Physical Fitness as part of Ethical Hunting

Photo by Alex Kim


This article first appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of Backcountry Journal. Join BHA and get the journal, quarterly, in your mailbox.

By Corey Ellis

While recently rereading Beyond Fair Chase by Jim Posewitz, the founder of Orion and a conservation legend and expert in hunting ethics, I was struck by a section that had not caught my attention before; the section was titled, "Physical Fitness as a Part of Preparation." Although we often think of fitness in preparation terms, we rarely relate it to hunting ethics.

Posewitz writes: “Some common unethical practices can be traced to people who are physically unable to persist in the hunt. For example, a person who is short of breath from hiking or climbing will not be able to hold a rifle steady and take a sure shot. A tired individual may resort to taking a marginal shot when a little more effort would have placed the hunter in a better position.”

But there are ethical concerns even after a good shot is made. Will we have the energy to get the meat out before spoiling? Can we get ourselves and our partners out without risking too much for ourselves or, worse, search and rescue workers? These situations are far more likely in backcountry hunting, as two personal experiences of mine may illustrate.

I once killed a bull elk in the high country of Colorado at nearly 12,000 feet, four miles from our vehicle. Unfortunately, my girlfriend and I had been living at sea level for years and despite our relatively high level of fitness, we both crashed early in the pack out. Luckily our friend who was with us is an ultra-runner, lives in Colorado and was in peak physical condition. He was able to shuttle meat to a good hanging tree and lighten our loads enough that we could get out safely that day. We had no problem returning the next day for the rest of the meat, after a night of recovery. Had it just been us, things might have ended worse, perhaps with injury or poorly cared for meat.

Whether we hunt cottontails and cornfield bucks or backcountry bulls and timberline mule deer, we need to consider our relative physical fitness in an ethical context.

The second incident happened last season. After a season of close encounters with elk but none that produced meat, Julie and I were once again hunting the high country, this time in Montana. The season was drawing to a close, and we had mostly given up hope. Deciding to give it another go, we headed up what we call “The Ridge.” The Ridge involves climbing a couple thousand feet in a little over a mile and makes for a good loop when we cross a drainage and take an adjacent ridge out. We had nearly completed the loop when I glassed back up the mountain and spotted a large bull bedded near the peak of the mountain that gives birth to The Ridge. We desperately wanted to stalk the bull, but, after assessing our fatigue, the fact that we were in near knee deep snow and knowing that we would have to first go down to cross the drainage and then climb the 3000 feet up the mountain to the bull, and then if everything went well, pack it back down the mountain, we opted to try and find him the next day. He was nowhere to be found. What we hadn’t considered is if we had not made a clean shot, could we have given proper chase? And, even with a good shot, the bull could have easily lost hundreds of feet in elevation off the far side, requiring even more physical exertion. In the end I think we chose wisely.

Whether we hunt cottontails and cornfield bucks or backcountry bulls and timberline mule deer, we need to consider our relative physical fitness in an ethical context. We must weigh our hunting ambitions against our obligations to the hunted, ourselves, our partners and anyone who might be jeopardized by needing to assist if things go awry. Being in sufficient physical condition for our chosen hunting adventure sets us up to make the right decision when it matters most, and also sets us up for the best personal experience. The elderly and the disabled can still, of course, hunt ethically and have genuine and challenging hunting experiences. And even the most fit hunters have their limits. We must not let our desire to find challenge in hunting outweigh our ethical obligations to the hunt.

Corey Ellis lives in Western Montana where he spends his time avoiding work, exploring public lands and rivers, and advocating for wild places and wildlife. He serves on the board of directors for Orion-The Hunter’s Institute and is a life member of BHA.

This department is brought to you by Orion - The Hunter’s Institute, a nonprofit and BHA partner dedicated to advancing hunting ethics and wildlife conservation. For more, go to

About Brandon Ellis

Montana Chapter Leader, Stewardship Coordinator