Born and raised in northern Michigan, my opportunities to hunt the West growing up amounted to a few rifle hunts near my uncle's cabin in Montana. Although the trips were eye-opening, the regimented course of daily events largely followed the same pattern I experienced hunting whitetail in my native state. Up early, hit the woods, search for game, then back under a roof at night for a good meal and hot shower. Rinse, repeat. The same process engrained in many a young hunter.
Fast forward a decade, or two, I found myself a permanent resident of the left coast. About the time I settled in to my new life as an Oregonian, thoughts of chasing elk, blacktail, and bear had crept in. One afternoon I found myself staring at large green rectangles on a map and flipping through the pages of a bowhunting magazine. Prominently, displayed on the cover was a successful hunter, pack bulging with antler and flesh from a trophy bull. In that moment, I struggled to connect the dots.
A path from my couch to the top of the mountain was unclear. Unsure of myself, or where to begin, I saw a few more seasons slip past before I started the climb. I now know I was not alone, as more recent conversations with both hunter and non-hunter alike regarding my passion for the backcountry are met with questioning looks and lost stares. I believe all possess a desire to connect with the wilderness, yet the false need for convenience and familiarity often overpowers.
As I eventually discovered, there is no secret. Make a conscious decision to get out and experience whatever the mountain has to offer, tackling your fears and questions head on. Be warned, the path will present adventure and challenge guaranteed to invoke a full spectrum of human emotion. Joy. Pain. Solitude. Enlightenment. Each extremely rewarding in its own right, and lending to an addiction for the experiences that can only be discovered where few care to tread. Unfortunately, I cannot help tackle the individual mental barriers associated with making this choice, but I can share some resources I found helpful in my journey.
Ask, and you shall receive.
Regrettably, interactions with hunters outside my circle of family and friends were largely adversarial growing up. A relationship bred from too many people, too little land. It was not uncommon to spend half the day hunting, and the other patrolling a property line. As a result, I was hesitant to seek help from others when an interest in western hunting piqued. I am pleased, and proud, to report my concerns eroded with each conversation, tip, and question answered from the hunters who were well-versed in the practice of mountain hunting. As they well knew, and I have come to understand, educating others is the best way to protect our hunting heritage, and ultimately is the foundation of conservation. There is strength in numbers, and through welcoming others into the family we will preserve the opportunities backcountry hunters are passionate about and live for. Whether novice or expert, do not be afraid to ask for advice from veterans who live and breathe the lifestyle.
If you are fortunate enough to live "out west," the local watering hole may be a great place to strike up a conversation, but there are other resources full of useful information readily accessible to all. Backcountry Hunters and Anglers is a great place to start. BHA is an organization of sportsmen committed to protecting public lands, public access, and the wildlife within through education and promoting ethical use. BHA is also a great way to connect with hunters of a shared interest. With chapters across the country, from New York to Oregon, there are regular opportunities to meet & greet in your neck of the woods. I encourage anyone interested in learning more about backcountry hunting to seek them out, and start making those worthy connections
Do your homework.
An invaluable resource I was fortunate to discover early in my quest for knowledge was the Rokslide community (www.rokslide.com). Particularly the forums were, and continue to be, the best location on the web to review and share all aspects of western DIY style hunting. There is virtually no limit to the amount information at your fingertips, increasing daily, available via the dedicated contributors who frequent this digital “camp fire” style venue. As a source supported and frequented by many of the top companies and hunters in the industry, it is simply the premier backcountry resource for up-to-date gear information, hunting tactics, or debates regarding the existence of Bigfoot.
I would also be remiss if I did not mention the top result returned when I first searched the term "backcountry bowhunting" several years ago, and in fact remains true to this day. Backcountry Bowhunting: A Guide to the Wild Side by Cameron Hanes. One of the first publications of its kind, tailored to a specific audience of hunters interested in learning how to hunt, scout, and mentally prepare for the challenge of backcountry bowhunting. In large part this book is responsible for my first solo hunting trips, and continues to be a great read for anyone starting the journey.
While on the topic of literature, the works of Steve Rinella come highly recommended. Although I fumbled through many of my first attempts at hunting unfamiliar game, boning meat, and preparing wild meat, you will have better luck after reading The Complete Guide to Hunting, Butchering, and Cooking Wild Game: Volume 1: Big Game. It is a valuable tool I have referred to many times since release. If only it had been available when I began, a few of my early blunders could have been avoided. The remainder of Rinella's collection caters to the soul, offering insight into the history and circumstances that make-up the modern hunter. Take one along on your next trip to pass the time in camp, and you will not be disappointed.
It makes no difference where you reside; resources are at your disposal waiting to bridge the gap between uncertainty and confidence. It is up to you to seek them out.
I hold great admiration for the pioneers who pushed the boundaries of this country toward the Pacific. In fact, my growing interest in backcountry hunting led to a thirst for knowledge surrounding the legendary hunters and trappers that opened up the west. Colter, Bridger, and Beckwourth to name a few. The feats performed by the men of this era, despite resources of the time, are nothing short of amazing. I would be lying if I did not admit romanticizing about being born a century earlier; where not only was it possible make a living off hunting and trapping, but those skills were a necessary part every American’s life. Of course, reality sinks in upon recalling the average life expectancy during this tumultuous time was a mere 37 years, and much lower for those enduring the mountain. Yet, I still believe there is great value in remembering the lessons of a more primitive world as we reap the rewards that culminated as a product of its success and failure. Technology.
In truth, we are living in an amazing time for the aspiring backcountry hunter. Just in my lifetime, the explosion of hunt specific equipment is unprecedented, as improvements in everything from navigation to clothing have opened up new opportunities for anyone seeking
to explore those hard to reach locales and return home safely. In a relatively short period of time, the progression of my personal gear rivals the antler growth of a trophy bull. Each season adding, or upgrading, key pieces that mark lessons learned along the way. Some may shun the idea of these new tools available to our trade, and while I would agree that no amount of gear can guarantee a fruitful harvest, the right equipment is essential for those who measure success based on miles traveled and time spent in wonderful places.
I advise you invest wisely, as often times the items carried on your back are the only resources available once your hunt extends beyond a day’s reach of the closest road or trailhead. A pack comfortable handling a heavy load, supportive boots, warm sleep systems, and clothing that lends versatility to any foreseen environment. I believe that gear should never hold you back, and you get what you pay for. Although there is some value in learning the hard way, the right equipment is worth its weight in venison backstrap. If I had better words, I would use them here, however, First Lite’s vision “Go Farther, Stay Longer” sums it up perfectly. Utilize the tools at your disposal to push personal limits, and unfold the mysteries of your wilderness.
In closing, I hope this inspires and helps. As difficult as it once was, I am now comfortable admitting the obstacles that prevented me from engaging in a pursuit I can no longer live without. Do not fall prey to those same mistakes. I do not know it all and, in fact, take comfort that I never will. For the same challenge and anxiety once holding me back, is now the motivation to discover what is upon the next ridge, at the bottom of an adjacent draw, or simply beyond the next two pines in my path.
Pro Staffer Chad Harvey lives in Oregon and hunts across the Northwest.