Hunting mountains is not for the faint of heart.
My watch with altimeter read 6,800 feet. We had been hiking for almost two hours at this point with heavy packs and ambition coming out of our ears. Four miles so far lay behind us. Knowing there was only one more mile standing between us and camp elevated our excitement even more.
The fact that camp was at 8,800 feet, though, immediately put a lump in our throats. We’d have to ascend 2,000 feet in the last mile before setting camp for the week. That last climb was a reality check. These were not the arid rolling hills we were used to hunting deer back home in Arizona. These were mountains and ones that demanded our respect and ultimate attention. I didn’t leave with a deer on that first mountain hunt, but I did leave with perspective.
Since that day all those years ago, I’ve been hooked to hunting the steep and deep. I’ve had the ultimate pleasure of hunting in mountainous terrain from the desert to the top of the Rockies. On those adventures, I’ve picked up a few valuable tidbits to make life easier up high.
Physical Preparation for Hunting Mountains
Taking your hunting desires into the mountains is easy to sit there and romanticize about back home. When you’re actually in it, though, it can be debilitating. Muscles that you never knew about will give a tap on the shoulder, your breath will be stolen, and exhaustion will set in. Not preparing physically for a mountain hunt is setting yourself up for disaster and disappointment. Dedicate yourself to doing so, and you’ll be much better off.
The absolute best way to train for hiking with a heavy pack in the mountains is to, well, hike with a heavy pack in the mountains. If you’ve got terrain like this available to you, take full advantage of it. I’ll do this with moderate weight for the first few hikes and then build from there.
A training hike plan for me might look something like this:
- Week 1 – 35 pounds – 3 miles
- Week 2 – 35 pounds – 5 miles
- Week 3 – 50+ pounds – 3 miles
- Week 4 – 50+ pounds – 5 miles
Not everyone has access to trails and mountains, however. If that is you, do not worry. Simply loading up that pack and strolling through the neighborhood can help. Add in some weighted step-ups to up the ante. After each block, lay down 20 air squats. If you’ve got a treadmill at home, increase the incline and “tread” your pack firmly fitted. This activity may not be actual mountains, but it sure is better than nothing.
What we’re trying to do here is build both strength and endurance. We need strong legs, a strong core, and the ability to keep going and not stop. That is mountain hunting. Other workouts to consider are HIIT and CrossFit. Both will aid in reaching these goals.
The Mental Game of Hunting Mountains
Traversing mountain country with a tag in your pocket isn’t just a physical game. In fact, I daresay it’s more of a mental game. Just this past August, while archery deer hunting in the high country of Utah, I witnessed such things. A great friend of mine who had never laid foot in a similar remote area fell victim to the mental game the mountains force.
He is an experienced hunter with many nights under the stars. When it came time to make moves on deer, though, he could not get over how steep and rugged this particular place was. It left him not going on many stalks at all. He was intimidated, and I understood. To hunt the mountains effectively, though, you have to be willing to walk its corridors and immerse yourself in the experience. It is much easier said than done but necessary.
If I had to pinpoint the most common reason that sends hunters back to the truck, it’s the mental grind day in and day out. Hunting in the mountains is hard. There’s no way around it. So, you need to go through it. The harder it gets, the easier it gets to quit and head home. I’ve been there and seen it happen before me.
In these circumstances, the best thing to do is to remember why you’re out there. You signed up to be cold and miserable. You decided to lug a heavy backpack far into the backcountry to hunt. And it was you romanticizing with your buddies about how epic this adventure will be and how much you can’t wait to be in the moment. That was you, and that is all of us. Remember that the next time your mind is ready to call it quits.
Key Gear for Hunting Mountains
While hunting the mountains is mentally and physically exhausting, some essential gear items make the whole experience much better. Everything is expensive these days, and there are certainly areas to cut corners, but these are not those areas.
First on the list is boots. Boots are essentially the tires that will help propel you through mountain country. It pays huge dividends to have the added support of quality footwear in steep and rocky terrain. The four most significant features I look for in a boot are comfort, durability, waterproofing, and support. I’ve had issues in all four of these areas in the past, and I’ve learned from each one of them.
Be sure to test out boots before heading into the mountains. The trailhead is not the place to lace them up for the first time. You’d be asking for trouble. Nip this in the bud well in advance, and you’ll be that much better off. Happy feet mean happy hunting.
Years ago, I used a backpack that would light up my hip flexors immediately. It didn’t matter if I had a lot of weight packed or not. It made for many unpleasant hikes, and I’ll never go back. So, another item that is crucial for mountain hunting is a quality backpack. It’s what will haul all of your gear, and with any luck, your harvest, back to your vehicle.
We wear our backpacks almost all day long on every hunt, so they must be comfortable as well as capable. Get a backpack with a sound suspension system and learn how to use it. That’s one of the biggest mistakes I have seen. People pay an arm and a leg for a pack but don’t even know how to put it on correctly. A good pack will go the distance for you and keep going.
The mountains are a somewhat unpredictable place in terms of weather. One minute it could be hot, and the next, it could be snowing and cold. I had an experience like this on a recent elk hunt in Idaho. We went from wearing t-shirts to our big puffy jackets in a hurry. It’s imperative to have a functional layering system that you can depend on, protecting you from the elements. Something with a wide range of capabilities that can be used in a wide range of situations is most suitable.
A basic layering system for me looks like this:
- Lightweight merino shirt
- Midweight merino shirt
With this template, I can add or subtract gear items as needed. However, the logic is that you want some sort of wicking layer or two next to your skin to transport moisture away from your body. Then your insulation is there to well, insulate your body heat, as well as dry out any moisture underneath. And the rain gear is self-explanatory. Depending on the time of year, we are going for either warm and dry or cool and dry. In either case, a system that works together.
Final Thoughts on Hunting Mountains
As I sit here reflecting on the mountainous ambitions of my younger self, that same ambition has not waned in the least. I’m glad I made that first trip into the mountains, as I believe it changed me for the better. Not only did a new love spark, but it shined a light on what I was capable of as a hunter. Hunting in the mountains offers a unique experience that will push you both physically and mentally past the point the back 40 ever could.
With time and a little know-how, though, you won’t just “want” to hunt the mountains — you’ll “need” to.