Hunters love gear. You probably have a favorite brand of bow, broadhead, and camouflage pattern. And it’s always fun to try the latest, coolest gear. But for the backcountry elk hunter, gear needs to be more than “cool” – it needs to be depended upon in the worst of conditions. Hunting in the wilderness, and living in the backcountry night after night, means that your gear is your lifeline. So, let’s move beyond bows and broadheads, and look at essential gear for the backcountry elk hunter.
To be successful on elk you have to have the right gear. If not….you won’t stand a chance at consistent success.
Choosing a pack is the hardest, but most important, gear decision that an elk hunter will make. There’s no shortage of different options on the market, but most packs excel in some ways and fail in others. Some packs are light, but aren’t strong enough or big enough to haul out an elk. Some packs are large enough to carry a week’s worth of supplies, but are too bulky to wear while hunting and shooting a bow. The pros and cons are endless.
Fortunately pack designs have come a long way, and there are several new packs that are both lightweight and strong; have a large capacity, and a slim profile when compressed; can function as a day pack, but are also built to handle a 100-pound load of meat. My choice is the new Tenzing CF-13. This “pack” is really a platform that can be used in a variety of configurations. I can use the CF-13 to haul a week-long camp into the backcountry, make “light and fast” day hunts from my base camp, and to pack out substantial loads of meat and antler.
An elk hunter’s pack will either be an asset or a liability; choose wisely.
Navigating the backcountry used to mean paper maps and an analog compass. Both of those items are still essentials in my pack, but my primary means of navigation is my digital GPS unit. This device does much more than tell me how to get back to camp after a long day of roaming the mountains, it is my digital “brain”, where I can store notes and coordinates for water sources, elk sign and activity, or other areas that I need to return to. I like to “super charge” my GPS unit by loading maps from HuntingGPSMaps.com, which give me private/public land boundaries, enhanced topographic features, roads, trails, and more – all in the palm of my hand!
You may not be able to use your cell phone in elk country, so prepare to have an alternate means of communication.
One of the reasons that I hunt is to get away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, so I don’t always want to be “connected”. But when I’m hunting the backcountry I do want a way to communicate with the outside world. Whether it is to let my wife know that I am safe, I’m calling a packer or friends to help load out an elk, or I find myself in an emergency situation – a reliable method of communication is a must.
Cell phones are good, but obviously a signal can be hard to acquire in the backcountry. There are other phone options, such as satellite phones, but they are expensive and cumbersome. This year I’ve decided to pair my smartphone with the SPOT Connect. This setup will allow me to make calls where I have reception, but thanks to the SPOT device, I’ll still be able to send text messages or emails via satellite if I don’t have a cell signal. While we are on the topic of communication, be sure that you always leave a detailed trip plan with friends and family at home. Be sure to include where you’ll be parking, what areas you plan to hunt in, when you expect to return, and the contact information for authorities in the area that you’ll be hunting.
I’m the type of guy that hates to lug around things that I don’t really use, or need. And for a long time, a first aid kit was one of those things that I knew I should carry, but sometimes didn’t. But that all changed this past spring, when I sliced my finger open while on a turkey hunt. After a trip to the hospital and eight stitches, I realized the absolute necessity of having a first aid kit when hunting the backcountry. It can be hard to determine what should be in a first aid kit, and what is over-kill, but thankfully the folks from Adventure Medical Kits have taken a lot of the guesswork out of planning for first aid. They have a variety of kits for all types of trips, so there’s no excuse to not have one.
You’ll be excited if you shoot an elk, but you’ll quickly realize how much work is ahead of you. Having a self-contained “kill kit” in your pack will enable you to get to work right away.
A “Kill Kit”
Putting an elk on the ground isn’t like killing a whitetail. Usually you can just drag a whitetail deer to your truck and load up, whereas packing an elk out of the backcountry is a feat of strength, endurance, and ultimately – a race against the clock. The real work begins when an elk falls to your arrow, so it is important to make sure you have everything you need to process and pack-out the elk as soon as possible, before the meat can spoil.
My “kill kit” contains everything needed to get an elk broken-down into manageable loads, let the meat begin to cool, and prepare loads to be packed out of the backcountry. In my kit I have 25’ of paracord, flagging tape, a lightweight ground cloth, game bags, a knife, a sharpener, a few zip ties, and latex gloves. I also keep my hunting tag and license in my kill kit; making sure that I have this package with me at all times.
Clothing & Shelter
Hunting in elk country usually means that the weather can change in an instant. It’s possible that a clear 80-degree afternoon can turn into a freezing storm in the evening. Don’t get stuck in the elements without proper clothing layers, and an emergency shelter. I don’t head into the mountains without some sort of insulation, such as the insulated and water-resistant Uncompahgre puffy jacket from First Lite. For an emergency shelter, I turn to one of the bivvy offerings from the aforementioned Adventure Medical Kits. And, of course, packable rain gear is always great to have available in your pack.
Staying hydrated will keep your energy levels up, help prevent altitude sickness, and enable you to hunt at your best. Always have a way to treat water, so that your water bottle will never run dry.
Never, ever, leave the trailhead without a way to treat and/or filter water. There are plenty of options on the market – drops, tables, pumps, ultraviolet rays, and more – but my favorite has to be a simple gravity-based filter, such as the Gravity Works from Platypus. There are no moving parts or electronics to fail on this filter, and it can be easily cleaned in the field, which means that this filter can be relied upon. And the gravity-based system takes all of the “work” out of filtering the water, so forget pumping! The bladder-style reservoir makes it easy to fill up at any water source, and you can even wait to filter the dirty water until you’re ready to use it, which means that you don’t have to hunt around for water only when you’re ready to filter – just fill up whenever and wherever you find it, and filter as needed.
What else do you need to keep in your elk hunting pack? We’ve looked at some of the essential gear, but don’t forget the necessities of food, a fire starter, a headlamp, and any personal needs, such as medications.
We love elk country for its wide open spaces, rugged terrain, and solitude. But hunting in these areas requires that we think about more than our bows and broadheads, we must plan for and carry essential gear that will keep us safe. Hunt smart, hunt hard.