Last fall I was lucky enough to join a friend and his father on a hunting trip. It was their umpteenth trip into the woods, but my first. They had been going to the same place since my friend’s father had started hunting, almost 45 years ago.
We were hunting deer, and my friend and his father and both won in the lottery to hunt Does as well as Bucks.
(Note: they don’t use deer stands. It is more, “you cover this area and I’ll cover that area.” And while my friend and his father often just pick a spot and sit there all day long, I knew that I would be allowed to wander a fairly large area if I felt like, which I certainly intended to do).
I had asked for advice on what to bring and received plenty, so I was fairly well prepared. But like any survival situation, no kind of preparation compares to real experience. Though I’d grown up in a very rural area and had plenty of childhood experience roaming around the bush behind my parent’s house, I was ill-prepared for reality.
When you’re sitting in your cozy home, exercising on your treadmill, filling your bug-out bag in preparation for a volatile future, keep in my mind experiences as I list them here. Based on my very first hunting excursion, here we go:
- The forest is not your neighborhood park – Walking 100 yards through the park might take you 30 to 60 seconds. Walking 100 yards through the wilderness could take you 30 to 60 minutes. This is not a joke and I’m not exaggerating. Every step is negotiated; every branch on every bush or tree is tugging at your clothes. Every pound in your backpack is pulling you backward and downward. You’ve got a gun in your hands but you’re constantly grabbing branches to push them out of your way, or for balance. Not to mention that you’re constantly watching for movement around you, whether it’s for dangers or for food. You stop, listen, muscles aching. Trudge forward a few steps, stop again.
- You’re carrying too much – No, don’t argue with me. You’ve got too much in your backpack, in your pockets, in your hands, on your head. 40lbs on your back feels like 100lbs when you’re in the wilderness (See point #1 above). I know because I’ve trained in my local park with 60lbs on my back. That was easy. The wilderness is not. Pare down your backpack until you’ve got what you really need. There have been umpteen articles on backpack prep, so I won’t cover it here. Suffice to say that the 2 pellet guns I was carrying were left at base after day one.
- You have to be in shape – Every day of our hunting trip started with a 2km hike up a big hill with a net ascension of 120 meters. Then the real work started. If your bugout plan involves “heading to the hills”, and there’s a chance it might involve foot power, you better be ready for it. If you think you are ready, try this: grab your bugout bag and go to the nearest set of stairs that is at least 1 story high. Now go up and down 30 times. Did you make it? If you didn’t, you’re not ready. If you did, are you flat on your face trying to catch your breath? Because that’s still not good enough. Because now you have to do it another 30. Remember, just because it might be a nice straight, flat walk to your destination, doesn’t mean you will be able to take that preferred route during TEOTWAWKI. Be ready.
- The wilderness is not teaming with food – The neighborhood where I live is rife with wildlife. Every morning when I take my 4km walk, I see 5-6 rabbits, a dozen squirrels, umpteen birds. I often see raccoon or other small game remains on the roads. After 5 days in the wilderness, I saw perhaps 2 squirrels in all that time (and one deer). I know there are more about, especially nocturnal animals, but don’t expect to bag a dozen squirrels and rabbits a day with your .22 while you’re wandering along to your hidey hole.
- Getting lost is easy – I know, you’ve heard it before. It’s so easy to get turned around, you’ll do it in about 10 steps. That’s why, every 10 steps, look behind you and see where you’ve come from. Identify your land marks. Oddly, one of the easiest things to identify are animal trails. I began marking off my territory based on deer trails that crisscrossed the area. Which leads to my next point:
- Know your geography – I knew that if I traveled east far enough, or west far enough, I would hit water in either direction. I knew what it meant if I traveled south by either of those water ways. I knew where the highest point in the area was, and I knew what I would see if I traveled too far north. When in doubt, go up – There’s less chance of getting turned around; you’ll have a better view of your surroundings; you’ll stay out of wet areas; it’s a lot easier coming down.
- Be prepared for inclement weather – I have a Columbia winter coat that I’ve used for about 12 years. It was about $300 when I bought it, which seemed pretty steep at the time, but I splurged because I thought it would last, and it has. It’s also water resistant, and I’ve never had to worry about being caught in wet conditions with it.
On the first day of our hunting trip, though it had snowed heavily the night before, the weather report was for a clear sunny day, and clear sunny days for several days beyond. Temperatures were around freezing (0C/32F), so I wore my coat anyway as I wanted to be prepared for anything. About mid-morning, as the sun was rising, and I was enjoying one of the most beautiful mornings I’ve ever witnessed, with the light shining through snow-laden trees, I was beginning to think I should have left my coat at home. Because heck, my pack was heavy, what with extra pellet guns and all. But then the snow started melting. And it started raining. Yes, raining. It started slowly, just a drip-drip at a time, then it came down heavy. All that snow melted and rained on me for a solid 2 hours. Thank God I had my coat, because I would have been drenched in no time in very cold temperatures.
- Use quality gear – Back to the coat. Branches, bushes, sticks, all tugged on my poor coat every where I went. I even fell down a couple times, slid across the ground, scraped across rocks. I expected my coat to be in tatters by the end, but it held up great, in fact it doesn’t have a scratch on it now. The wilderness is not a forgiving environment, on you or your clothes. Don’t use garbage that won’t last the first day. I’ll mention a few other quality items I carry:
The knife – I know, I know. Another item talked about ad nauseam. But it’s just so important. I carry a Fallkniven S1, which I also used to gut my first deer. It is easily the best, sharpest knife I have ever used. After about 20 seconds of gutting, my friend said, “Holy cr** that’s a sharp knife.” (He has been hunting for 20 years). These knives aren’t for looks (though it looks great too, imo), but it’s a quality survival knife if there ever was one.
A compass – I don’t carry a great compass. I carry 3 lesser ones. They all do a good job, or more importantly, they agree with each other. I will buy a quality compass to compliment my collection when funds permit. When I was hiking around getting a feel for the land, I was checking a compass about every 30 seconds – way more often than I anticipated.
7-strand paracord – So many uses it’s ridiculous. I carried about 30 feet of it. Next time I will up that to 50’, maybe 100.
Boots – Wolverine Impala 600 Thinsulate. Another item I won’t skimp on. My feet run hot, so 600 is more than enough. Waterproof, tough as tough, but nice and comfortable. Keep your toes moving.
Leatherman Juice X – Not only is this a great survival tool, but I keep it on my hip for everyday use. And I use it, every day. My friends are so used to seeing it, they always ask to borrow it too.
And, of course, the garbage:
Backpack – I had a cheap backpack that carried a bunch of stuff. It was uncomfortable to wear, especially with a lot of weight in it. It was hard to adjust the straps, in fact a couple of them broke on day one, and threads were coming out all over.
As soon as I got back home, I ran out and purchased a Redhead Hybrid Illuminator Pack. It’s very functional, versatile, and comfortable. My shoulders thank me.
Thermos – On the first day, my two companions carried thermoses with coffee, and I was annoyed I hadn’t thought to bring my own. Mid-morning on that day, I really wished I had a couple cups of coffee to lift my spirits, because, as I mentioned above, it was raining on me pretty hard.
At the end of the 1st day I drove to the local Wal-Mart and picked up a thermos of my own. As we trudged through the woods on day 2 and I was thinking happily how much I was going to enjoy a nice cup of coffee, I accidentally bumped my pack against a tree. The sound of broken glass inside my thermos was unmistakable. As was the smell of coffee that leaked out of the thermos and drenched everything in my (cheap and non-water resistant) backpack.
Did I really need the extra weight of a thermos full of coffee, when I was already carrying a water bottle? Well, if you can put up with the extra weight, it sure is a spirit lifter. I think next time I will carry some coffee grounds and a filter and make it on the spot. Best of both worlds.
- Always carry a medical kit and keep your medical training up to date – I used several band-aids during my 5 days in the wilderness, which isn’t much really. But a week back from hunting, I came across a bad car accident that had happened only a couple minutes before. When I got on the scene there was an elderly lady lying in a deep ditch and a bunch of by-standers were running around clueless as to what to do. So I went and helped the lady. There wasn’t anything seriously wrong with her. Her chest and back were both sore. So after primary and secondary survey, I made sure she was warm, held her hand, and talked to her for 20 minutes until the ambulance arrived. The point of this should be obvious: not all medical emergencies happen where you expect them to. Always be ready.
- Plan your meeting points with specific times – Our day always started with, “I’ll see you at spot A at this such-and-such time. If I don’t see you there, I’ll see you at spot B at such-and-such-later time. If I don’t see you there, I’ll see you at Spot C at such-and-such-later time. If I don’t see you there at that time, then stay right where you are because I’m coming to find you.” This was usually aimed at me, the new guy, but it was for the whole group. It would have reversed if I had made all the meeting times but my friend or his father didn’t. Not only is this good procedure to follow, it’s a great peace of mind for someone like myself out in an unknown wilderness for my first time.
- Electronic Communication – Don’t count on it. Our radios and cell phones were constantly in and out because of rugged terrain and distance. Have a backup plan for when you can’t communicate with your group. Always carry a whistle. When I had shot my first deer and was trying to guide my friend to me over the radio, for an aggravating 10 minutes, I eventually gave up and just started blowing my whistle. He found me less than a minute later. And marveled about how far he had been traveling off course based on my guidance.