Getting Started in Eastern Backcountry Hunting – What’s In My Daypack
Summer is here, and with the heat comes anticipation for the Fall. Now is great time to get in the woods to do some scouting, and it’s also a great time to get gear cleaned, inventoried, repaired if needed, breaking in the new boots, practicing with that new bow or rifle, and reviewing what goes in your pack. I get a lot of questions about what I carry, so I wanted to write an article for those Eastern backcountry hunters showing exactly what’s in my daypack, and explaining why.
For those looking to spend more time hunting the backcountry, I always suggest with day trips to start. Adding overnight gear adds another level of complexity and functional requirements, so I always encourage people to start with day trips, either half or full day. You’ll want to use these trips to learn what you need to carry just to hunt, and if successful, learn what it takes to field quarter an animal and pack it out. Once a few of those are under your belt, then add in carrying overnight and cooking gear.
On my day hunts I’m typically 2-5 miles from a road, with some type of terrain barrier whether it be steep country, a creek or river, etc keeping most people out, while also making dragging a deer out nearly impossible.
The empty pack pic above is from a November 2017 hunt in TN, from a rock I use as a natural blind to watch over a natural funnel corridor, before I packed a buck out. Let’s dig into my pack…..
- 1) The Pack. A good backcountry day pack should be comfortable to carry with a light load, quiet when moving, but capable of comfortably carrying a heavy load from 60-100+ lbs if needed. I like packs that either have a dedicated meat shelf, or that have dual chambers where I can fill the main chamber with meat while keeping my clothing and other gear in another section of the pack away from the bulk of the blood. I also like outer straps to mount extra items that don’t fit inside, or can secure a rack for the pack out. There are a lot of good options on the market – find ones that fit your body, and don’t be afraid to test them in the store with some weight. In these pics I was using a Sitka Bivy 30. It has a large main chamber that I keep most of my gear in, while I keep camera gear and quick-to-grab items in the outer chamber or top floating pocket. Once a deer is down, that outer and top pockets are big enough for me stuff everything from the main chamber into, and the main chamber holds all my game bags. It has enough of metal frame system to support the heavy load for my pack outs of a single-deboned mature whitetail in one trip, if needed.
- 2) Weapon. It’s your choice, based on legal season, competency level, and personal goals. Weight does come into play, so keep that in mind in your selection as a few extra pounds can start to weigh you down over time. In this case, it was muzzleloader season, and I was carrying my Thompson Center Pro-Hunter .50cal. The same one used in the premier of the Orion Chronicles. For optics on my muzzleloader I use a Leupold Ultimateslam 3-9, and in the terrain I hunt shots are typically 15 – 75 yards. I keep one load of a 250 grain Thompson Center Shockwave sabot and two Pyrodex pellets in the chamber, and a couple more stored in a carrier strapped to the butt of the rifle stock.
- 3) Boots. Don’t skimp on boots or your feet will get mad at you. Find good ones that fit your feet well. They should be comfortable and fairly quiet to hike in, but supportive enough for the terrain you’re hiking in and carrying out heavy loads. My feet are narrow and low volume, and I like boots that fit that foot shape. I hunt off-trail in steep, wooded and rocky country, and have always preferred climbing and mountaineering boots. On this hunt I was wearing Scarpa’s R-Evolution Plus Gore-Tex boots. I find they have great fit and sneaker like fit on my foot, but enough support for hard, heavy miles off trail. I typically wear a mid to heavyweight merino wool sock from Farm to Feet depending on temperatures.
- 4) Clothing system. Be prepared for long days and pay attention to weather forecasts and winds. I typically enter the woods around 4AM, a couple hours before sunrise, and may not come out until after dark. Temps could start in the 20’s-40’s, peak in the 40’s-70’s, and then drop again. I put a lot of heat out when I hike, and try to keep sweating minimal for scent management. I’ll strip down for the hike in, so I start off cold and build up my body temp as I go. Once I get to my spot, I’ll wait a little bit for my body heat to keep pushing moisture out, before throwing layers back on for a long, chilly sit. For this hunt I was wearing Sitka’s SubAlpine system, with merino boxers and tall merino socks that practically cover enough lower leg to be long underwear under Mountain Pants, and on my torso the Core Shirt, Traverse Shirt, and for an extra insulation layer once seated, the Kelvin Lite Hoody. I like thin merino gloves, a mesh facemask, and a warm hat as needed. With that setup I can usually manage my sweat on the way in, stay warm ‘enough’ until the morning sun hits the slope I’m sitting on, and be comfortable the rest of the day. It also packs small enough for me to stuff extra layers away if I have to for a pack out. Hunter orange is required in Tennessee, so that’s a blaze Orion hat and a Sitka vest.
- 5) Sitting Pad. I don’t like having a cold, wet, or numb butt. A thin, light sitting pad goes a long way in keeping comfortable on ground sits which I generally do. I carry the Thermarest Z-Rest Seat Pad. It’s super light, waterproof, and adds just enough insulation and cushion for long sits on frozen or hard ground. When I do have a trophy to pack out, I put it between the pack and the underside of the skull to help keep blood off the pack. Bonus tip – if you are doing an overnighter in sub-freezing conditions and cooking with canister fuel, put it under your fuel canister to keep it insulated from the snow or cold ground and burning efficiently.
- 6) Rattling antlers. Optional to carry, but there’s nothing more fun than engaging with whitetails during the rut. I like carrying the real thing, and I’ll bang them together and stomp around trying to make a ton of noise during certain times of the year when bucks are in the rut and extra territorial. I’ve never seen two bucks fight in mid-air, so I get up and stomp, kick sticks, and try my best to sound like 8 hooves getting after it. It helps to get the blood moving and take a chill off too.
- 7) Grunt call. Along with the rattling antlers, I’ll try to talk to bucks when I can. I carry the Extinguisher call after seeing how well it worked for my friend Sean at Linehan’s Outfitting Company in Montana. It has a slider to change the pitch from fawn to doe to buck, making mixing up your calls easy. It can definitely help bring a buck in, or freeze one in his tracks. If or when I move from spot to spot mid day, I’ll often even sprint in short step bursts, or a consistent shuffle with it in my mouth, grunting as I go, just like a buck on a mission does. I’ve also used that technique to move in on wild hogs in swamps in GA and SC without spooking them. I think sometimes if you’re going to move and have to make noise, like a wind change, don’t fight noise, embrace that animals make noise too, and make it sound as realistic as possible.
- 8) Windicator. AKA chalk dust, is always on me, sometimes two bottles, one in my pocket and one on my chest binocular holder. Use it often in the Eastern whitetail woods. A puff every half hour or so will help you learn the wind patterns in your hunting area, help you learn the thermals in steep terrain, and help you know when it’s time to move. I will move at any time of the day if the wind at the spot I’m hunting is no good.
- 9) Optics. In the dense terrain I usually hunt it’s rare to be able to see more than a hundred yards, but I still always carry a pair of binoculars. They’ll help you see through the brush when needed, and watch wildlife. From the rock in the picture I’ve watched deer, a black coyote, a leucistic wild turkey, owls and hawks, and plenty of squirrels. I keep it in a Sitka Bino Bivy chest carrier where it isn’t taking up space in my pack, and is easy to grab when needed. When I’m sitting, I generally set it beside me on the ground in the chest carrier with the flap open to minimize motion and sound. These are Leupold 10×42 Pro Guide HD’s, which offer a nice balance of magnification versus weight in lightweight, durable package, with incredible optical clarity.
- 10) Game Bags. If all goes well, that pack you’re carrying is going to be put to work hauling an animal out for you. A key skill to learn is field quartering (a process we’ll get into more detail on another time, but my friend Randy Newberg has a lot of good Youtube videos on the subject), and a key tool that’s always in my pack are quality, breathable, light game bags. I first learned to quarter and pack an animal on a carbou hunt in Quebec, and that one thing changed the way I hunt and become my preferred way to get an animal out of the field and into my Orion, and then my freezer. Good game bags keep bugs off the meat, help it cool quickly, and help keep your pack clean. I use TAG bags from Pristine Ventures in Alaska. They come in a bunch of sizes suited well for various game, and I keep a whitetail kit ready and marked with a ‘W’ for my Eastern hunts with 4, 14 x 22” bags for quarters (usually but not always deboned) , and two small 11 x 14” bags for tenderloins and backstraps and other random parts. I also usually keep a pair of disposable gloves and some alcohol wipes in the bag. They are washable and reuseable, and can double as snake carrying bags – if you’re into that sort of thing 🙂 Make sure you know the game laws for your area in regards to evidence of sex requirements before packing any animal out of the field.
- 11) Water Bottles. Staying hydrated in the backcountry is key to your health, comfort and safety. I always carry two bottles, one in easy reach, and one in the pack as backup. Once one is empty, my ‘get water’ radar is on to refill them both. I like to carry one Nalgene bottle, and one Liberty bottle (see #15 as to why).
- 12) Satellite Messenger. Where I hunt there is no cell service. To communicate with family and friends, whether it’s ‘I’ll be late for dinner cause I got one down’ or ‘I’ll trade beer for help packing a deer out’ or ‘I’m hurt and need help getting out’, the ability to communicate anywhere in the world via 2-way text is made possible by my DeLorme Inreach satellite messenger. It can send and receive texts, and is great for both safety and peace of mind. Various plans are available to fit your budget and needs, and you can turn them on and off by month to suit your hunting schedule and travel needs without spending a bunch of money during months you’re not out in the field.
- 13) TP. Zip lock bag with toilet paper. If nature calls, I tend to answer it.
- 14) Snacks. I usually carry enough snacks to last 1.5 days. One day of hunting, and enough to get me through a night and a morning breakfast if I had to spend the night out. That usually consists of energy bars like Epic, Luna, almonds, trail mix, and home made game jerky like moose or venison. I find a little bit of taunting, ironic humor by eating wild game while hunting wild game.
- 15) Electrolyte Powder. Back to #11 above, of the two water bottles I carry, the Liberty bottle gets water only, but in the Nalgene I’ll usually have water and an electrolyte powder. I do that since I find the wider-mouthed Nalgene easier to clean. For the powder I’ll mix in MTN OPS Yeti or Enduro at home, and carry a packet of their Enduro powder with me in the field for flavoring filtered water and getting more electrolytes back into my body. I prefer to mix lightly, a half or third of a packet per bottle refill.
- 16) Water Purifier. I know some clean springs with water coming out of the ground where I don’t even bother to filter, but usually I’ll filter everything, and a very, light and functional filter has proven to be Mountain Safety Research’s (MSR) Trailshot. It’s easy to use, not very expensive, fills a bottle quickly, and packs down to nothing. I’ll usually have some purification pills in my pack too just in case something goes wrong with the filter or it’s well below freezing, but pills take time to work and filters are instant.
- 17) Paracord. 10-20 feet of paracord just comes in handy sometimes. Good for backup bootlaces, but usually intended to help me with field quartering. I’ll use it to help hold a leg out of the way if needed, or once a quarter is removed rather than deboning bent over, straining my back, I like to tie that quarter to a small tree or branch. Hanging it while taking the meat off the bone at a good height to do while standing upright helps keep your back ready for the packout.
- 18) Knives. Take your pic, there’s a bunch of great ones out there. I like knives with S30V steel that is great at holding a sharp edge for a long time. I also like to have a smaller scalpel based knife. In this case I was carrying Benchmade’s Grizzly Creek, which is fairly light and easy to carry, with a combo gut hook that flips out on one side, and a nice blade shape for skinning and breaking the animal down on the other. I really like the feel and classic look of the wood handle scales on a modern hunting knife. I also carry a Havalon Piranta scalpel knife, with extra blades. I prefer it for fine work, whether deboning muscle by muscle, or particularly for caping skulls in the field, removing eyeballs from sockets, etc.
- 19) Headlamp with extra lithium batteries. Going in and out in the dark means you’ll need to be able to see well in the dark. Headlamps keep your hands free, and make hiking in and out in the dark easy. My go-to headlamp is the Princeton-Tec Vizz. It’s waterproof, has a button setting that keeps it from coming on accidentally in your pack and killing your batteries, and has 3 settings – red LED, bright LED, and low LED. The red LED is the first setting, which game has a hard time seeing, so when you press it on you stand less of a chance of spooking any game that might be in the immediate area. It’s just bright enough for me to hike by in the dark. The bright LED, 200 lumen, are like hi-beams on your car – very bright and light up the woods and make hiking a breeze. The low LED is a good white light for working around camp and doing things close, and can be a good photography aid during low light. I always carry an extra set of lithium AAA batteries as they are not degraded by cold like alkalines are, are much lighter to carry, and last a lot longer.
- 20) iPhone (Not Shown). Even though I don’t have cell service where I go, I still carry my iPhone for its camera, and for it’s mapping and GPS capabilities in apps like Gaia and On-X Hunt for finding public and private land boundaries, marking game sign locations, etc.
- 21) GoPro (Not Shown). My field cameras tend to be an iPhone and a GoPro. These pics were all taken on a GoPro Hero 5. I use GoPro’s for still photos more than video. For a mount it’s usually their 3-Way which has a small built in tripod, or the Grip Mount, for clipping to trees or braches.They are great for up close shots, but not good for much at distance. Sometimes I will carry a Nikon D7500 DSLR with an 18-300mm lens which equates to around 20X optical zoom for wildlife photography. You see a lot of cool things in the woods, and sometimes shooting on film is just as rewarding as shooting with a weapon.
- 22) Quick Clot (Not Shown). I usually don’t carry much for a medical kit. Maybe I should, but I’ve never been prone to common field medical needs like blisters since my boots always fit well and are broken in, and I guess I figure most things I can just deal with as needed on day hunts. One thing you can’t just deal with and need to manage quickly if it happens on your own is blood loss, so I do carry a packet of Quick Clot gauze pads under my pack’s top pocket. That way if a knife blade or broadhead or whatever somehow goes somewhere it shouldn’t, I am a bit more prepared to deal with stopping bleeding quickly. It’s also there for when I have my blood trailing teckel Jaeger on a recovery mission, in case he impales on something or gets seriously injured while on a track.
So that’s it, a complete summary of what’s on my back in Tennessee in the Fall. I’ll tweak that as needed based on weather and terrain. If you have any questions, please feel free to post them below or look me up on Facebook and I’ll do my best to answer them. If you’re looking to connect with fellow hunters interested in getting out in the Eastern backcountry, consider joining Backcountry Hunters & Anglers – an organization focused on protecting your public lands so opportunities to hunt like this are available now and always.
Good luck this season in the backcountry, or wherever your hunting adventures take you.