Backpack Hunting in the Rocky Mountains

By Phillip Watts

You don't have to be a burly Jim Bridger to find solitude, scenery and backcountry elk-hunting success.

As a youngster living in Virginia, I was captivated by stories about backpack hunting in the Rocky Mountains. It seemed to me there could be no greater adventure than setting out on foot in roadless country in pursuit of elk. But I doubted I would ever go on such a hunt myself–backpacking for elk required the mountain-man skills of Jim Bridger and the stamina of a mountain goat. Or so I thought.

Since then, I've learned that backpack hunting for elk is not only manageable but can be quite comfortable with some know-how and careful planning. I started backpack hunting on the downhill side of 40, after a serious knee injury resulting in arthritis and two knee surgeries. If I can do it, I'm betting you can, too.

Advantages of Backpacking

I like to hunt in places with plenty of solitude and scenery, and backpacking is the best way to enjoy both. There are also practical advantages, including an increased chance of elk hunting success. As Jim Zumbo observes in his book, Elk Hunting, "Elk shun human traffic areas where hunting pressure is heavy, such as near roads and trailheads." My own experience bears this out. Leave these areas behind and you'll see more elk.

My hunting partner Rob Young and I have hunted in southwest Colorado for the past few years. We hunted from a roadside camp the first year, hiking into the woods a mile or so each day, seeing a few elk. Last year, we backpacked a few miles into the same area, saw dozens of elk and few other hunters, and each tagged an elk. Some nights we had so many bugling bulls around us it was difficult to sleep. Meanwhile, the hunters camped back at the trailhead saw few elk. Hunting away from high-traffic areas made all the difference.

Setting up camp in the backcountry also allows you to hunt the most productive parts of the day: the first and last few minutes of daylight. By setting up near your hunting location, you won't be hiking back and forth when you should be hunting.

While many think backpacking means sleeping on the cold ground and eating dehydrated food with all the appeal of cardboard, it doesn't have to be that way. Rob and I live by the credo that anyone can be miserable on a backpacking trip, but it takes a real woodsman to camp in comfort and style. We take pride in making our elk camps as comfortable as possible.

Of course, there are also disadvantages to backpacking–if you're successful, you'll have a few hundred pounds of meat, as well as your camp, to pack out on your back. But with good planning and good partners, packing out your meat can be one of the most enjoyable parts of the hunt.

Selecting a Hunting Area

One of the most important steps in planning any hunt is selecting a good location. For backpack hunting you'll need to find areas where vehicles are banned to fully realize the benefits of foot travel. The majority of these are designated wilderness areas in our national forests. To locate these areas, log onto the Wilderness Information Network at www.wilderness.net. Click on the "search with map" icon for a map of the U.S., click on your chosen state and click on any wilderness area for a description and links to the managing agency. Contact the managing agency for information and USGS map coverage.

You don't have to hunt in designated wilderness areas to find solitude and good hunting, though. Most of my favorite hunting areas aren't designated wilderness, they're just large swaths of national forest without roads. Many of these roadless areas receive less hunting pressure than nearby, more well-known wilderness areas, which tend to draw hunters from all over the country. Roadless areas can easily be found by studying topographic maps. But don't forget to follow up by hiking the areas you intend to hunt before the season. Many topographic maps haven't been updated in 10 years or so and won't show recently built roads and other changes.

It goes without saying that the area selected should be in prime elk habitat with good foraging, shelter and water. Try to find a locale with several prime feeding/bedding/watering areas within easy walking distance. You'll need to carefully consider your own physical limitations and how far you are willing to pack out an elk. On past hunts we've found that hiking two to four miles from the trailhead is far enough to leave most other hunters behind, yet close enough to the trailhead to make packing meat manageable. This distance also makes trips back to your vehicle for extra food and supplies easy. And if you're hunting in an area used by outfitters with horses, staying within a few miles of the trailhead helps you avoid the areas they hunt, since they generally pack in farther.

Next, look for a good trail system. This is essential for packing heavy loads and for getting around your hunting area in the dark. Packing heavy loads through thick forests or on steep slopes off-trail is manageable for short distances, but over long distances it's miserable and raises the likelihood of injury. Remember, any elk you kill downhill from ridgetop trails will have to be hauled back up. The best trails are level to gently sloping, trend downhill to the trailhead and are downhill of areas you plan to hunt. Fortunately, these are not uncommon; many good hunting areas have well-established trails down low along streams.

To hunt where the crowds don't go you should also be comfortable navigating cross-country (bushwhacking) away from roads and trails. If your map & compass skills are rusty, you'll need to brush up on those, and consider getting a portable GPS unit. There are several good books on wilderness navigation you can review or log onto the US Orienteering Federation's website (www.us.orienteering.org) for excellent tutorials.

Campsite Selection

In his book, Bugling for Elk, well-known bowhunter Dwight Schuh advises hunters to "always avoid putting your camp where it will disturb the animals" and to "camp so that a ridge or rim separates you from the elk to buffer the sounds and smells of camp." This is good advice. The idea is to select a campsite within easy walking distance of areas you plan to hunt, but not so close as to spook the elk. This distance can vary from a quarter mile to more than a half mile, depending on how obtrusive your camp is.

Pick a campsite that's sunny, dry and level. The ideal spot will be located near but not right next to a trail. This makes it easy to come and go in the dark and allows for privacy. You'll need to be near a spring or stream–ideally a trout stream. Lightly fished backcountry streams can generally support the removal of a few trout here and there, and few meals compare to fresh trout cooked over a campfire.

Equipment Selection–Staying Comfortable

A complete discussion of backpacking equipment would fill a book, and there are several good books on the subject. Backpacking by Harvey Manning and The Complete Walker IV by Colin Fletcher are old standbys with loads of practical advice. For a rundown on the latest gear, check out Backpacker magazine's annual Gear Guide in each March issue.

Most people think of backpacking as a spartan enterprise. Some backpackers eschew all creature comforts, but it's not necessary. Most hunters need to be well-fed and well-rested to perform their best and enjoy the hunt. A comfortable camp is also a point of pride and tradition for many.

Rob and I have developed a system that works for us. First, we pack in more gear than the average backpacker. I normally arrive at the trailhead a day or two early and separate my gear into two loads, thereby saving wear and tear on my knees. Rob has two good knees, so he arrives a day later and proceeds to load himself up like a backwoods Jed Clampett–picture the largest pack you've ever seen with a small cooler and folding chair lashed to the top. He's only 35, a rock climber, and takes pride in his status as a "burly man" able to carry loads that would make most men crash and burn in the first mile. But such an unpolished talent requires careful cultivation, which is where I come in.

Since I'm the more experienced woodsman, it's my duty to pass on my accumulated wisdom, and believe me, I never miss a chance. I take pity on the poor boy and gently chastise him for being lazy and not making two trips like I do. But I have to tread lightly, since he packs in the ribeyes, pork chops, French bread, cheeses and fresh fruit. He even packs real cream for the coffee. Taking advantage of the youngster, you say? No, I pack in the 18-year-old Scotch (for after-hours only, of course) and cigars. Chalk up the disparity in loads to my advantage in years, gray hair and knowledge of what's really important.

We each bring our own two-man tent, which allows us to spread out our gear and stay out of each other's way. This is especially nice in foul weather. It also allows us to get up early or sleep in after a rough day without disturbing each other. We also pack the most comfortable, compact sleeping pads available, along with small pillows. Remember, comfort is the name of the game, and a good night's sleep will make you a better hunter.

For our kitchen area, we bring a large rip-stop nylon tarp and rig it as an overhead shelter. We can stay dry in foul weather and have a place to lounge and cook away from our tents, which is especially important in bear country. If there's a downed log in camp, we'll roll it under the tarp or rig the tarp over the log so we have a place to sit off the ground. A small foam pad placed on the log makes a comfortable seat. For cooking, we use two or three small backpacking stoves arranged on a flat rock under the tarp, as well as two propane/butane canister lanterns so we can work in the dark. We'll also have a small fire pit located nearby (but not under the tarp) with a small folding grate for grilling over the fire. The grate is important because we like to eat well, and we pride ourselves on our camp food.

Packing in more than one load gives us the luxury of bringing foods not normally found on backpacking trips, but then again, we're not normal backpackers. We'll bring a small cooler packed with fresh meat, vegetables, loaves of bread, whole salamis–you name it, we've packed it. Nothing raises our spirits better after a hard day's hunt than a juicy steak grilled over the campfire. Besides the mental boost, these high-calorie foods help keep us warm at night and energized for the next day's hunt.

Hydration is also key to maintaining your physical well-being on a mountain hunt, and you'll need to have an ample supply of filtered water on-hand. We use bladder-type water bags for storing water, allowing us to filter a few gallons at a time. The heavy-duty nylon-covered bags hold several liters, are almost indestructible, have easy-to-operate valves, and a grommet for hanging from a tree. In cold weather, don't forget to bring these inside the tent at night to keep them from freezing. You'll also need a folding saw with a bone blade for elk and a wood blade for firewood. It's a good idea to lay in a few days supply of dry firewood and filtered water before the hunt so you don't have to perform these time-consuming chores during the hunt. A good campfire is the next best thing to good food in keeping spirits and energy high.

Staying warm is not just a matter of comfort but can be a matter of survival in the mountains during elk season. The earlier in the season you can hunt, the easier this is, with the archery and muzzleloading seasons the best for backpacking. But even during the early seasons you'll need to be prepared for harsh and unpredictable weather, including heavy, wet snow. Don't skimp on your tent; get the best you can afford. Likewise, your sleeping bag is not an item to economize on; select one that will keep you warm down to zero. For clothing, use insulating layers that will keep you warm when wet (synthetics or wool) and waterproof, windproof parka and pants as well. Even if your raingear is too noisy to hunt in, bring it anyway–if the weather turns nasty you'll be glad you did. Last but not least, pay special attention to your boots. Select a pair that have adequate ankle support for the heavy loads you'll be carrying, and make sure they're comfortable and broken in well before the hunt.

Elk have keen noses, so staying clean is important. We find portable showers to be very useful in this respect. This is basically a heavy-duty black plastic bag with a hose and nozzle attached. When filled with water and laid in the sun, the water will warm to well over 100 degrees, and the bag can be hung in a tree for a quick shower. Just washing my hair and face after a few days in the woods makes me feel like a new man. Whole-body showers are nice but take a lot of water. For washing the rest of my body, I use a trick I learned on a recent trip to Iraq–baby wipes. They're compact, easy on your skin, leave you smelling clean and don't require you to strip down, a definite advantage when the wind howls and the campfire beckons.

Packing Out Your Elk

If you've planned properly, packing out your elk can be a highlight of your hunt. You'll be the envy of other hunters you meet on the trail and feel a real sense of accomplishment once you're finished. Assuming you're in good physical condition and have selected a good area for backpacking, the next step is to obtain the equipment needed to process and pack out your elk. A quality pack frame is your most important investment. Select one that has an adjustable, padded hip belt as well as padded shoulder straps. Hip belts transfer the weight from your shoulders down to your hips, allowing you to carry heavy loads comfortably. A sturdy platform at the bottom of the frame keeps the load from sliding, and the pack frame should be adjustable to fit your torso length.

Most pack frames can do double duty hauling both camping gear and meat. For hauling in my camping gear, I use a large zippered duffel bag and lash it to the frame. It holds bulky items very well, and the whole set-up costs around $100.

You'll also want game bags, extra rope and a pulley to hang quarters in a shady spot while you're packing loads out, and a headlamp with an extra bulb and batteries for working in the dark. You'll need secure storage at the trailhead (locked vehicle or camper) with large coolers and ice, preferably long-lasting dry ice or block ice, to keep your elk meat cold while you go back for another load.

Packing meat on your back requires a different approach to cleaning your elk. To minimize weight, you'll want to bone out the neck and ribs at a minimum, and possibly the shoulders and hindquarters as well. All of this is easier and more fun if you have help from your hunting buddies. This will require them to give up some of their hunting time, so it's best to have an agreement worked out ahead of time. Rob and I have an understanding that the successful hunter will have help cleaning, quartering and hanging the elk quarters. These are the tasks where an extra set of hands really makes a difference. The helper also packs out a quarter, leaving the successful hunter with two to four loads to pack.

No matter how old you are or what shape you're in, take your time and don't feel that you have to pack it all out in one day. Haste, coupled with a heavy load, makes missteps and injury more likely. Play it safe. Size loads so they are easily managed, and use a pair of lightweight telescoping trekking poles or old ski poles to help with balance and take some of the weight off your knees and ankles. Don't be in a hurry; bask in your success. Sit down and take a break with a cold beer at your vehicle (always plan ahead) and reflect on how lucky you are to be elk hunting in the mountains, and luckier yet to have all that good meat to take home. Leave a spare tent and sleeping bag in your vehicle so you don't have to hike back into camp if you're tired at the end of the day.

Overcoming the Physical Challenges

You don't have to be an endurance athlete to enjoy backpack hunting, but you can't be a couch potato either. After all, the whole point of backpacking is to enjoy the hunt, and you won't enjoy it if you're tired and sore. You will be physically challenged hauling loads on your back in the mountains, so if you can't participate in at least a minimal exercise program to prepare yourself, it's best to go another route.

Consult a physician before beginning an exercise program or backpacking in the mountains.

Once you're cleared to work out and aware of any personal limitations and risks, develop an exercise program that improves your cardiovascular fitness, leg strength, lower back strength and torso strength. Start the program at least a few months before the hunt and stick to it–you'll be glad you did when you're scrambling uphill at 10,000 feet or, better yet, packing out a load of meat.

For those of you on the downhill side of 40, with creaky joints like me, your best strategy is to take your time. Check with your doctor to see if prescription anti-inflammatories can help. They really help with my arthritic knee. Also, powdered electrolyte drink mixes provide a real energy boost on the trail and are great for hydration and preventing muscle cramps.

Putting it All Together

Once you're ready to go, do a "shakedown" trip to test yourself and your equipment. Hunting season is no time to find out your stove won't boil water, your tent leaks or your trick knee has gotten worse and can't take the strain of a backpack anymore. It happens to the best of us eventually, and you don't want to wait until you're a mile from the trailhead to discover/decide it's time to pack it in.

Backpacking hunting takes planning and effort, but if you value solitude and good hunting it is well worth it. I'm betting that the first time you turn in for the night after having watched a herd from camp, you'll wonder why you didn't try it sooner.

Phillip Watts is a geologist and environmental consultant living in Englewood, Colorado. He is an avid muzzleloader and is very interested in preserving wildlife habitat and the tradition of the hunt for his sons. This article originally appeared in the magazine Bugle.

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