The Labors of Hercules

Alaska’s Chugach Mountains in 1990. Wieland is carrying his trusty Camp Trails internal frame pack. After that trip, and the conditioning that went with it, it fit him like an old flannel shirt.

by Terry Wieland

If there is one basic ability every hunter should have, it’s backpacking.  To some extent, every hunter does it.

Whether you’re setting off for a week in the Chugach Mountains, hunting Dall’s sheep with your home on your back, or pheasant hunting in South Dakota wearing a shooting vest carrying cartridges, water for the dogs, your lunch and—with luck—two or three fat pheasant roosters, you are backpacking.

Even if your hunting plans include only ATVs and deer stands, backpacking is a great way to improve your physical condition to cope with anything that comes along.

The single biggest complaint I have heard from hunting guides is hunters who arrive unprepared in even the most basic ways. 

I have actually been in camps where hunters show up with guns they’ve never shot, clothes they’ve never worn, packs they’ve never carried and, once or twice, boots they’ve never had on their feet.  One time, I found myself in a sporting goods store in Fairbanks, the morning we were being flown into camp, with two guys desperately looking for suitable clothes.  Another time, making a flight connection in Fort St. John, in the hour before the Twin Otter took off, my companion raced into town to find a store where he could buy ammunition.

The most common failing, though, is lack of physical conditioning.  There is no quick simple answer to this problem, which is endemic in today’s society, but given a couple of months and the necessary determination, almost anyone can make some real improvements.

Remember the story of how Hercules grew strong by picking up a newborn calf and carrying it around, then doing that every day thereafter as the calf grew into a bull?  By the time that calf weighed half a ton, Hercules had become the man of legend.  The same principle can be applied.

There are three basic elements to backpacking while hunting:  the pack itself, a gun, and a pair of boots.  The pack and the boots are the most important in terms of conditioning, although if you can carry something to accustom your arms to a constant eight-pound weight, that’s a help.

There’s a difference between gym-fit and farm-fit, and the same applies to hunting:  Gym-fit, and mountain-fit.  We’re looking for the latter.

First step:  A good pair of mountain boots.  If you go into a store and see a famous German name on a pair of boots for $500, and others with the store’s name for half the price, buy the expensive ones.  We don’t have space to go over all the ins and outs of boot buying, so I’ll just say this.  I have some LOWA boots that have served me well in Alaska, the Yukon, Montana, and wherever else.  Whatever I paid, they’re worth it.

Much the same goes for packs, although here there are many varieties and prices.  Get a pack that will comfortably hold up to 100 pounds—you won’t carry that much, but that’s not the point—with a serious hip belt.  For most people, an internal-frame pack is the best, and today you can get some good ones.  Expect to pay several hundred dollars.  You won’t regret it.