04 Feb BACKCOUNTRY HACKS: TIPS FOR ULTRALIGHT HUNTING
BACKCOUNTRY HACKS: TIPS FOR ULTRALIGHT HUNTING
BY: CHAD HARVEY, BOWADX Pro Staff Member
Oregon backcountry, mid-September 2015. 37lbs for 8 days.
The definition of “ultralight” hunting is a widely debated topic on many a backpacking and backcountry hunting forum. For the purpose of this article, and in my opinion, ultralight is simply the enduring pursuit of a lighter pack load without sacrificing hunting performance or safety. Individual situations require different gear. Terrain, target animal, season, length of the hunt, etc. all play important roles in selecting the right loadout for your trip. Rather than focus on numbers, the tips here are designed to help anyone eliminate unnecessary weight from their load regardless of equipment.
Seems like a simple idea, but mentally preparing for an ultralight backing hunt is step number one. One of my favorite quotes came from Steve Rinella when he said “Some things are fun to do, and some are fun to remember.” Hunting should fall in the latter category. Discomfort, adversity, and even a bit of misery are integral parts of any great hunt. At first hint of complaint, I think fondly of hunters in decades or even centuries past that were able to endure and experience success with far less. As much as you can, leave behind the comforts of the modern world and accept that you can get by without them for a few days.
My tip: Leave behind the cell phone. Disconnecting is an enlightening experience in itself.
Making the Right Investment
Although the following tips are meant to help all backpacking hunters shave some weight, I do feel the need to recognize that significant weight reductions often come at significant expense. As the old saying goes, “Light, durable, cheap. Pick two of the three”. For anyone on a budget, making the right selection is key in getting the most bang for your buck. It is very tempting to plug along upgrading the more economical pieces of your kit to shave a few ounces here and there, when a larger one-time investment of the same amount could shed pounds. When evaluating where to spend that hard earned money, look first at your backpack, shelter, and sleeping bag. Not only are these three items often the heaviest pieces in your pack, but the variance in weight and carrying comfort between mid-level and higher-end options is also the greatest.
My picks: Stone Glacier Sky Archer 6200, Jimmy Tarps Down Timber (solo), Seek Outside Cimmaron (2+), Zpacks 20 degree bag
Summer scouting trip, August 2015. Jimmy Tarps Downtimber shelter.
Softshell jackets are designed with the bow hunter in mind. Quiet, fairly warm, and weather resistant. The go to do-it-all option for most situations. However, their versatility also contributes to their weakness. Softshell options are not as warm as insulating layers (often referred to as puffys), not as cool as base layers, and not as wind/water proof as rain gear. Pose the softshell question in any western hunting forum and you will still likely get a pretty even split on hunters that use them and those that leave them at home, but their necessity on a backcountry hunt is in question. For me, a puffy, base layer, and rain gear satisfy my outerwear needs and I save anywhere from 1 to 2 pounds leaving the softshell jacket behind. Not to rule them out entirely, they are still very useful for day hunting or as a welcome addition on later season hunt when additional layers may be needed.
In general most beginners pack too much clothing, and I have been there. Do some experimenting to learn what works for you. My basic kit, regardless of season or length of trip, looks something like this; base layers (top & bottom), puffy jacket, 1 pair mid-weight hunting pants, rain gear (top & bottom), 1 extra pair of socks (2 total), 1 extra pair of boxers (2 total), beanie, cap, and light gloves. That’s it. With those options I’ll do just fine on hunts up to a week long in the backcountry. I do carry a small bottle of bio-soap that works well for laundering your unmentionables every day or so.
Clothing features, or lack thereof, are also important. A pair of hunting pants with 14 pockets, huge cargoes, zippers, pulls, buttons, and straps might seem handy, but every scrap of fabric and additional feature adds weight and difficulty finding your gear when elk fever approaches. Think simple. How many pockets does a backpack hunter actually need? In my opinion, just enough to keep a few key items in reach. The same goes for the rest of you clothing. Hoods are also optional, the hood on a rain jacket may be useful, but hoods on your insulating or soft layers are just redundant if you bring a beanie/hat.
My picks: Base Layer – First Lite merino, Smartwool merino. Pants – First Lite Kanab, KUIU Attack, Sitka Ascent. Insulating Layer – KUIU Superdown. Rain Gear – KUIU Chugach, Ourdoor Research Helium II. Gloves – Oakley Factory Pilot, Socks – Darn Tough Coolmax, Altera Alpaca. Soft Shell – KUIU Chinook First Lite Northbranch.
2015 spring bear hunting in the Oregon Cascades.
One of the most important and hefty pieces of gear in your pack will be your shelter system. If you are just getting into backpacking, the options may seem overwhelming. Bivys, hammocks, tipis, tarps, and tents. So many different sizes, features, materials, and manufacturers one could never try them all. If you are anything like me when I started out, you many not even know many of these options exist. Over the past several season I’ve slept under everything from a 8’x8′ tarp, to a hammock, to an ultralight solo 4-season tent. Where you rest your head is much a personal decision, as some people just do not feel comfortable in open shelters. However, when it comes to weight savings, it is hard to deny the floorless and tarp movement. To give you an idea, my lightest 3 season shelter comes in at just under a pound with pole, stakes and guy lines. Combined with a quality bag and sleeping pad, it is all I ever need for bow season. I do not specifically endorse any particular brand, but offer these fine companies as a place to start when researching ultralight shelter options; Jimmy Tarps, Kifaru, Seek Outside, Mountain Laurel Designs, Zpacks, Hilleberg. There are dozens of other companies out there, but these will provide a good introduction to floorless shelter options.
My picks: Jimmy Tarps Down Timber, Seek Outside Cimmaron, Hilleberg Enan (pitched without the nest).
Mountain goat hunting, Northern BC. August 2015.
Cut the cord…
…and straps, cases, covers, etc. Remove, shorten, or replace the cords, straps, and zipper pulls on all your equipment. Its not just about shaving weight. In my experience the carrying straps on equipment like range finders and game calls makes them more likely to get snagged on brush or tangled in your pack or bow when attempting to use them. In turn, cases for items like your folding knife, range finder, camera, and GPS are not necessary, and can be left at home. Instead use ultralight sacks (often referred to as pull-outs) to keep similar equipment organized. There are several companies that make ultralight pull-outs of various sizes and materials, but an excellent budget option is just to use Ziploc bags with the sliding closure.
Trim straps and webbing on items like your pack, compression sacks, shelter, and clothing. Just keep in mind not to take too much and be sure to burn or re-stitch the ends so they do not continue to unravel. For cords that can’t be removed entirely, look at replacing them with a lighter material. (Mountain Laurel Designs and Zpacks offer some excellent lightweight and strong cordage) I once cut 2 ounces off the weight of my pack just by replacing the zipper pulls with lighter cord. A prepared mountain bow hunter will also have a couple zipper pulls on their pack equipped with precut D-loop material, ready for in the field repairs. In a somewhat controversial move, I do not even use caps on my binos to further trim the weight hanging around my neck.
My picks: Kifaru ultralight pullouts, Zpacks stuff sacks, Mountain Laurel Designs Lite Line
Necessity is the mother of invention, and for the ultralight hunter this means finding multiple uses for the items in your pack. Ultimately, any multi-use items in your gear allows you to leave some else behind or improves the comfort and efficiency of your hunt. There are entire websites and books dedicated to bushcraft that are worth a look, but here are a few of the favorite multi-use items in my pack.
Game bags are perhaps the “swiss army knife” in my pack. Before filling with meat, of course, they see lots of use. In the spring I keep one handy to pick morels along the trail, in the fall a bag can double as huckleberry basket. (Nothing beats the Mountainhouse blues like fresh produce.) Stuff a bag(s) with grass and you have a nice pillow for sleeping or sitting pad for glassing. Turn one inside out, use it to collect firewood, and you will save a few trips into the timber. Quarter bags also make a decent towel when you finally decide to clean up in the nearest creek.
Dry sacks are equally useful. I always carry at least one large, lightweight dry sack that doubles as my food storage container on the haul in. If the weather goes south, or deep water crossings are a reality it is large enough to hold my electronics and spare set of clothes. In camp I roll it down and use sticks or tent stakes to make a wash basin useful for taking a “bird bath” before the elk start to smell you from a mile away. Fill with fresh meat and submerge in the nearest stream to aid in the cooling process.
A hydration bladder filled with water also makes a nice pillow. If you get caught in a unexpected cold snap, fill that hydration bladder with boiling water just before bed time and slip it into your sleeping bag. You will be surprised how long the heat lasts.
My picks: Tag B.O.M.B. bags, Granite Gear Uberlight eVent drysacks, Playtapus Hoser bladder.
My kitchen sink.
Hit the Trail
I am by no means an authority or expert on ultralight backpacking/hunting, but hope this article helps get you started down the path to enlightenment. (pun intended) Nothing educates or motivates one to reduce the load more than time on the mountain. The saying “Ounces equal pounds, and pounds equal pain” can only be appreciated through experience.
Scouting the Oregon Coast Range. Spring 2015.