The contents of one’s pack obviously vary to some degree with where you are and what you’re doing. Here, I’ll talk about what I carry when I’m hunting in Alaska, although most of these items are equally important when hunting elsewhere in the Far North or Mountain West. I’ll also make the assumption that we are talking about your daypack, the one you carry when you head out for the day, and not the heavy model used to pack your gear into a remote camp. A well-organized daypack is an especially important consideration in Alaska, where I learned early on that I should never leave camp without mine. The days when I really needed some of the items it contained weren’t always the days when I most expected to need them. By being compulsive about keeping all the important stuff inside it, I only had to remember one thing when I set out, not several dozen.
You obviously can’t carry everything. Weight is always a consideration, and if you make your pack too heavy or bulky, you won’t wear it. It might be interesting to note some I things I don’t routinely carry, even though a lot of people do:
- GPS unit. I don’t trust them and prefer to navigate by other means, as discussed in an upcoming article in the August/September 2018 issue of the print magazine. If I am hunting in an area where land ownership considerations are important I may make an exception, but that is almost never an issue in Alaska.
- First aid kit. Because of my medical background I often serve as camp physician, and I usually have a fairly extensive medical kit back I my tent. I don’t need to carry it around when I’m hunting. Most first aid kits contain items meant to treat problems that don’t really need to be treated, and it’s not practical to carry all you might need in a true emergency. Hunters with specific medical problems should obviously pack what they need to care for them.
- Food. It’s just not practical to carry enough food to make a difference in an emergency. I’d rather carry tools I can use to obtain food if I really need it. This choice also reflects my own metabolism, which is like a bear’s. I can eat a lot of food in one sitting, but I can also go on comfortably for quite a while without it.
Many of the things I do carry are so basic they don’t need much explanation: compass, sheath knife, small diamond sharpener, nylon cord, matches in a waterproof container. In unfamiliar country, I may carry a relevant topo map. About the only thing I carry specifically for my bow is an extra string, which has other potential uses. I always have an extra set of glasses even when I set out wearing contacts, since I’m virtually blind without visual correction.
Here are my thoughts on some other important items that may seem less obvious:
- Bota bag. Even in wet, rainy Alaska, it’s always important to have a means of carrying water. A friend who rolled a Cub over during a remote beach landing said his biggest problem during his wait for help was getting water uncontaminated by salt to his emergency shelter, and I’ve grown mighty thirsty while waiting out a sheep or goat up in the alpine. A bota bag is lighter than most water bottles, compresses easily, and doesn’t slosh during a stalk.
- Metal cup. In addition to making it easier to scoop water from a creek, a metal cup can be heated and used to melt snow or make soup. It can also be used as a reflector signal if someone is searching for you from the air. I like the titanium version from Snow Peak because it insulates so well.
- Insect repellant or head net. While this is a seasonal consideration, it’s better to have it and not need it than to be driven crazy by bugs. Muskol is the Alaska standard.
- Paper towels. These are more durable than toilet paper and can also be used to start fires and mark trails. They won’t serve any of these purposes if they are wet—see below.
- Zip-Loc bags. A handful weighs next to nothing. In addition to keeping dry things dry, they are useful when gathering berries, mushrooms, and other natural foods.
- Fishing kit. In Alaska, you are usually near a stream or lake holding fish, which can be anything from salmon to grayling and char—all excellent emergency sources of nutrition. Since carrying my fly rod isn’t practical while hunting, I can make do with a spool of 10# mono tippet material, a dozen flies, and a knife to whittle a pole. Total weight is a couple of ounces, but it can produce a lot of nutrition.
- Rain coat. It can rain anytime, anywhere in Alaska, and staying dry is a key step in the prevention of hypothermia during an emergency. Light weight, low bulk, and wind resistance are key considerations. Frog Tog jackets meet those requirements well. They look goofy, but they are cheap and indestructible.
- Wool watch cap. Keep your body warm by keeping your head warm.
- SIL tarp. A lightweight tarp of silicone impregnated nylon can do wonders during an unexpected “siwash” in the woods. Several good models are available through REI.
- Vest. My light vest from Sitka Gear weighs little, compresses well, and will greatly expand my comfort range if the temperature drops or I have to spend the night out. A vest will cover nearly half your body surface area, where heat loss occurs when hypothermia threatens.
- Candle, space blanket, clothes pins. A reflective blanket won’t do any good unless it has something to reflect. In an emergency, spread the blanket out, pin the corners to brush or branches to make a “cocoon,” get inside, and light the candle. That should get you through the night. The candle can also be useful as a fire-starter. Keep all these items together in one of your Zip-Lock bags.
As my old friend and hunting partner John Roseland likes to say, “Nothing weighs anything until you put it in a pile.” Even so, the gross weight of all these items should come in under five pounds, leaving room for extras (like food!).
As for the pack itself, there are lots of good options, and I pick and choose among them according to specific needs. I have a Cabela’s “Whitetail” model that must be 30 years old and refuses to die, and I still use it every season for tree stand hunting. My Bison Gear pack is roomier, and I carry it on a lot of day-hunts. The Dwight Schuh pack—available from many outlets—has a light external frame that can be useful for heavier jobs, like packing out hindquarters. The frame is narrow enough so that you can actually shoot a bow while carrying it.