By Colton Farley
As someone who grew up in the Southeast, my understanding of big game hunting was sitting in a tree for hours in hopes that a good buck would manifest out of the brush and give me a clear shot. With this background, my first western hunt felt more akin to being dropped on Mars than the cruisy spot and stalk mule deer hunt I had planned on. Being able to see more than 100 yards was as confusing as it was inspiring and while I was able to locate deer amongst all the other hunters, the hunt amounted to three days of blown stalks. Needless to say, I left that first hunt empty handed, dejected, and with my self-image as a proficient hunter shattered.
In working at MYSTERY RANCH as a Customer Service Representative, much of my job is spent on the phone with our customers who run the gamut from Navy Seals to urbanites looking for an everyday-carry pack that will last them decades. As state wildlife agencies start doling out tags in the Spring and folks start planning out their hunts, I take more and more calls from hunters seeking advice to dial in their kit for the season. Between speaking with our hunting customers daily and meeting countless more at tradeshows and events, I have amassed a substantial database on which pack works best for any specific hunt.
Over the last year and a half of having these conversations, I have noticed a strong trend among folks who are coming west to hunt. When gearing up to go out west, they almost always ask about the BEARTOOTH 80 (5185 cu-ins) or the MARSHALL (6405 cu-ins) for a 3-5 day hunt. While these are killer packs for 7-14 days, they are just too big for most introductory/novice western missions. Having too much bag leads directly to overpacking which makes for a heavy base weight proving that 2000’ climb even more daunting. I instead recommend the METCALF (4335 cu-ins) or the SAWTOOTH 45 (2745 cu-ins). These smaller, more manageable packs make it harder to overpack and allow for a much cleaner daypack when hunting out of a base camp. I personally use the SAWTOOTH 45 with the HUNTING DAYPACK LID and find it is perfect for day hunts up to 2-nighters. On the rare occasions that I get to hunt for 3-5 days, I just deploy the OVERLOAD ® shelf for carrying my additional gear. When starting out, I feel it is more important to be lighter and go further than carrying a heavy pack with all the creature-comforts.
With the popularity of western hunting exploding, the outdoor industry and its social media counterparts are saturated with how-to videos and resources for new western hunters. While these resources are no doubt invaluable, they often paint a rosy picture that is, in my experience, a bit too optimistic. I hope to help build a more realistic expectation of what one can expect on their first few trips hunting out west, so folks are not as crestfallen as I was.
As someone who works in the outdoor industry, it is easy to be swept up in the gear, the how-to videos, and the countless grip and grins that douse Instagram every fall. Good gear and hours of E-scouting certainly help, but there is no replacement for time spent afield. To anyone getting into western hunting, hours spent in the country you will be hunting will get you eons further than any gear or E-scouting. As most folks travel to hunt, it is not always feasible to make multiple trips west to scout and get a tangible lay of the land. Luckily enough, our Public Lands are great for more than just hunting. A family vacation to the mountains to camp, fish, or hike could easily be turned into a hybrid scouting mission. The animals might not be in the same place in July as they are in September but having actual eyes on the land will go much further than satellite imagery. Just know that the number of vehicles at a trailhead increases exponentially from summer to fall.
Perhaps even more important than time in the woods is the mindset once there. I have made a pointed effort to look at hunting with a softer lens and focus more on the experience than the mission. While there are no escaping other trucks at the trailhead, horse packers going further in, and folks with more experience finding most of the critters, there is still plenty of fun to be had on our western Public Lands. As bleak as it sounds, I have learned to set my hunting expectations low, but it enhances my experience. Leaving camp with the mindset of taking my rifle on a hike to explore new country alleviates much of the pressure that led me to fixate on the kill. It can be extremely difficult to compartmentalize what we see online as someone else’s experience that will be completely different from our own, making an unpunched tag sting even worse. Embarking on a hunt with the binary mindset that a punched tag is the only way for a hunt to be “successful” will inevitably lead to disappointment. I would urge instead to look with a broader perspective to find small successes throughout the hunt so that the enjoyment of the hunt does not hinge on a singular action that is empirically hard to do.
At the end of the day, our Public Land is ours to enjoy, and we are profoundly blessed with the ability to hunt wildlife on it. Let us refrain from stripping that down to just killing an animal and instead revel in the curiosity and adventure that drew us to western hunting in the first place.