It’s finally here...what you’ve waited for all summer...the thing you’ve gone to sleep dreaming about nearly every night...OPENING DAY! Sure, hunting seasons start at different times throughout the Fall depending on the species and state you plan to hunt, but the late summer marks the first glimpses into the glory that is Fall for the outdoorsman. Whether you’re chasing velvet bucks in the west, sneaking up on those curious little antelope, or getting an early jump on the Elk rut, the start of hunting season is a magical time.
But, what always seems to happen to so many of us is that we find ourselves unprepared. We’ve spent the whole off-season dreaming and planning, shooting our weapons, picking our spots...and then we get 24 hours away from heading to hunting camp, and suddenly realize all the things we’ve forgotten. There’s a mad dash to the nearest store to fill a shopping cart with essential hunting gear, or the sudden realization during a rainstorm that we don’t know how to set up our tent. It always seems that no matter how much preparation we do leading up to season, there’s still a scramble that usually results in a few less than awesome moments in the field.
So, in the interest of saving ourselves a few backcountry headaches, here is a last-minute preseason checklist to walk through…
Hopefully, you’ve been practicing and keeping your skills sharp throughout the off-season, and not just breaking out the bow or rifle the day before you leave. While there’s still a little time, make sure that your weapon - in the exact configuration you plan to hunt with it - is right on-target. If bowhunting, have you been practicing with your broadheads [https://www.vparchery.com/broadheads] to make sure they’re hitting right where you want them? With your rifle, have you sent at least a few rounds of the exact cartridge you plan to hunt with downrange? So many seemingly insignificant changes can affect your accuracy, so make sure you feel confident with your exact hunting setup!
Test ALL Your Gear
If you’ve been an outdoorsman for a while, it’s easy to slip into a false sense of security. “I know how to set up a tent, no need to test this new one out.” I have learned the hard way that every single piece of gear should be tested prior to heading out in the field. Quick story: I carried a hunting pack for 2 years in the backcountry before harvesting an animal with it. Only after I had shot a bull elk and had it quartered up three miles from the truck did I finally open up the meat compartment...that’s when I discovered it had a significant design flaw that would barely allow some tenderloins and neck meat to be crammed in there. I had to rig up a much less comfortable solution (yes, it involved ratchet straps) to get those quarters out of the woods, and it was a miserable packout! The moral of the story: test ALL your gear before heading into the field.
So, tents should be set up, packs should be thoroughly tested, camp stoves (and even the food you plan to eat out there) should be familiar to you. Spend a night in your backyard or on a preseason scouting trip using your entire sleep system to make sure it works for you. How’s your rain gear? Are your boots broken in? Do they work well with the socks you plan to wear? As much as possible, have everything you plan to hunt with be familiar to you before you head out there.
Okay, the old adage, “two is one, one is none” is a nice sentiment, but obviously you can’t pack two of every piece of gear with you into the field. Sometimes things will go wrong and gear will fail, but those are the things great hunting stories are made of. Of course, the best hunting stories are when you can overcome those setbacks and stay out there chasing your prey. Because of Murphey and his incessant law, I believe at least a few key pieces of backup gear are necessary. These can even be left at the truck since you probably won’t need them, but they’re semi-close just in case.
Archery Hunt: Spare archery release, a few extra arrows (w/ broadheads), D-loop material.
Rifle Hunt: Extra ammo (obviously), basic cleaning tools/supplies.
Camping: Toiletries/First-Aid, Sleeping Pad/Bag (this can be great for a backpacking hunt to crash a night at the truck without unpacking your whole pack...but also helps if your pad springs a leak or bag gets soaked), Duct Tape, Water/Food, batteries.
Hunting: Boots (even a worn-out old pair), calls, knife.
Obviously, add anything to this list that would make you feel more comfortable (or that’s possibly failed you in the past), and load up a bin that just lives in the truck. Even if your gear doesn’t fail, it’s always nice to be the hero who can help get a buddy back in the game.
Maps, Backup Plans, etc.
Now is the time to make sure you have everything you could ever need to navigate the places you plan to be. If you use a GPS or phone app, make sure you’ve downloaded all the areas you think you might ever end up in. Also, print paper backups just in case. This is also a great time to test any satellite communication device you may be using, as deep in the backcountry is no place to find out you can’t contact anyone if you needed to. Basically, anything you need wifi or electricity for, get it all taken care of now so you don’t have to try to remember right before you leave.
The cat is officially out of the bag on physical fitness for hunting: it really helps...a lot. Especially if you’ve been preparing for a physically demanding, mountain-climbing style hunt, you’ve hopefully spent at least the last few months getting into the best shape possible. In the last week before your hunt, you’ll obviously be leery of losing all your progress right before hitting the mountains. Yes, you should still train, but make that last week a very light week. Any serious training program is a continual cycle of breaking your body down, recovering, and breaking it down some more. You want to stay active while allowing your body to do a lot of recovery in that final week. Maybe limit that last week to two workouts, lighten the weights by 10-20%, and hit some moderate cardio. If you’ve been training hard for months, it’ll seem like you’re wimping out...I promise, you’ll be so happy you did once you hit the trail and your body is freshly recovered and ready to tackle anything you put in front of it.
One of the primary reasons we hunt is the hundreds of pounds of lean, organic, delicious protein it provides. That being said, meat-care is of the utmost importance, and requires a little forethought. Especially on an early hunt in potentially warm weather, throwing a hot cooler from the garage in the back of your truck and planning to grab some ice at the nearest gas station after a harvest is just asking for some meat spoilage. I recommend freezing enough gallon water jugs to line the bottom of your cooler. It costs nothing, and will stay frozen for at least a week. That, coupled with keeping your cooler in the shade (camper shell, tarp, etc.), will have you dropping that fresh meat in an already cold cooler...then you can still make it to town and top the whole thing off with fresh ice. But, gallons of water need a couple days to freeze solid, so get it prepped ahead of time.
License, Tag, and Know the Laws
I’ve known more than one person who got to their hunt and realized they had left their license and/or tag at home. Yes, most game and fish offices can help you by printing a duplicate, but that can be time and miles you don’t want to waste. Days before leaving on any hunt, I triple check that my license and appropriate tags are packed exactly where I want them on the hunt. (I also keep pictures of them on my phone, just in case). Don’t save it for your last gear sweep before you leave the house...put them in the place you plan to have them while you hunt days before you plan to leave.
On that note, make sure you know exactly what the state you’re hunting requires if you do harvest an animal. Do you need to leave proof of sex attached? If so, what do they consider the right way to do that? Are they very particular about where you attach your tag to the animal? Some states (Alaska comes to mind) actually have laws about if you have to take the meat or the horns first. Double-check the regulations and make sure you know exactly what you have to do if you’re fortunate enough to harvest an animal.
This one is easy to overlook since it isn’t directly related to hunting, but I never leave on a long trip without at least a quick mechanical inspection of my rig. You don’t have to go crazy under the hood of your truck, but just a quick check on fluids, belts, air filters, tire pressure...all the simple things that can quickly derail your hunt (and cost you thousands if left unattended for too long). Once again, the morning you plan to leave is a bad time to do this because if you discover something that does need attention, now you’re already delayed. If under the hood of a car is about as familiar to you as reading Latin, a good, honest mechanic can do this quickly and very affordably. It’s definitely worth the piece of mind before driving out to the middle of nowhere.
Alright, those are eight fairly simple things to address that will prevent so many potential pitfalls and headaches when opening day finally arrives. If spread-out over a couple weeks, this list is an absolute piece of cake. Trying to cram it all into the night before you leave is going to stress you out and leave zero time to correct any issues you may discover along the way. We wait all year long for this glorious season to come along...don’t let procrastination or forgetfulness ruin it.