We've all been there: miles from civilization, weather and/or darkness moving in, the animal just stepped into range, and it's the moment you envisioned when you chose/purchased/packed that one piece of gear. You go to set it up, or take the shot...and you realize it doesn't work! Or, doesn't work like you thought it would, and you're going to have to improvise. Or, you miss the shot opportunity and never see that bull or buck again. It's almost part of the outdoors initiation process, but it's also one of the easiest situations to avoid...just test your gear beforehand!!!
In this article, we will look at three key pieces of gear that we often don't test (at least not as rigorously as we should), and hopefully identify some things to look before before even making a purchase so we end up with better, more effective gear in the first place. All three of these come from my own personal experience, so maybe you can learn from my mistakes so your box in the garage of "bad gear decisions" doesn't have to be as big as mine.
If you are doing anything other than road hunting, you are going to need a quality pack. If you bomb out into the woods with a JanSport left over from college, you are going to have a bad day. However, there are no less than 1-Kajillion options on the market for hunting packs, and if you're anything like me, you will probably start with a more budget-friendly option only to discover there are very good reasons it was 1/4 of the price of the nicer packs.
On last year's elk hunt, I was rocking an Alpz pack that I thought would be perfect (and was only $100). I had taken some day trips to scout with it, and it seemed plenty comfortable and easy enough to organize, so I figured I'd be fine. However, one glaring oversight was that I NEVER tested the "meat compartment" feature. Most good hunting packs are designed to separate from the frame in some way so you can tie down the heavy fruits of a successful hunt, tie your gear back on top of it, and carry it out of the woods. It was not until I had a fully quartered bull elk on the ground three miles from the truck that I decided to unzip that compartment for the first time. To my horror, it opened up about 2 inches from the pack frame and no further...I doubt I could have squeezed the front quarter of a hamster in that compartment! I ended up stuffing the backstraps and burger meat in there, handing it to my father in law to haul out, and I had to ratchet-strap two quarters and the rack onto his medieval torture device of a poorly designed pack frame, and endure the most painful three miles of my life to date!
Had I simply taken the time weeks in advance to unzip that compartment, try and stuff a sandbag or something in there, and test to make sure the pack performed well under a load, I would have discovered this significant design flaw and made other arrangements for the hunt. On that note, you can't really know how a pack performs and feels until you put some weight in it and take a hike. At the very least, I would recommend throwing 40-50 pounds of whatever you have on hand into your pack, and hike a local trail. 3-4 miles will at least reveal any tension points or fitment issues that you can fix before you head 10 miles into the wilderness with a full camp on your back.
Nothing will ruin a good hunt like poorly fitting boots! We can suffer through a lot of things in the field, but if your feet hurt, you're going to seriously hate life! Unfortunately, all too often we try on some boots in the store, take a few steps, and then leave them in the box until just before the hunt. Even if we wear them around running some errands or take a quick hike or two to "break them in," there is nothing like 10 miles a day for a week or two to reveal any fitment issues in the worst possible ways.
Two seasons ago, I had finally invested in some quality Danner boots. They make a great boot, and this isn't their fault, but I failed to realize that the 14-Narrows I bought for my long and skinny feet were TOO narrow. I had worn them around town and taken a couple small hikes, and they felt fine. However, after 7 days of hiking 10-12 miles each day, I was having all sorts of problems. My arches were killing me, and I literally had no feeling on the inside of my big toes for months after the hunt. I have since learned that while you don't want to be sloshing around inside of boots that are too wide, you want some room (especially in the toe-box) as your feet will actually swell up a bit on longer treks. So, buy the best-fitting boots you can afford, and put them through the paces. You want a few longer hikes on them before you head out for a week of aggressive hunting. August is no time to buy new boots for elk hunting...buy those bad boys in the spring and tear them up over the next six months!
Hopefully, you respect the animals as much as I do and would never buy a gun or bow off the rack, take three shots at camp for the first time before opening day, and then head out to shoot it at a living creature (though we've all heard those stories). Most of us are busy and are banking up our vacation time for the actual hunt...we don't have endless days and free hours to become professional marksman in the pre-season. However, hunting is a confidence game, and you should be intimate enough with your weapon to be utterly shocked if that bullet or arrow doesn't land right where you expected it to. Listen, six-inch groups at your outer range will more than get the job done on any large game in North America...you don't have to be a sniper! But if you shoot five rounds, two miss the target entirely, two more are a foot off, but one hits dead-center and you think "yeah, I'm ready!" You are going to have some problems.
Start practicing early enough before season that you have plenty of time to correct any gear issues, technique issues, and practice for various position scenarios you might encounter (shooting off-hand, kneeling, sitting, etc.). If you can only squeeze one afternoon every other week into your schedule, then start prepping in February. The day before the hunt is no time to be mounting a scope or putting on your broadheads for the first time (though I'm totally guilty of that second one).
Last season I switched to mechanical broadheads due to their "field point accuracy." I put on the practice heads the day before season and found out they were anything but field point accurate. I had to frantically spend the afternoon tuning those suckers and getting things dialed in again. It all worked out, but I should have been shooting those for weeks before the hunt. If you want to learn how to tune your mechanical broadheads (or at least what worked for me) check out the video below...
More than the physical shooting, you want to test out how your gear will function with everything else you're carryng. Does that bipod you put on your rifle dig into your shoulder when you're carrying it? Can you shoot your bow with your pack on, or do your binos get in the way? These are all questions you want to answer BEFORE you're deep in the woods or staring at an animal within range. I know that time in the pre-season is precious, but the more we can practice the way we plan to hunt, the more comfortable and effective we will be in the field.
But what about you? What gear mistakes have you made? What life-changing solutions have you found? Comment below so we can all learn from each other. Mistakes are a great way to learn...I would just prefer to learn from those that others have made. It's way cheaper and much more enjoyable!