June 18, 2013
The Stuff We Carry: Hunting Gear, Then and Now
By David E. Petzal
Last year, after I returned from a deer hunt in Maine, I became curious as to just how much weight I had been carrying around the Great North Woods. I put on all my hunting stuff, picked up my binoculars and rifle, and stepped on a digital scale. It did not flash a weight. What it did flash was ONE AT A TIME, PLEASE.
I know for a fact that when I was a kid, I would walk out the door with nothing but a bow and arrow or a .22 and a single box of shells. I know this because I have a photo of myself at age 12, heading for the woods, and that was my total combat load. If I didn’t have the photo, I probably wouldn’t believe it.
What happened? Times, gear, and customs change. In the early part of the 20th century, Col. Townsend Whelen would travel for weeks in true wilderness with almost no equipment. Now we hunt on foot comparatively little—and not much in true wilderness. The object seems to be to have a piece of gear for every possible contingency. I’m as guilty of this as anyone. Here’s what I lug around.
When I began big-game hunting in the late 1960s, no one carried water. It weighs a ton. If you were thirsty, you drank when you came in at dark. If you got blood on your hands, it stayed. Now we’re Hydration Nation. After many years of holding out, I carry a quart of water, and sometimes I drink it if I remember to.
My Victorinox SwissChamp Swiss Army Knife has more blades than I have fingers on which to count them. I love the thing and would not be without it. I also carry a hunting knife as well as a small wood saw (because I might want to build a blind or cut a firing lane). Sometimes I even carry a hunter’s ax in case I need to chop something, like a finger.
How can you leave that behind? Three years ago I actually used it.
The prudent hunter carries waterproof matches, a butane lighter, and a metal match, plus a plumber’s candle and some cotton balls soaked in Vaseline for tinder. I am a prudent hunter.
A roll of orange surveyor’s tape
I use it every year to mark trails and downed game.
I carry three, in case one breaks or gets lost or two of them disagree with each other. I don’t carry a GPS. I don’t trust them, don’t understand them, and would rather die and be eaten by weasels than fool with another piece of electronic equipment.
Flashlights were so big when I was a kid that no one carried one. Now, we have very small flashlights that malfunction and flame out with remarkable reliability. I carry three, one of which is a headlamp made by Petzl, so if I die in the woods and am eaten by weasels, people will know who I am. Sort of.
For years after they became available I refused to use a laser rangefinder on the grounds that they weren’t particularly good, and because I prided myself on my ability to judge distance. Some of them are now terrific, however, and I’ve learned that my ability to estimate yardage sometimes takes a vacation. So now I bring a rangefinder—and find it indispensable.
When I was 12 I didn’t carry them because I was ignorant, and even if I hadn’t been ignorant I couldn’t have afforded them anyway. Your binocular is as important as your rifle.
Parachute (550) cord
You’re supposed to keep 50 yards of this stuff handy, so I do, and sometimes it does indeed come in handy. Make sure to burn the ends so it doesn’t unravel. But if you get molten p-cord on your skin, you’ll never forget that.
Unless you’re afraid the animals will return your fire, there’s no need for a lot. I carry four rounds in the magazine and 10 in a leather cartridge pouch. In nearly five decades of big-game hunting, I’ve never run out.
I’ve tried putting all this stuff in an orange vest but could never remember what I put in which pocket. Backpacks tend to snag on limbs that you duck under, and they’re subject to the Third Law of Gear, which states that “Equipment expands as there is room to carry it.” So now I use a small fanny pack, and it works fine.
What in God’s name is this? It’s a monstrously oversize rain-wind parka, and mine is made by Wiggy’s. It’s hooded and zipperless, and its great asset is that it will fit over you, your pack, and a couple of household pets as well.
Cowboys knew all about this. A big silk bandanna will keep your wool shirt from chafing your neck, and keep any drafts off your neck. It also makes a dandy sling for a busted arm, and doubles as a tourniquet (see hunter’s ax, above). But that’s not all. You can use it to tie down your hat on your head in a stiff wind, mark where an animal went down or a crucial juncture on a trail, and heaven knows what else.
Paleolithic hunters, I’ve learned, carried two pieces of equipment—a spear and a flint nodule. The spear would get them dinner, and being expert knappers, they could make any tool they needed in a few seconds from the lump of flint. I don’t think we’re ever going back to that, but it does have a certain appeal.
From the June 2013 issue of Field & Stream