It may be the crunch of dry leaves or sensing movement out of the corner of your eye that elevates your heart rate and turns a day out in nature into a hunting trip. While it’s easy to relax and become absorbed in nature, most of us are out there to put some healthy, free-range meat in our freezer. And as any successful big-game hunter will tell you, the real work begins after you’ve harvested your animal. No matter how you look at it, that statement is always true. If you hiked a couple of miles to locate your elk or deer, hiking back out with the meat, while rewarding, is going to be harder. Having a well-stocked big game backpack will help you through long days in the field and guarantee that you make the most out of your harvest.
Here’s a list of fifteen items I carry in my big game backpack. Budget is a concern for most of us, so I find when outfitting my backpack, it’s important to look at the overall needs and prioritize spending. For every slick name brand item that you can add to your pack, there is usually a creative option that can save you some money and still get the job done effectively.
- Hunting Licenses, Pen and Wire Tie
One of the smallest and lightest items you MUST have in the field can also be easy to forget. Check it once, check it twice, but make sure that you have your hunting license, and a way to properly fill-in and attach your carcass tag in the field. Remember that tags must stay on until meat is processed and remain with meat until consumed. To familiarize yourself with the specifics of the carcass tag, review the back of your license before heading into the field. Also, review page 15 of the Colorado Big Game Brochure for information on “evidence of sex.”
- GPS, Compass, Maps
As someone who enjoys the freedom of a solo hunt, my GPS unit is one of my most valued items. It’s easy to get turned around or pursue an animal and end up in a slightly different area than where you were expecting to be. This year, I’m participating in a Ranching for Wildlife (RFW) cow elk hunt. The ranch I will be hunting provides access to more than 170,000 acres spread across two parcels of land. For anyone familiar with the CPW program, the access is amazing, but hunters are not permitted to scout the land before their hunt. So my knowledge will come from pre-hunt virtual scouting with the Colorado Hunting Atlas. My ranch packet includes some general maps and the ranches always offer additional guidance, but I rely on my GPS to keep me legally hunting the ranch property. Since my GPS is an electronic device, there is always a chance that it will fail in the field, so I do pack a map and compass for backup.
As with most hunting gear, binoculars are an item where you can spend a great deal of money. For me, I was looking for a fairly lightweight pair of 8X or 10X binoculars at a reasonable price. I ended up picking a pair of 10X42 binoculars on sale and I’ve been extremely happy with them. With 10 times magnification and a reasonable field of view, I can easily scan and locate animals in the distance and the low weight makes them easy to carry for an entire day. When hunting with a partner, I may opt for a heavier higher power pair of binoculars or even a spotting scope, but on a solo outing, every ounce counts!
Knowing the distance to your target is essential for shooting accuracy. I find Colorado’s expansive landscape can produce scenarios where it is difficult to accurately estimate the distance to an animal. This may come from too much time indoors at my desk job, but I always rely on my rangefinder to determine an accurate distance to the animal. Before heading into the field, I always test the rangefinder at known distances on the local football field to make sure it is functioning properly. The rangefinder is an expense and a bit of a luxury, but the investment should last you for many years.
If you’re packing out an elk or deer, you’re going to want to make sure you can see where you’re going. A good headlamp can help you find your way in and out of the woods, while keeping your hands free for other purposes. There are blood tracking lights, red lights and a number of other options available specifically for hunters. But at a minimum, make sure you find a headlamp that has decent power and enough battery life to get you from dusk to dawn.
Colorado weather changes quickly and the ability to shed or add layers is crucial. An affordable drybag or a heavy duty leaf bag is a great way to store clothing in your backpack. Staying dry is key to staying warm. You don’t want to dig into your backpack and find clothing that has been soaked by rain or a clump of snow that found its way into your bag.
- Field Dressing Kit
The last situation you want to find yourself in after putting in the hard work required to harvest an animal is not being prepared to field dress the animal and properly care for the meat. It doesn’t matter if you are planning to field dress using a traditional or a gutless method, you will need sharp reliable knives. I say knives because I’m a firm believer in bringing two knives. I currently use a replaceable blade knife that allows you to quickly switch to a new razor-sharp blade. For my second knife, I use a high-quality folding blade to do some of the tougher cutting tasks. I also carry a lightweight bone saw, a knife sharpener, rubber gloves, and wet wipes/baby wipes.
Field Dressing Kit
- Game bags
Whether it’s affordable king-size pillowcases or fancy game bags, you’ll need a way to keep dirt and bugs off of your meat. TIP: Breathable bags allow the meat to shed heat while staying cool.
- Sun Protection
It’s easy to get sunburned during a hunting trip. The sun is strong in Colorado. And at higher elevations, the sun has less atmosphere to travel through and there is an increase in ultraviolet intensity. Protecting your eyes and skin from sun and wind and packing a couple of lightweight items – sun blocking hunting/fishing buff, odorless sunscreen, and sunglasses – can greatly reduce your sun exposure and increase your comfort level in the field.
- First Aid Kit
There are a number of prepackaged first aid kits available at local hunting, fishing and outdoor stores. The great thing about these kits is that they are tightly packed and take up very little space. If you’re not interested in a prepackaged kit, you can still take a look at the content list for a good idea of what you might want to include in your pack.
First Aid Kit
- Survival Kit
Colorado is a paradise for backcountry hunting and fishing, but high elevations and sudden weather changes can mean life-threatening danger. Don’t be caught in the backcountry without the survival basics – fire, shelter and signal. Watch Peter Kummerfeldt’s Outdoor Survival video for some great tips on what you should have in your survival kit.
The tips in this video work. The vaseline cotton balls and metal match are foolproof firestarters and the 8×10 blue tarp recommended for an emergency shelter can also be used during field dressing to keep your game meat clean. With so many insurance items in the backpack (carried with the hope you will not need them), it’s nice to find options that have multiple uses.
There are a number of meal replacement bars available at your local grocery store. Try a couple of different brands that are on sale and taste test them before heading out into the field. Eating snacks throughout the day will keep your energy level up and keep you prepared for a long, physically challenging day.
- Rope/Paracord and Carabiners
Whether hiking or hunting, I always have paracord in my pack. I’ve used it to replace a broken boot lace, tie up a tarp for a makeshift rain shelter and a number of other tasks. When solo hunting, it can be a valuable field dressing tool – helping you to position the animal when you don’t have an extra set of hands. And using a technique like the Skilman Bear Hitch, a single person can secure game meat safely out of reach of bear and coyotes with just a few carabiners and some paracord.
Rope/Paracord and Carabiners
- Spare Batteries
If you’re relying on electronic devices, bring a spare set of batteries for each device. In my case, I have two sets of spare batteries for my GPS, a set for my headlamp, a rangefinder battery and portable battery for my phone.
- WATER, WATER, WATER!!!
Many backpacks allow for 2-3 liter water bladders that make staying hydrated throughout the day as simple as remembering to take a sip. Water is heavy – each liter weighs 2.2 pounds, but this is not an area where you want to cut weight. Depending on the conditions, you may need much more than two liters of water in a day – especially if it’s hot or dry, or you plan on hiking several miles. Pack additional water bottles or a filter system. And on a positive note, you’ll be drinking the weight during the day, so your pack will be getting lighter. For emergencies, I carry a Lifestraw. They’re extremely light and easy to pack. I haven’t had to use it, but I feel better knowing that I have a good option if I need it. Also, have plenty of extra water and some extra snacks in your vehicle to rehydrate and refuel in between loads when packing your meat out.
As you can see from the list above, you can end up with quite a few items in your big game backpack, so organizing your pack so that items can quickly and easily be accessed is essential. Think about when and how often you will need to access items and arrange your pack appropriately. If you already have a big game backpack, make sure you’ve replaced any of the expired items or items that you’ve used on past hunts. Check the pack and contents and make sure everything you have is functional and in good condition.
When hiking and hunting, there’s always a balance between space, weight and what you find most useful in the field. And while there are items we should all have in our packs, one person’s necessities can seem like an unnecessary luxury to others. As there are many ways to approach a big game hunt, there are many ways to assemble a big game pack. Take some time to thoughtfully assemble your big game backpack and you’ll never find yourself out in the field and unprepared.
Hopefully, this list will help new hunters put together a useful big game backpack and remind seasoned hunters to check the inventory of their pack. In the comments below, please share any items that you feel are essential in your big game backpack. Comments are moderated so it may take a few minutes for your suggestions to appear. Thanks and good luck with your upcoming big game hunt!
Written by Doug Skinner. Skinner is an editor for Colorado Outdoors Online and is a media specialist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.