Gear for the Backcountry Hunter

Gear for the Backcountry Hunter
Photograph Courtesy of Phil Massaro
The backcountry, here the Namib Escarpment of Namibia, Africa. Such hunts require specialized gear to make sure you get in and out safely.

While the era of vast land exploration is nearly over, there are many adventures to be had for the willing hunter. This is especially true for the hunter who leaves the comfort of his backyard tree stand or a blind on public hunting land. These are the hunters who pack the car, then put most of what they packed for the initial drive on their back or the backs of llamas, mules or horses, and head “out there” to the land of no cell signal. 

Like I said, there’s much adventure to be had for that kind of hunter, one who relishes leaving behind emails and phones and daily grind and puts miles between themselves and civilization. But with that kind of adventure comes risk. Being prepared to face the worst of it—and sometimes the things that don’t seem so bad on the surface—can mean the difference between one of life’s most incredible memories and making the six o’clock news. That preparation relies as much on the gear you use as the mental and physical toughness such hunts require, so let’s look at some basic gear that will keep you safe and sound. 

Clothes and Boots

Photograph Courtesy of Phil Massaro
A good pair of mountain boots like these Danner Thorofares will keep your feet warm and dry, in addition to giving excellent ankle support in the mountains.

The proper clothing can mean the difference between life and death in some circumstances, but at the very least it can make rough weather more bearable. Modern synthetic materials have come very far in the last 30 years and are certainly a viable choice, but I’m still a fan of wool clothing (Jagdhund and Filson clothing, especially). This natural fiber keeps you warm when it gets wet, it breathes very well, and lasts for decades if treated well. Cotton clothing is a no-no, especially in those areas where the weather can change rapidly and dramatically. Cotton absorbs water and will make you hypothermic faster. 

In warmer climates, the sun can be the enemy. A good hat—I bring my favorite green oilskin hat everywhere to keep the sun, wind and rain off my bald head—is a must, and cool, breathable clothing made of modern synthetics will enhance your experience. 

I’m a stickler for proper hunting footwear. I’ve seen many times where inferior boots have given blisters to the point that a hunt was called off. Research at the terrain you’ll be hunting. If it’s steep and rocky, look to an alpine-style boot (I’ve recently acquired a great pair of Danner Thorofares I really like for that kind of landscape). If your hunt will take you through swamps and bogs or across streams, you’ll also want a solid waterproof design. In the south, particularly, snakes may be an issue, but even early season hunts in the mountains have their share of fanged, poisonous residents, so a well-constructed snake-proof boot could save your bacon. In warmer climates, I use Courteney Boots quite often, with great success. 

Photograph Courtesy of Phil Massaro
For warmer weather hunts, the author likes the Courteney Safari boot, as they are both breathable and sturdy.

When it comes to your footwear, once you’ve found a comfortable design well-suited to your intended hunt area, it’s paramount you make sure they are properly broken in before the hunt. Top-notch socks are also a must; I wear SmartWool year-round. 

Photograph Courtesy of Phil Massaro
These Courteney boots have many miles on them, having trekked in the wilds of America, Africa, Australia and Europe. They are rugged and dependable.

Finding Your Way

Traversing the backcountry is a major portion of the fun involved in hunting remote areas, and modern electronic aids are wonderful for getting you where you want to go—and finding your way back to the car. However, electronics have their weak points. Batteries run out, GPS units lose signal, and circuit boards short out at the worst possible moment, so I strongly advise you know how to use and carry a couple of old-school items: a dependable compass and a physical copy of a map of the area you’re hunting. The compass doesn’t need to be super-fancy, just good enough to lay out a direction to get you to safety; the magnetic pole will never wear out and doesn’t require batteries. A good paper map—laminated if you’re concerned with water damage—requires no power either. 

Sharp Things

Photograph Courtesy of Phil Massaro
A knife is one of the outdoorsman’s best friends, and more than one style may be needed for your hunt.

A high-quality knife is a hunter’s best friend, a constant companion no matter the hunt, and carrying more than one may be warranted. A skinning knife will be a huge aid in field dressing your animal, while a multitool, axe, or chef’s knife will be useful for nights in camp. I usually keep a Blade-Tech Pro Hunter Magnum folding knife on my hip, and a Karesuando skinning knife is kept in my possibles bag. In rugged country, I bring my Knives of Alaska Brown Bear skinner/cleaver, as it is equal parts survival tool and game processor. 

Odds and Ends of Importance

Photograph Courtesy of Phil Massaro
Flashlight, compass, paper map and the means to make fire can make all the difference in the world on a hunt in the wilds.

Each year in my native New York, specifically the remote areas of the Catskills and Adirondacks, hunters get lost. Some perish from exposure. Being able to make a fire can make the first less problematic and stave off the second—and that’s true even if you intended to be gone only a day. For longer trips, fire is necessary for cooking, warmth, light and, if needed, emergency signaling. Matches, butane lighters, tinder (dryer lint, old bird’s nests, etc.) and a magnesium fire starter all have a place in my pack and/or hunting coat. 

Speaking of lost, a roll of surveyor’s tape to mark a downed animal or a trail is one of those small items that comes in very handy. More important is having a light source. If you’ve ever been forced to walk out of a truly remote area in the dark, you understand how a good flashlight can become your new best friend. I’ve had all sorts of flashlights over the years, but I’ve recently found one that I truly like: the Pelican 7000 Tactical Flashlight. Tough, bright, lightweight and durable, I’ve taken the 7000 with me across Africa as well as on many hunts and hikes in the Northeast. It’s a winner. Whichever model you choose, bring spare bulbs and batteries. 

It doesn’t have to be elaborate, and it doesn’t need to be highly technical, but a First Aid kit can realistically save a life in the back country. The ability to stop bleeding (bandages, band aids, Quick Clot, New Skin, tourniquet), ward off infection (Neosporin), fight fever (acetaminophen and ibuprofen) and to warm a body (space blanket) can be the difference between life and death, whether yours or someone you need to help. Do not go afield far from help without one.

Hauling it All Around

Photograph Courtesy of Phil Massaro
A light, durable backpack like this one from Pelican will keep all your gear organized and dry.

You have coordinated all the clothing and items you believe will help make your backcountry hunt successful and keep you safe while doing so. Now you need a means of carrying your wares. 

Photograph Courtesy of Phil Massaro
The author carries a stock set of survival gear in this leather possibles bag on all his hunts, shown here on safari in Africa.

There are so many good backpacks suitable for transporting your hunting gear that you’ll need to do some homework. I like my leather possibles bag that I’ve taken literally all over the world; it doesn’t carry very much, but I can cram the bare necessities in it, and if I need more gear I can the use pockets of my hunting clothes. If you anticipate needing to quarter a large animal—a bear, elk, moose, etc.—to pack it out, and certainly for any hunt that’s going to involve camping overnight and that attendant gear, a frame pack will be warranted. Shop carefully and try them on loaded so you know how they sit on your hips and pull your chest and shoulders before you buy.

Photograph Courtesy of Phil Massaro
On his black bear hunt in coastal Alaska, Massaro preferred wool hunting clothes from Jagdhund, which kept him warm despite wildly changing weather.

About the Author: Phil Massaro is a freelance author and editor-in-chief of Gun Digest Annual. He is happiest hunting the wildest places left on earth.