Tightwad’s Guide to the Backcountry

By Ben Long

Backcountry Hunters & Anglers exists so Americans can pass on our world-class outdoor heritage, including the freedom and challenge that comes with the backcountry, to our kids and grandkids.

If we want to succeed, hunting and fishing needs to remain affordable. We cannot build an outdoor culture that requires a big 4X4, a trailer full of ATVs and a motorhome as an entry fee.

Happily, the backcountry is a bargain, open to anyone willing to work for access. The fact is, most undeveloped backcountry (Forest Service “roadless areas”) are only a couple mile’s hike from a road, well within distance to haul a buck or bull by pack or game cart.

The backcountry kit need not either break the back or the budget. Here’s what goes into my pack, along with an estimated price tag:

  • Hunting and fishing license: A year’s resident license costs less than a round of golf or a day at a downhill ski resort. Bargain.
  • Knife. Look for a Mora, a barebones Swedish classic, for $10 new online.
  • Sharpener; Nothing fancy needed, if you know how to use it. Ultra fine grit sandpaper stapled to a length of ruler will do the trick and weigh next to nothing.
  • Hatchet. I prefer a hatchet to a saw for versatility and durability. Perfectly serviceable hardware store variety costs $30 and lasts forever.
  • Rope. A hundred feet of parachute cord at the local Army-Navy Store.
  • Rifle and ammo (or bow). This is your biggest investment, but have you priced a mountain bike or pair of skis lately? Spend as much as you like, but there are more good rifles on the second-hand rack than ever before for less than $500. Look for a solid bolt-action in .308, .30-06 or .270 and you’re set for life.
  • Binoculars. One can go afield without binoculars but I wouldn’t leave home without them. After my rifle, it’s my most expensive item.  
  • Headlamp and batteries. I paid $30 for a really nice one.
  • Black tape for fixing the tag. Household item.
  • Toilet paper. If you’re really cheap, just use leaves or snow.
  • Logger’s ribbon. A few bucks worth will last years. Pack-it-in, pack-it-out.
  • Squeeze bottle of talcum powder for testing the wind. Best $2 investment a hunter can make.
  • Food and water. Gotta eat.
  • Camera. Not necessary, but nice.
  • First Aid kit. Make your own with household items to deal with cuts, blisters, etc.
  • Survival gear. Dip cotton balls in petroleum jelly and seal in an old film can. Pack some dry birch bark, waterproof matches and a high-quality lighter. A sheet of plastic for shelter stuffed in a small pot for melting snow for tea. A whistle for alerting the search party. The whole deal is about $10-15.
  • Clothes to suit your climate. Include hat and gloves. Never scrimp on boots. Blaze orange as required.
  • Compass and a map. Budget $20 for the basics.
  • You’ll need a couple items for meat care: cloth game bags (buy used pillow cases at Goodwill for less than $1 each.) An aluminum pack frame for hauling out quarters is worth spending good money on (though I still use the Kelty frame I had as a Boy Scout).
  • I also carry paper and pen.
  • A good daypack to carry it all. There are plenty of good, simple models for under $100.

There. You’re set for $1000, most of which is in your rifle, boots and binoculars. Most of these items will last decades, so it comes out to perhaps $100 a year for the basic starting kit.

Challenge anyone who tells you that wilderness or backcountry is for the rich elite. It’s just not true. There are few things more egalitarian than a pair of hiking boots.

Go ahead and drool over the catalogs and sporting goods store shelves. Spend all you like – boost the economy and support BHA sponsors.  But remember, the gadgets and upgrades are gravy. In the backcountry, sweat equity is the investment that pays the greatest return.

North America offers outdoor opportunity for everyone, not just the rich or landed elite. That sacred tradition has been eroded in recent years, as millions of acres have been lost to development, locked behind no-trespassing signs or leased to the highest bidder.

Thankfully, public lands and backcountry offer a high-quality reserve for the bulk of folks who cannot afford their own hobby ranch. That’s what Theodore Roosevelt intended when he created the vast public estate 100 years ago.

Let’s keep it that way.


About Caitlin Thompson