When backcountry hunting there are things you really need and things you really need to leave home. Knowing the difference can help save your energy for hunting.
If I carried every "must have backcountry item" with me on my hunting trips, I wouldn't be able to hunt. After two and a half decades of backcountry pursuits, I've narrowed my list down to the items I really need that will allow me to pack my gear into the mountains and get any meat out with minimal trips.
The first item you really "need" is an obvious one: a versatile back pack. Internal frame packs are functional for carrying gear in but not so great for carrying meat out. I use an external frame pack with removable but roomy pockets. When I have my quarry quartered and hanging from a pole, I simply remove the pins holding the pack from the pack frame and strap the quarters on for the haul out.
The second thing you really "need" is a shelter. As the years have gone by I've toggled back and forth between a lightweight tent and a simple 4x8 tarp with parachute cord. Lately I've reached for the latter because I don't want all the extra weight a tent requires on my back.
A simple cover is all that is necessary and it weighs about a half pound. I will occasionally bring a waterproof bivy-bag so I can have room to put my bow under the tarp.
Bringing a sleeping bag in a waterproof bag is a necessary item. For added comfort, a lightweight bed roll can accommodate sore, tired muscles and really rejuvenate you. But if you want to save space, there's nothing wrong with piling up leaf debris under your shelter and laying on that.
These items are the real essentials; with them you can sleep anywhere in comfort, pack out your meat or save someone's life in an emergency. The western U.S. high country does not allow much room for mistakes, and shelter is the number one survival item no matter where you are.
Rounding out the gear
With these items secured, you can now start sorting out the secondary items. I keep my pack for a five day trip down to about 40 pounds or less. By day five it's about 25 pounds because I've eaten all the food. Then hopefully I need to add about 50 pounds of meat for the walk out!
I've created a list of secondary "must haves" for your backcountry hunting experience.
I bring a fanny pack fully loaded and just set it on the bottom of my frame pack. If I need to drop my full pack, it's a simple matter of removing the fanny pack from the bottom shelf and going after that bugling elk. I keep my lunch packed for the day and everything I need, which isn't much--it's quick and easy.
You can use a water bladder instead, but it's often tough to know how much water you've drank throughout the day. I prefer a 1-liter water bottle over a bladder for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is clean-ability. Along with the water bottle, I bring a purifying water pump.
This may not seem like an important item, but I have guided people into the backcountry who didn't rotate their socks and wound up with trench foot, reducing their activity level to zero while we waited for feet to heal. Bring thee pair of synthetic or wool socks, and leave the cotton at home.
First aid kit
I use a small but practical kit carried in a bag about the size of a one quart Ziplock. I include a lighter and iodine tablets, as well as other basic first aid supplies.
The usual items for clothing include: wool hat, wool gloves, wool shirt and pants. A jacket and extra shirt are good to have, too.
I admittedly leave this item out often because I've never found rain gear quiet enough to meet my bowhunting needs. If it's raining that hard, I'll stay in camp for ethical reasons--blood trailing is tough in the rain. And I know the wool I pack will be sufficient to keep me warm and will dry out quickly.
My personal cookware includes a stove with a refillable fuel bottle. I don't like to carry canisters and it's hard to know how much fuel I have left. I also carry one pot and a coffee mug to go along with my "spork" eating utensil.
You'll end up using it for everything, just bring it.
Times two. And extra batteries.
A map, compass and/or GPS are always essential. No matter how well you think you know an area, it's always smart to have a method of finding your way.
For food I bring energy bars and oatmeal packets for breakfast, sometimes "just add water" pancake mix which is good for breakfast and I carry extra pancakes for lunch. Lunch is tortillas, cheddar cheese (no, it won't spoil and if mold grows on it just cut it off) and a tuna packet. GORP and a small candy bar work well too.
Dinner is ramen noodles, minute rice, potato flakes and grouse (if I manage to get the grouse as I go). I know hunters who carry commercial ready-made-meals in a bag, but they create a lot of waste and cost about 20 times more than ramen, rice and potatoes. I can get real creative with the rice with simple ingredients.
I also like a hot drink for after dinner. I usually make hot energy drinks with powder mix and it really hits the spot. My menu is about $2 a day for breakfast, lunch and dinner and has been for 20 years.
Game bags and rope
I also carry an emergency blanket to cover my meat with. It covers the meat and makes it easy to find from long distances.
Grab your rifle or bow, game calls, and maybe even a camera, and you're good to go.
These items are great, and you need nothing more. If anything, you could choose to leave out things from this list and be just fine, but carrying more is just added weight. Remember, everything you carry in will have to also come out.
If you head into the backcountry with minimalistic principles, it's likely that you can pack out an entire deer along with your camping gear all in one trip.