Basic Hunting Gear Part II (Survival Gear)
Having some basic survival equipment with you at all times can not only keep you comfortable in the woods, it can keep you alive. It is highly unlikely that you would become so lost that you could never be found, but it is possible that you could become lost or injured and have to survive for several days and nights before you are rescued. If the weather gets cold enough and you are unable to find or create shelter, even one night out in the elements could be fatal. With the right equipment, mental attitude, and know-how you can survive plenty long enough to be found and rescued. The gear listed below is the gear you should have with you any time you go into the woods. Even if you are just going on a short hike during the summer, take your backpack and some basic gear. As you get used to it, soon you will begin to feel naked without it. Though you will likely never need it, carrying some basic survival gear will give you the comfort and confidence in the wilderness to stay out longer and explore further in search of big bucks. It may not be your own life that you end up saving; as you may be the first person to stumble on someone who was unprepared is now in need of your help.
A quality backpack is an important piece of gear as it makes it possible to carry all of your other equipment. A good backpack need not be expensive, although they certainly can be. The basic requirements for a hunting pack are that it is large enough to comfortably hold all of your gear and comfortable enough that you can wear it all day. You definitely need something better than your typical backpack book bag that is only designed for carrying books to school. I like to have a backpack sized a little larger than what I really need so that it isn’t overstuffed with all my gear and I have extra room to carry clothing if I need to take some off. I also like to use a pack that is large enough that I can carry out at least a quarter of meat and the head and cape of my deer. That way, I save an extra trip in and out of the woods during the meat hauling process. The most important aspects of a good pack are that it has a comfortable, sturdy suspension (shoulder straps and waist belt) and that it fit you well. Just like with boots, all backpacks are slightly different and it is important to find one that fits you. As with clothes, don’t feel like you have to have a camouflage “hunting” backpack. While there are many good specialized packs designed specifically for hunting, two of my favorite hunting packs were designed for hiking and backpacking. If you already have a good pack for hiking, by all means use it until you decide you want something else. When selecting a backpack, know that they are designed to only carry a certain amount of weight. Don’t buy an ultra-lightweight backpack and expect to be able to comfortably carry fifty pounds of meat, head, and cape. Many hunting packs available today include some provision for carrying your rifle strapped to your pack. I really like this feature and find it to be a near necessity when hunting steep or rough country.
Map and Compass
If you are going to be spending time in the woods, you need to learn how to navigate with a compass and topographic map. Even if you carry and use a G.P.S. you still need to learn to use a map and compass. Batteries die and electronics fail, maps and compasses do not. To effectively navigate through the woods, you don’t have to become a master at orienteering, you simply need to know how to use a compass to orient your map, keep track of which direction you are traveling, and to know which direction you need to go to get back to your vehicle or camp. I suggest carrying two compasses, keeping one safely stored in your pack so if you were to damage your primary compass, you always have a back up. Even good compasses are relatively inexpensive, so there is no reason not to have at least one. They aren’t magic however, you must use them consistently to keep track of where you are.
Once you have decided on an area to hunt or scout, go to a map store, sporting goods store, or Forest Service office and purchase a USGS topographic map of the area. The most detailed maps are the 1:24,000-scale or 7.5 minute quadrangle topographic maps. These maps use contour lines to represent changes in elevation and the shape of the land. A map will not only help you to keep track of where you are, it will give you clues about where to look for deer as well. A topographic map shows you things like roads for access, campgrounds, water sources, etc. With experience, you will be able to look at a topographic map and create an accurate mental image of what an area looks like without ever actually going there.
Matches and Tinder
It is absolutely necessary that you carry with you a means for starting a fire when you are out hunting. Cold and Hypothermia are a hunter’s biggest threat and being able to start a fire and get warm can very easily save your life. Even just being able to start a small fire and get warm during your lunch break can keep you out in the field all day rather than heading for the truck early and missing half a day of hunting. By far the simplest and most reliable fire starting method is a waterproof container full of strike-anywhere matches. Be sure to get strike-anywhere matches, as the strike-on-box matches are pretty much useless in the field. Even with strike-anywhere matches, I like to have a small strip of the striking surface off of a box of matches in the waterproof container with the matches. With that, I know I will always have a rough, dry surface to strike my matches on. I believe that it is a good idea to carry two sets of matches, one on your person and another in your pack. That way, if you somehow become separated from your pack, you still have the ability to start a fire. Lighters can be pretty handy too especially if you are going to be lighting stoves often, just don’t trust one to be your only source of fire as they do break and don’t always work very well in extreme cold or at altitude.
If you didn’t grow up in a house with a woodstove, or you just haven’t started many fires, it is a good idea to practice and learn how to under controlled conditions. Starting a fire isn’t particularly difficult, but it does require a little preparation and technique that is best learned before your fingers are numb, your hands are shaking and you really need to get warm right now. Just be sure that if you start a fire you put it out. All the way out, where you can’t feel any heat coming out of the ashes when you hold your hand over them. The last thing we need is for hunters to be blamed for starting forest fires. Along those same lines, be aware of the conditions around you before starting a fire. If it is early fall and it has been hot and dry all summer, try another way to get warm before starting a fire that could easily get away from you. If there is snow on the ground, it has been raining, or it is currently raining or snowing, you are pretty safe starting a small fire to warm yourself up. Always ask yourself before striking a match, “If I start this fire, can I keep it under control and put it out?”
You can save yourself a lot of time and hassle if you carry some sort of tinder or fire starter with your matches. Tinder can be store bought or homemade. Some of the best fire starters are, candles, dryer lint, pitch wood, cotton balls dipped in petroleum jelly, and paper. Personally, I carry pitch wood, which is the sap, or pitch-laden wood that comes from the stumps of trees. You don’t have to go very far in the woods to find old dried out grey tree stumps that have either fallen or been pushed over. Break off some of the roots that are sticking out and look at the wood. It will be very hard, yellow to bright orange in color and will smell strongly like sap. When lit this wood burns very hot almost like it were made out of gasoline. I also really like the Wet Fire tinder blocks from Ultimate Survival Technologies. These little, white chemical blocks come individually wrapped in foil and are easily ignited. These blocks actually burn longer when wet, plus I like the fact that they are small, individually wrapped, and ready to go.
The primary use for this should be readily apparent to you, but it can come in handy for other things too. As long as you keep it dry, toilet paper makes good tinder for starting fires. Also, it can be used for flagging a blood trail if you forgot to bring flagging tape. If you are hunting with a group and you are the only one who remembered to bring toilet paper, and someone needs it, they will be your new friend for life. Whatever you use it for, just be sure you don’t leave it laying around the woods for other people to find.
I also like to carry the little travel packs of handy wipes or diaper wipes as they work really well for cleaning up your hands after field dressing.
Call me a wimp or a germaphobe, but I like to carry a little travel size bottle of hand sanitizer in my backpack. After going to the bathroom or field dressing an animal, I like to be able to clean my hands. The same guys that tease you for carrying it will be asking to use some after they field dress their animal. Because it is mostly pure alcohol, it burns pretty well and can also serve as a back up fire starter. Hand sanitizer is also great at removing tree sap from your hands.
Everyone should carry a large, black, heavy-duty garbage bag in his or her pack. When folded up, a garbage bag takes up hardly any space and weighs very little. A garbage bag can have literally dozens of uses. Look for the thickest ones you can find, they are usually labeled with something like “contractor grade.” By poking holes for your head and arms, you can make a really good emergency poncho or windbreaker. You can sit on it to keep yourself dry if the ground is wet. You can use it to line your backpack before putting meat inside so your pack doesn’t get bloody. If you put meat in a garbage bag or any plastic bag, only do so temporarily as the plastic can’t breathe and it won’t let your meat cool properly, ruining it. Another trick is to take all your extra clothes and gear out of your pack, stick it in the trash bag and then either stash it with your meat or carry it in your hand so that you can haul out more meat in your backpack on the first trip. You can also make an emergency coat or sleeping bag out of a garbage bag by putting it on or getting in it and filling up the remaining space with dry leaves, grass, pine needles or some other dry insulating material. The number of uses you can come up with for a trash bag are virtually limitless. If you really want to be creative, you can even use it to carry trash out of the woods.
I like water and I drink a lot of it, so I always start out with at least a three-liter hydration bladder full. Staying hydrated is very important, as it will keep you warmer, more mentally sharp, and more motivated throughout the day. Proper hydration also helps to prevent altitude sickness if you are hunting a high elevation. Untreated water isn’t safe to drink no matter how remote or clean the source appears to be, so you should always plan on carrying enough to get you through the day. I really like hydration bladders as you will drink more water more often and stay better hydrated if you don’t have to take your pack off every time you want a sip of water. Also, water bottles will slosh and make noise in your pack if they aren’t totally full or totally empty, whereas a bladder will not.
Lunch and Snack
By carrying a lunch and some extra snacks with you in your backpack, you can spend a lot more time in the field, which will result in many more opportunities to fill your tag. There is some strange law of hunting that virtually guarantees you will see game as soon as you sit down, relax, and break out your lunch or a snack. It probably has more to do with sitting still and being relatively quiet than mystical laws of nature, but often when you stop for a break you will spot game. Be sure to carry some food that you have tried before and actually like. If you are carrying the newest wonder food, and find out you don’t like it and won’t eat it, it won’t do you much good. I like to have a variety of things to snack on throughout the day rather than trying to live off of the same bag of trail mix all hunt long. Hunting requires a lot of energy and the only way to replenish that energy is with calories. Hunting season isn’t the time to go on a diet. Eat a lot and eat often, it will keep you more focused and more motivated throughout the day. Always carry a little more food than you think you need. I think it is a good idea to keep a few extra energy bars in your pack so that if you end up staying out late or having to spend the night, you at least will have something to eat. Carry a little bit of candy with you as well. Hard candy lasts forever and can’t melt or be squished. You will be amazed at the energy boost you can get during a tough hike from a single piece of candy.
Part of the reason to go hunting is to get away from your cell phone, e-mail, and daily grind. I do however think it is a good idea to carry your phone, as you will be surprised at how often you get service in remote areas. Keep your phone turned off, so that you can enjoy your hunt, but keep it with you to use as an emergency lifeline should you get into trouble. Many peoples’ lives have been saved because they were able to call for help by using their cell phone. Also remember that text messages can often go through even when service isn’t good enough for a voice conversation. A call home will relieve a lot of worry if you end up having to stay out in the field later than you had planned.
First Aid kit
Everyone should carry a small first aid kit in his or her backpack at all times. A major weakness that I see in the first aid kits that most people carry is that they usually contain little more than a few Band-Aids, some ointment and maybe some tape. Most small first aid kits are designed to deal with the small wounds and injuries that are inconvenient, but far from life threatening. These kits would be completely useless when dealing with a massive trauma such as a gunshot, laceration, impalement, or broken bone. While I still carry a few Band-Aids, I believe hunters should also carry first aid kits designed to deal with the types of traumatic injuries that can be immediately life threatening if not taken care of properly. I don’t expect nor do I encourage everyone to carry a full size, combat ready trauma kit, but you can carry a few items that don’t weigh much, don’t take up much room, and could potentially save your life or the life of a friend. I believe that the greatest danger faced by hunters after hypothermia and getting lost is the risk of severe bleeding due to traumatic injury. Therefore, I have designed my kit to enable me to attempt to control and prevent blood loss. In my trauma kit I have, 2 or 3 sterile 5”x9” gauze pads, 2 triangular bandages, 2 rolls of compression bandage, a roll of athletic tape, and an emergency blanket. With these few items I should be able to at least control bleeding, bandage wounds and splint (with the use of improvised splints such as branches) injured extremities. Along with this trauma kit, I carry a small generic first aid kit containing an assortment of Band-Aids, alcohol swabs and antibacterial ointment. I also add several Ibuprofen tablets, and some Benadryl quick dissolve strips to my first aid kit. The Ibuprofen is nice to have for anything from a headache, to sore joints, to an injury. The Benadryl can be very useful if you or someone else happen to have a reaction to poisonous plants such as poison oak, or if someone has a reaction to insect bites. Hunting is not dangerous, and the most dangerous part of any hunt is the drive to the hunting area, but you will likely be far from a hospital and far from emergency care. Wherever you are in the woods, it will take help more time to get there than it took you to get there, so behave accordingly. As you move through the woods, be aware of the fact that you really don’t want to get injured. Even something as seemingly minor as a sprained ankle or knee can slow you down enough to force you to spend a night out. Hunting is not the time for running around, jumping off of rocks and logs. Be aware of your surroundings and what you are doing and you will most likely never get injured.
Everyone, whether they hunt or not, should learn at least some basic first aid. You don’t need to be a Paramedic, like most of my hunting partners, but you should at least know how to bandage wounds and splint extremities. If you have children, especially boys, I guarantee that you will use your skills at least once if not many times. First aid classes are usually available through the Red Cross or your local community college. At the very minimum, you should see if your library has some first aid books for you to read. Don’t be afraid to go hunting thinking you are going to be injured in some freak accident because chances are, you won’t be. Just be safe and know that help isn’t right around the corner like it is at home.
Either in your first aid kit, or in your pack, you should always carry a space or emergency blanket. Kept folded up in their original package, an emergency blanket is very small and will even fit in your pants pocket. If you get lost or have to spend the night out, an emergency blanket will provide you with a good bit of warmth and shelter. They are also shiny and very visible should you be lost and need to make yourself seen by searchers in the air.
Headlamp and Flashlight
If you are serious about filling your tag, then you should be walking into your hunting area before first light. Much of the game movement, and the best hunting, occurs during the first and last hours of light. To take advantage of these prime hunting times, you will need a flashlight or headlamp to see your way into and out of the woods. I greatly prefer a headlamp as it allows me to see what I am doing without holding a flashlight in one of my hands. In general, most headlamps are also smaller and lighter than all but the smallest flashlights. A headlamp is a near necessity if you are lucky enough to fill your tag at last light and need to field dress your deer in the dark. I always carry two sources of light just to be sure I don’t end up having to “feel” my way out of the woods at night. Routinely put fresh batteries in your lights as well for the same reason.
A Global Positioning System or GPS can be a wonderful tool for hunting. Just like a map and compass, a GPS is only useful if you know how to use it properly and consistently. Even the most expensive GPS doesn’t know where your truck is, if you didn’t turn it on and mark a waypoint before setting out. Even with a GPS, you should still carry a map and compass as backup. As I’ve said before, electronics fail and batteries die, but a map and compass always work, so learn to use both and you shouldn’t get lost. While they are great for finding your way back out of a hunting area, perhaps their best use is for marking important points that you find such as good stand locations, game trails, natural funnels, water sources, and areas of heavy sign. Specific points can be difficult to find in heavy cover, and a GPS allows you to return to an exact point over and over. A GPS isn’t a necessity for hunting, but if you have one and know how to use it, it can be a useful tool.
I like to carry about twenty to thirty feet of lightweight rope in my pack. Rope can be really useful in a survival situation, but where it most commonly gets used is to hang up meat after field dressing your game. My favorite is parachute cord or five-fifty cord as it is often referred too. It is called five-fifty cord because it has a strength rating of five hundred and fifty pounds. Now that doesn’t mean you should be using it for rappelling off of cliffs, but it does mean it is plenty strong for hanging your deer meat up in a tree. Also, it is lightweight, stays soft, and holds knots very well. Parachute cord can typically be found at sporting goods stores or an Army surplus type store.
Pen with Tape
I didn’t invent this trick, and I don’t know who did, but it is a good one. Simply take a ballpoint pen and wrap a few feet of duct tape around it. A pen is always a good thing to have, and with a little duct tape you can make a variety of repairs to your gear in the field. A little strip of tape also works really well for attaching your tag to the antlers of your buck. My favorite tape is Gorilla brand duct tape, because it is super strong and sticks to anything. You can also put a little electrician’s tape around the pen for protecting your rifle’s muzzle in bad weather.