As I hiked into my camp for the January archery deer hunt here in Arizona, my mind raced with anticipation of the unknown. Would I see anyone else? Not likely. Did I bring enough clothing? Probably, but the thought remained.
How about the deer? Would they still be using the area?
It would have been nice to bounce my concerns off of someone, but that someone just wasn’t there. I would be tackling this hunt solo and, like every other solo hunt I have done, I was feeling that. Sometimes the unbearable weight of the unknown can drive a person right back to their vehicle, robbing them of the very experience they were seeking. I was past that though. Years of hiking into the wilderness with my only partners being my bow and pack, have taught me that this was all part of the adventure. Solo hunting the backcountry is definitely not for everyone, but with proper forethought, coupled with a sound mind, it can be one of the most rewarding ways to hunt.
I started hunting solo more out of a necessity than a desire. Simply put, I wanted to hunt way more than others wanted to tag along with me. So, I was faced with a decision. Go at it alone, or not hunt as much. I think you can guess the route I went. When I went on my first solo trip, I was indeed worried and filled with tons of irrational fears, but once I got back there and set things in motion, it was unforgettable. That first hunt filled me with confidence and let me know that I could continue doing this without a ton of worry. Backpack hunting all by yourself, while possibly intimidating, is not all doom and gloom. In fact, it is quite the opposite, if you ask me.
My Way, or the Highway
This is a sort of selfish way of thinking, but when I am alone, I don’t have to compromise with others in my group. I love the company and brotherhood that is shared out there, but it can be frustrating sometimes, especially when you might know a piece of country better than the others with you. You have made the very mistakes that you can see your partners walking into. Being solo, I can do what I want, when I want. If I want to hike all day, I can do that. If I want to stay at one glassing point from sun up to sundown, I can do that. The enjoyment that comes with going wherever the wind blows you and taking things as they come is something I learned to appreciate through hunting solo.
So, this is a given right? Of course, you are going to get solitude if you are alone. However, it goes a bit deeper than that for me. I didn’t know the true meaning of quiet until I spent my first night miles from the trailhead in bear country on a solo adventure. It was so quiet, I almost felt the need to cover my ears. I think this is healthy. We are so keyed into our hustle-and-bustle lives back in the city. We are glued to our cell phones and laptops. So, when we are alone at home, we are never truly alone. Being able to truly unwind the mind in the wilderness, whether you are solo or not, is a necessity if you ask me.
As I went farther down this path, I realized something. When I was alone, I was so much more tuned-in to my surroundings and the hunt as a whole. I glassed up more animals, got more opportunities, and felt more “at one” with where I was. It seemed that my decision making was more on point, and because of that, more of my tags were being filled. Even though I absolutely loved when I could share these experiences with others, I could not deny the fact that I just hunted better solo. 95% of my tags over the past few years have been filled by myself. It might be coincidence, but it’s indeed the truth. With that being said, filling tags is not everything, and spending quality time with quality people is worth its weight in gold.
Hunting the backcountry solo does come with a few negatives, but I wouldn’t let that skew your future decision making. These are merely things that I have noticed over the years to keep in mind if you plan on doing so. If you have dreams of heading in deep by yourself, then you need to do that. It is an unreal experience that will not only make you grow as a hunter, but as a person. With some proper planning and precautions, there is no reason that you can’t or shouldn’t try this out a time or two before throwing it to the wayside, or diving in head first. The only way to know, is to try.
Another given, yes, but again something that can be incredibly difficult to deal with. No matter how big of hermits us hunters might be, we as a species are a social being. We interact with one another on a very regular basis — it’s how the world goes around. It takes a certain person to be able to go into a wilderness on their own and embrace the loneliness of it all. I have not had the fortune of kids in my life yet, but this has to be devastatingly hard for those of you who do. That is a strength I do not know at the moment. Nevertheless, I too have battled loneliness out there. Something my wife used to do for me was she would write notes to me for every day I was scheduled to be gone. This gave me something other than hunting to look forward to each day, and also a sense of connection to home. You might be tougher than I, and may not need something like this, but it has helped me with the disconnect.
More weight is a good thing, right? That’s what we’re all striving for, to come out heavy? While that is true, I am also talking about going into your camp as well. When you are blessed with the presence of a good hunting partner, you two can split up the weight of gear. For instance, maybe you decide to share a shelter. One person can take the actual shelter and the other can take poles and stakes. When my brother and I backpack hunt together, we only bring one stove. Having another is nice for convenience, but in the end, we don’t really need it, so why carry it? Now comes the good part! If you are so fortunate to fill your tag solo, the phrase, “now the real work begins,” instantly has a whole new meaning. Just skinning and quartering an animal alone is a task in itself. Packing it out is another, and multiple trips might be in order. Of course, it is totally doable, but it is definitely something to think about. Being physically and mentally prepared for this is incredibly important.
Now, the biggest concern of solo hunting, and for good reason. Should you hit the backcountry alone, a few things need to happen. You need to have a plan, you need to be aware, and you need to be prepared. If you aren’t paying attention and take a wrong step, things might get ugly quick. Safety should not be taken lightly out there if you are alone. Be sure to have your basic survival equipment that you can turn to if you get in a pinch (fire starter, first aid, etc.). There are also devices that can aid in this, should things go south. I DO NOT go on any hunt — backcountry or not, solo or not — without my Garmin InReach. This gem of a unit comes paired, not only with the ability to communicate with your loved ones back home, but also a SOS button. Should you need emergency assistance, you can activate the SOS feature and be directly connected with Search and Rescue. They will get a GPS coordinate of your location and help will be on the way. That ability should bring peace of mind for any backcountry enthusiast and their loved ones.
Remember when I said earlier that it was so quiet I felt the need to cover my ears? While it was very quiet outside, my mind was another story. Every little noise that I might have heard outside of my tent, was immediately looked at as a threat. To tell you the truth, the noises might have been in my head and not even real. I questioned what was louder, the tiny noises outside, or my worry scratching at my imagination. Our minds can be our own worst enemies and solo hunting is no exception. Something that has helped me with this is that I have started to go into these hunts knowing that all of this is normal. With time will come increased comfort out there, which will translate into a more relaxed self. Oftentimes, I find that I just need to stop, take a breath, and realize that everything is alright. This very thing is more responsible for folks heading back to their vehicles, or not leaving the trailhead at all, than anything else in my opinion.
To Wrap it Up
As I made my lonesome way back to the truck after a few days of chasing backcountry Coues deer with my bow, I was filled with a sense of accomplishment. No, my tag was not wrapped around a big nasty Coues buck, but I felt at ease. Big bucks were spotted, stalks were made, and the deal was almost sealed a time or two even. More importantly, I was reset, and ready for the “real world” again. It was the experience of the whole thing that did this, and that is what is special about these hunts. The biggest gift that is given to a backcountry hunter, is not materialistic, it’s resolve. It’s the confidence to go where most won’t, and see what most don’t. It’s perspective.
Josh Kirchner is the voice behind Dialed in Hunter, a blog that not only documents his own journey, but provides gear reviews, tips/tactics for western hunting, and encourages other hunters to chase and achieve their goals. Josh is a passionate bowhunter that has been hunting with his family since he was a small boy, but for the last three years has been eating, sleeping, and breathing the hunting lifestyle. When he is not chasing elk, deer, bear, and javelina through the diverse Arizona terrain, he is spending time with his wife, two herding dogs, and mischievous cat. Connect with Josh on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.