That big-game tag may be burning a hole of anticipation in your pocket, but driving off with only a hunting knife and a vague notion of where to fill your tag will result in frustration and an unused knife. Planning where to hunt, where you want to stay at night and what gear to bring will help make your upcoming hunt a success.
Where to hunt
Plying locals with beers the night before your hunt is a waste of time and beer. You need to do your homework well before your hunt, and that starts with the searching game department websites. The Idaho Fish & Game’s website (fishandgame.idaho.gov) contains links to a Hunt Planner and Trip Planner for general hunting areas. Click on “Access Yes!” for a list and map of private land open to public hunting.
Montana’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ website (fwp.mt.gov) contains a Hunt Planner that combines hunting district maps with hunting regulations and harvest statistics. A link provides a list of government agencies to contact for land ownership information. About 8.5 million acres in Montana are enrolled in the Block Management Program, which provides public access to private land. Each FWP administrative region publishes a Hunter Access Guide that lists Block Management land.
Other Western states, such as Utah and New Mexico, have similar plans.
A place to Bunk
Antelope or whitetails are often right off the pavement. A local Stumble Inn motel with a kitchenette allows you to eat for the same price as at home. But your time is better spent splitting firewood in camp than disabling a motel smoke detector. The crackle of a fire and stars heavy in the sky add a great deal to any hunt and camping out is a lot cheaper, too. And remember, the best mule deer and elk hunting begins at road’s end.
Some special gear is required for backcountry camping. A camper or trailer makes for comfortable quarters, but its entry is limited when the road narrows. The wall tent is the king of camping. It can be packed in a vehicle into rough country, and with some practice the classic Western tent can be up and a fire blazing in the wood stove in about 30 minutes.
What to Bring
Most of my camping equipment came from garage sales, and I use it all year. SLEEPING BAG: I add a down bag rated to -30 degrees for hunting camp. Whatever a sleeping bag’s rating, add 20 degrees as a realistic measure of actual warmth.
Sleeping bag: Cabela’s Deluxe Camp Bed, with 3 inches of foam insulation, prevents cold air from seeping in underneath.
Maps: Last year I bought seven standard paper topographical maps (1:24,000 scale) for $6 each. Mapping software for an entire state, like National Geographic TOPO! is a better buy for $100. The “TOPO! Montana” CDs contain more than 3,000 USGS quad maps, and can be printed or downloaded into a GPS with a microchip. Topo maps and satellite photos can also be purchased from the Bushnell website (bushnell.com) and downloaded directly into the Bushnell ONIX GPS. Lots of options are available from Garmin and DeLorme, too.
Footwear: Without the proper boots, you won’t get within five miles of the game. Boots on the prairie can be flexible, but the sole should be thick enough to turn cactus spines. Boots for the mountains, however, should be fairly stiff, to keep the ankle and foot straight while side-hilling.
A Western backcountry hunter should carry a day pack containing a first-aid kit, fire starter, space blanket, knife, saw, and rope. The best accessory: A friend to help you pack out the meat and share the experience of your first Western hunt.