Pack Rat

How to be ready for almost anything mother nature can dish out-without packing too much gear.

I remember the hunt well. I was bowhunting whitetails in Pike County, Illinois. Settled in for an all-day sit, I’d just seen two small bucks chasing does in a nearby cut corn field. It was first light, and the feeling was this just might be the day to tag out. Then, I heard a rumble off to the west. My cameraman was busy pulling out the rain cover for his gear as I spotted a wall of black clouds. I didn’t expect rain—and I hadn’t packed a waterproof jacket or pants. You’ve got to be kidding me.

The raindrops were light at first, but within 10 minutes it was a cold, steady November rain, and I was getting soaked. It was a miserable sit—one I cut short to get dried out—and I vowed never to be caught short-handed again.

Hunts near home usually don’t take much planning, but if you’re as forgetful as I am at times, a plastic tote of emergency extras can be a time saver— or even a life saver. Consider a warm jacket, balaclava and spare gloves. Heavy-duty trash bags are always handy, as is a packable sleeping bag and a small duffel stuffed with candy bars, lighter and first-aid kit. This sounds like overkill until you accidentally leave your truck headlights on and return to find a dead battery and no cell service. A rain suit, spare socks, rattling antlers and call, spare safety harness, canvas bag with skinning knives and sharpening stone are all part of a complete emergency hunt kit.

Do yourself a big favor: Find the jack, lug wrench and spare tire on your vehicle. This sounds silly but take my word for it—someday you’ll be fishing for the spare tire in the dark on the edge of a soft, muddy field and thinking: Miranda told me this would happen.

Check all tools and spare tire air pressure. Oil your jack and put a can of Fix-A-Flat in your tote, along with a bottle of 10W-30 motor oil. Pack a 2-foot-long piece of 2x8 lumber to use under the jack in the mud, and pack a spare headlamp and extra batteries.

I once drove over a sickle-bar blade that had broken off a farm mower and was hidden in a picked bean field while checking fox traps. One tire went flat immediately. The slice was too large for Fix-A-Flat, and my lug wrench was the wrong size! (I’d purchased the used Jeep and had never needed the wrench before.) This was in the days before cell phones, and the whole ordeal cost me hours, dollars and stress.

On a trip far from home, I pack two bows just in case I damage one during the hunt. If you’re a bowhunter who’s into tinkering, a portable bow press and tool kit complete with extra string and cable, sight bracket, hex set and nocking tool can substitute for the second bow. A spare rangefinder is a valuable asset— just be sure to pack a spare battery, too. One time, during a desert sheep hunt in Mexico, my rangefinder battery cover came loose, and I lost the cover and battery in the field. I had a spare rangefinder back at camp, but its battery was dead, and I didn’t have a spare. Two strikes and you’re out!

Recently I’ve been packing a new “in the box” binocular on trips, and if it’s not needed, I can leave the spare optic as part of my guide tip. This is a useful way to double-up on gear for insurance. Even if I do end up needing the spare on the hunt, the guide will still appreciate the like-new bonus gift.

Arrow quantities are always subject to personal preference. My rule-of-thumb is six arrows for practice and 16 for hunting, but on some trips I pack many more. Of course, two dozen arrows are worthless if you take only three broadheads, so think about the best- and worst-case scenarios and pack accordingly. It’s easier to take a dozen shafts and unused broadheads home rather than trying to resurrect an arrow from the willows.

Another item you might not think to bring is a scouting camera. The newer models are compact, and hanging one over an elk wallow or worn deer trail near camp can boost success by adding new age scouting to your hunt.

If you’re flying to a remote hunting destination, consider Global Rescue Insurance. You never know when illness or injury might occur, and Global Rescue will come in and get you. This insurance isn’t expensive, and it’s worth the peace of mind.

Of course, weight is always a concern for a backpack, especially if you’re hiking up a mountainside. That said, consider taking two mechanical releases, two head nets, two pairs of gloves, two headlamps— basically two of everything that you absolutely can’t do without. Since my rainy rut morning in Pike County, I always pack an ultralight Cabela’s rain suit. On hunts into known wetlands, I wear a Cabela’s MTO-50 rain suit and use the ultralight rain suit as back-up (stored in my daypack). If you’ve ever hunted coastal Alaska, you know what I mean about spare rain gear.

Speaking of the wet stuff, drinking water is heavy to carry but often a necessity. If you plan to sit in a treestand all day, you’d better have at least one bottle of water. On a long hike up a mountain, it’s smarter to carry a lightweight filtration pump. I once ran short of water on a mountainside in the Yukon and drank from a puddle of what looked like pure rain water. I became sick as a dog 3 hours later, and I was at the clinic in Whitehorse a week later. I carry a pump now.

Energy drink powder can be added to water for a quick pick-me-up, or to take away the taste of harsh waters on location. Grub wise, toting a Ziploc bag of hard candy and a few chocolate bars for emergencies is essential. On backpack trips I also carry a pouch of Mountain House freeze-dried food. This is in addition to anything I plan on eating on the trail or in the stand.

I also bring a point-and-shoot camera and a set of taxidermy glass eyes for better big-game photos. A mini pack of baby wipes is also handy for cleaning up blood on animals before shooting pics.

Lighting is essential because if you’re hunting hard, you’ll probably be operating after dark. Elusive Wildlife makes a must-have blood trailing flashlight that’s nothing short of amazing. The wide, even beam finds red sign like a bloodhound, and the light doubles as a headlamp.

You might want a small bottle of Slay antibacterial spray as well. This revolutionary scent eliminator kills the bacteria that causes odor. You can also clean blood from game for photos or wash hands with this stuff. A good knife, Hooyman saw and caping scalpel are a must for dressing game. I pack a predator call, too.

Take two lighters and 50 feet of parachute cord, plus two large, black, heavy-duty garbage bags. Poles can be tied and the bags can be stretched for a waterproof roof. The Hooyman will make short work of pine boughs for shelter, bedding and firewood. A small paperback book on wilderness survival is great reading when you’re in the bush. Commit its contents to memory.

I pack a Garmin handheld GPS on wilderness trips. I mark way-points at my departure point and along the route into camp, as well as base camp and additional points of interest. If my guide gets hurt or the pilot doesn’t show up to get me, at least I’ll know where I’m at and have some idea where help can be located. I pack an Iridium satellite phone in my pack, and it’s a good habit to type in local law enforcement phone numbers, or at the very least the flight service office. Likely your hunt will go off without a hitch, but it’s best to be prepared.

A good habit after each hunt is to make a list of items you needed but didn’t have; that way you can be better prepared next time. I’m often accused of packing too much gear in my backpack—especially for a deer hunt—but I sleep better knowing I’m ready for almost anything.

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