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July 2024
Author: Jenna Nash, Hilleberg Writer

“At the end of the day, you can only control your attitude, the supplies you bring with you, and the comfort that you can provide that person as far an experience,” says professional hunting guide Rachel Ahtila. Simply put, to survive and thrive in the backcountry, you have to have drive, good gear, and grit. These traits have always been part of Rachel, and so has her can-do attitude. “I was a punk crazy kid that wanted a horse so bad that I was shoveling manure at the stalls on my bus route home,” she says, smiling. When she was about 10, she jumped on the opportunity to spend her summer at a hunting camp in northern Canada. “I remember when I first flew into that base camp, the clouds parted and it felt like home,” she says.

During her teenage years, she learned the ways of the backcountry and improved her horsemanship, eventually applying her skills to work as a horse wrangler during guided hunts. “The first year I wrangled a hunt was in the famous Eastman valley. My god, I burnt so many pancakes,” she laughs. She made mistakes (beyond just charring breakfast), but they were all necessary steps in the process. “I’ve always tried to be a student of life. I’ve had a lot of crazy, wicked, awesome, and unexpected learning opportunities,” she says.

Thanks to her incredible persistence, she landed her first guide job when she was 19. “At that time, there weren’t many female guides,” Rachel says, “The thing is it doesn’t matter if you’re a young female or a young male, it’s still hard for young guides.” She put a lot of pressure on herself and felt it from others too, all while having to deal with the completely uncontrollable circumstances that are just the nature of the backcountry. “I mean, I’ve hiked up the mountain to have sheep move two mountains over on us,” she says. But rather than giving up, she embraced the process. “You go in with the best of intentions is what I’ve learned. I think you have to be humble about it because humility will go a long way,” she says.

When she became a guide, she earned the responsibility that comes with the title. She had clients looking to her not only for guidance, but also for safety. “At the end of the day, as a guide, not only are you taking care of yourself, but you’re taking care of someone else. So you need to have a good shelter,” she says, “I’ve had a lot of terrible tent experiences that cost me my own comfort and put me in danger because my gear got wet.”


It didn’t take long for Rachel to learn about the kind of gear she needed for high-stake trips. “Stuff that works,” she jokes, but it really is that simple. Seeing how her tent stacked up – or didn’t – against the other guides’ robust Hilleberg tents made her realize she needed to make a change. “I remember looking at my tent wondering if it was going to blow away in the day,” she says, “It was lightweight, absolutely. Did it stand up? No, not a chance!” So, she finally asked a fellow guide the golden question, “Where do you find those hilly-whadya-call-its?”

That question, and its answer, changed her hunts permanently. “My only regret in life is that I didn’t invest in a Hilleberg sooner,” she says. Her “hotel of choice” is the Kaitum, which she finds very easy to pitch with incredible space inside. “The thing that I really love with the Kaitum is that you have two vestibules,” she says. Both people can have their own personal gear storage space and entry/exit without having to climb over one another to access it. Its tunnel structure is very strong yet flexible enough to adapt to wind, making it perfectly suited for high- elevation hunts.

“That tent has literally been through hell,” she says. In one instance, she watched from high on a ridge while it was assaulted by the wind. “The last thing you want to do is come back to your camp and a collapsed tent,” she says. But despite the conditions, her Kaitum stood tall. “Any other tent – it would’ve been halfway down the damn mountain by the time we got there,” she says. “The flex that was happening blew my mind. I was sold. My hunting partner had never seen a Hilleberg before and she was sold – went home and bought one,” she says.

Besides being her main protection from the elements, the Kaitum is Rachel’s home in the backcountry, and so much more than just a place to sleep. “When you can open the vestibule on the Kaitum and let the air – the cool mountain air flow through...and you can just lean back on your backrest and look out and take it all in, it’s just –” she pauses, “it’s heaven.” A reliable tent gives her peace of mind, and it guarantees she’ll leave the mountain with warm memories. After all, a hunt is more than just getting the kill. “It’s a pilgrimage. It really is,” she says.


Early in life, Rachel received a crucial piece of advice, “Don’t ever peak. Make tomorrow your best day. Make today your best day.” Both her personal journey and her career arc reflect that sentiment, but it has not just been about achievement in the traditional sense. “Success is measured in a variety of different multitudes for every person. I think success to me was always being happy and being true, and never being afraid to lace up my boots or throw a saddle on my horse and give ‘er everything,” she says.

Her feeling of success comes from helping others achieve the hunt they’ve been chasing after. “I’ve been so happy as a guide when I’ve gotten to make everyone else’s dreams come true,” she says, but she also appreciates getting the chance to pull the trigger herself once in a while. Finally taking down an animal is an immensely powerful feeling that gives meaning to the years of struggle. “It’s like every hunt that I’ve ever been on that went good, bad, and indifferent, or anyone that told me I couldn’t do it or it wasn’t my turn – it’s all those moments that compress and flash before your eyes,” she explains. That experience is granted to only the few who have the resolve – and the grit – to get themselves there.

Rachel does everything she can to make every chance count. She controls her mindset. She chooses gear that she knows can handle the conditions. And she respects the journey.

“You can strip everyone of their modern-day conveniences and it is literally them against the mountain. There are not many things you can still do in this world where it’s like that,” she says. When you’re on the mountain and it’s just you and what you bring with you, you need to be fully prepared to handle anything that comes at you, both mentally and physically.

“Hunting means so much. It’s something that I hope we never lose touch with as a society, because it’s what brings us back together,” she insists. The memories she’s made will last a lifetime, and looking back on her trips, the best parts have simply been passing the time at camp, taking it all in. She sums up the things she loves most, “The smell, the quiet, the sky, the company, the whole thing.” There’s really not much more to a good hunt than that.

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