There are all different kinds of backpack setups for every occasion, and we all try to fine-tune lists of gear and gadgets that we stuff into our packs in order to save a few ounces or hopefully a few pounds while improving the performance. When it comes to gear lists for different hunts, there are plenty of resources and lists to gather information from, but you usually have to go over a few of them and pick and choose things from each of the lists to accommodate for your style of hunting. The problem is that if you don’t have any or much experience in backpacking, it can be difficult to pick through all the information and take away the most useful parts. In this article, I will expound on the differences in hunts and hunting methods along with touching on different equipment needed for each. I’ll try not to get too deep into the weeds with different brands of food, optics, shelters, clothing, etc. as most top brands offer similar products and it comes down to personal preference.
Situational packing is exactly that, you put gear into your pack based on the situations that could arise on that specific hunt. This encompasses all aspects of backpack hunting and should be on your mind when packing for your hunts. For instance, I will pack less insulation layers on early hunts than later hunts to save a little weight, but that is self-explanatory. One thing that often gets overlooked is the availability of water in your desired hunting location and the impact it will have on the food you put in your pack. For instance, if I am in an area with plenty of water and really no restrictions, I will pack as many dehydrated and freeze- dried meals as I can to save on weight. Conversely, I will pack a lot more bars and whole foods like dried jerky, nuts, and fruits to save on the amount of water I would otherwise need to pack with me to rehydrate freeze-dried meals in areas with very little water. In the end, I am saving weight either way you look at it but in different ways. If you can keep situational awareness in the front of your mind when packing for your hunts, everything else will fall into place.
EARLY SEASON VS. LATE SEASON HUNTS
Most of the changes that will arise from transitioning from an early to late season hunt will be in the form of gear and clothing. Food will not change much other than accounting for additional calorie loss during late season hunts from your body constantly trying to keep warm in an extremely cold environment and maybe the occasional swap out of bars for whole foods like nuts and raw fruit. This is primarily because some food bars can get extremely hard in freezing conditions.
Backpacks – Consider using a larger sized bag for your late season (late October- December) hunts and going up to at least a 6000ci or larger bag to accommodate for the added clothes, bulkier sleeping bag, and often larger four-season tents. Even in a compressed state, these items will take up more room and you can’t get away with packing for a multi-day hunt in a sub 6000ci pack and not expect to run into problems if you end up harvesting. On an early season (August-September) hunt, you can get away with a 4000ci bag if it has a load shelf to pack out your harvest if successful.
Shelters – With so many options available nowadays, the sky’s the limit and it usually comes down to comfort and risk assessment when selecting a shelter. Early season is the time to shave weight on your shelter selection so long as you are comfortable staying in it for the duration of your hunt. For instance, I would be fine staying in a bivy sack or lightweight tarp on an August or September mule deer or elk hunt in the Southwest where the average rainfall is 10-15" a year. However, I would not take that same setup into Western Oregon or Alaska during the same time of year where the annual rainfall is significantly more. Honestly, I will usually opt for a lightweight single- person tent anyways because I am more comfortable with some type of a bug net around me. When a chance of snow starts to become a real threat is when I like to make the switch to a four-season tent. Now, I’m not talking about freak snowstorms that will come in and dump a few inches and melt off in a day or two, I am talking about times of year when freak storms can consist of 1-2' and blow snow up underneath your vestibule if it’s not tight to the ground. Again, a lot of this comes down to personal preference and how comfortable you are with room to move around.
Clothing – This is largely based on a person’s body type and how he/she deals with cold or hot temps. It is hard to recommend articles of clothing other than different weights of rain gear, depending on how much rainfall is predicted for the climate they will be hunting. One tip I can give for late season hunts is to combine insulation layers with your sleep system so you can get away with a lighter weight sleeping bag by wearing insulation layers to bed and still maintain body heat under cold conditions. The other tip is to always pack some sort of down layer from September on as a last resort to get the cold off. You can find some extremely lightweight down layers that weigh less than a pound for both top and bottom.
Food – I really don’t change up my food selection between seasons. I will, however, be a little more conscious of what type of stove I take to cook meals in extreme cold. I will also try and select bars that won’t turn into rocks with freezing temps.
A Hunt Advisor tip is that in extreme cold temps, a liquid fuel stove is preferred because butane mix canisters will lose pressure and could leave you in a bad spot if you are counting on your stove for food and/or melting snow. One thing that can be done if all you have is a fuel canister is to put it in your sleeping bag at night to warm it up and put it somewhere during the day where it will have some type of insulation from the cold.
BASE CAMP VS. MOBILE CAMP HUNTING
What I call base camp hunting is basically packing in with the anticipation of setting up camp and hunting a certain location for days or even the duration of your hunt. You still have the flexibility to move if you don’t find what you are looking for, but typically, the camp setup is a little heavier and takes a little longer to break down. You can take a few more amenities and luxury items when base camp hunting because you don’t have to carry your camp around on your back all day, every day. I have found that this is an easier style of backpack hunting when just getting into backpacking as you can get away with not having your gear list completely dialed in. It is also a great method if you already are familiar with the area you plan to hunt and know what kind of game it holds. Once you make it to your destination, you can dump everything at your camp that isn’t needed for the actual hunt and hunt for a few days at a time without having to lug everything with you. Since you are not constantly trying to pack up everything and go every morning, you can have a few more luxury items with this method of backpack hunting.
Mobile camp hunting typically consists of smaller shelters like a bivy sack setup, tarp, or small tents. Mobile camp hunting is more suitable for an early season hunt because you can get away with lighter weight shelters and sleeping bags that mobile camp hunting will require. This style of backpack hunting is going to require you to fine-tune everything from your gear and camp setup to where you pack your food and how accessible everything is. Since you will be unloading and loading your entire camp every day, you are going to want to be familiar with your equipment and be extremely weight conscious. My cutoff weight for mobile camp hunting is around 40 pounds. I prefer to stay at or under this pack weight because packing any more weight than that day in and day out for my body type wears me down and I am not as effective. This style of hunting is great if you are starting out fresh in new country. It will allow you to hunt your way across the country until you find what you are looking for without having to backtrack to a stationary camp at the end of a long day. It also lends itself well to staying on your intended quarry once you locate them, like shadowing an elk herd and staying within striking distance as they move across the landscape.
Hopefully this article gave you some tips about how to fine-tune your pack setup going into your next hunt so you can shave a little weight without sacrificing much, if any, comfort.