Tools of the Trade
While working in what my wife calls the "sporting goods department", but I call a garage, I received a phone call the other day. "He’s out playing with his toys, hang on" I over heard her say, as a bodiless hand thrust the phone at me through the cracked door. Muffling the receiver I yelled in pointless defense, "This is gear. Toys are for children."
"The only difference between men and boys..." came the tart response.
I have heard it said that hunting is as much a sport of collection as it is anything else. I tend to agree. I love to page through outdoor catalogs and wander sporting goods stores and dream. Good gear, carefully chosen and tailored to the hunters needs, is a joy to use. A hunter’s decisions on equipment are a highly personal matter, and I would not presume to say the following suggestions are perfect for everyone. As a person who mostly hunts in Wyoming’s high country, my choices are tailored to that type of terrain. However, the following choices were made over many years of trial and error and represent a great starting point for those just beginning to gear up, as well as for the more experienced hunter, to consider. If a particular brand of product has really proven itself I have mentioned it specifically, but otherwise these are general descriptions of gear any hunter wanting to be fully prepared could consider.
Proper clothing is the most important choice in gear a hunter makes! Dressing in layers so you can precisely adjust to the weather is the key. I do this with the following system, starting with a base layer and working out:
#1 – Expedition weight camouflage polypropylene long underwear top. I sometimes end up stripping down to this layer when the afternoon temperatures get high, or after a hard climb, so I like the camouflage version. It feels more like I’m wearing a long sleeve T-shirt than underwear. Mid-weight polypropylene long underwear bottoms are a less restrictive and lighter way to go. I like poly and other products like it, for their moisture wicking abilities. When possible I usually bring several sets of long underwear to camp so I can change into fresh ones each morning.
#2 - Thick wool socks over polypropylene sock liners. The importance of good socks is hard to overstate. Ask any backpacker or infantryman and they will tell you. This combination is well proven to help keep feet warm, dry, comfortable, and blister free.
#3 - 1 to 3 layers of fleece pullover tops. 1 layer is good for temperatures in the 30-60 degree range, 2 layers are good for 20-30 degrees, and I put on 3 layers if it is colder than 20 degrees. I wear 1 or 2 layers of fleece pants as well, but like to stay lighter here if I will be hiking much.
#4 - Cabela`s MT050 Gore-Tex Ultimate raincoat and pants. I put suspenders and a belt on the pants to keep them in place better. These are light, quiet, waterproof, and break the wind.
#5 – Insulated and waterproof blaze orange fleece hat with a short bill. The short bill is important, as it doesn’t interfere with the scope when shooting and the fleece is nice and quiet. I also wear a similar insinuated hat in warm weather.
#6 - Blaze orange fleece vest. I don’t want to get shot. I buy good quality vests so that I can get a few seasons out of them. They need to be large enough to fit over the coat and insulating layers.
#7 - Shooting gloves or mittens. I hate wearing either when shooting, but it is sometimes necessary. Thin shooting gloves serve for most cold weather hunting. The mittens, with finger holes, are pretty good for really cold weather.
#8 - Fleece neck gaiter. I highly recommend these for adding warmth in the morning or evening.
#9 – Really good boots are a treasure. I bring two pairs to camp. A standard set of lightly insulated hunting boots, and a set of Pac boots for when the temperature drops and snow gets deep. I have had good experiences with the Danner “Elk Hunter” model. Long before the season I like to soak new boots in water for 10 minutes or so, then wear them until they are dry. This will take most of the day. This is an old method of breaking in footgear, but it works very well. I learned the hard way what damage new boots could do to your feet. My Pac boots are Irish Setter Snow Tracker’s. With 1000 grams of thinsulate they are still fairly light yet very warm. These boots are more like a hiking boot then most Pac’s and I wear them with a pair of gaiters to keep out snow, as well as keeping my lower pant legs dry. The main thing with boots is to find some that fit you well. This may take some experimenting but is well worth it.
Rifles, Scopes, and Bullets
A good rifle that the shooter knows intimately is like an old friend. Having a battery of rifles that back each other up is a good idea, so that if something goes wrong with one you have another option. I never make a hunting camp with only one rifle in it. Leupold scopes have excellent eye relief and a fantastic lifetime guarantee. I am a loyal customer. Here are my personal favorites that have proven themselves over and over:
Elk, Moose, and Bear:
I love my battered old Winchester M70 Featherweight re-chambered in .338-06. It wears a Leupold Vari X-III 2.5-8x36 scope and fires a 225-grain Nosler Partition spitzer at an average of 2709 fps. This rifle has manageable recoil while the big Nosler bullet, moving at relatively moderate velocity, is absolutely devastating.
I have a new setup for mulies, a Winchester M70 Featherweight in .270 WSM. It wears a 3-9x40 Leupold VXIII scope and fires 130 grain Swift Sciroccos at 3303 fps. This rifle has already proven itself on 7 deer, and I look forward to hunting with it for many years to come.
Whitetail Deer and Wild Boar:
A Marlin 336C lever gun in .35 Remington will shoot a 200-grain Hornady round nose at 2006 fps and has taken dozens of animals out to 200 yards. This rifle wears a Leupold Vari X- II 2-7x33 scope. It is compact for tree stand use, points wonderfully, and hits hard.
A Remington 700 BDL chambered in .25-06 is my favorite pronghorn rifle. It fires a 100-grain Sierra Game King bullet at 3315 fps and is extremely accurate. For longer range shooting, I have topped it with a Leupold Vari-XIII 4.5–14x40. With its 26 inch barrel, pillar bedded stock, and custom Jewel trigger, this heavy and stable rifle is deadly out to almost 400 yards on “speed goats”.
I always carry 20 rounds of ammunition in a quickly accessible carrier straps attached to my belt or daypack waist strap. I have at least 60 more rounds back at camp, just in case I have to sight in the gun again for some reason. 20 rounds may seem like a lot to carry, but I would rather be over prepared than under, and if something unexpected happens, like I make a bad shot and need to finish of an animal that is getting away, I want to be able to handle that situation. My rule on most game is to keep shooting until the animal is out of view or dies. Once down, if the animal looks like it might get back up, I hit it again.
Since I rarely trophy hunt I do not typically carry a spotting scope to evaluate headgear. If big antlers are your thing, a spotting scope is helpful. However I always carry full sized binoculars. Nothing infuriates me more than watching another hunter use his scope as binoculars since this practice breaks virtually every rule of safe gun handling. A hunter’s choice of binoculars is a personal matter and what works for one person might not work for everyone. In open country I like to use a pair of 7x50 porro-prism binoculars. In my experience, this style and magnification seem to have the widest field of view, which is handy when scanning large areas of featureless landscape. In mountainous areas, I usually switch to a set of 10X40 roof-prism binoculars. In the mountains I tend to do less scanning and more looking at odd appearing objects trying to decipher if they are a game animal or just a log. Roof-prisms also seem to generally have a better power to weight ratio. I tend to favor full sized optics, as they are easier to hold steady for long glassing sessions. I personally have never found a pair of compact binoculars I could comfortably look though for more than an hour or two. A hunter can spend so much time with binoculars glued to his face, they start to feel like a natural extension of the body. Cheap binoculars are worthless as they hurt to use over time and do not have the resolution to really pick out game. It has been said many, many times but it is true, good binoculars are essential to effective hunting. The hunter who spends his hard earned cash on good binoculars is far more likely to kill game than the guy with cheap optics who carries a fancy rifle.
A good daypack is far more useful than a fanny pack, because it can hold extra clothing you don’t want to wear in the afternoon, yet needed in the cold of morning and evening. My loaded Bianchi Endurance Pack weighs just a touch over 8 pounds fully loaded. It has well padded shoulder straps and waist belt, as well as lots of straps to attach things to the outside. Inside it I carry the following items:
Etrex GPS unit - Simple and fairly cheap, this is a great product that is simple to use without lots of unnecessary bells and whistles.
Compass – I use mine in combination with the GPS to “stay found” at all times. Anyone can get lost so I do not fool myself into thinking some imagined sense of direction will always be good enough.
USGS or BLM Map(s) - With all my scouting notes on it, a map is one of my best friends when in the field. I prefer the USGS maps because I can customize them to the area I will be hunting, but the maps sold out of BLM offices are pretty good in a pinch. You can order USGS maps on line at http://www.usgs.gov/pubprod/maps.html
Hydration Bladder – Even in cold weather it is critical to stay hydrated when you are working hard. I always carry two liters of water. Hydration bladders are nice because the hunter can quietly sip from the attached hose, without the movement of digging out a water bottle.
Small headlamp - I like the LED versions whose batteries last forever. Mine is a Petzl Tikka, and is great for finding your way in the dark. I use it every time I go hunting.
Mini Maglite flashlight – A second light is nice to have. If something unexpected happens to the headlamp, finding the way out in the dark could be hazardous to your health.
Spare batteries - For the GPS and flashlights.
Small camera and film – I like to record my hunts so I can relive them later. Pictures of scenery, camp, wildlife, and hopefully a harvested animal, are fun to share with friends and family.
License/stamps/hunter education certificate – Carried in a waterproof zip lock bag for obvious reasons.
Toilet paper – Again for obvious reasons.
Surgical gloves – I carry 2 pair for field dressing chores. They are more durable and effective if you double them up. Why risk infection?
Felt tip pen - To sign the tag with, make notes on the map, and other uses.
Orange flagging - For marking trails and downed animals, flagging is suprisingly useful.
25 feet of parachute cord – This is good for hanging quarters, tying a hoof to a tree for field dressing, or hauling an unloaded rifle up into a tree stand.
Buck Vanguard hunting knife – Kept so sharp it scares you. I prefer a 3 to 4 inch drop point knife. Buck Knives lifetime guarantee has replaced this knife twice due to broken tips. Incidentally the broken tips were due to misuse on my part when digging out elk ivories.
Wyoming saw – I have tried hatchets and other saws, but I prefer this product for its light weight and ease of use. I use the smaller model to good effect for quartering and separating breast and pelvic bones.
Leatherman “Wave” multi-tool – A handy tool that has a knife blade if needed, a scissors to wedge tags, and enough other tools to help with a jammed gun or other problems.
Orange bandanna – One of those items that serve a million uses.
Pepper spray – Carried in case of bear trouble when appropriate, and kept strapped to the packs waist for quick access.
Laser range finder – A handy but non-essential device I have grown very fond of. Mine is a Cabelas CLR800.
Lunch - I like power bars, jerky, and dried fruit. These foods are light, packed with nutrition, require no heating, and taste pretty good. I don’t carry a big lunch, as I would rather spend my time hunting than eating.
Shooting Sticks – I consider these to be essential gear, as a steady rest is not always available. I like the Stoney Point “Steady Sticks” with the new attached third leg. I carry them assembled and they work well as a walking stick when not in use. It is important to practice with them before the season opens.
Calls – I like to use deer or cow elk calls mostly to cover noises made as I enter a stand or glassing location. They are also occasionally useful for stopping a moving animal, provided you remember to blow them.
Emergency Survival Kit – I do not go anywhere without a basic survival kit. The three needs of a survival kit are fire construction, shelter building, and signaling for help. In a waterproof bag I keep: 3 ways to start a fire (lighters, wooden matches, and a magnesium match), dry tinder (clothes dryer lint and steel wool mix), pocket sized emergency blanket, plastic whistle, and a small signal mirror.
1st Aid Kit - I don’t carry much. A few band-aids, blister treatment, Ibuprophen, some prescription medication I need, tums, and an ace bandage. Anything more is just extra weight.
Great gear is fun to use and helps us be more effective. Being adequately prepared takes thought and planning, but when fall rolls around and the autumn wind beckons us into the fields, the well outfitted hunter is ready to enjoy it all with the peace of mind that no matter what occurs he is ready.