The Modern Hunter’s Checklist

Take What You Need, But Need What You Take

By John Barsness

Half a century ago most of the Montana big game hunters I accompanied as a snot-nosed kid had a “checklist” resembling this: 1) Loaded rifle; 2) Hunting knife; 3) Sandwich; 4) Matches.

Some carried a canteen but most drank from streams. Some carried a compass, but none carried a map. Most carried their “extra” ammunition in the rifle’s magazine, whether a lever or bolt-action. Their rifles held at least 5 rounds, and many guys figured if they couldn’t get it done with 5, more wouldn’t help. The rifle went over their shoulder, the knife on their belt, and the sandwich and matches in their pockets.

Most didn’t even clean their rifles from year to year, though some did every time they shot ’em, then squirted a drop of oil around the action. After much experimentation over the past 50 years, I basically don’t clean ’em much anymore either, except around the action where grunge tends to build up.

However, I often do quite a bit of “prepping.” With walnut-stocked rifles I make sure the wood hasn’t warped enough to cause problems (and if it has I fix it), but it rarely does because of sealing any open grain with modern spar varnish, or more recently McLaughlin’s Old World Gunstock Sealer. If the rifle might travel someplace where blued steel could rust (unusual in Montana) it’s treated with Dyna-Tek Gun Shield, resulting in an invisible, semi-permanent anti-rust coating. Oh, and I check all the rifle and sight screws to make sure they’re snug.

Somewhere during those 50 years many hunters decided they needed to carry more stuff in the field, because sometimes it’s smart to carry extra gear. An Eastern deer hunter might never be an entire mile from a road, but a Western elk or mule deer hunter often hikes so far they never return to camp until after dark. Many carry enough stuff to spend a reasonably comfortable night in the mountains, sometimes necessary after they actually kill an elk.

I started carrying a daypack in my 20’s, and its contents grew over the years. Among the first additions was a synthetic tarp, silver on one side and red on the other, useful either as a heat-reflecting lean-to or a bright ground cloth to signal search planes. (When such tarps first appeared, many magazines ran articles detailing their uses.) The tarp didn’t weigh much, but when folded up it provided sufficient padding to protect my back from harder (and heavier) additions to my hunting pack.

A spotting scope and tripod (left) can weigh several pounds, but they can actually save energy when
hunting in big country by providing a close look at distant objects. John carries both a good compass

If you’re hunting really big game far from a vehicle, it helps to be able to take it apart in the field.

This trend continued until my pack and rifle sometimes weighed over 30 pounds, even though it was essentially still a daypack, since I usually returned to camp every night. (The late, great hunting and shooting writer John Wootters went through the same experience, which he later called his “pack mule stage.”) Some of the extra stuff involved shooting, including a laser rangefinder, nifty collapsible cleaning rod, and set of shooting sticks. Sometimes I carried a spotting scope and tripod, but despite their weight they can often save energy, due to being able to observe distant animals without extra hiking.

Luckily, other “hunting” gear doesn’t weigh nearly as much as it used to. Many modern rifles are even lighter than an iron-sighted Winchester 94 carbine—though modern scopes can add considerably more, especially long-range models with reliable adjustments for elevation dialing. Today some mountain hunters put heavy “turret” scopes on lightweight rifles, so I recently decided to try it myself, mounting a 3-15×42 Weaver Super Slam on my New Ultra Light Arms Model 24 .30-06. This isn’t the lightest NULA available, but even with the big scope it still weighs only 6-3/4 pounds—about like an iron-sighted Winchester 94 carbine.

Hunting clothing also lost weight over the past few decades, due to lighter synthetics. When I started hunting many hunters considered the all-wool L.L. Bean Double Mackinaw the best cold-weather hunting coat. I still have a couple of Double Macks, but mostly wear them when sitting on stands, because each weighs 4-1/2 pounds. For more active hunting I wear layers of synthetics weighing half as much, one reason for a pack: The layers go in and out as needed. About the only wool worn anymore is thin merino wool, whether socks or long underwear (now called a “base layer”).

A light, soft daypack can not only carry handy stuff, but double as a prone rest—as John’s just did when
shooting a bull elk.

As hunters get older, hiking steep country becomes tougher. To shed extra weight, begin by losing some yourself.
It helps.

Real Men…

To a hunter who’s walking a 1/2-mile from his all-terrain vehicle to a tree stand, a few pounds of extra weight doesn’t matter, but it does to hunters who spend time hiking steeper terrain, whether heading into hunting country or bringing out game. Yeah, I know a guy (maybe you do, too) who goes into a rant anytime lightweight gear is mentioned, whether for shooting or wearing. He believes any man who considers himself a hunter should be able to hike up a mountain with whatever he chooses, whether a Bean Double Mack or 10-pound pre-’64 Winchester Model 70.

However, he owns several horses and spends considerable time on ’em. Riding a horse most of the way up a mountain and then hiking around some isn’t exactly the same as riding an ATV near a tree stand, but different than hiking up the mountain. And packing big game out on a horse is very different than doing it yourself.

Plus, if hunters are lucky, we manage to grow older. I didn’t really notice a problem with my everything-but-the-kitchen-sink daypack until the fall I turned 60, because throughout my 50’s I still hiked farther into the backcountry than most hunters. Reality finally hit, however, when hunting in the rough “breaks” along the Powder River in southeastern Montana.

The ridges weren’t nearly as high as the mountains around my southwestern Montana home, so I took a bolt-action Model 70 Winchester “Featherweight” .270 with a traditional stock made of highly-figured (hence heavy) walnut. With a full magazine and leather sling it weighed nearly 9 pounds, the reason for the quotation marks around Featherweight. I was in good shape from already having hiked a lot after upland birds and elk (including packing out an elk), but the Powder River ridges were so steep I strained my right knee the first morning, and it was impossible to hike very far during the rest of the week. I still got a mule deer buck, but not the one I’d hoped for.

One small but important check is making sure all the ammunition for your rifle is not only the right cartridge,
but chambers easily. Check both factory and handloads before you reach the field.

Taping the muzzle of your rifle keeps dirt and snow out, but a collapsible cleaning rod can still come in handy.

Upon returning home, I first acknowledged part of the problem was my own weight, having somehow gained 15-20 pounds since my 40’s. So I lost it, primarily by not ingesting as many carbohydrates, since I’d already been working out regularly for decades. (Yes, our metabolisms really do slow as we age, so working out doesn’t help as much as it used to.)

The heavy-rifle problem could be easily solved by using one of several rifles weighing far less, such as the .30-06 NULA, or my Merkel K-1 single-shot .308. Like the Featherweight, the Merkel’s stock is fancy walnut, but instead of being a single chunk of wood the Merkel has a slim fore-end only 9 inches long, and an equally slim buttstock. Together they probably weigh half as much as the .270’s stock, and Merkel’s smaller receiver is considerably lighter as well. Such lightweight rifles are common today, many far more affordable than NULAs or Merkels.

Next was my hunting pack. I hadn’t looked very far inside in years, often adding whatever might come in handy, and even without a bottle of drinking water it weighed 15 pounds. So I turned it upside down above the guest-room bed, dumping out all the contents. Among them were 3 hunting knives and 4 headlamps.

Now, a tiny LED light clipping on a hat-brim might come in handy if my regular headlamp died, but the Swiss Army Knife carried in my pants pocket has probably field-dressed and skinned 200 animals. What were 3 more knives doing in there? I realized my pack had become a storage facility for stuff.

Other items were needlessly heavy, including a “compact” diamond-stick knife sharpener. While handy in a wall-tent elk camp, it weighed four times as much as the Smith’s Pack Pal sharpener I replaced it with—which also includes a magnesium fire-starter stick. After the useless, duplicate and too-heavy items were removed or replaced, my 15-pound pack lost 10 pounds.

The binocular I’d carried into the Powder River hills was my favorite “big country” glass, an 8+12×42 Leica Duovid. Set on 8X it’s very comfortable for long-term glassing, and when turned up to 12X it’s handy for perusing the antlers on a distant buck. But the Leica weighs 2-1/2 pounds, and I didn’t really need 12X in the relatively narrow canyons along the Powder—or the timbered mountains around my home, where I’d rarely be glassing more than half a mile. Some of my other binoculars weighed a full pound less than the Duovid, so I put it in the safe, where it could rest until really needed.

Between my body and hunting gear I eliminated over 30 pounds of weight. This did not turn me into a 40-something, but forced me to consider what gear is actually necessary for big game hunting. Do we really require a laser rangefinder if the country, like those narrow breaks along the Powder, rarely offers a shot beyond 500 yards? Before lasers appeared I’d hunted for decades while using a plex-type scope reticle as a rangefinder, a technique sufficiently accurate at 500 yards with the right cartridge. So why not leave the rangefinder at home?

In the front pocket of the fleece pack there’s a small digital camera, a few energy bars, a spare pair of eyeglasses, and a Magellan GPS with land-ownership chip, essential for hunting in modern Montana. Even with all this stuff the pack weighs 4-3/4 pounds, with plenty of room left for clothing layers, some energy bars and a bottle of water.

John loves nice gear, such as the custom hunting knife made by the late Bill DeFreest. But his pair of small
and large Swiss Army knives weigh less than the single custom knife and are far more versatile.

John carries both a good compass (and actually knows how to use it) and a GPS, partly because his
GPS includes a land-ownership chip, essential to the 21st-century public-land hunter.

On my belt there’s a Cordura cartridge-carrier with 5 extra rounds (10 if I take the Merkel single-shot), and in a pants pocket my Camper model Swiss Army knife with several blades, including a small saw. In one hand I carry a set of collapsible shooting sticks, tall enough for sitting shots but also great as a waist-high hiking staff for extra stability in steeper country. For prone shooting I use the daypack as a rest. All together the cartridges, knife and shooting sticks weigh 11 ounces.

When specifically elk hunting I’ll sometimes throw in another Ziploc bag with a dozen Esbit fire cubes, each burning 12-15 minutes at 1,400 degrees, a more powerful headlamp, 50 extra feet of parachute cord, a small diamond-hone knife sharpener, a collapsible steel cleaning rod, a basic Leatherman Multi-Tool and a Ranger Grip Swiss Army knife, a big lock-back model with 4-inch knife and saw blades. (Somebody once joked that with a Leatherman and Swiss Army knife it’s possible to build a log cabin.)

When packing the extra Ziploc I’ll often use my Kifaru packframe, with a stout shelf for packing out game meat. I try to avoid backpacking heavy loads anymore, instead using a game cart on dry ground and a plastic toboggan on snow, but sometimes even “mature” hunters have to carry their quarry at least a little ways.

Over the decades I’ve come up with a few other rifle-related basics to add to the “Loaded rifle” on the 1960’s checklist. First would be to make sure the ammunition matches the rifle. Back then most Montana hunters I knew only had one big game rifle, so there wasn’t much chance of grabbing the wrong ammo. Today it’s more fashionable to have a rifle for every specific kind of big game from pronghorn to elk, and I’ve seen hunters end up in the field with a .30-06 and a box of .257 Roberts. Oddly enough, this is more common among handloaders, who often use after-market plastic boxes for all their ammunition. (So far it hasn’t happened to me, probably because I write the cartridge on each box in Magic Marker letters large enough for bifocals.)

It also helps to run each round through the rifle’s magazine and chamber, especially handloads. Occasionally cases don’t get sized as much as they should, or bullets seated as deeply, but I’ve also seen factory rounds not dimensioned exactly as designed. Many of us hunt farther from home than our grandfathers used to, so a problem with ammo can mean more than a lost morning. If you can’t chamber ’em, you can’t hunt.


John’s basic kit carried in his daypack, including two ways to start a fire.

The Essentials

Here’s what eventually ended up as “essential” gear in my much lighter daypack:

• Tiny headlamp that clips to a cap brim
• Silva Ranger compass, declination set for Montana
• Smith’s Pack Pal knife sharpener/fire starter
• Butane lighter
• Small box of wind/waterproof matches
• Two wax/sawdust fire-starter candles
• Cleaning wipes
• Sheet of moleskin
• Blood-stopper powder
• Water-purifying tablets
• Flexible mini-tripod
• 10 feet of parachute cord
• 6-inch plastic tent stake
• Roll of electrical tape
• 5×8-foot heat-reflecting tarp

Electrical tape has been a long-time staple used for many things, including bandages, keeping snow out of my rifle’s muzzle, and securely fastening Montana’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department’s paper tags to defunct big game animals. The mini-tripod is for taking “selfies” of hunting scenes. The parachute cord and tent stake can turn the tarp into a lean-to, but more often help by holding deer and elk legs out of the way during field-processing.

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