Growing up in the middle of nowhere Pennsylvania, I didn’t think that western hunting was realistic. I would watch the old Primos elk hunting videos on VHS and the Outdoor Channel, but it wasn’t something my family or anyone I knew had done themselves. I thought it took a lot of money to hunt elk, mule deer, and any other western big game species.
Then, in 2015, I discovered Cameron Hanes and his book, Backcountry Bowhunting. That opened my eyes to the adventure side of hunting in the backcountry and the Do-It-Yourself model of western hunts. So, in 2016, I decided to go on my first archery elk hunt in Colorado. I took in all the information I could find to help me prepare for the hunt and hopefully come home successful.
I learned a lot on that first trip about myself and how I could prepare better for upcoming trips. It took me four years to kill my first elk with a bow on public land, and I have hunted the west every year since. Over the last seven years of hunting and interviewing hundreds of successful western hunters on the East Meets West Hunt podcast, I’ve learned some things that can help you reduce the learning curve in preparing for a western hunt.
Hunting gear is an essential component of western hunting, but as John Barklow of Sitka Gear and Knowledge from Storms frequently says, “knowledge weighs nothing.” Your planning, preparation, and knowledge will lead to more successful hunts and a better experience in the backcountry.
The Rocky Mountains are no joke, and those mountains will swallow you whole if you let them. This topic gets debated as much as expandable vs. fixed broadheads, but there’s one thing I’ve learned. I can promise you that I’ve never wished I was in worse physical condition. Being in good shape will allow you to go further and longer, but it will also make the hunt more enjoyable.
There are many ways to get in shape, but I’ve found that keeping it simple by focusing on some core elements will put you in the best position to conquer the mountains. So I focus on strength training, building an aerobic base, rucking (hiking with a weighted backpack), and training athletically will ensure you are prepared for the mountains.
Todd Bumgardner, the founder of Human Predator Pack Mule, is a strength and conditioning coach that has helped me understand the need to train for the mountains sensibly. Todd says that many people do not give themselves enough time to prepare, focusing too much on High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), not strength training, and rucking with too much weight in their packs. He’s taught me to focus on building work capacity over time at a sustainable rate rather than a few high heart rate workouts per week. The exercises don’t have to be grueling, but consistency will yield results.
When you’re coming from the east coast, or anywhere at low elevations, hunting above 8,000 feet can be a challenge. The air is thinner and makes it much more difficult to breathe until you acclimate to the altitude. Altitude sickness is real, and anyone can develop altitude sickness, no matter how young, fit, or healthy you are.
In 2021, I drew a coveted high country mule deer tag in Colorado and couldn’t wait to backpack into the mountains to hunt big velvet bucks at 12,000 feet above the treeline. I knew the risks of altitude sickness and followed the necessary steps to ensure I was good to hunt, but I still ended up in the hospital, which ended my hunt early in the trip. After returning from the trip, I learned that I had some pre-existing conditions that led to altitude sickness, including a sinus infection and another illness. I realized that I needed to note how my body was feeling ahead of time rather than trying to push through and be a “tough guy.”
Altitude sickness isn’t something to be afraid of, but it is something to take seriously and prepare for. Here are some basic guidelines to help you acclimate and ensure that your dream hunt doesn’t end early.
- For every 1,000 feet you plan to go up over 8,000 feet, take a whole day to acclimate at that elevation. If you don’t have a lot of time, the rule is to hike high but sleep low. If you go up to 10,000 feet, come back down to lower elevations to sleep at night until you acclimate.
- Drink a lot of water – 3-4 quarts per day is recommended
- Eat more food than you think – When you are at altitude, it can suppress your appetite, but eating more food than you think is crucial.
- Don’t use tobacco, alcohol, or excessive caffeine for the first 48 hours.
- Don’t vigorously exercise for the first 48 hours of your trip at altitude. This takes some planning and extra time away from work.
Medication can help you climb higher in a shorter amount of time. Prescription medicines such as Acetazolamide are used to prevent and reduce symptoms of altitude sickness. Consult with your doctor before going to high altitudes. In addition, over-the-counter options such as MTN OPS Solitude are proven to decrease the chances of elevation sickness.
Symptoms of altitude sickness include headache, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, shortness of breath, loss of appetite, sleeping problems, and high heart rates. Using devices that monitor your blood oxygen levels will help you watch how your body reacts to the elevation. The Garmin Fenix 7 watch will allow you to monitor your heart rate and blood oxygen levels. My watch was the sole reason that helped me make a logical decision to drop elevation and head to the hospital.
Building a Hunt Plan
A hunt plan is a tool that costs you nothing and can be an incredible asset on your hunt. Your hunt plan can be as straightforward or as detailed as you want to make it. I’ve found that writing down a hunt plan keeps me organized and lists all of the contingencies and backup plans when the unexpected happens.
My hunt plans consist of 3-5 hunt areas that I’ve found e-scouting in the order of priority. I have 3-5 specific locations within these hunt areas with details on access, glassing points, food sources, bedding areas, camping locations, etc. You never know when you get to a hunting location, and there are many people or no animals, making you have to pivot. You don’t want to go back to town to look at maps in the middle of your hunt.
I include essential addresses and locations in a list. These are places to stay, meat processors, hospitals, taxidermists, food/grocery stores, gas stations, laundromats, and emergency contacts. I permanently save an offline copy of this hunt plan on my phone but print a physical copy to keep in my truck and pack. The emergency contact list goes in my first aid kit and hunting partner’s packs.
Having a hunt plan isn’t as cool as buying a new backpack, but you will undoubtedly refer to it frequently while reducing your stress and anxiety when things don’t go as planned.
Hunting your back 40, hunting lease, or local piece of public land has its fair share of possibilities for hazards, but not like driving across the country and hunting deep in the mountains. I love the saying that Dr. Brian Tallerico of Safari Medic/Mountain Medic constantly reminds me and others. “Hope is not a plan.” I’ve seen hospitalizations, significant/minor cuts, truck breakdowns, allergic reactions, and everything in between in my seven years of western hunting.
First and foremost, I recommend taking an introductory first aid course at a minimum to understand what you have in your first aid kit and how to use it. Having a big, heavy first aid kit doesn’t mean that you will be prepared if you don’t know how to use it. The people I’ve learned from actually have a streamlined first aid kit, including the basics that they need to get them home safely in an emergency and whatever else is required to save their hunt so they can keep going.
I have not talked much about gear in this article, but one tool is with me on every hunt, no matter where I go. I always carry a Garmin inReach mini on my backcountry hunts and whitetail hunts where I don’t have cell coverage. You can text your loved ones from anywhere in the world, and if a life or death situation arises, you can press the SOS button on the side to deploy the search and rescue team.
Emergency preparedness could be an entire book, but the last point that I’ll mention is making sure your vehicle is prepared for the occasion. You should always make sure your vehicle is capable of the roads or trails you are planning to take it on, with having backup plans in case something arises. Mike Hernandez of Field Craft Survival told me that navigation, fuel range, recovery, and knowing your vehicle’s capabilities are important considerations when taking your vehicle into the mountains. Lastly, don’t forget a full-sized spare tire (I was guilty of this my first year hunting out west).
Going from east to west to hunt can seem like a daunting task, but with proper planning and preparation, you can have an incredible experience that will make you want to go back every year.