In my near 3 decades of hunting and backcountry experiences, I've hit a point in life where I actually prefer to hunt alone. The solitude I enjoy in the wild creates an intense appreciation for all things nature offers. Loneliness gives way to clarity, which allows me to fully appreciate and understand the meaning of why I'm there. It’s also true that I’m a born introvert. I feel energized by time alone with just my thoughts. No outside voices or influence, other than the sometimes deafening sound of creeks, storms or wildlife.
I feel this call to wild places often, it excites me, makes me feel alive in a way I find unexplainable to folks who know only an urban type life. The mere thought of hearing a grumpy old bull screaming obscenities down in some dark timbered basin gives me goosebumps. Witnessing a bachelor group of velvet horned mule deer high in an alpine basin is a sight witnessed by few but cherished by those lucky enough to experience it. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t frequently imagine how cool it would be if my wife or closest friends were able to be there to witness these moments, but selfishly I get this great sense of appreciation for how truly blessed I am to be the only one on that mountain privy to what’s laid out before me.
When hunting alone I often remind myself how incredibly lucky I am in my awareness as well as my physical ability to get out and enjoy places most of society will unfortunately never observe.
I’ve come to absolutely love alone time in the mountains where communication is a minimum and the only sounds are from myself or nature. The complete quiet time spent alone adds a completely different component and feel to backcountry travel, whether hiking, fishing high mountain lakes, or hunting some remote basin. For myself complete solitude provides me with a higher level of focus, a “pay attention to every detail” type focus that is hard to describe yet I know it’s there.
I thrive with this intense focus, I feel it’s a subconscious survival tool that prevents me from doing something really really stupid that could be life threatening. Within this wake of subconscious survival I also reap the rewards of greater observation, which is of great importance when learning new country, or simply formulating a game plan when stalking some cagey old buck.
Although I’ve worked on being more comfortable amongst crowds and urban environments, I know I’ll never feel at ease or as relaxed as when alone in the mountains. The possibility of investigating unexplored landscapes, archery hunting hidden basins where boot tracks are void, getting that all too familiar feeling that I may be the only person to ever step foot in this exact place, these experiences excite me. They excite me to the point of when opportunity arises I take full advantage of these times and enjoy them to their fullest. There is no better way to feed my drive, my true passion, than being alone in the backcountry.
During my younger years, some of my friends might look to hit a party on a friday night, but even back then I had absolutely no desire to waste time chit chatting when I could be blazing a trail somewhere for an overnighter or two. Choosing to bonsai trip into some remote place far away from folks and completely alone always seemed more satisfying. Those were the days that I learned the most important lessons, how to travel with camp on my back, how to survive the roughness of the unforgiving backcountry life while covering great distances in search of nothing specific.
Thinking back to the early years of solo overnighters I'll be honest, the first few were a little spooky. Long nights, darkness, unfamiliar noises, threat of injury, yes my imagination could run wild when I was completely alone with no one to communicate with. By nature humans are social beings, yet I learned at an early age we are also very capable of being alone if the positive outweighs the negative. There was never any doubt that I would do whatever it took to not just survive but thrive and feel comfortable navigating these places alone. Experience, preparedness and quite possibly the most important, stubbornness, has led me down a path of being extremely content and confident when heading into the mountains alone.
That being said there are many challenges faced when not having the companionship of a partner.The daily living activities such as gathering wood, finding water, locating a flat spot and setting up camp, take much more effort when solo. Doing all of these necessary “chores” after a long day of hunting high country can be exhausting when every detail is important and it’s all on you. There is no one to talk to at the end of the day, no one to share your stories, or cover the daily findings. Having a partner can allow twice as much ground to be seen which can definitely help your success when hunting. It also means you are alone with your thoughts, and if you aren't used to that, it's a practice that takes just that, practice.
Facing fears such as possibility of injury, encounters with predators, strange noises from outside your shelter and extreme weather is a very real part of the solo hunt lifestyle. Best way I've found to overcome these fears has been to acquire more experiences which provides knowledge and confidence. Confidence builds resilience, allowing one to realize their true potential in the backcountry. I've always believed that having the ability to suffer or just being able to thrive in uncomfortable situations is an essential part of finding consistent success. Overcoming fears through gained experience, repeated uncomfortable or difficult situations in time will allow for an elevated confidence when traveling or hunting alone.
If you're successful and harvest an animal, that's when the real work begins. Being physically competent and having confidence in one’s abilities is an absolute must. The hours and sheer endurance required to break down an animal and somehow, someway, get that meat back to the truck is generally nothing short of brutal. With a deer, one very heavy trip of 100 plus pounds can be what is required. With elk it will be multiple trips with heavy weight. Either way, the physical and mental wear this can put on you is no doubt the hardest part of hunting solo.
This is why the off season for a solo hunter is so undeniably important. Training with a heavy pack, keeping the leg and back muscles strong, and having a tremendously strong cardio game it of utmost importance. If you want to be a solo hunter with ambitions of hunting big mountains and areas with little traffic, you need to be in phenomenal shape, period.
Obviously the physicality of any trip into Western mountain ranges is intense and amped up significantly when tackled alone. I know many folks that bonk or crash physically within the first few days of a tough mountain hunt and success is very limited when this is the case, especially when hunting general public land hunts. BUT, even more so I think people lose it mentally and get pulled out of the hills not simply because of poor physical endurance but because of a lack of mental endurance or fortitude. Ever hear the saying “everyone has a plan till they get punched in the mouth”?
Many of us adventure seekers spend excessive amounts of time thinking and dreaming of how we are going to crush it in the mountains every year. Yet many have not prepared themselves for what could and probably will be setbacks, frustrations and even pain. Most things are not that difficult when in controlled environments, such as running on a treadmill or hitting the temperature controlled gym where things typically go the way you intend.
High mountain hunting punches me in the mouth every year in one way, shape, or form. Knowing this is going to be the case and preparing to deal with poor and all too often uncomfortable situations is huge if consistent success is what you’re striving for. The expectation of good weather, game rich environments and problem free adventures was thrown out the window long long ago and conversely I now expect the worst. I just expect I’ll need to move locations several times during a hunt. I’ll hike countless miles, and I’ll no doubt encounter setbacks throughout the trip.
I truly believe that when leaving the trailhead with the “gonna be a tough trip” mindset, giving up will be far less likely. Mental stamina and the ability to overcome obstacles is something every solo hunter must have and work on throughout the year. Expect to get punched in the mouth, expect day upon day of rainy wet miserable conditions, and adapt and overcome by preparing yourself to be uncomfortable in the off season by hiking, running and working out when it’s not ideal. I truly believe that mental stamina can be built through hard experiences and repetition.
Solo hunting is not the easiest, the smartest , or the most effective way to hunt, but for some it’s truly rewarding and I know for me it’s become the ultimate test of my abilities. The challenges and hardships involved are welcomed more than ever and will forever present an incredible playground to test my body, mind, and soul in a way no other activity has come close to. The confidence in abilities that is required to set off into the wild unknown can be slow to take shape in the beginning, but no doubt will become a passion if the drive to do so is great enough.