Just this past weekend I had a first-time experience for me on a hunt. I was heading into the backcountry solo, I had my pack loaded down with everything I would need to survive out there for three days, and I hit the trail beaming with excitement at the prospect of a few days in total solitude hunting the ever-elusive Arizona black bear. I was just a half-mile down the trail, and I was already running into piles of fairly fresh bear scat. I can’t tell you how excited this made me because this area was actually my Plan-C for this bear season, since scouting Plans A & B earlier that week hadn’t yielded much to be excited about. So the fact that my dart-at-a-map strategy seemed to be panning out was a huge boost to morale.
However, also by the half-mile mark, I was really starting to feel the effects of the hike on my body. Now, if you’ve followed this blog for any length of time, you know that I’m pretty into fitness. I train all year long, and the four-mile hike I had planned that day shouldn’t have been all that taxing. (Granted, I was hauling in all my own water, so my pack was tipping the scales at just over 70 lbs., but I’ve hauled way more than that before and this shouldn’t have been a deal breaker). By 0.8 miles I was starting to get shaky legs, general muscle weakness, and my head was starting to spin a bit. And right at the 1 mile mark, the trail opened up and gave me just enough flat ground to drop my pack and take a seat. So, I plopped my butt down to try and figure out what was going on. I hated the idea that I might have to pull myself off the mountain before my hunt even began, but I knew something just wasn’t right.
Now, an important piece of backstory: I was supposed to leave for this hunt the day before this happened, but was delayed by some serious stomach issues. I woke up the morning I was supposed to leave and was immediately greeted by the realization that something I ate the day before was angry with me…VERY angry! So after a morning spent in the bathroom allowing my body to get rid of everything I had ever eaten in my life, I decided it would be unwise to head solo into the backcountry while battling “Montezuma’s Revenge.” I’m sure there’s some joke akin to “does a bear poop in the woods?” to be made there…”does a bear hunter with the grippers become bear poop in the woods?”…I’m still working on it.
Anyway, I spent the rest of the day feeling pretty crummy, eating whatever I could force down, and just trying to recover so I could salvage some of the weekend’s hunt. The following morning I woke up feeling maybe 70%, but things “down south” seemed to have settled down, and I decided I was going to tough it out. I packed everything up, drove to the trailhead, and headed out to save my hunt…which brings us back to me sitting beside the trail after one little mile feeling like I just couldn’t go on.
I drank some water, ate a snack, and debated what I should do. I’m all about “embracing the suck” and just pushing through the pain, but I had to admit I was quickly hitting that point where my mind simply couldn’t override my body’s desire to stop. Add to that the fact that this was a solo backcountry hunt, and pushing further in a physically depleted state could literally have life or death consequences. I hated it, but ultimately I decided to listen to the warning signs. After the previous 24 hours of digestive distress, my body was dehydrated, I hadn’t eaten much since I wasn’t feeling good, and so I had very low energy and strength reserves. I dumped out all my excess water (reducing my pack weight by about 25 lbs.), hoisted my pack, and slowly made my way back down the trail, and staggered to the Jeep. As much as I hated to do it, I knew deep in my gut that calling off the hunt was the smart play.
So, how can we as hunters/backcountry athletes know when we should quit and when we should shut that part of our brain off and just keep pushing on? Are there principles we can apply that can guide us in this decision when it’s hard to know if you’re being smart or being a wuss? Having thought about this day and night since staggering off the mountain, here are just a few quick guidelines that I think can keep us all safe while still allowing us to hunt as hard as possible…
How risky is the situation?
The fundamental question that will drive this decision making process is just how risky is the hunt you’re on. Day-hunting near a fully-stocked RV or cabin is a much different situation than if you’re living out of your pack 10+ miles from your truck (and medical assistance). Also, are you hunting in a group or is this a solo trip? If I’m not feeling great on a day of hunting where I’m only a couple miles from “civilization” and I have buddies with me, I’ll probably risk it a little bit. I can always rest for a while and see if it clears up, or push it another mile, and if I feel worse I can just turn back…it’s a less risky proposition.
On the other hand, I believe you need to be as close to the top of your game as possible the riskier the situation is. For a solo, backpacking hunt deep into bear country…that’s no time to be playing around with the prospect of passing out! That being said, I absolutely love solo backpacking hunts, but I go in fully aware that I need to be extra cautious. Be realistic about the risks of what you’re doing, and play it smart if you have a real sense that you’re not up to the task that day. Better to take it easy for a day and be able to make it through the whole hunt, than to push it too hard and find yourself in need of rescue way back in the middle of nowhere.
Does a quick rest revive you?
If you’ve done any amount of hunting, long hikes, or backpacking, then you know how physically demanding it can be to walk mile after mile (especially with weight on your back). I try to set up self-enforced points where I’ll allow myself to rest…”okay, at the 2 mile mark, I’ll take a quick break…at 4 miles, I’ll drop my pack and sit and eat something”…you know, that kind of thing that keeps you putting one foot in front of the other knowing there’s an end in sight. And what I usually find is that a quick break can do wonders to replenish my energy and ability to keep going. Ten minutes sitting on a log with your pack off eating a quick snack and drinking some water makes me feel like a new man. I stand up, throw my pack on, and I can keep trudging for miles.
But, what I discovered just the other day is that if you’re really in a depleted state, a rest doesn’t have the same invigorating effect. I sat for probably 15 minutes, no pack, lots of water, and some quick calories…and I felt just as weak when I stood up to start hiking again. If you’re at that point where you’re just physically spent, you may have to reassess your plan. Maybe you break your hike into a couple sections, or you pick a closer drainage to glass, or a closer camping spot for that day. In extreme cases, you may have pushed it too hard and you need to stop for the day, rest, eat, rehydrate, and try again tomorrow. The point is, don’t get yourself stuck deep in the backcountry trying to be a hero…listen to your body and hunt smart.
Muscle Fatigue vs. Muscle Weakness
Okay, this sounds like splitting hairs, but in my experience they are very different sensations with different implications. By “muscle fatigue,” I mean that sensation you have after a heavy set in the gym or climbing a steep section of trail…your legs have been burning, they’re definitely tired, but there’s also a feeling of strength and control within them. When I say “muscle weakness,” I’m trying to describe a very different sensation which is more like when you have the flu or something…You feel kind of wobbly or shaky and it’s almost as if you don’t have full control over your legs or extremities.
Muscle fatigue is normal during a long hike, but it’s also fairly quick to recover from. Your legs can be burning and feel totally spent after an uphill climb, you can sit down for 5-10 minutes, and then you stand back up feeling fairly rejuvenated and ready to go again. Muscle weakness is a sign of something different altogether. It can often accompany heat exhaustion or heat stroke, it can indicate severe dehydration, or some sort of nutrient deficiency. If what you’re experiencing out in the field falls in the “muscle weakness” category, I believe you should take some serious action. If you’re already far from camp/the truck, hunker down in the shade (or the sun if you’re in colder temps) for a good long time…like, give it an hour, at least. Drink a bunch of water, eat some food…just try to regain some strength. I would also consider shifting your priority from getting back in the hunt that day, to getting back to camp or somewhere safe where you can more fully recover and see how things are feeling tomorrow.
Well, maybe it sounds that way…I know I never gave this whole idea much thought before. I mean, I always try to hunt smart, and if I’m heading out solo I leave maps and info with my wife and now I carry a Garmin InReach everywhere I go so I can stay in touch (and get help in an emergency). But, I always just fell into the “suck it up and keep going” camp, and have since had to accept the fact that that isn’t always the right answer. It can be so tempting to just puff out your chest and act like nothing phases you (like you’re a friggin’ Navy SEAL or something), but the vast majority of us aren’t. I guess the real point is that the absolute top priority of your hunt should be coming home safely, and the follow-up priorities (tagging an animal, having a cool adventure, looking awesome on Instagram, etc.) need to not be used as justifications to put that first priority at risk.