Essential Hunting Guide: Setting Up a Spike Camp

Whether you hunt northern Alberta or Saskatchewan, the mountains of BC, the territories or anywhere else — quite possibly the best hunting setup one can put together, a good spike camp can take a lot of work and preparation.

A few years back a friend of mine was awakened early one morning in his mountain top spike camp to be told by his hunting buddy that there was a band of rams just outside the tent and at least two were big. If memory serves me right, he shot the biggest, a 42-inch Dall’s sheep… a mega-ram by any standard that is attained by only a very few hunters. While I have not been quite so fortunate as to find a ram of a lifetime a mere stone’s throw from the door of my tent, I have used spike camps when hunting mountain sheep, caribou, mountain goat, mule deer, elk, bears and even moose. In fact, I have taken my best Dall’s sheep, mule deer, mountain caribou, grizzly bear, and moose with the aid of a spike camp. But what actually is a spike camp? I suspect any number of hunters may describe them in somewhat varying terms but, from my perspective, they are lightweight camps that are usually located in the heart of hunting country — at times in their very living room, minimally equipped for limited stays, and are readily portable and mobile for quick changes in location to accommodate one’s search for game.

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Where & When

Now that I have laid out my interpretation of what a hunting spike camp may be, let’s take a look at where and when they can be utilized to substantially enhance your chances at taking game such as mountain sheep, mountain goat, elk, mule deer, caribou, grizzly bear and moose. Over the years I have found that the ability to get off the beaten track for hunting any of these species has greatly enhanced my success rate.  Most prefer space well removed from human encroachment where hunting pressure is limited. The trick is in not only finding these spots but when to go in order to take full advantage of your efforts in getting there. If, for example, I was planning a mountain sheep or a mountain caribou hunt, I would seek out as much information as I could find on a potential area. That often included talking to hunters who may have hunted the area, biologists on potential density numbers, any guide or trapper that may have hunted or trapped the area and then, based on these discussions, I would carefully study maps and aerial photos of the area for likely hunt sites and, just as importantly, my route into the hunt area. Once I have a site selected, the next decision is when do I go. For a number of species such as mountain sheep, mountain caribou and high country mule deer, I like to be there at least a day before the season opens and preferably even a couple of days ahead of the season for three reasons. First, it will give you a chance to scout the area and allow you to make hunt location adjustments accordingly and second, it puts you on site ahead of other potential hunters and third, game is generally not quite as spooky from having been hunted for a week or two.

However, for moose and elk hunting that strategy changes as I have always preferred the rut primarily because of one’s ability to call in a bull. The key is to ascertain the best strategy for the species being hunted and plan your location and timing accordingly.

How To Get There

In deciding how to get there I have always used the principal that the further I can get back off the beaten track the better.  So with that factor as a driving force, I most often use the following approaches:

  • Fly into a remote lake and hike from there.
  • Drive to a road’s end and hike from there.
  • Travel by boat to a remote end of a lake and then hike from there.
  • Travel by boat along a river system and then either spike camp along the route or hike off of the river to an even more remote location.
  • Utilize a pack string of horses to access remote hunt sites.

Depending on the species, all approaches have been successful but unquestionably the approach that allows you the flexibility to pick up and move considerable distances with, for example, a string of horses substantially improves one’s success rate.  I will never forget that after flying into a remote lake and then laboriously hiking to the top of a nearby mountain in order to establish my spike camp for a sheep hunt, waking the next morning to find two hunters on horse back riding through my camp site. While I did take a fine ram on that hunt, it sure changed my outlook on how to get there.

Physical Concerns

The majority of spike camp hunts, which require hiking any distance particularly into alpine terrain, can often require substantial physical effort. When you then add the potential weight of any game you harvest to the reality of packing all your gear in and out of your hunt area, it can be a daunting task. On one such hunt where I hiked in 12 miles off of a road in order to hunt Dall’s sheep, my return pack with the boned out meat weighed in at 128 pounds.  I’m not sure in looking back whether the ram or I got the best of that deal. Clearly one must ascertain one’s own physical capability and plan the type of spike camp hunt to fall within those limitations. No hunting trip is worth an unplanned fatality or serious mishap. And if you are planning such a hunt, spend the time getting into shape as it will pay dividends not only in your success rate but in your enjoyment of the hunt as well and never underestimate the physical demands the hunt will put on you. For example, prior to an alpine spike camp hunt, I would not only run a few miles every day for at least a month prior to the hunt but I would also load up my pack with a full kit and hike an additional few miles. One would think that with this kind of hunting preparation the hunt would have been a physical shoo-in, but it never was.

Equipment List

Prior to delving into my recommended hunting equipment list for an alpine spike camp, the first question that must be asked is “How much can you carry in your pack?”  Remembering, of course, that you will be carrying your rifle and ammunition as well. I always set my limit at 35 pounds so whatever I decided to take in combination had to fall within that weight limit.

Spike camp hunting is not only a great way to take game but it is a wonderful wilderness experience like none other. But it does require preparation and planning, so prepare and plan well and then enjoy the experience to its fullest.

Equipment List

  • High quality hunting backpack with padded hip straps to take the weight off your shoulders
  • Lightweight, two person hunting tent
  • High quality lightweight sleeping bag
  • Lightweight mattress
  • Single burner lightweight stove with sufficient fuel for your trip
  • Water/wind proof matches
  • Lightweight cooking pot, plate, cup and cutlery
  • Water bottle with water purification tablets
  • Small flashlight
  • Dehydrated foods and drink crystals — plan your meals well ahead of time for the number of days you plan to be afield
  • High energy bars and/or trail mix
  • High quality, lightweight binoculars and optional compact spotting scope
  • GPS and a emergency transmitter such as SPOT
  • Camera
  • Small compact first aid kit (including mole skin for blisters)
  • Lightweight nylon rope
  • Nylon fly (for laying meat on as you bone your animal or added protection for your gear in rainy weather)
  • Plastic bag for short term carrying of your boned out meat
  • Hunting licence(s)
  • Hunting knife
  • Spare ammunition — limit the number of rounds you bring as that extra ammunition can weigh up very quickly
  • Water protected map of the area
  • Extra socks and lightweight rain jacket
  • Toilet tissue
  • While this list may seem to push the scale beyond my 35-pound limit, if care is taken in acquisition and assembly, it should fall nicely within that limitation. This list can also be modified to fit any number of different types of spike camp hunting. You may, for example, be able to substitute or modify this list depending on your mode of transport. The list I have established is for a hunter hiking into a remote location if, however, you have a horse to carry your gear, while weight may still be a factor, it will certainly not be nearly as limiting.

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