The Things I Carry
by Dave Hughes
I take quite a few fishing trips every year--it’s necessary ‘research’ for what I call my work--but I only get a week a year to hunt deer or elk. I don’t have much time for fiddling with all the gadgetry that seems now to be turning the ancient sport toward complexity...which is fine if you enjoy that aspect of things. I do not. I fight to keep life as simple as possible and, of course, in the computer age, I generally lose. But there are a few modern things I’ve picked up, used and instantly added as simplifications, rather than complications, to my hunting.
I’ve managed to hunt deer and elk out of the same small teardrop daypack for more years than I care to count...it’s far from perfect, but sometimes you get used to something, and it becomes perfect because you’re used to it. I call it a ‘possibles bag’, but it’s possible to get separated from it, out hunting, so I carry a few core things in my pockets, both shirt and pants, that I consider so critical that I don’t take any chance of moving without them.
Those essentials, following the ancient rule, are knife, matches, compass and map. I’ve seen backpackers, hunters, field biologists and all sorts of other folks in recent years who believe that a GPS unit and cell phone have changed the basic rules of being in the outdoors. Nature is still in the same relation to us it’s always been. Perhaps my thinking on this matter is more strict than that of most folks because I was sleeping in a tent during an arctic storm on the frigid Yellowstone River, about 15 miles from two unprepared elk hunters, the night they froze to death near Livingston, Montana a few years ago. I carry three ways to start a fire: waterproof matches, cigarette lighter and emergency butane lighter, plus a few small fire starter cubes. I keep a small bottle of Breeze Squeeze in a pocket, and use it constantly to be sure I’m hunting into the wind, and if I’ve spotted something, confirm that my stalk will be upwind, not downwind. I also carry cough drops because I have a tendency to dry out and begin barking at the wrong moments.
In the realm of gadgetry, I’ve found that a range finder, because I don’t have time in the field to learn to estimate ranges, lets me whack an occasional animal I’d never have shot without it. I tend to overestimate ranges; a deer or elk at 300 yards looks a mile away to me. I’m not an advocate of long-range firing, but I’m sighted in to make a consistent kill shot at 300 yards, given a rest. The range finder I carry in a shirt pocket is accurate at that range.
I’ve taken to carrying a GPS in a pocket as well, but I don’t rely on it to keep myself located. If its batteries go dead or I can’t get a satellite reading, I like to know how to get back to my rig, or to camp, by compass and map. The best use I’ve found for the GPS is to mark the exact location of a kill. Tie a red bandana to a tree, anyway, then mark its location on the GPS, and you’ll be able to walk right back to it. I used it that way for the first time on a WU property a few years back, left half a deer hanging for a second pack trip out the next morning. I walked in to find the gut pile covered with limbs and dirt. The hackles went up on the back of my neck until I found bobcat, not cougar, tracks. The meat had not been touched.
I carry the sorts of things in the daypack that I’d like to have if I decide to spend the day away from the rig, and also the things I’ll want if I get something down. I tend to carry the pack even when I leave the rig briefly to glass off a point, or to make a quick scout to check out something two or three hundred yards away. You never know when a quick look will turn into an hours-long hunt or stalk and I don’t know how many times I’ve left my pack at camp or in the rig ‘just for a moment’ and gotten back to it hours later.
In addition to TP, a water bottle, extra clothes, rain jacket if there’s a chance of that, and lunch, I carry water purification tabs, a headlamp with spare batteries, a Space Blanket and a few granola bars. The item I’ve used most often is the headlamp, to gut and skin a deer or elk that is taken late in the day. In fact, carrying the light gives me the confidence to hunt that critical last hour of light. If you carry a flashlight rather than a headlamp, you’ll be fine as far as getting back to your rig in the dark goes. But if you kill something at last light, you’re going to wish you had three arms before you’re done taking care of it if you don’t have a headlamp.
Because I do as much hunting with binoculars as I do with my feet, I carry a pair of light wool glassing gloves on frosty days. I also carry light shooting sticks, because I don’t shoot as often as I should at the range, and know I’m likely to need a crutch when I’m in the field. If you haven’t tried them, shooting sticks are not heavy and they’re quite effective, though you don’t want to use them at short range or when you’re in a hurry; they’ve got to be assembled carefully or they can be noisy.
When I hunt W.U. properties, I expect to get something on account of it having happened so consistently. I always gut and skin an animal in place, as soon as possible. So I carry a light bone saw or hand axe in my daypack and a couple of gallon ZipLoc bags for liver and heart. I also carry 25 feet of parachute cord and two tent stakes, which I use almost every year to stake out the uphill legs of a deer or elk. I also keep my ‘big’ hunting knife--one with a 4-inch blade--sharpened in my daypack and never take it out and dull it unless it’s to gut and skin an animal.
My first trip out is almost always with the liver, heart and head with horns. When I get to the rig, I’ll calculate out my next move depending on the time of day and the condition of my legs. If there’s enough light, and I’ve got enough energy, I’ll head back with a packboard, rope, quarter bags and hiking staff, items that are always kept in the rig. If it’s an elk, I’ll take a pulley in as well, and get the quarters up a tree.
I’m never in a hurry after I kill something. That’s the moment I want to relax into, take my time with. If I’m prepared for it, I can do that if it’s raining, if it’s about to get dark or if I’m far from the rig. Some of my best memories on WU properties have come in just that set of conditions: light rain, at night, far from camp, my hunt over, a deer or elk down and all the time in the world left to get it out.