Outdoor Articles

Why and How to Hunt the Backcountry

by Wil Askew on September 27th, 2007 in Backcountry, Elk Hunting

Bending down to lift my pack, I could definitely feel the wear and tear of seven straight days in the wilderness.

Sore muscles, blistered feet and a sticky coating of sweat seemed to cover every inch of my body.

We were here by choice, though.

After years of hunting accessible lands that posed no difficulty for the average hunter, we had decided to head in a little further.


I hoisted the pack, scanned the area and then began the long walk out to the trailhead, a mere 6 miles off. Success was with us too: my partner and I were packing out our second elk.

As the hindquarter of the elk weighed heavy on my shoulders, I knew we had made the right decision to hunt deep in the backcountry.

I’d been fortunate enough to bag an elk on the first day of the hunt, and my partner had just sent an arrow to its mark two hours earlier.

Where to hunt

It started a few years earlier on a finger ridge perched high in the Pacific Northwest’s Blue Mountains.

At sunrise, I gave a long locating bugle and got a response from a receptive bull.

Feverishly working our way towards the bugling bull, we cut the distance to a hundred yards.

Instantly everything came alive as the herd bull finally broke the morning air with a spine-tingling scream.

Peeking through a small opening I could see a handful of cows and a decent raghorn. The wind shifted slightly and the herd started to move deeper in the “hole” that lay below us.

I looked over at my hunting companion, Steve Scott of Medford, Ore., and without saying a word we picked our gear and jogged toward the sounds of the breaking brush.

We made our way down the center of the finger ridge.

A few hundred yards later we broke into an opening and that was when it all became crystal clear: After many years of chasing bulls we realized we had been hunting the wrong areas. It was like someone had just pulled a great curtain back and all the secrets of elk hunting lay before us.

We were standing in elk heaven! We had bulls to left and bulls to the right, bulls below us and bulls behind us. We worked four different bulls that morning and finally sat down by a stream around noon to grab some lunch before making the long trek back up the hill.

It would take us a solid two hours of climbing up a vertical ridge without stopping to reach the truck. As our quads burned from the climb, we made up our minds to get the gear we needed to be able to stay comfortably in the wilderness, and experience this type of elk hunting every day.

This is the only way we hunt for elk now, and many elk have fallen since that day. Just like the two mentioned above.


Getting away from roads and people will boost your odds of harvesting an animal with your bow or gun.

I can honestly say that every year we venture into the backcountry, we have an opportunity to harvest at least a cow almost every day. Most people are not willing to venture too far away from their comfort zone and will not walk more than a mile from their vehicle.

Many times when you commit to venturing into the great unknown, count on at least a 12-mile jaunt.

It sounds crazy until you experience the sights and sounds of being in elk everyday.

Having a mature bull come to your calls rather than turn away at the sound will get your blood pumping, and this kind of excitement will push you further than expected. Below are few items that have really turned my hunting around.

With these things, I can hunt long into the day while most other guys head back to camp.

Whoever said that hunting is the best in the morning and the evening never hunted the backcountry.

The hunting is good all day!

  • A good frame pack should be first on your list. Find one that fits your body.

    Look for a snug waist belt that helps manage a heavy load, and comfortable straps to rest on your shoulders.

    Personally, I like the moose type bag that I can fit an elk quarter into. These attach easily with some pins and can be rinsed out easily.

  • Alaska game bags are a must have. They’re light, compact and don’t take up much room.

    Hunting with a buddy is a good idea. You can carry two game bags and your partner can carry two.

  • Carry a good knife and a stone. No reason for carrying three knives and a multi-tool, which may add unneeded weight.
  • A hydration pack and a water filter can save weight too. Be sure never to drink from a stream no matter how clean it may look.

    Unless I’m dying of thirst, I’ll use a filter.

    If you do plan on drinking from a stream, Imodium AD is very lightweight and there are plenty of leaves to help clean up.

  • A Therm-a-Rest self-inflating pad has been the best investment I’ve made for backcountry elk hunting.

    It not only makes for a softer bed, but also keeps in much-needed body heat.

  • Another necessity is a quality sleeping bag. Look for something lightweight, 3 to 4 pounds.

    A good mummy bag with a built-in hood is like a condominium in the wilderness. A good stocking cap will conserve body heat at night too.

  • A good windproof lighter can greatly increase your odds of making a fire.

    Matches are good, but once they get wet, you’re gambling with your ability to survive.

    I do carry a small pack of matches that I wrap in a Ziploc bag. A fire serves a dual purpose, warmth and security.

  • Cooking can be done easily with a small butane stove that lights easily and can boil a quart of water within a few minutes.

    When hunting with a friend, one should carry the stove and the other a lantern that is also compatible with the fuel container.

  • A small water pot that will hold about a cup and a half of water is all the dishes I carry.

    I can boil water for coffee singles and freeze-dried meals.

The meals are not the tastiest, but between those and MREs (Meal Ready to Eat), that’s about all you need.

No canned good — too heavy.

Pack hunting

Hunting with camp on your back will keep you mobile and in the hunt if done correctly.

Don’t overdo it, however. Too much weight will ruin your hunt and make for a miserable time.

Find out what you can sacrifice to be comfortable and prepared. Granted, I know guys who are more serious than me.

They count the ounces of what goes into their packs, and I don’t blame them.

The first time I ventured into the wilderness to hunt from my pack, I was so overloaded I stopped and stripped it down to the bare minimum.

A well-equipped pack should weigh about 40 to 50 pounds. This will hold you over for two to three days. Remember, when you’re loading your pack to head into the woods, you only want it heavy on the trip out. The main benefit of backpack hunting in the wilderness is that you don’t have to hike in and out every day.

We get ourselves into a great area, move off a few hundred yards and settle down for the night and then in the morning, we are right in the middle of all the action.

Backcountry hunting is definitely not for every one, but for those who have thought about it, give it a try.

It’s a true hunting experience you’ll never forget.

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