When morning broke over the mountains of southern New Mexico, we could see elk, but we couldn’t tell if they were bulls or cows. I was already exhausted from the climb, an ascent of 900 feet from our base camp below, and I had downed one bottle of water.
We watched the elk—then, just light-colored figures moving through the scattered trees in the violet light—crest the ridge and drop into the opposite canyon. That meant a lot more climbing and rapid hiking if we were going to get a clear look at the small herd to determine if there were any good bulls among them.
I was down two bottles of water already, and by the time we stopped to glass, I was already on the third bottle. I had a major problem: It was just after dawn, I had depleted my hydration reserves, and we were two hours from camp in the arid high plains desert. Normally, three bottles would have been plenty for a morning of glassing, but all that extra hiking, jogging, climbing and crawling took a toll. Now, we needed to move even more, and I had nothing to drink. It’s the kind of minor problem that can quickly cause major issues when you’re far from civilization.
Things turned out all right. I bummed enough water from my guide to get through midday, and we hiked out. Although I didn’t get my elk that day, I had better luck the next.
I learned a valuable lesson that morning, and since then, I have been prone to removing extra clothes and electronic gadgetry to carry more water in dry climates. It’s just one of the lessons I’ve learned hunting in wilderness areas of Texas, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming—places where sometimes you won’t see another soul for days. Even minor problems here can turn into major disasters.
I grew up in the eastern United States and, like so many of the hunters I grew up with, I dreamed of hunting the Rockies. Wilderness hunting has its own allure, and the experience, itself, is as important as the kill.
But before you spend a lot of hard-earned cash on a once-i-na-lifetime backcountry hunt for elk, moose, bear or sheep, be certain you know what you are getting into. Being unprepared can turn a dream hunt into a nightmare, and you will have just paid a great deal of money for a trip that turned out to be a failure.
To prevent that, you need to know exactly what’s in store on these types of hunts. This isn’t meant to discourage you. In fact, wilderness hunts are perhaps the most rewarding hunts available today … but they can also be the most challenging.
Here’s a list of questions to ask before you head out so you can be certain you’re ready for your first wilderness hunt.
Understanding how and where you’ll be hunting is critical, so ask your guide or outfitter exactly what you can expect on a day-to-day basis. Will you be sleeping in tents? Will you be eating freeze-dried food? How much hiking will you do? What is the terrain like? Will there be horseback riding and, if so, are you up to spending hours in the saddle day after day?
One question that frequently doesn’t get asked prior to the hunt is what kind of shots can be expected. Some guides expect their rifle hunting clients to shoot at least 300 to 400 yards; I was on one muzzle-loader hunt for which that was the norm. Don’t show up unaware and unprepared.
For serious wilderness hunts, you’ll probably need to be in very good shape. There are rarely any roads in the backcountry, which means you’ll have to do some traveling on foot or horseback. That might mean there will be climbing—often at high elevations. Ten miles a day is not unheard of when pursuing some species, and it’s quite possible there won’t be any flat topography along the course.
I don’t write this to scare you but rather to help you prepare properly. Arrive at a wilderness camp out of shape, and you’ll suffer. It will be much more challenging to see game, and you won’t enjoy the experience as much as you would if you are physically fit.
We know that walking and running are important, but it’s a good idea to add weight training, particularly leg strength training. Strong legs and ankles help make hiking much easier, and you should also add routine stretching to your regimen. Loose muscles are less likely to be injured, and you don’t want to hurt yourself before or during the hunt.
This is a big one, and perhaps it should read, “Know What Not to Bring.” My attitude is that if it’s worth carrying, I better need it.
If I’m hunting with a guide, I ditch my spotting scope in favor of light binos. I don’t need an 8-pound rifle and now carry a 6-pound gun instead. My gun cleaning kit stays behind (minus a few essential pieces). I’ve swapped my Rambo-esque survival knife for a compact folder, and I no longer pack enough ammo to hold off a minor siege.
Hunters have a tendency to become enamored of all varieties of technological gadgetry, but you’ll feel even a few extra ounces with each step.
You don’t need to bring a lot of stuff, but bring good stuff. Understand that if your equipment fails in the wilderness, there is nowhere to have it replaced, so you need items that work. Sure, you need an accurate rifle, but you also need a good scope and even a well-constructed sling that is sturdy and comfortable. Your clothes should be comfortable and warm, and so should your boots, and you’ll need rain gear that actually works, so test it (I wish I had done this before a soggy Texas hunt). I’ve had a knife blade break, boots lose their soles and a pack fall to pieces—all of which could have ruined (but thankfully, didn’t) those wonderful hunts.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the April 2017 print issue of Gun World Magazine.