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Venturing off the beaten path in search of big-game nirvana is something every bowhunter needs to experience at least once in their life. A pack loaded with gear and miles of wilderness to explore can scratch the need-to-wander itch. But backcountry hunting can be one of the most miserable experiences of your life if you don’t pack some essential items. You want your adventure hunt to be a dream, not a nightmare, and these in-the-pack items are absolute must-haves when roaming the backwoods.
1. Tarp and Cordage
There’s nothing sexy or pricy about this pair of items, but they are essential. During my backcountry tenure, I’ve ridden out more torrential downpours and hail storms than I can count under a simple 8 x 10 tarp tied off to nearby pine trees.
Few things are more miserable than trying to stay dry in rain, sleet, and hail storms huddled in rain gear under some pine boughs. A tarp and nylon cord weigh next to nothing, take up little room in the pack, and provide immediate shelter when bad weather hits. A tarp is also a perfect, clean surface for processing meat.
2. Fire Starting Kit
When you need fire, you need it right away. Lighters can crap out and won’t spark. Matches get wet or lost, and even the waterproof ones seem like a bear to ignite at times. And the single magnesium-style firestarter you brought won’t always get the job done. But it’s rare that all of these fire-starting tools will fail at the same time.
That’s why my pack always contains a trio of fire starters: A Bic lighter, UCO Stormproof Match Kit with Waterproof Case, and an AOFAR AF-381 Fire Steel 5-in-1 magnesium fire starter. I’ve had one or two of these items fail on a hunt, but never all three. Pair these items with a few Military-Grade InstaFire Granulated Fire Starter packs, and you can get a flame blazing in no time. The 45-gram packs will work to start four different blazes.
3. A GPS Device to Communicate Without Cell Service
There are a few different devices on the market, but my go-to off-grid communication tool has been Garmin’s InReach Explorer for years. This handy, easy-to-tote device promises global Iridium satellite coverage for instant two-way communication messaging anywhere in the world. The peace of mind that comes from knowing you can check in with loved ones each night and having an SOS button you can push in case of a severe emergency is priceless. The InReach will also let your family and friends track your location within 5 meters of where you are, so they can keep tabs on your daily travels.
4. Airplane Pillow and Sleeping Pad
The super hardcore hunters amongst us will undoubtedly turn their nose up at these two suggestions. I recommend that you don’t. A true seven- to 10-day backcountry hunt gets grueling. By day four, especially if the game is sparse, weather has been hellish, and the terrain more challenging to navigate than you’d imagined, heading for home starts to sound pretty good. Having a few comfort items in your pack is essential to staying in good spirits and getting good rest on the mountain.
As the day warms and game movement slows, a lightweight, inflatable bedroll and a standard airline pillow will help you grab a mountain nap. Kick the shoes and socks off, find a nice place in the shade, and wake up refreshed and ready to get back after it. Both items weigh next to nothing and fit easily into the pack.
5. A Solid First-Aid Kit
Going on a backcountry hunt without an excellent first-aid kit is like going to the Sahara without a hydration bladder. I’ve super-glued more cuts and bandaged more blisters than I can remember. From Havlon hand slices that went to the bone to a broadhead in the leg, to a snapped-off pine that cut into an eye, I’ve seen some bad things in the backcountry. If you spend enough time there, you will as well.
Don’t skimp when it comes to first-aid. Get a quality kit that has plenty of bandages, super glue, large gauze pads, burn treatment pads, tweezers, blister pads, splint, and the list goes on. Then, add to your kit. Make sure you have plenty of Tylenol, Ibuprofen, allergy medicine, and the like on hand. The better your med kit, the better your chances of fixing something wrong and staying on the mountain.
6. A Stove and Cooking Kit
Taking care of your body is essential, and with each passing day, calorie intake becomes more critical. It’s pretty simple: take in more calories than you lose, and you gain weight; take in fewer calories than you burn, and you lose weight. You can bank on losing a few pounds on your backcountry hunt, but don’t let it get extreme. Typically, you’ll burn between 3,000 and 5,000 calories per day. Some beef jerky and trail mix aren’t going to cut it. At least once per day, it helps to eat a full meal, and this is possible when you’re toting a stove system and dehydrated meals like those from Peak, Backpacker’s Pantry, and Mountain House.
MSR’s WindBurner Personal Stove System has been my choice for countless trips. The stove has never failed me and boils water in minutes. The system comes complete with a stove, boiling pot, and a drinking and straining lid. It’s super simple to operate and breaks down into a single, packable unit. From making dehydrated meals to a warming cup of joe, this stove system is a must.
7. A Way to Wash Off The Stink
Few things suck worse than the mountain funk. You’ll get to a point where you not only smell horrible, but you feel horrible. There’s only one fix for this, and it has kept me from pulling the plug on many backcountry hunts. First, if you’re only three or four miles deep, take an entire day off. Head for the truck and take a drive into the nearest town. Locate a YMCA, KOA, or someplace else where you can take a shower. Then, grab a good meal, maybe visit the laundromat, and get yourself back up on the mountain.
If you’re too deep to bail, head for basecamp and spend a day relaxing, eating, and using a remarkable device called the solar shower. You can buy a solar shower that is as elaborate or simple as you like, but all you need is a solar bag to warm the water, a hose, nozzle, and some soap. Get a good shower, then refill the bag and wash some clothes. Another item to have on hand at basecamp is a pair of comfortable sandals. If you cut your foot on a rock while taking a shower, you’re in for a long and miserable hike home.