doing some sightseeing and work your way up slowly in elevation. It’s also a good idea to arrive in good physical shape. Stay hydrated and consider visiting with your doctor to see if there is a medication they might suggest to help alleviate the symptoms. There are also some supplements available like the Mountain Ops Solitude capsules that can reduce the chances of altitude sickness.
If you do start to show mild symptoms of this sickness, stop and rest where you are and do not proceed higher for at least 24 hours. If your symptoms worsen, you should descend approximately 1,000’ at a time and rest and access how you feel. More severe symptoms should descend in elevation (2,000’ or lower) as quickly and safely as they can. Once again, hydration is important and will help you feel better quicker.
If you are planning to hunt the West and do not know how the elevation is going to impact you, personally, I think it’s worth taking a few days on the front end to acclimate and then hit the hills in good health.
Headaches: lack of caffeine
I am borrowing this tip from my friend and respected backcountry hunter, John Barklow. This morning, I watched a short clip he did talking about several of these same issues. One of the things he stated that jumped out at me was that if you are used to drinking morning coffee or consuming other forms of caffeine throughout your day, you should continue to do so when you are hunting. Cold turkey kicking caffeine on a backpack hunt will lead to headaches and irritability. You may not have to make coffee, but an energy drink packet with caffeine mixed in your water or even an Excedrin with some caffeine can fill that void. As with anything, test it before you go.
Lack of sleep
Some people can sleep anywhere...Brady Miller...cough cough...and some can’t. I’m lucky in that I sleep quite well in the backcountry, but you should know what you need to sleep while you are backpack hunting. There are several factors involved in getting a good night's rest. The temperature outside and the rating of your sleeping bag is a big one. Another is the comfort level of your sleeping pad. Another still is your mental state. If you are hunting in bear country, put some consideration into where you camp and be more bear aware with where you cook and what you store in your shelter. If you are in grizzly country, it might be worth it to pack a lightweight portable electric fence.
A 3.5” thick wide long mattress might weigh a few more ounces than a skeletonized pad, but will you feel better when you wake up in the morning? For some hunters, it doesn’t matter; however, for others, they need the comfort. Lastly, at 2.5 oz the Sea to Summit Aeros Ultralight Pillow is going in my pack on every single overnight hunt. In addition, I always have a few Tylenol PM and melatonin in my medical kit. Be honest with what you need to sleep well and pack what you need.
For most of us, 2020 has been a tough year full of anxiety and unrest. Personally, I am looking forward to the next few months with more excitement and anticipation than I have had in a long time. I’m ready to disconnect and find some solace in the outdoors and taking care of myself is important to ensure that I get those opportunities. I hope you all do as well. Good luck this fall!