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Backpacking Luxuries Turned Necessities and Other Tricks

Note:  I receive no compensation for any product mentioned in this post.  

Pack optimization through balance of needs and weight should be the goal for backpacking trips. But, too often we either try to go too light and cut out the things we actually need, or pack gear that goes underutilized.  We mourn the gear we left out of the pack in order to cut weight, and lament the things pull out at the end of the trip unused. I do love dialing in my pack, and tracking the ounces or even pounds that I’ve trimmed from my last trip. But I think I love the sneaky comfort items that I’ve muled in even more. I try to keep notes and an inventory of my most and least used gear, and here are some of my revelations from the last year.  Most of my camping was related to backcountry hunting, but I’m going to try and keep this list relatable to any backpacker (I’ll get some notes down about some hunting-specific revelations a little later).  Some of the items below are packable gear, and some are more along the lines of small hacks.  Also, keep in mind that I’m writing from the reference of my camping practices, which is generally a long hike in, setting up one or maybe two base camps, and mainly doing long hikes for 3-6 days, returning to base camp each night.  So, if you are mainly doing overnighters or loops, you may want to consider the specifics of your hike before filling up your pack.

New items that I will never leave behind again:

Camp chair/stool – For the last couple of years, I have watched in envy while my buddies have relaxed in ultralight camp chairs while I crouched uncomfortably over my stove each evening.  I was really tired of switching between crouching, sitting on uneven rocks, and eating dinner standing up, but even the best ultralight chairs weigh in around 1.5-2 lbs or more, and really don’t pack down as small as I would like.  But, this year, I finally found a stool that had the right balance of weight burden and comfort, and it was worth the weight (play on words there for you sharp ones).  So this year, I packed in the Micro Stool from Grand Trunk (10.6oz actual weight), which packs down very small and is the lightest seat I could find.  It only sets up to be about 10 inches off the ground, but I  actually found it to be quite comfortable (I’m 6’0″), and way better than log or stone Mother Nature had lying around.

Oil shooters with pepper chasers will cap off any meal

Extra food seasoning – I eat a lot of dehydrated meals when camping out.  They’re pretty good, but I think we can all agree they are not haute cuisine.  I don’t usually take a lot in the way of snacks, but try to rely on my main meals to get the nutrition I need.  To get the extra calories, and make things more palatable, I’ve been bringing along a couple ounces of olive oil and crushed red pepper flakes.  The olive oil makes the rehydrated food texture more relatable to a normal meal, and adds the healthy fats that the dehydrated meals usually lack.  Most of the major brands of dehydrated meals seem to utilize Indian and Latin flavor palates pretty heavily, so the red pepper is pretty compatible with most meal options.  For the sake of your gut, the last thing you want is to overdo the spiciness, but I haven’t run into that issue yet.  Red pepper flakes seem to be milder on the stomach than a lot of the other spices, but that may just be personal predisposition.  Pro Tip – Don’t worry about buying special containers for your seasoning, spent airline booze bottles are super light and work great.

My new favorite trick:

Mountain Coolers – aka pure, cold mountain streams.  Beer is delicious, but too heavy and bulky to pack in, right?  Well, at least too heavy and bulky to pack very far.  For reference, a six-pack of cans weighs in at just over five pounds.  This year, I implemented the system of packing a couple beers in just a couple miles, then dropping those beers in an icy mountain stream.  Then, on my way out, I’ve got some refreshingly cold daddy sodas to celebrate the last couple miles of a long trip through the mountains.  I realize that I’m probably not the first person to implement this strategy, but I felt smarter than the lovechild of Elon Musk and Adolf Coors when I cracked that first can of frosty suds while hiking out of the woods this fall.  As a side note, there are some precautions to take while leaving beers in stashed in the woods.  The unfiltered stream could pass along diseases on the top of the can, so take care with the water you stash in.  Also, bears have been known to enjoy chomping through unopened beers, so beware of the critters that may be poaching your cache.

Things I left behind and missed severely:

Camp shoes – Wet boots suck.  Tired feet suck.  Soft comfortable shoes are awesome.  Don’ get me wrong,  I’m very happy with the performance of my hunting boots from sunup to sundown.  But, after several warm days, feet get sweaty and tired.  Getting out of the boots and into fresh shoes in the evening is a guilty pleasure.  I don’t know if it’s just the feeling of the soft, forgiving, unsweated liners; or possibly the need for your feet to feet some subtle difference in support.  I used to go with the North Face tent mules, which are quite literally down sleeping bags for your feet, but I have graduated to slipper-shoe hybrids to walk around camp in the evenings.  I’ve currently got Teva Ember mocs (1lb 3.6oz actual weight), which have the coziness of slippers with the support of a lightweight shoe.  There isn’t too much in the way of tread, which helps reduce wear and tear on tent floors and sleeping bags (especially if you’re wearing them to bed on those extra cold nights).  The Merrel Barkley Moc is great if you want more of a shoe than a slipper, and they are very light (1lb 0.6 oz actual weight).

Chapstick – My September hunt was earlier and warmer than the last few years, and I definitely felt it in the intensity of the sun, and lack of hydration.  I typically don’t bring chapstick because I don’t like to use it hunting due to the scent that usually comes along with it.  But this year, my lips became chapped and cracked, and became a distracting and painful nag for most of a six-day trip.  It seems silly to leave such a small item behind that can have such an impact on part of your general comfort.

Items underutilized compared to years past:

Earbuds and extra phone batteries – In years past, I have usually used earbuds with my phone to listen to music while taking mid-day naps or podcasts after lights out each night.  This year, I found myself using the Kindle app on my phone more often, as well as the notes app to record my reflections of the day.  I like to use the ebooks for reading entertainment, but I also like to ability to reference field guides, trail guidebooks, or other articles on woodsmanship or hunting.  So, the moral of the story is, find some good ebooks and you won’t need the headphones.  Also, remember to utilize your phone’s power-saver function combined with airplane mode, keep your phone from being exposed to the cold too often, and your battery can last for days.

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WWGD? (What Would George Costanza Do?) aka “The Opposite”

If every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite has to be right.

What if every instinct you ever had was false?  What if every calculated action you took was actually detrimental to your happiness?  On May 19, 1994, American television viewers tuned in to witness a man brave enough to challenge his own pillars of belief, and his name was George Costanza.  On that night, NBC aired the 21st episode of the fifth season of Seinfeld, which was titled “The Opposite”.  In that episode, George comes up with a theory: What if every instinct, every decision he has ever made, has been wrong and is the source of all his life’s disappointments.  From that moment, he decides to begin an experiment to test the decisions he makes in his daily life.  For every action he is about to take, he consciously does the opposite of what he thinks is appropriate.  Over the next thirty minutes, we see George get his dream job with the New York Yankees, move out of his parents’ house and into a new apartment, and land a new girlfriend that most would agree is way out of his league.

I love “The Opposite” because I admire George’s courage and commitment to challenge his own status quo, and it provides an opportunity to play the “What If” game: What if George was an outdoorsman?  What if I have been behaving like George?

If George was a hunter prior to his “Opposite” epiphany, I like to think that he would hike out the same trail to the same clearing every year, throw out a few calls, scan the same treeline repeatedly, and call it a day once he considered the temperature to be “too hot for anything to be moving around”.  He would stick with the same old plan, which was probably never his to begin with.  It was probably passed along to him by a more experienced hunter, or maybe he overheard it one night at a local bar, and George lazily took it for gospel.  He abides by knowledge he considers to be commonly-accepted, or maybe he found success by simple luck the first time he tried it, so he sticks to it year after year hoping to recreate the triumph of his first outing.   This leads George in a continuing cycle of frustration and embarrassment.  He takes no risk by attempting anything different.

When George finally tries his “Opposite” approach, it isn’t easy.  It’s uncomfortable, and he risks public embarrassment with each new action.  But luckily for him, his instincts were so misaligned that each opposite decision is a substantial improvement to his situation.  The average person is not likely to see the same results as George, so it’s probably not the best idea to turn a full 180 degrees like he did.  But, the idea of challenging your assumptions, taking risks, and trying something uncomfortable is on point.

What I had been behaving like George?  I can admit that I have a tendency to fall into the same old routine, almost subconsciously, without taking a moment to consider a new technique.   I sometimes fail to question the actions that have become automatic.  For example, for years it was my instinct to make fun of my buddies that used trekking poles while out hiking.  Right before they became popular, a guy came rolling into town with a trunk full of “Swedish Walking Sticks”, and every blue hair in town came out to see him demonstrate how to walk while poking at the ground with those sticks.  The man sold off his walking sticks and left town, but the image of all those old timers walking around with their new trekking poles stuck with me.    That was the image I always associated with my friends carrying them in the woods.  But then, I finally tried them last year.  After a twelve-mile backpacking trip, my shoulders and upper back had never felt better.  No more knots, no pain in my scapula, no sore neck.  I now own two sets and I’m thinking about getting a third.

I have also realized that I have become so fixated on minimizing my pack weight that I have totally lost focus of what will really make my backpacking trip more pleasant.  I might save a few ounces with my ultralight sleeping pad, but the good night’s sleep that I get with heavier and more comfortable mat definitely outshines the weight burden.  Also, I will no longer go on a multi-day hunting trip without camp shoes again.  If I’m hunting for five or six days and spending countless miles in heavy boots, the joy of soft camp shoes at the end of a long day cannot be matched.  They definitely contain more body-rejuvenating power than the one and a half pound weight savings from leaving them back at the truck.

So, we all experience the plateau-effect from time to time.  Maybe taking some risk by trying “The Opposite” may help you get to the next level.

 

What will ruin your next hunt? (Feet Edition)

20180701_170202I am embarrassingly close to making an appointment for a pedicure. I am not usually one to partake in such indulgences, and I think my slight uneasiness with physical contact would restrict me from enjoying it (I’m not a hugger).  But, I would be willing to put all my predispositions aside if it would help me be a better hunter.  There are dozens of ways for your feet to betray you when you’re out on the trail for a week, so you should do what you can to head off those issues before they start.  Pedicures have become a common maintenance technique for professional athletes and other manly types, so I assume I could see some benefit from it as well.  Blisters, calluses, nail issues, and calf-down muscle tightness can be addressed in a 30-minute appointment.  I do suffer from some frequent ingrown toenails, so I’m curious to see what those nail-clippers could do in the hands of a real pro.

So while I go through several iterations of dialing up the local pedicurist and shyly hanging up the phone as soon as they answer, take a minute to read through some of these tips below.

Insoles

I have gone through some minor obsessions with aftermarket insoles.  I don’t know why, but even high-end boots come with a flimsy sliver of foam as the first line of contact for your feet.  For some, this minimal amount of cushion directly underfoot may be enough, but others may want more.  Insoles are pretty cheap when compared to a pair of boots, but they can make a significant difference in the way your boot feels and performs.  They can reduce foot fatigue and keep you going hiker longer.  Generally speaking from experience, as the weight of the boot increases, the need for a more substantial insole increases as well.  With a taller heeled boot, more pressure is going to be transferred to the balls of your feet, which will benefit from more cushion.  I’ve actually found that a little thicker insole can add noticeable insulation to lighter boots, keeping your feet warmer in cold conditions.  After trying out dozens of pairs of insoles looking for something to keep my feet going longer each day, I usually look for an insole with some arch support structure (my feet are generally classified as “normal arch”), medium cushion, and some ability to form-fit to my feet.  Make sure your boot has enough room in the toebox before adding a thicker insole, as crammed toes are not going to make your feet happy.  Take notice of the top surface of the footbed that will be contacting your foot.  Sometimes they can be too silky, and become irritating once your merino wool socks get a little sweaty and start sliding around.  The best bang-for-buck insoles I have found are the Columbia Enduro Soles.  They are thermo-molding, so pop it in the oven at

20180601_191252
Columbia Enduro Soles (Columbia has bought out Montrail)

200 degrees for 2 minutes, throw them in your boots, and slip your foot in for 5 minutes to create a custom foot cast.  I usually wear my hiking boots to the store so I can check fit before I purchase.  You should least take the factory insoles of the boot with you for fit comparison.  Most aftermarket insoles are made to be cut down to fit, and the original insole is usually a perfect template.

Focus on your weak points

Listen to your feet while you’re out in the field.  There was a survey for marathon runners several years ago, where they were asked how they coped with pain while running races.  The survey revealed that the more successful runners did not try to block out nagging pain, but focused on it.  By focusing on it, they were able to make adjustments to their running stride to make sure the discomfort did not become an injury that impacted their race.  Be aware of your body out in the field, and make decisions that are ultimately going to keep you out on the trail.  Be mindful of how your feet perform in the offseason, and make adjustments to ensure they are ready to perform when it counts.

Break-In (For boots and feet)

Wear your boots in the offseason, but don’t wear them out.  I had a buddy that wore his hunting boots all summer for work, only to discover the waterproofing had failed once we got into the backcountry during a snowy, wet September.  Everyone knows that you’ve got to break in your boots.  I like to take new boots, immediately oil them, and wear them laced up moderately loose (The loose lacing will help from pressure points forming between the tongue overlap and your lower shin).  I’ll wear them loose around town for a couple days before tightening them up to break-in in the field.   Depending on the boots, the field break-in period can be a couple days or a couple weeks.  Part of this is getting your boot to flex around your foot, and part of this is getting your foot used to your boot.  It can be subtle, but your foot will “get used” to your boots as well.  If you’re using custom insoles, it can be good to throw them into your everyday shoes for a couple weeks before you plan to be out in your boots.  Ultimately, you want to have confidence in your gear, so try and simulate your activities before you find yourself in a situation where poor boot performance will ruin your hunt.

Don’t let your feet get soft

Do your foot strength conditioning while relaxing.  I used to have discomfort in the joints of my big toes when on hunts where I was hiking off trail in steep terrain.  One day I made the correlation between the pressure points in my toes and the curl of the toes of the slippers and flip-flops that I’d been wearing around the house.  I decided to stop wearing any footwear when I was at home.   I began going barefoot on solid surfaces like wood floors, concrete slab, and laminate.  Big difference made!  It only took a couple weeks until I noticed an improvement in my feet.  I realized I had been making my feet into a couple of major-league wussies while sporting comfort footwear for evenings and weekends.  I guess the bigger point from this small experiment was: My feet could get tougher by adding some moderate minimalism.  I didn’t go wild and begin running marathons barefoot, and I didn’t begin preaching to my friends about how humans were meant to walk without footwear and that modern shoes were changing our musculature and posture.  But, I was wearing silly foot-cushions too much, and I believe it was detrimental to my feet.  More importantly, it was affecting how well I could perform in the woods.

 

What will ruin your next hunt?

A quick overview of things to consider in the offseason.

20180513_125309.jpgAlright, GO!  Lack of preparation, lack of skill, misunderstanding the terrain, misunderstanding your quarry, poor woodsmanship, lack of mental toughness, poor physical conditioning, equipment failure, laziness?  How about several of those problems, to some degree. I like to consider it a “smattering” of inefficiencies, and it’s basically my list of focus points.  Maybe this list of issues could simply fall under the heading of “A Lack of Honest to Oneself”.  I have gone into more than one hunting or backcountry situations (or daily life situations, really) feeling totally prepared, at least until I reached the point where I realized I was totally unprepared.  It can have real consequences, too.  I almost missed out on a great bull on my first backcountry solo hunting trip, simply because I had not given enough consideration to my mental conditioning.  Prior to the hunt, a week without human contact or personal interaction was not something that I expected to have any trouble with.  As it turned out, the solitude was miserable, and I chose to end the hunt a couple days early.  I lucked out by filling my tag the morning I had decided to pull out and head for home.  If it weren’t for luck, all those months of preparation for the hunt may not have added up to much more than a very long and drawn out learning experience.  Prior to that hunt, I had considered myself a rather socially independent and stoic person, but I had to immediately reevaluate my condition.

Preparing for a hunt should be fun (mostly).  But what happens when that sensation of enjoyment gives way to feelings of tedium, or futility, or obligation?  There is a lot of talk of “focus” while on the hunt, but I believe most of the focus begins during the summer well before you head out in the fall.  I’m going to hit on some more specific elements in the next couple weeks, but here are a couple overarching thoughts to put in the old brain bank for next time you’re prepping for the early season.

Know yourself, and be honest with yourself.  Not many people realize this little secret, but the beauty of being honest with yourself… is that it doesn’t require you to be honest with others!  You can still talk a big game to your buddies and partake in all the obligatory self-aggrandizing!  Believe me, this is something I know very well.  But all half-joking aside, it is a lot harder to make improvements if you don’t start with a solid understanding of your own limitations.  Sometimes you have to challenge your own beliefs and self-image to improve.  Truly acknowledging your limitations and weaknesses can be tougher than it sounds.

Aim for skilled balance.  We have a finite amount of time each day, so focus on the weak points that will bring you the most improvement.  Don’t fall into a trap of focusing on one thing and honing it down to perfection, while neglecting other areas.  An example would be archery skills.  I know a lot of guys that want to deck out their equipment to the point where they can stand at the range and shoot a golf ball-sized group at 60 yards, when grouping a paper plate at 60 yards is plenty accurate for hunting deer-sized animals or larger.  If you’re trying to reach perfection, you’ve likely reached a point of diminishing returns, and it may be time to look for other areas where you may have more glaring weaknesses.  Maybe focus on draw hold time, quick shots, shooting while winded, shooting on cross-slopes, or put the bow down and pick up your pack for a scouting trip to the woods.  Focus energy on the weaknesses, and you’ll find more success.

What do you hate to work on?  Do that one first.  I kind of alluded to this a couple times above.  If you find something you enjoy, you’re more likely to strengthen it to the point of unbalance.  Everything needs to fall into place for a successful hunt:  Know where the animals are, be fit enough to get after them, understand how they behave, be able to go through all the steps of an ethical harvest, and have the ability to get back home with the meat.  Lacking ability or knowledge in any of those areas will result in a failure.  If there are areas for you to improve, rank them in the order you want to do them, and complete the list from bottom to top.  This will help you touch all the bases, and also motivates you to complete your least favorite tasks in order to get to the ones you enjoy.

Daydreaming with purpose. I prefer the term ‘daydreaming with purpose’ over ‘visualizing’.  Regardless of what you want to call it, this can really help prepare.  Take some time to focus, and walk yourself through a full day of the hunt.  Imagine the steps you’ll be taking in the field, the experiences you’ll be taking in with all five senses, and especially the challenges you will likely face.  Imaging yourself facing a challenge and calmly addressing it with a confident solution.  You’ll find that you’re actually training your brain for success, and will be less prone to frustration and negative thoughts.

 

Choosing a Bike for Hunting

20170914_191518_001Public land hunting offers many opportunities to get deep into the woods to pursue your quarry.  Bicycles can be a great way to get access through designated forest trails and fire roads (which may have seasonal motor vehicle closures) and get you deep into the field more quickly and efficiently for your hunt.

We should probably start out by mentioning that bikes are not meant for every trail and situation.  Check trail restrictions, respect other trail users, know the terrain, know the limitations of you and your equipment.  Think ahead: This trail might be rideable in the summer when you’ve only got a small scouting pack, but how will it go when you are loaded up with all your hunting gear? Plus, if you are fortunate enough to harvest an animal, how will the meat ride? How many trips are you going to need to make to get it all home?

Remember, the best bike is going to be the one you ride.  Get one that’s comfortable and gets you excited to ride it.  Below is a list of things to consider, but really all of these are secondary to you finding the bike that fits you, your price point, and your riding ability.

Before you head out bike hunting (Hunting to buy a bike, not hunting with the bike, that is for later), here are a couple questions to ask yourself:

Do you plan to pull a trailer?20170919_115533

If you think you’ll be traveling on relatively smooth trails without too much grade or technical riding, you may be able to pull a trailer behind your bike.  I prefer to have as little weight on my back as possible (none if I can make it happen), so I prefer to pull a trailer whenever possible.  Keep in mind that a trailer is more moving parts and therefore more things to go wrong on the trail, but moving weight off your back and your bike will be a huge advantage.

If you will use a trailer, consider where the hitch will connect, which is usually the seat post or rear axle.  A trailer will put more stress on the rear triangle of the bike, so you’ll need to do a little more thorough inspection to make sure this area has been built well and hasn’t been sacrificed to reduce frame weight.  Are the welds good? Does it look to be built to withstand serious riding?  Do there appear to be any weak points that may succumb to fatigue or failure?  Although the trailer will carry a lot of the load of your gear and meat through its own wheels, a good amount will be transferred to your bike as well.  If connecting at your seatpost, you won’t be able to utilize a dropper-style post.  A standard post will be your best bet. It is preferable to have a 10mm or 12mm thru axle in the rear of your bike as well.  Not only are they a sturdier trailer connection point than your standard quick-release type, they will make your bike ride more solidly as well.  The less flex and movement in your bike and gear, the more comfortable and efficient your ride will be.

Will hunting be the primary reason for riding?

A great bike will make you want to ride it all the time. If you’re only going to have one bike, make it one that you’ll want to ride all summer long.  The more you ride, the more comfortable you’ll be, and better shape you’ll be in come fall.

Suspension and Bike “Type”

Look at this section.  It is the largest of the whole post because it will be the decision that has the largest effect on the actual type of bike you buy.  And this section could be much, much longer.  The moral of the story for this section is to prepare yourself to make trade-offs in the bike you want, or prepare to own several bikes.  An optimal bike for hunting is going to be very efficient and rugged, so likely rigid (no suspension) and built sturdy to carry all your gear.  But the optimal bike for hunting may not be the best choice if you want to do a lot of rides that are not camping/hunting oriented.  You could have two front forks (one rigid and one suspension) and swap them out relatively easily if you know your way around a bicycle, and that will add a lot of versatility to your riding.  But, for my situation, I’ve got two very different bikes…and I used to have more.  One is a high-end full suspension frame (currently an Intense Uzzi), and the other is a rigid fat bike (currently a Norco Bigfoot).  I don’t want to have more than two bikes, and I honestly don’t want to have more than one bike, but my riding style is varied enough to require very different bikes in order for the riding to be enjoyable.  And to be absolutely honest, neither of them is the perfect bike for hunting or camping.  I take the fat bike hunting with a trailer because it is a very sturdy and utilitarian frame, has a lot of points to connect racks and my bow scabbard, has a comfortable cockpit, and seems to look cool rolling down the trail while laden with gear and oversize 4” tires.  The downside?  The rolling resistance of the fat tires makes the bike less efficient than even my 7” travel full suspension bike, the extremely wide tires affect the straight-line tracking, and it’s fully rigid, so a much rougher ride than my other setup.  But I like it because I can ride snow trails in the winter (super fun), and ride on the beach when I clamming or fishing in the summer (also super fun), and I don’t want a third bike hanging around in the garage ten months of the year for my wife to bring up when we are fighting about unrelated topics and she needs an example to help emphasize her point about my lack of reasonableness.  I don’t use my full suspension bike for hunting because it can’t accommodate a front rack due to the front suspension, has limited area to attach gear due to the rear suspension, and doesn’t quite have the right geometry for comfortable all-day pedaling.  Plus, for the suspension to really work correctly, I would have to make adjustments to the fork and shock based on how much weight I had on the bike.  My full-suspension bike is really designed towards descending rocky, technical trails at high speeds.  Conversely, my fat bike is designed a bit more for plodding along and enjoying the countryside, which makes the riding position quite a bit more comfortable when pedaling.  So that what I go with, because it works pretty well and I have uses for it beyond just hunting season.

Salsa and Surly are a couple great manufacturers that have bikes geared towards bikepacking, long distance touring, and even hauling groceries.  Specialized and Trek are great if you’re newer to biking and want to check out to see the full spectrum of bikes out there.

So here are the parts of the bike I consider when picking a ride for hunting:

Axles

As mentioned above, sturdy axles will be better when pulling a trailer. But, they will actually make a noticeably better all-around ride as well.  They will also make the bike more responsive and solid-feeling when loaded.  Go for the “thru-axle” or “bolt-on” style instead of the quick release or “QR” (you can see the difference in diameter in the left photo above). The QR was the industry standard for decades, but they have recently given up the throne.  To complicate the terminology, thru-axles can have quick release mechanisms as well.  What you want to try and avoid is the skewer-type quick release.  The thru-axles will generally have a 15mm diameter for the front axle, and 10mm or 12mm for the rear axle.

Frame Material

Your option for frame material is generally going to be steel, aluminum, or carbon fiber.  Titanium has lost its place in the bike market now that carbon construction has come down in price.  As for carbon fiber, I would not use a carbon bike for hunting.  It could be used for “bikepacking”, where you’re traveling around living off the gear you can pack on your bike.  But, hunting is going to involve pretty heavy loads, which are usually at or above the weight limits the manufacturer was expecting when designing the bike.  Although carbon has had huge recent improvements in its strength and reliability, using a bike for hunting with 100+ pounds of additional gear load is still really not something the bike was designed to endure.  That doesn’t mean it can’t handle it, but it’s an unknown variable that I wouldn’t recommend testing in the backcountry.  Steel and aluminum are really equal in my eye, but it just depends on your personal preference.  Steel will have a little more of a forgiving ride if you’re on a rigid bike, but aluminum will generally be lighter and feel more responsive.  There are some folks that are steel hardtail die-hards because they prefer the ride-feel of the steel frame.

Although steel is stronger than aluminum when tested in a laboratory, they are nearly equal when crafted into a bike frame.  Just because raw steel is stronger than raw aluminum doesn’t mean manufacturers are overbuilding steel frames for unnecessary strength gains without giving consideration to the weight penalty.  The weight is really the manufacturer’s main objective, so they are reducing the frame tubing size to accomplish weight reduction.  The only advantage I would really consider giving steel would be the fact that a steel frame may fail less catastrophically than an aluminum frame if overloaded or damaged.  Aluminum is strong but brittle, so it has a tendency to crack and abruptly fail. A steel frame, on the other hand, has greater “toughness” (per the materials engineering definition of the word) and may go through more bending and deformation before leaving you stranded.

My recommendation: Don’t get too concerned with the frame material, as long as it’s steel or aluminum.  Test ride both, you may or may not notice a difference in the feel of the ride.

Construction

IMG_3438.jpgCheck out the welds of any bike you plan to buy.  Actually, give the whole bike a once-over to make sure there is no damage from shipping or assembly.  This goes for any bike you are considering, but is especially important for a bike you plan to load up for camping or hunting in the woods.  Generally, the quality of craftsmanship is way up from what it was 10 or 15 years ago.  Nearly every high-end U.S. based bike manufacturer has switched to having their bikes produced oversees, mainly in Taiwan.  Bikes coming out of Taiwan are very high quality, but you should still be on the lookout for poor quality control.  Be warier of bikes out of China.  Their quality has improved over recent years, but still lower quality than bikes assembled in Taiwan or domestically.

Attachment points for gear

20170911_195727If you’re always going to be pulling an axle-hitch trailer, you may not really need many braze-ons for attaching racks and gear mounts.  But, it’s great to have the option not to pull a trailer on some trails.  Some guys will put a lot of weight on their back while riding, but I loathe carrying a heavy pack while biking.  Versatility is best, and you’re going to have more versatility if you can attach more equipment to your bike.  There are some good frame bags, seat bags, and handlebar bags that will help you carry smaller items, but you’ll want to consider front and rear racks for heavier loads.  These racks are usually rated for 30-50 lbs each.  Check for braze-ons on the rear triangle of the bike, the downtube, and front fork.  I mount a rack on my front fork with bow and scabbard on one side, and usually a pannier of light gear on the other for weight balance.

Tires and Wheels

20180413_192458.jpgHere’s the quick response: 2.3”-2.75” tire width, and whatever wheel diameter you want.  The long answer is discussed in agonizing detail on any of the mountain biking forums on the internet.  As I’ve mentioned above, I’m rolling with 4” wide fat bike tires.  The tire width and tread pattern can be optimized to the terrain you’ll be riding, but you should really just pick a good all-around tire that will have a good balance between traction and rolling resistance.  No real need to worry about corning ability unless you’re being chased down by a mountain lion (Which could be possible if you’re towing a load of meat, now that I think about it).

Pedals

Most higher-end mountain bikes don’t come with pedals.  If they do have pedals, it’s probably a cheap nylon $5 set that the bike shop threw on.  These are fine for a test-ride around the parking lot, but that’s about it.  Pick up a pair of wide, sturdy platform-style pedals that you can comfortably ride while in your boots.  You can find a set online staring at about $25.

Brakes

IMG_3436.jpgWhen you are loaded up and hauling gear and meat, you really shouldn’t be going more than a few miles per hour.  Going much faster is going to cause a lot of vibration and stress to your bike and compromise your ability to make it out of the woods while riding the bike rather than pushing or dragging it.  That being said, there are inevitably going to be times when you’re dragging both brakes down a steep pitch, making the rotors glow bright red like a Formula 1 car trying to slow down from 220mph at Le Mans.  Well, probably not that red.  Probably not even close to that at all, but it was a cool metaphor.

You really shouldn’t have anything other than hydraulic disk brakes if you can help it.  They are reliable, self-adjusting, and currently the state of the industry.  A solid mountain bike should have hydraulic disk brakes, and I really only bring it up because some fat bikes manufacturers equip their bikes with cable disk.  Cable brakes are theoretically better if there were a brake failure, as you could fashion up a MacGyver trick using frontier know-how (or carry an extra cable with you if one fails).  A blown or pinched hydraulic hose is unrepairable on the trail.  But  I’ll stick to my hydraulic brakes.   In the extremely rare situation that both of them were destroyed, I’ll tie a log to the back of my bike with some paracord and drag it behind me to slow me down.

One quick techy point to make is that different brake fluids behave differently in cold temperatures.  Both DOT brake fluid and mineral oil are used in mountain bike brakes, but you must use the type of fluid the brake was designed for.  I highly recommend finding brakes that use DOT fluid, since mineral oil brakes will start to significantly lose stopping power if below 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

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This one is actually a little tricky.  Intuitively, you may say “I’m going to have a heavier load on my pack or trailer, so I should make sure a have a super low granny gear chainring to make sure I can take on those steep climbs.”  Realistically, you’re going to be packing all your gear and find yourself staring at a modestly uphill grade and say “F this hill, I’m just going to walk”.  Bikes help you get further on the flatter sections quicker and with less effort.  There is no reason to burn yourself out on the hills when you’re not even hunting yet.  The dual and triple chainring setups on bikes are going the way of the dodo, but still have some limited use.  The single chainrings with larger rear cassette gears can get you geared down as low as you really need.  I recommend going with the simpler setup, the single chainring.

Bottom Line

No matter what bike you go with, make sure you trust it.  Ride it, train on it, and try to simulate what you’re going to be experiencing in the fall.  Get it professionally tuned up if you’re not real handy around bikes, and learn enough about the bike to do any “frontier-fixes” if needed.

Application Strategy – How Many Hunts Do You Have Left?

I recently had to give up my resident status in the great state of Montana and moved to Washington as a career move for myself and family.  I choose to think of us as “temporarily displaced” rather than admit that we have moved away for good.  Even though Washington has some great deer, elk and bear opportunities, I still apply for Montana’s high-percentage draws such as elk and deer combo tags each year, as well the long-shots for moose, sheep, and goat.  Luckily, I was able to keep my preference points, although the odds of drawing a non-resident lottery tag are much lower.  While analyzing my new costs for nonresident applications (MT requires $50 per app) versus likelihood for a successful draw, I found myself beginning to strategize which tags I would apply for each season.  Some draws like sheep are once in a lifetime (either by law, or as effectively determined by incredibly low draw odds), and I initially considered anything besides my #1 choice hunting district would be a waste of my application preference points.  Montana rotates the sheep districts that are available for nonresidents each year, so I would look at skipping applications for years when my top choice was not available.  But, in reality, even though I have been putting in for a decade trying to get drawn, there is certainly no guarantee that I will ever be successful.  It’s a stark reality.  Plus, I’ll eventually hit an age where I’m no longer physically capable of a strenuous hunt, assuming that I make it to old age without perishing in a freak jet boat crash or anything like that.  I really hope to be hunting the high country when I’m in my 80’s, but that will not likely be the case. 

So, how many hunts do you have left? Be honest with yourself.  Life brings on many surprises and speedbumps that can limit your hunting opportunities.  Maybe it’s family, more responsibilities at work, moving further away from your hunting ground (like, I don’t know, maybe from MT to WA for just a random example off the top of my head), or changes in your financial situation.  And the scariest one…changes in your health and physical ability.  If you want to do a real backcountry hunt, your window of opportunity is finite.  My good hunting buddy brought this to my attention last year.  We have a backcountry elk hunt that we discussed doing every 2-3 years.  He is a big guy, and he can admit that his back and joints aren’t what they used to be.  His body already needs more maintenance than mine on our hunts, but his spirit is probably stronger than mine.  I really respect that he can acknowledge his limitations, and I am trying to do the same, and we have now decided to chase the high county elk every year until we can’t.

If I am currently 34 years old, and I can ambitiously expect to complete some level of backcountry hunting through age 65, then that leaves me with 31 good hunting seasons left.  That’s actually great.  If I were the world’s greatest hunter, I could plan to harvest 31 more elk and deer in my life, but I really can’t guess what my lifetime harvest batting average will be, so we’ll talk in terms of “hunts” or “opportunities” rather than “animals harvested”.  My batting average is very unlikely to be one thousand, though.  Now, let’s assume I have five years where I have a life event that keeps me from hunting, like maybe….some stupid friend’s wedding or something, or an injury, work obligation, family emergency…then I am down to 26 hunting opportunities, which is reducing my chances of harvest by over 16%.  Now, what if the weather is bad for a couple of those remaining years?  What if a harsh winter decimated the elk population?  What if the whitetail population is struck down by bluetongue again?  These are just a few of many factors that can further reduce your opportunities to hunt.  If there was a specific hunt that I want to take on, how many years will it be before I am competitive in the draw?  If a Montana bighorn sheep wait period is an average minimum of ten years, then over 32% of my remaining hunting years will be spent pining rather than chasing game.  The more years that I choose not to apply for that permit hunt, the longer it will take to be drawn, and the further I will be from the ability and drive that youth affords.

When you’re applying for hunts each year, should you wait for the perfect hunt, or take what you can get?  I recommend you set yourself up to be prepared for success every year.  If the available hunting districts rotate each year, do your research and find one that you can get excited about each season.  Apply every year, because waiting out just one year can have a significant impact on your odds.  For example, let’s say that since there is a 10% limitation on non-resident sheep tags, I am not only limited by the 0.5% typical odds of overall draw probability, but I am also limited that I have to be one of the first tags drawn of non-residents.  So if the unit I apply for only awards 10 successful tags, I not only have to be one of the ten lucky applicants, but I would also have to be the first lucky non-resident to be drawn.  

If you still want to strategize, such as if you think you might hit on all your long-shot lottery tickets in one year, you can stagger your apps throughout the year.  Many states stagger their application periods and draw dates, so you don’t have to put in for all your applications at once.  I used to put in for the permit draws with the extreme low odds for years that I didn’t really want to get drawn, but I no longer do that.  I put in for hunts I want every year, and have a plan for success if I’m drawn.

Hunting shouldn’t be your only priority in life.  All opportunities in life are finite, so make sure you take advantage of every one that presents itself.  But, when you are considering your hunts for next year, give yourself fair consideration as to how many are really left on the Big Calendar of your life.  And if it doesn’t work out this year, go with a nearby second option.  It would be a shame to die with bare walls and an empty freezer. 

6 Lightweight Gear Upgrades

Chasing the ultralightweight savings game can be as addicting as….pretty much anything else hunting-related, and equally as expensive.  Dang, I thought I was going to come up with a sweet metaphor there.  I love getting new gear, but I’m sometimes too cheap to drop the big bucks on the hottest stuff that all the cool kids are into.  I’m not always cheap, but I prefer to think I’m putting my dollars where they can do the most damage out in the woods.  Plus, selective cheapness provides more disposable income for important things like overpriced microbrews, truck tires, and full body tattoos.  So I actually only partake in two of those three things, but feel free to substitute in your own vices.  Anyway, I’ve come up with a quick list of some of my favorite lightweight pack items.  Some are higher end and some are dirt cheap.  I hope you can find a couple to use on your next daytrip or overnighter.

*All weights listed are actual measurements unless noted otherwise.

Steripen Ultra

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The Steripen has been around for a while, but is new to me.  Not only is it 10 oz lighter than my Katadyn Hiker, but it also comes with the upside of size and time convenience as well.  What would you prefer? Slogging water for 20 minutes through a pump-style filter that takes up a quarter of your pack space, or waving a tiny lightsaber for 60 seconds.

The downside?  Unlike the pump filter, the Steripen only protects you from microorganisms.  It does not control cloudiness, chemicals, or floaters.  So make sure you have an idea of the water quality issues you may be facing before packing your gear.  It also has a vaguely similar appearance to a medical device.

Weight: 5 oz

Comparison: Katadyn Hiker – 15 oz

Hydrapak Seeker Collapsible Water Bottle (3L)

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I love this thing.  It’s lighter than a Camelbak, and you don’t have to sip through those annoying rubber straws.  It’s not rigid like a conventional water bottle, so finding a spot inside (or strapped outside) of an overfull pack is much easier.  The lack of a hose and the wide-mouth design make it much easier to clean and keep sanitary as well.  It’s quieter than a conventional water bottle too, since you can purge out the air to eliminate the ‘sloshing’ when the bottle is less than completely full.  That’s always been one of my pet peeves when trying to slink through the woods as quietly as possible.

Downside?  Like the Camelbak, it’s got that plastic taste.

Weight: 3.3 oz

Comparison: Camelbak 3L reservoir – 8 oz (claimed)

 

Outdoor Research Ultralight Dry Sack (35L)

OR Ultralight Dry Sack 35L lemongrass

How many packs do you have already?  If you’re like me, you’ve got at least one for week-long hunts, and one for day hunts, or maybe one or two that are supposed to be for both but really don’t work for either.  I use these dry sacks to add versatility to my frame pack, and have eliminated the need for a daypack for single day out-and-back hunts.  These are actually pretty damn reasonable for an “ultralight” labeled item, as I’ve actually found them for much less than other conventional dry bags.  For the burden of a couple extra ounces, my Eberlestock Mainframe pack now has the convenience, organization, and protection of a fully waterproof daypack, while still having the frame to haul meat.  Grab a couple different sizes to keep you organized for various hunting trip needs.

Downside? The material for these bags is very thin and could have durability issues, depending on where you hunt and what you’re crawling through in the field.  I’ve used them for several years and haven’t had any problems.

Weight: 3.2 oz

Comparison:  There are tons of dry sacks out there, and typical weights for 35L are around 8-10 oz or more

Black Ovis Lightweight Game Bags

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Although not cheap, they are probably the most reasonable in the lightweight game bag department.  The old standard was the Alaska Game Bag, and I still keep those around back at the truck just in case I need some backups.  The Black Ovis large bag kit comes with four bags, gloves, a lightweight tarp, a roll of flagging tape, and a mesh carry bag.  Pulling out the tarp, gloves, and flagging tape dropped the weight by a few ounces down to 13 oz.  But, bigger than the weight savings are the space savings.  The Alaska Bags are difficult to fit into a gallon-sized ziplock, and the Black Ovis bags are a little larger than a fist.

Downside?  I haven’t found any issues with them yet.

Weight: 13 oz

Comparison: Alaska Game Bags – 1 lb 8 oz

Nemo Fillo Elite Pillow: 2.8 oz

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This is a real pillow.  I have decided a pillow is a luxury that I will not forego.  I used to use the Thermarest compressible pillow, but that thing really doesn’t compress down very well, and it takes up too much valuable pack space (but it’s comfortable).  The Nemo pillow is smaller than a baseball when in its stuff sack.  It’s inflatable and has a soft, comfortable fabric surface.  Ignore the countless lightweight pillows out there on Amazon for $15.  Those feel like an old inflatable pool toy, and you would probably be more comfortable resting your head on a balled-up sweatshirt.

Downside? None found yet.

Weight: 2.8 oz

Comparison: Not using a pillow is always an option that many hunters are happy with, but I wouldn’t recommend it.  Hunting is hard and strenuous, take care of your neck.

Crystal Geyser Bottled Water (or similar) (16 fl oz): 0.4 oz

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This has got to be my ultimate cheapo-yuppy-ultralight-dummy tip. The typical bottled water packaging for brands such as Crystal Geyser, Arrowhead, or any generic store water is incredibly light, since it’s supposed to be disposable, duh.  For dayhunts where I won’t need more than a couple liters, I just pack a few of these.  They can be squashed down to purge any air from the bottle too, eliminating the annoying ‘slosh’ mentioned above.

Downside?  You’re constantly buying bottled water, even though you know tap water is fine.

Weight: 0.4 oz

Comparison – Nalgene (32 fl oz): 6 oz (I used the 32 fl oz Nalgene because it is more common, even though it’s twice the volume of the disposable bottle)