19 Deer Camp Skills to Master This Season
Hunt smart, eat well, stay warm—and get a buck
Master these 19 essential skills to have the absolute best seven days in your deer camp history.
→ Hunting Skill
Find a Good Spot to Hunt
You’ve never hunted at this camp and all the existing stands have been claimed. Where do you go?
Everyone is new to a deer camp at least once. When it’s you, and all the stands and blinds in the area are called for, you have to rely on your own hunting skills and knowledge instead of someone else’s. Here are three places to start searching for your own hotspot.
1. Food Sources
Finding the forage is easy to do in farm country: Check crop fields for recent signs of feeding. Big-woods settings are a bit more challenging. Start by searching for blue ink on your topo map, which indicates a water source and thus a favorable place for vegetation. Swamp edges, gas and electric rights-of-way, and clear-cuts allow sunlight to stimulate new growth, which will draw deer. If you can’t find or hunt any of those, look on your topo map for an array of several black boxes at the end of an unimproved road, evidence of an old farmstead where overgrown fields and an apple tree or two will attract mature bucks like moths to a flame.
2. Bedding Areas
If all food sources have hunters on them, the pressure will soon force mature bucks to bed down before pink light and stay in their beds longer in the evening. Set up for them on the downwind edge of where they’re lying low. In farm country, expect bucks to bed in brush lots, old vineyards, uncut corn, thorn-apple thickets, throats of brush-choked ravines, and cattail swamps. In wilderness areas, hunt near the tops of high peaks, humps inside swamps, secondary growth inside clear-cuts, and steep hardwood ridges above beaver dams and rivers. High points above doe feeding areas are favorite buck hangouts during the peak of the rut.
3. Travel Routes
As the rut unfolds, bucks abandon daytime bedding areas and begin shadowing does day and night. They’ll take the most direct route from one concentration of does to the next. Look for spurs and gentle slopes leading up and down hills, saddles between ridges, shallow water crossings, edges of ravines, and that invisible line that separates hardwoods from softwoods. Nearby rubs and scrapes can confirm your suspicions. Last year’s line of gray rubs connecting doe feeding and bedding areas may also delineate this year’s breeding routes. A rutting buck could come through at any time, so bring a lunch and be prepared to spend the day afield. —B.V.
Must-Have Camp Gear
This stuff won’t necessarily help you get a buck, but it will make life in camp more enjoyable—for you and your camp mates
Small Flashlight: Wear it on a lanyard and you’ll always know where it is.
Multitool: Good for everything from slicing cheese to fixing lanterns.
Camp Shoes: Rubber bottomed, for midnight trips to the outhouse.
Baby Wipes: Much better than TP in no-shower situations, especially by day four. Just don’t let the guys see them.
Matches: For starting fires, lighting lanterns, and “clearing the air.”
Rubber Tote: Keep your hunting clothes from smelling like smoke, grease, or worse.
Clean PillowCase: Beats one that’s been collecting dust for 11 months.
Foam EarPlugs: Think bunkmate who snores like a freight train.
Sleeping Bag: In case your own snoring gets you booted onto the porch.
Aspirin: Hair of the dog isn’t an option when you’re going hunting. —L.P.
Stay in Hot Water
There’s going to be a huge demand for hot water when the whole crew arrives: for cooking, washing, cleaning. How do you keep gallons of it at the ready?
A woodstove can do more than heat a cabin. It can also provide a steady supply of hot water. Buy a 60- to 100-quart stockpot—the kind used for frying turkeys and boiling lobsters—with a spigot at its bottom. Place the pot on top of the stove and fill three-quarters full with water. It has too much volume to boil. But it will hold and radiate heat, keep the cabin from becoming too dry, and supply more than enough hot water for all camp chores and needs.
If you’re ambitious and have the time, you can even run a supply of fresh water right to camp. Find a nearby brook or spring that is higher in elevation than camp. Dam or dig out a small pool and place the end of some black, flexible 1-inch PVC piping in the bottom of the pool. Use a hose clamp to secure fine wire mesh over the opening to screen out debris. Run the hose downhill and connect to the sink. During cold nights, leave a trickle running to prevent freezing. —L.P.
Wash Camp Dishes in Record Time
You have cleanup duty and the poker game’s about to begin. What to do?
Plan ahead by getting water ready and presoaking pots and pans as soon as they’re emptied. Then fill two dishpans with hot water. Add dish soap to one for cleaning, use the other for rinsing. For a superquick cleanup, break out your stash of paper plates before dinner. Afterward, scrape them clean, toss them in the woodstove, and you’ll be back at the table in time to cut cards for the first deal. —L.P.
Split Stovewood Quickly
There’s no kindling or small pieces—nothing but big rounds. How do you split a supply of stovewood without spending hours doing it?
Use a wide, flat log as a block and grab the heaviest, sharpest ax on hand, or better yet an 8-pound splitting maul. Pick straight-grained pieces of ash or oak. Grab a piece of chain and a short, strong bungee cord. Use the bungee to snug the chain around the first log to be split, about two-thirds of the way down. As you split the round, the chain belt will hold the resulting pieces together, so you can quickly chop each piece into successively smaller pieces without having to pick up and reset them after each swing. —L.P.
→ Hunting Skill
Get a Midday Buck
It’s time to get back to camp for lunch, But you want to hunt. What’s the best tactic to find a buck right now?
For the next 45 minutes, don’t move—if anything, be more alert. The commotion of other hunters leaving in the distance may jump a few bedded deer, and by staying put you’ll have a good chance of seeing one right now.
Then climb down and still-hunt your way toward a funnel tucked back in the cover. That saddle between the two hardwood ridges you hunted during bow season is perfect. Rutting bucks are going to be on the prowl for does at all hours of the day, but since the does won’t be stepping into many fields at noon, you probably won’t see them unless you’re hunting the cover. A saddle in the timber naturally funnels deer movement between food and bed, and such a pathway is where you’re most likely to catch a cruising buck at midday.
Set up at the base of a broad tree with a good vantage point, as if you’re turkey hunting. Get comfortable so you won’t fidget. Keep your rifle across your lap and your scope on low power. A buck could appear at any moment 30 yards away.
If you have enough cover to do so inconspicuously, recharge with a sandwich and a cup of coffee. Then still-hunt your way back to your stand two hours before your companions return to the woods, so you can again take advantage of any bucks being bumped by the afternoon shift heading to their stands—unless, of course, you already have a deer to drag out. —W.B.
Clean a Muddy Rifle Without Tools
You tripped and jammed your rifle muzzle deeply into soft mud, and no one brought a cleaning kit to camp. What should you do?
Don’t panic. Your hunt isn’t over, but you need to clear the bore to make the rifle safe to shoot. Cut a slim, live sapling branch long enough to poke out as much mud as possible before heading back to camp. Once there, you need to get the rest out—even if it has dried—because it will attract moisture and cause rust. Lash or tape a finishing nail to one end of a shoelace. Tie a small piece of rag to the other and soak with hot water. Drop the nail down the bore and pull the patch through. Repeat until all visible dirt is removed. Tie on a fresh dry patch and pull through until it comes out dry. Tie on a fresh patch, wipe some oil on it from your truck’s dipstick, and pull it through several times until only a very light coat remains. —L.P.
Make a Camp Bow Target
You missed a doe cleanly at 20 yards this morning…and you wonder if your buddy really did pass on that big 6-point. Regardless, you both need to check your bow sights (and maybe shoot a few practice arrows) before the evening sit. But you forgot your target. At what do you shoot?
No worries. Half the fun of deer camp comes from engineering such things. Use two empty feed sacks to create the outer portion of the target. No sacks? Use a couple of old shirts or a folded old bedsheet, and seal the openings with zip ties. Next, gather some worn garments or rags—old T‑shirts or, better yet, flannel shirts. Line one of the sacks with these. Then make the interior stuffing out of leaves, vegetation (baled hay is perfect), and old newspapers. Compress the material tightly into the bag between the shirts until you can fit no more, then slide the other feed sack over the open end. It won’t last as long as a factory-made target but should hold up plenty long enough for you to adjust your sights or verify that yes, you can indeed still shoot a bow accurately. —W.B.
Stoke a Woodstove for Nighttime
The temperature has dropped. How do you keep that old-fashioned stove pumping out heat until you crawl out of your bag the next morning?
An overnight fire shouldn’t be too hot, or else it’ll burn out quickly while everyone roasts…and then freezes. But if it’s too cold, you’ll be up feeding it before you close your eyes. Here’s the trick: Before turning in, fill the firebox with the largest, densest logs on hand. Pieces of oak, beech, or maple with big, gnarly knots that are hard to split are perfect. Once they catch, turn the damper on the flue at least halfway down and close the vent so that just enough air is coming into the stove to produce a low but steady flame without a lot of smoke. The stove will produce heat well into the night and leave a nice bed of hot coals you can easily rekindle in the morning. —L.P.
Make a Makeshift Meat Pole
The hunting’s great, and you and your buddies have seven deer—but not enough space on the meat pole to hang them. What now?
Have some spare screw-in treestand steps? You’re in business. First screw one step securely into a tree about 8 feet off the ground. (If you’ll be skinning the deer, look for a smooth-barked tree, like a beech, so the meat stays clean.) Most such steps are designed to hold 300 pounds, plenty strong enough for the average field-dressed deer. Drape a rope over the step to hoist your deer, though a pulley and gambrel make it easier.
If you’ve got a really big buck on your hands, use two steps side by side with ropes over both of them to distribute the weight. —W.B.
Find a Wounded Buck
You shoot a buck at dusk and he runs off. It’s cold and clear, so you delay the search until morning. How do you handle a crew of volunteer searchers?
First, thank everyone for offering to help you out. Then, diplomatically explain that while you certainly want to find your buck, you also want everyone to maximize his hunting time.
Select one hunter—not coincidentally, the best tracker in camp—to go with you at first light. (It would help to approach that hunter privately beforehand.) But also arrange for everyone to meet back at camp at noon. If your two-party search team finds the buck, you’re golden. But if the blood trail goes cold, that’s when you’ll need sheer manpower. Study aerial photos of your stand area to find the thickest cover near where you took your shot. Deploy the rest of your camp mates in a series of shoulder-to-shoulder searches through thickets and riverbottoms. When one of them gives a shout, be prepared to pour a few drinks that night. —S.B.
The Laws of the Latrine
One-holers have a specific protocol
1. Lime it. One scoop down the hole each visit helps control odors and flies. 2. Keep it in the can. Used coffee cans protect TP from gnawing mice, moisture, and critters seeking hiding places. 3. Lid down, please. If you leave the top up, gases won’t escape through vents to the outside. 4. Grab a seat. During bitter weather, hang the throne by the woodstove. Your posterior will thank you. 5. Waste not. Never put trash down the hole…unless it’s the ace you put up your sleeve during the poker game. —L.P.
→ Hunting Skill
Still-Hunt All Day
It’s day four. You’re on a first-name basis with the chickadees around your stand. What’s the best plan for going after deer when everyone else is sitting?
The night before, get out a map of the area around camp. Consult the group and mark known feeding and bedding areas, and where other hunters will be sitting the next day.
Then, with the weather forecast in mind, plot a course that will take you along the downwind edges of oak flats and other food sources at first light and into bedding areas as the morning progresses. If necessary, deviate from your planned route so that you’ll be able to approach prime locations from downwind. Reverse the sequence in the afternoon. You want to skirt other hunters and not interfere with any deer movement near their stands, yet pass close enough that if you bump a deer you might send it past them.
You’ll be on the go all day, so pack light: water, lunch, knife, drag rope, and a GPS or map and compass cover the basics. Slip on some quiet fleece outerwear and rubber-soled boots. But travel extremely slowly. If you’re not seeing deer before they see you, you’re moving through the woods too fast.
Stay to the side of and above trails and travel corridors. Where fresh deer sign is plentiful, slow to a crawl. Spend more time looking than moving. Where sign is sparse, kick it up a notch. Use binoculars to search for anything that seems out of place: the horizontal line of a deer’s back, or a bit of white that could be a throat patch or rump.
During the pre-rut and rut, try grunting. Wait at least five minutes before moving on. Spray your soles with estrous-doe scent and watch your backtrail. You just might see the biggest buck of the week with its nose to the ground. —L.P.
Feed Everyone in Camp
It’s your night to cook, but you’re no chef. How do you make a hot, tasty meal for eight hunters without spending a lot of money?
Make Italian Deer Sandwiches
- Debone a deer ham and remove sinew and silverskin.
- Cut the meat into baseball-size chunks, and rinse.
- Add to a Crock-Pot or Dutch oven with three 15-ounce cans of beef broth and cook for 3 to 4 hours.
- Drain the meat, pull it apart, and return it to the oven along with a fourth can of broth and the following seasonings:
- 2 Tbsp. meat tenderizer
- 1½ tsp. black pepper
- 1½ tsp. seasoning salt
- 4½ tsp. Italian seasoning
- 1½ tsp. garlic powder
- 1½ tsp. onion powder
Stir and cook for 2 more hours. Serve on hoagie buns with a slice of Swiss cheese. For a side dish, fry up canned sliced potatoes with onions. —W.B.
Deer Camp Dos and Don’ts
Deer camp is a place where rules are few and you can scratch anywhere it itches, anytime. But to fit in and make the most of the trip, heed these simple dos and don’ts. —L.P.
- Relax and have fun. You’re there for more than a buck.
- Always offer to help out, especially if you’re a guest.
- Tell the cook exactly how you like your eggs (fried).
- Strike the match before turning the nozzle on gas appliances.
- Shake out your sleeping bag. Who knows what’s in it?
- Ever bring a loaded firearm into camp.
- Complain about the food, unless you want to cook.
- Wash cast-iron cookware with soap. Wipe clean with a wet paper towel.
- Play cards if you cannot afford to lose.
→ Hunting Skill
Conduct the Perfect Deer Drive
The camp buck pole is pretty light. It’s time to push some cover. How do you organize the crew to make your drives effective and efficient?
The deer camp crew is no different from a freshly formed committee at work: Ideas and energy abound, but without leadership nothing gets done. So job one is to select a drive boss, which is usually simple. He’s probably the oldest guy in camp, and undoubtedly the one who knows the land intimately and the subtle ways in which deer move through it. Member input may be welcome, but all decisions—what section to drive, the drivers’ route, the exact placement of the standers—are final only with his say-so. Then appoint a drive manager, a second-in-command who’s also familiar with the country and physically able to place standers or drivers in the most difficult areas. Finally, put numbered scraps of paper (equal to your party size, minus the drive boss and the manager) into a hat. Everyone picks a number. On the first go-round, all even-numbered hunters drive, while the odds are the standers. Reverse roles on the next push. —S.B.
RELATED: Welcome to Deer Camp
Endure a Warm Spell
You have deer hanging—but now it’s 60 degrees. With several more days left at camp, you need to get the meat chilled, pronto. What’s the best way?
If you have no processor or meat locker nearby, you’ll need one or more 120-quart coolers and lots of ice. If you don’t have ice, someone has to make the ride to town to get some. If not, the meat will soon spoil. Line the bottom of a cooler with a layer of ice. Skin the deer, cut it into quarters, remove the backstraps, and place the meat with some space between the pieces atop the ice. Pour on another layer of ice about 3 inches deep over that meat, and add more meat followed by another layer of ice. Store the cooler in the shade on an incline, with the opened drain plug pointed downhill. This will keep your ice longer and purge blood from the meat. —W.B.
Spit Like a Rifle Shot
Everyone’s telling tales around the campfire. How do you make yours beat them all?
Are you one of those hunters who indulges in a bit of dip while you’re at deer camp? If so, a quick stream of tobacco juice hitting its target can be a physical exclamation point when you’re telling a campfire tale. “It was the biggest buck I’d ever seen.” Spit. Sizzle. Do it right and the stream will be narrow and accurate, emit a single-note sound, and make your preceding statement sound downright biblical. Do it wrong and brown saliva will end up all over your chin and shirt, and you’ll look ridiculous.
Allow a good mouthful of saliva to pool under your tongue. Tilt your chin down, build up a bit of air pressure, raise your tongue a bit, and purse your lips to let fly. Your bottom lip should protrude slightly. Don’t think of it like spitting out a mouthful of something that tastes bad. It’s more like spitting water squirt-gun style. Aiming is instinctive and improves with practice. —W.B.
Move a Heavy Stand Quickly
Your hotspot went ice cold and you need to move your ladder stand to a better location, but you can’t afford to spend precious hunting hours doing it alone. How should you move it?
First, enlist a buddy or two. Make sure the support bar of the stand is securely strapped to the tree before climbing up to undo the straps at the top. Then undo the lower straps and remove the support bar. With a hunter on either side of the ladder, slowly tilt the stand away from the tree and walk it to the ground. A third hunter behind the tree helps lower it via ropes tied to an upper rung. Disassemble it, move to your new location, and reassemble on the ground with the base of the ladder about 6 feet from the tree trunk.
One hunter picks up the seat end and pushes it toward the tree, working his way down the rungs, while another hunter stays at the bottom of the ladder, acting as a fulcrum and keeping the base from slipping toward the tree. The third hunter stands on the other side of the tree, pulling ropes tied to a step about two-thirds up the ladder. Work quickly to maintain momentum and get the stand upright. —W.B.