Becoming a DIY Hunter: Planning Your First Hunt

If you weren’t able to attend the Western Hunting Summit the weekend of June 29th in Bozeman, Montana, you missed a conglomeration of wisdom and information from some of the best hunters in the west. Led by Ryan and Hillary Lampers of Hunt, Harvest, Health, a number of speakers shared their experiences, skills, and tactics for beginner and experienced hunters alike with a focus on cutting the learning curve by two years. 


I wish someone had sat me down before I started my personal development as a backcountry hunter to introduce me to some of the topics discussed during the Summit - so that’s the purpose of this article. I want to focus on what it takes to become a DIY backcountry hunter - with an emphasis on planning your first DIY western hunt.

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Budget

After splitting gas and food with two other guys, my DIY Colorado elk hunt last year cost be $977.69 - of which $680 was for an elk tag and license. I live 1400 miles from Denver. 


Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to spend $5,000+ to go hunt an elk. Sure, if your budget is $1200, your not going to have a guide that’s going to walk you right up on a herd of elk and tell you to shoot. Unless that’s an experience that you want, than who cares. Afterall, is it about the kill and the mounted bull on your wall - or is it about the experience and the adventure? If your answer is the latter, read on.

Coming from the eastern US, DIY backcountry hunting was a foreign concept to me until a couple of years ago. If your like me and you are after a blue collar adventure in a cool new place, your biggest expenses will be from traveling and acquiring a tag.

Don’t let cost stop you from going on your first DIY hunt. You can do as cheap or as expensive of a hunt as you want, so focus on the aspects of the experience that matter to YOU - and plan accordingly.

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GEAR

We all LOVE gear. The newest lightweight merino wool system, carbon trekking poles, compact spotting scopes, … the list goes on. All the finely tuned marketing campaigns convince you that you NEED this or that to be successful. 


You don’t. 

Equipment is a low barrier to entry as long as you have access to the things you really do need. My first western DIY hunt was barely planned: an over the counter mule deer hunt in Idaho. I borrowed a 20 year old pack and spotting scope from my uncle, grabbed my trusty 300 weatherby, and took off ill prepared and into the unknown. 

I don’t recommend this strategy, but the point is you don’t NEED the best gear in order to go on a hunt. That 350 bull is still going to be there whether you're wearing Kennetrek boots or your Grandfather’s WWII Army boots with ripped soles - so don’t let a lack of gear stop you. 

Having your gear dialed in takes years to perfect - but you need to start somewhere. No one has perfected it better than Ryan Lampers. His standard gear list weighs roughly 39 lbs (excluding water) and gives him everything he needs to stay in the backcountry up to 10+ days. I personally haven’t been able to get my gear weight 50 lbs. when fully loaded for a long stay, but I’m working on it…one piece of gear at a time….

Ryan’s Gear List can be referenced at http://huntharvesthealth.com/stories/adultonsethunting.


Ryan’s finely tuned gear program is not something the beginner can expect to achieve right off the bat - even if your one of the few folks willing to drop thousands of dollars on gear for your first year. You need to find the gear that works for YOU and this takes time. There’s rarely a “one size fits all.”.


The strategy I’d recommend is to add a couple quality pieces of gear to your arsenal every year starting with the essentials and working down in order of importance. For those average Joe’s like me with a limited budget looking to get started, here’s the top five items I’d recommend you focus on first: 

  1. Boots 

    1. If your feet are in bad shape, you are in bad shape

  2. Optics

    1. If you can’t find animals, you won’t find success

    2. You don’t NEED a $2000 spotting scope for most DIY western hunts… but you do need a quality pair of binoculars (and a bipod on some hunts) at minimum. Borrow a spotting scope from a friend for hunts where they are highly recommended. 

  3. Back Pack

    1. You need to have the capability of having an efficient gear and meat packing system - and this starts with a good pack. 

    2. When you get an animal down, your new top priority is protecting the integrity of the meat. 

  4. Sleeping Bag / Sleeping Pad

    1. You have to be able to stay warm and recover at night from long days of hiking or your longevity will suffer.

  5. Merino base layers

    1. Unless your hunting the desert, you need to be able to dry out from both sweat and bad weather

    2. Nothing will diminish your mental toughness quicker than being unable to get dry and warm; cotton is very difficult to dry out 


Be able to go without the top of the line gear if its the difference between going on that first hunt or not going at all. Build your gear list over time as you figure out what you need and don’t need based on your OWN experiences.

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SCOUTING

You don’t NEED a Boone and Crocket animal to have an awesome experience in a new place.  Pick your target animal, pick your location, and start planning.


Non-local hunters required to travel long distances to hunt out west face a whole new set of challenges than those who are local or within a reasonable driving distance. Driving the area, spring/summer scouting hikes, and following herds before the opener are the best forms of scouting - but are just not an option for many of us. 

Mark Livesay from Treeline Pursuits (www.treelinepursuits.com) is the master of e-scouting. Check out his YouTube videos to have your mind blown on this topic. You’ll be amazed at what you can learn about an area and a species from 2,000 miles away with a little technological savviness. 

Some of the tools that Mark uses that I’d highly recommend testing out while e-scouting are:

  • Google Earth 

  • OnX Hunt Maps

  • Gaia GPS 

  • Top Rut.com

  • Delorme Map Books

  • National Forest Maps

  • DIYMaps.com

  • GoHunt.com

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Once you have your target area and species, you can move forward with as in depth of an e-scouting plan as you desire. Here’s a list of different levels and stages of e-scouting for planning your hunt: 

  1. Picking Hunt Area: Finding the right units, WMUs (wildlife management unit), or mountain ranges

    1. Fish and game / game commission state websites, GoHunt.com, HuntinFool.com and a number of other sites will offer statistics that can be analyzed to determine your best odds of OTC success 

      1. Key Statistics: 

        1. Total acreage of public land in that unit

        2. # of resident and non-resident hunters 

        3. Success % of tags filled on target animals in archery/rifle/muzzleloader

    2. Proximity of the over the counter unit to units that are primarily private land or limited entry draw units? 

    3. How accessible or inaccessible is the unit? 

      1. Is it too easy for lots of hunters to get into with minimal effort? 

      2. Are their trails running throughout?

    4. Is it a migration unit? A summer range? Winter range?

  2. Evaluating your selected unit

    1. Contact Local Fish and Game

      1. How healthy is the herd in the area? 

      2. How are the herd numbers and predation? 

      3. How has the weather impacted the herd recently? Are their low numbers of a certain age class? 

    2. Look up research articles and biology reports on the wildlife in the unit Forest Service Map Breakdown

      1. Highlight your selected unit’s boundaries, trails, roadways, parking areas, camp sites, etc

      2. Create a buffer around roadways, trails, parking lots to highlight areas that could be (and probably are) heavily pressured by other hunters

    3. Evaluating Hunting Pressure: In depth look at trails/roadways/accessibility

    4. Utilize vehicle road use maps to determine how far people can get vehicles in and what times of year 

    5. Are their quad/ATV trails all over the unit that are open year round? 

    6. Are their large swaths of area inaccessible from roads and trails? 

    7. Are the trails confined by steep topography - limiting access by most weekend hunters? 

    8. Google Earth Evaluation

      1. Look closely at trails and roadways to determine how heavily they’ve been used based on historical aerials and time elapse

      2. Look closely at parking areas during hunting months using time elapse

        1. Is the parking lot filled with cars, trucks, and trailers? 

  3. Key in on your target species 

    1. Are you going to be hunting during a time of heavy pressure or of fairly minimal pressure? 

      1. Where are the inaccessible or unglassable areas that may be sanctuaries for game during times of heavy pressure? 

    2. Where is the prime vegetation and food during that time of year? 

    3. Where are the benches, north slopes, and possible bedding areas with heavy cover and timber? 

    4. Are their recent burns or beetle kills that have spurred new growth? Could these areas attract game? 

    5. Where would other hunters not be willing to go that you are willing to go? 

  4. Developing a HUNT PLAN

    1. Mark highly recommends planning out your hunt in as much detail as possible and I agree. Rarely do things go as planned, but indecisiveness and a lack of a plan/back up plan can result in losing valuable time trying to figure out your next move

    2. Pick specific target locations to hunt - and move from one to the next as needed based on a lack of game, unforeseen circumstances, pressure from other hunters, etc

    3. Plan driving routes and access points 

You can learn more than you think by being a thorough e-scouter. I recommend watching Mark Livesays videos and tutorials to learn more in-depth approach to e-scouting. You won’t regret it. 

Here’s a couple of specific tips from Mark that you should ponder while performing your due diligence:  

  • Reduce “winging it”

    • There is nothing worse than running into an obstacle midway through a hunt and not knowing what to do next. Add in physical and mental exhaustion, and you may find yourself choosing the easy or lazy way out only to regret it a week later when your back at home on the couch with an unpunched tag.

  • Be Flexible and Mobile

    • If the game is not there, you need to be flexible and prepared enough to continue moving until you can locate game

  • Get off the trails

    • Most elk hunters walk and call directly from trails. Elk and deer become accustomed to this.

  • Go downhill

    • Hunters HATE going downhill because they don’t want to have to bring game back uphill. If your physically prepared for this, you may just find animals hiding low.

  • Avoid lakes, parking lots, and meadows within two miles of a road 

    • They are hunter magnets

    • Look for places off the beaten path. 

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PHYSICAL CONDITIONING 

The inuit natives in remote regions of Alaska and Northern Canada consider it irresponsible for someone to require rescue in the back country due to ill-preparedness because it endangers those that have to come and rescue you.  Being “tough” is not enough… You can put yourself, or those around you, in a dangerous position if your not prepared physically. 

Know the type of terrain your capable of handling and your own physical boundaries. Certain hunts are doable for folks in fair to average physical condition while others should only be undertaken by those who have trained extensively. 


I would recommend referencing Dan Staton’s workouts and programs on https://elkshape.com/ to learn more about training for backcountry hunts. 

MTNTOUGH (https://mtntough.com/) and Train to Hunt (http://www.traintohunt.com/) also offer events and training programs designed to prepare people for backcountry hunting and extreme conditions. 

Some of the key concepts for beginners to focus on when trying to prepare for their first backcountry hunt are outlined below: 

  • Focus on Cardio

    • Hiking hills under load 

      • This is the single best thing you can do to prepare for a backcountry hunt. 

      • If you plan to hike out a deer and need to be able to carry 60 lbs of meat, practice with 80lbs (or 100 lbs - whatever your capable of) 

      • Incrementally increase weight and duration. You use a different set of muscles to hike under load than you do running a 5k. 

      • It doesn’t matter how strong you are if you aren’t in sufficient cardiovascular condition to maintain stamina and longevity through long days in the backcountry

    • High Intensity Cardio 

      • High Intensity is going to be more beneficial and applicable preparation for the average Joe that only has 45 minutes per day to dedicate to training and can’t spend 6 hours a day hiking or jogging

      • Ex: Fast pace runs or sprints, running hills, burpies, stair stepping, stair master, etc

    • Functional Strength Training: Core, Leg, and Back Strengthening

      • Bicep curls strengthen your biceps. That’s about it… Although there’s a time and a place for bicep curls and other body building style workouts designed to isolate and build specific muscle groups, focus on functional training that simulate the types of movements you’ll need to be prepared for in the backcountry

      • Examples: Back squats, Front Squats, pull ups, one legged squats, burpies, step-ups, med ball toss, dead lifts, etc

    • Flexibility

Stretching often and being flexible is going to be key to injury prevention. You need to plan on slipping, sliding, twisting, and even an occasional fall. 

HEALTH AND NUTRITION

I laugh when I think about the food I took on my first backcountry hunt. It consisted of the cheapest, most calorically dense carbohydrates I could buy at the local Walmart. Maintaining your health is essential to keeping a sound mind, maintaining your will power, and for developing stamina. With proper nutrition, you can stay longer, go farther, and hunt harder.  

Dr. Hillary Lampers is a naturopathic physician and expert on nutrition. Her and Ryan’s combined expertise on nutrition in the back country is unmatched. They are on another level and prepare most of their own back country food themselves from their garden and various wild game dishes. It’s one of the many reasons why Ryan seems to repeatedly outlast and outperform 99.9% of the hunting community. 

When heading off into the backcountry, you need to be aware that you are likely going to be malnourished and dehydrated for significant periods of time. Its unavoidable for the vast majority of beginner backcountry hunters - as your body simply won’t be used to expending that amount of energy on a daily basis with only a minimal amount of food for recovery. Hiking every day in high altitudes on steep slopes and under load is not something your body is going to be accustomed to unless you do it all the time. There are very few people that can perform this way physically for extended periods of time - and you don’t HAVE to be one of them to go on a backcountry hunt. You do however have to know and understand your body and what your getting yourself into. 

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There are ways you can combat this inevitable malnourishment through supplementation and proper planning:


Focus your backcountry meal prep around fats, not carbohydrates or protein alone. Without enough fat in your meals, your body will defer to burning through its own reserves. This may sound appealing to those of you who aren’t opposed to shedding a few pounds - but it can be dangerous if your not careful. Brian Barney from Eastmans Elevated podcast (https://www.eastmans.com/podcast-eastmans-elevated) is one of the most impressive backcountry hunters in the west and speaks extensively on this topic in a number of his podcasts.  


You can only take a limited amount of food and weight in with you, so dehydrated meals offer a huge advantage. Whether they are homemade or store bought, they are almost always going to offer you the most bang for your buck on a weight/calorie basis. 


Heather’s choice (https://www.heatherschoice.com) is a company that has designed dehydrated meals for the backcountry hunter. They may be more expensive than a lunch-able from Walmart, but will pay big dividends on the top of a mountain.  

Supplementation is critical for me on the mountain given the scarcity of food variety. I recommend the following supplements while on the mountain:

  • Electrolyte powder

  • Multi-vitamin pill

  • Vitamin C powder or pill

  • Anti-inflammation supplementation as required 

    • Fish Oil or CBD oil

On your first few hunts you will experience cravings for certain kinds of foods and supplements as your body experiences exhaustion and light malnourishment. Listen to your body and you will get better and better each trip with dialing in the foods you need to keep going on the mountain. 


FINDING A MENTOR

The last topic is the single most important beneficial piece of advice I can offer to the new backcountry hunter. Finding a mentor or a local resource to offer critical advice toward planning and preparing for your hunt will cut your learning curve more than any other single factor. 

No.... I do not mean poke and prod at a local legend about where their favorite spots are… or what mountain range they killed that big bull in ...or what their “secret to success” is.


Any experienced hunter will tell you that the true value in the experience is the fulfillment associated with figuring it out yourself. You become a good hunter by learning to be a good hunter - and this takes time and experienceThis is why the best hunters can repeatedly go to new places they’ve never been to and can replicate results - harvesting trophy class animals year after year with little to no help or guidance. The fulfillment is in the achievement and satisfaction from finding success on your own accord. 

With that being said, it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t use reasonable means to learn about different areas, ecosystems, and tactics from those more knowledgeable than you. In hindsight, I’ve realized that on many of my hunts I’ve learned one or two valuable gold nugget details prior to the hunt that turned out to be complete game changers toward finding success. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel. There are ways to cut the learning curve through mentorship that will pay big dividends once you step foot on a trail. The rest is up to you.

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Right now in the continental United States, the population of hunters has been steadily declining while the population of big game animals have been steadily growing due to improved conservation and game management efforts. There’s millions of acres of public land available for DIY hunters in America - and plenty of room for everyone. 

The western DIY hunting community consists of some of the most generous, like-minded people I’ve had the pleasure of building friendships with. I’m frequently amazed at the quality of the information experienced hunters are willing to share with others via podcasts, blogs, summits, articles. They WANT to see YOU succeed.