Beginner's Guide to Solo Backcountry Hunting
By Eric Voris
I was 25, already had a family and a career, and suddenly started to feel “the call of the wild.” Suburban life was too predictable or too tame, and I found myself desperately needing some wild spaces. I thought back fondly on my years as a Boy Scout, and remembered an unrealized dream from those days: a completely solo backpacking excursion. Long story short, I scraped together some used/budget gear, picked a trailhead and a destination, followed by heading back into the wilderness all by myself for a quick overnight of pure solitude. The views were gorgeous, the wildlife sightings were plentiful, and that part of me that longed for wild spaces was in heaven. And then it got dark. Suddenly in the blackness, the fact that my research had told me bears and mountain lions could be in the area wasn’t just an interesting fact, but a source of abject terror. And right as those thoughts started to swirl in my brain, I heard a stick snap in the brush behind me…
Obviously I’m still alive and I am now a passionate solo hunter. I’ve spent more days and nights out by myself than I can track at this point. So, here I want to lay out some tips that have helped along the lonesome, and sometimes intimidating, walk that can be solo hunting.
Why Solo Hunting?
It could be argued, and has been by at least a couple people in my family, that solo hunting is just foolish. Why would a person head out into the wilderness completely alone to chase an animal? Don’t you know how many things could go wrong? And why would you want to do all of the work of dressing and packing that animal out by yourself? I’ve had to answer all of those questions to the people who love me, but on some level the truest answers lie in deep places of the soul that are hard to explain. There is something about solitude in wild spaces that refuels some of us like nothing else. But, there are a couple pragmatic benefits as well.
If you start solo hunting, you only have one schedule to manage. There are simply more opportunities available to get out in the field when you aren’t trying to coordinate the vacation days and family duties of several people. Aside from that, there’s also the benefit of making a smaller impact in the hunting woods. Less noise, less scent, and less movement means you’re just that much less likely to spook your prey when there’s only one unfamiliar creature moving around on the animal’s home turf.
If any of that resonates with you but the whole idea of heading into the backcountry all by yourself sounds intimidating, here are a few considerations to help you ease into it.
It only takes a few minutes of searching to realize that backcountry hunting can be incredibly expensive. Add to that the fact that you’re heading out solo, and there’s no longer anyone to split any of the costs with. You can’t have one guy buy a tent while you buy a water filter and a stove; it’s all on you to amass the gear you need to survive out there. What I will say is that no one needs the absolute top of the line hunting gear to start out. In fact, it doesn’t even need to be specifically designed for hunting at the start. When I first started solo backcountry hunting, I used an old Kelty backpacking pack I picked up on clearance because it was bright yellow. I had a heavy, but effective, Amazon tent and my sleeping pad was from Wal-Mart. Yes, I love the gear I’ve upgraded to now, but if I waited until I had the discretionary income to purchase nothing but the best backcountry gear, it would have been years before I got out on my own. So, hit up the used market for general backpacking or camping gear, and you can put a basic solo hunting kit together pretty inexpensively. Doing so will put you in the field sooner rather than later.
Yes, heading into the backcountry solo is inherently more dangerous. If you get injured, sick, or even lost, there’s no one around to help you. But, with a few simple precautions, you can minimize those risks and help put the minds of your loved ones back at home more at ease. We should always be cognizant of living to hunt another day.
This should be part of your kit whether you’re solo or with 24 other people, but you obviously need to carry a complete first aid kit, and know how to use it. Aside from basic bandages and antiseptic, I always make sure I have some butterfly strips to hold a really nasty cut together and an ace bandage, or some sort of wrap, for a serious joint injury or even making a splint. Also, there will be plenty of options to care for my feet as I’m counting on them to get me back to the truck.
The one other addition that I think is often overlooked is a tourniquet. We head into the field with arrows, bullets, and razor-sharp knives, so the risk of sustaining a severe cut or wound is very real. Having a way to stop the bleeding in such an emergency could very literally be the difference between life or death. So, pick one up, and make sure you’ve researched and practiced how to use it.
While cellular networks seem to be getting better every day, there’s also no excuse anymore for not having a guaranteed way to get in touch with someone if you need to. If you’re heading into an area with no cell coverage, it’s worth the investment to get some sort of satellite communication device. The Garmin inReach is the industry standard in this area, but there are several other viable options as well. As long as you can get a hold of someone in case of emergency, you’ll head into the backcountry with so much more confidence. Side-note: that little device can also be a total marriage-saver if you have a spouse who tends to assume the worst when he/she hasn’t heard from you in a while.
Dealing With Fear
I don’t care how many nights you’ve spent sleeping in the wilderness with your hunting buddies, the first time you find yourself completely alone in the backcountry overnight is a pretty intense wake-up-call. I’ve had more than a few people reach out to me over the years with a similar story: They got all excited about solo hunting, packed a mile or two into the backcountry, and as night fell, they tried to settle in to sleep. Keyword is "tried." The anxiety overtook them and they found themselves packing by headlamp back to the truck.
Because of that potential, one of the first pieces of advice I give to any new solo hunter/backpacker is to head back far enough that you have to stay. My first solo trip I chose to hike seven miles into the backcountry, and despite my terror as night fell over the mountains and scary mystery noises were starting to surround me, toughing it out all night actually seemed less frightening than hiking out seven miles in the dark. In retrospect, seven is probably way more than what’s needed, but I’d recommend heading in somewhere around 3-5 miles. Once dawn starts to wash over the hills the next morning, you’ll realize that it wasn’t so bad, nothing crazy happened, and you’ll already be building more confidence for your next trip.
Processing an animal alone is a different experience than with someone else. You don’t realize how much the “hey, hold this leg for me” tactic really helps until there’s no one there to hold that leg. So, if you’re heading out solo, make sure you add some paracord to your kill kit. Not only will this help when it comes to hanging meat, but you can now make a nearby tree your hunting buddy who will hold that uncooperative leg by tying it off while you’re working on it.
Especially if you’re hunting something big like an elk, realize that it’s going to take you a while to get all that meat back to the coolers. That means you’re going to have to take some extra care, and maybe a couple extra steps in the process, to safely and effectively care for all of that meat. For starters, make sure you’re using high quality game bags. If you’re leaving meat hanging for upwards of a couple days, you’re going to need to make sure it’s completely protected from bugs and bacteria. Those old school cheesecloth-style bags just aren’t up for the task.
On another note, I highly encourage you to bone-out those quarters before hauling them back to the truck. Animal bones are heavy, and they make up for a sizable percentage of the total weight of that animal. Unless you’re some uber-foodie who wants to utilize every ounce of marrow from those things, leave the bones for the scavengers and just take the meat. This is also something that needs to be prepared for ahead of time, but is a fairly straightforward process that a couple of YouTube videos can easily get you up to speed on.
The Mental Game
One thing that often goes overlooked when a person first starts solo hunting is the mental side of it. Beyond the potential for fear back there, you may not realize how much your hunting buddies keep you going when things get tough. On those long glassing days where it seems like perhaps aliens have abducted every animal that used to inhabit the drainages you’re staring at, it’s now just you and your thoughts trying to keep you motivated and hopeful. The temptation to pack it up and head back home early is much greater when there’s no one else to weigh in on that decision. I’ve talked myself into that a number of times, and I always regret it.
The two tricks I’ve come to rely on to combat this are pre-planning my hunts and keeping plenty of candy on hand. By pre-planning, I mean going beyond just having a couple backup spots in mind, but already deciding when I’ll move to plan B if I’m not seeing what I was hoping for in plan A. That keeps you from getting frustrated and heading home early because you’ve already decided how your hunt strategy is going to progress for that trip. The candy is simply the best way I’ve found to keep my morale up. When the day gets long/hot and the animals just aren’t cooperating, it’s amazing what a handful of Sour Patch Kids can do to change my mood and get me back in the game.
A Lifetime of Adventure
When that stick snapped in the pitch black behind me that night, I whipped around and shone my flashlight in the direction of the noise. Nothing was there. I turned back to my fire, tried to calm myself down, and then I heard more rustling in the tall grass. I whipped around again...nothing. The mystery noise and I went back and forth at least half a dozen times, and my level of panic was rising to pretty intense levels. Finally, I had enough, and when I heard another stick crunch, I stood up, threw my leg over the log I was sitting on, and charged at the source of the mystery noise. With blinding speed, a tiny, harmless bunny leapt out of the grass in my direction. I screamed like a wounded baby goat, tripped over my log, almost fell into my fire, and the little bunny went hopping off into the night. I sat down to avoid passing out, stomped out my fire, climbed into my tent, and lay awake in my utter shame and humiliation for most of the night. But, as the sun rose the next morning, the embarrassment of nearly wetting myself over a 10 oz. rabbit had subsided, and I was left with nothing but a sense of pride and accomplishment. I ate breakfast, packed up camp, and hiked the seven miles back to my truck. As I dumped my pack on the tailgate and surveyed the gnarly terrain I had just spent 36 hours in all alone, I knew that this was only the beginning of a lifelong adventure I would pursue.
While I have some great friends and family that I thoroughly enjoy hunting with, I also plan several trips a year where I am intentionally solo. The adventure, the quiet, and the sense of risk and accomplishment restores me like few things I’ve ever experienced. I highly recommend it to anyone looking to increase their level of adventure this year.
Eric Voris is a freelance writer and content creator in Arizona. To see more of his work visit www.latetothegameoutdoors.com