I know what you’re probably thinking; why would anyone bother backpack hunting for whitetails? You don’t need to hunt the backcountry to find a whitetail, I can find one within eyesight of the truck. If this is you, backpack whitetail hunting isn’t for you.
But if you’re the type who craves adventure, aspires to backpack hunt the west, or are looking for the oldest buck in the forest, a backpack whitetail hunt may be just what the doctor ordered.
If you have a western hunt on the calendar, the best thing you can do is get proficient with your weapon, e-scout from home, dial in your gear, and learn backpack hunting logistics. All of these things you can do back home and will result in far fewer surprises when you head west. Even if you plan to hunt elk, starting with a western whitetail hunt can be a great way to cut your teeth, all while pursuing a critter that you have experience with and know their general habits and preferences.
If that’s not convincing enough, backpack hunting is just plain fun. There’s something special about waking up in the woods and hunting from the moment you step out of your tent. This can be a huge asset if your desired hunting location is a long hike in the dark. If we’re being honest, many times we don’t get to our spot until after sunrise, missing precious primetime hunting light. Even if you’re only hunting a couple miles in, staying in the field from sun up to sun down will undoubtedly increase your odds of finding a mature buck.
I will say upfront, you can drop a boatload of cash on backpacking equipment. The truth is, nice gear will undoubtedly increase your level of enjoyment and likely keep you in the field longer. I will caveat that by saying, if you’re tough, you can also get by with a pretty scant amount of gear, sometimes even cheap gear that you can buy at your local camping store. The long and short of it is, light gear is expensive. I’m of the opinion that buying once and crying once will likely save you money in the end, as opposed to upgrading gear every year and replacing cheap gear that breaks.
With that out of the way, the backpacking essentials are food, water, clothing, and shelter. Readily available freeze-dried meals make food prep extremely simple. If going this route, you will simply need a packable cook stove to boil water. I recommend a simple MSR Pocket Rocket, an isobutane canister, and a single aluminum or titanium pot.
Water is something you’ll need to think through. Unless you know there’s a freshwater stream in your area, you might need to pack in a water bladder to ensure you have water to last the duration of the hunt. A good rule of thumb is three liters per day, which will get very heavy if hunting for any duration. If you have knowledge of a stream nearby, a handheld water filtration pump will lighten your pack significantly. A Katadyn Hiker Pro is a classic standby.
Because you could write a book on backpacking gear, I’ll stick to the big four which are the tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and pack. When it comes to the latter, you’re going to want a quality frame pack for hauling meat. A cheap frame pack will run you a touch over $100, whereas top-end frame packs will rob you of several hundred. Candidly, a quality Stone Glacier frame pack might be the best hunting investment I’ve ever made.
Next, you’ll want a lightweight three or four-season tent. Four-season tents are usually only necessary if hunting the late season where snow is a real possibility. Otherwise, a three-season tent will save you a few ounces and a few dollars. For solo hunts, a two-person tent will allow you a little more room for gear and comes with very little weight penalty over a confined one-person model.
When it comes to air pads, go with a lightweight inflatable option. The thicker the air pad, the more comfortable it will be for side sleepers. The higher the R-value, the warmer you will sleep. Nothing will chill you more at night than sleeping on a non-insulated air pad in winter-like conditions.
When choosing a sleeping bag, it’s always safe to err on the side of caution and buy one rated lower than you intend on camping. Consider a down-filled zero-degree or 15-degree bag for a versatile setup. You can always unzip your zero-degree bag, but you can’t make your 30-degree bag a heck of a lot warmer.
A common question that new backpack hunters always have is, where should I set up camp to avoid spooking deer? You obviously don’t want to hike halfway back to the truck to find a camping spot void of deer, but you also don’t want to sleep right on top of the area you plan to hunt in the morning.
With often twelve-plus hours of darkness, your scent will have plenty of opportunity to spook nearby deer. It’s usually good practice to sleep on the opposite side of the ridge from where you plan to hunt in the morning. By putting a ridge between you and the deer, your camp noise should be minimized, and your thermals should be pulling your scent down the mountain, away from the basin that the deer will be occupying.