Making Mountain Hunting More Enjoyable

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When I was about 45 years old, I pretty much toasted my ankle. I had some bad tears in the tendon and some pretty severe arthritis in the joints and it was causing me a lot of problems.

I remember going to see an orthopaedic surgeon to discuss my options and being horrified when he classified me as a mature patient – basically he was saying I was an old man. As he was throwing options out, he said something like the ankle should be just fine for playing golf and other activities that people my age engaged in. Immediately after leaving his office, I found a new surgeon and finally a physiotherapist that understood my passion for the high places or, more precisely, the creatures that inhabit them. Now, at 53 years of age, the tendons are still torn and the joints grind unmercifully but I’ve managed to strengthen everything around the affected joint to a place where I can still go hard in the mountains.

I just booked a backpack trip to Azerbaijan to hunt for tur, a type of goat, and I’ll be hunting mountain goats with a buddy in BC in August. I really have no plans of slowing down. My ankle is trashed from too many years of abuse in the mountains and I have no doubt that I’ll pay a heavy toll later in life for all the heavy loads I’ve packed, but I am addicted to the mountains. I once wrote that mountains are mental but so too are those that haunt their peaks and valleys in search of sheep and goats and other critters that thrive among the crags.

I’ve been seriously hunting the mountains for close to three decades now and if there’s one thing I’ve seen, it’s a monumental improvement in gear. It’s gotten lighter, more durable, more water resistant, more space age and yes, more expensive. But, it’s this improvement in gear that allows old guys like me to keep climbing into the high places. It also allows me to go for extended trips in the mountains and stay in relative comfort.

Obviously some of the greatest advancements have been in clothing, but in this column I want to take a look at those often overlooked, but vital, pieces of gear that today’s mountain hunter just can’t go without, which have also been touched by 21st century technology.

Hiking poles are, without question, one of the most critical pieces of gear I carry these days. Had I used them earlier in life, my joints might be in a lot better shape. I typically use one pole, but in really slippery situations or when carrying heavy loads downhill I will use two. I’ve used many types of poles over the years, but my favourite are carbon poles with cam locks and cork handles. They are super lightweight and incredibly durable. The current set I have is now five years old and while battered and scraped, they are still perfectly functional. I can’t say the same for any of the aluminum poles I’ve owned.

No mountain trip is complete without a good head lamp. In my time, I’ve seen these go from dim monstrosities with batteries as large as a deck of cards, to light, sleek models that power incredibly bright halogen and LED bulbs for weeks on three AAA batteries.

Stoves, too, are another of those necessities that have not only downsized considerably, but also improved greatly in performance. I’m currently using a model that weighs a scant three ounces and it will easily do all my cooking on a five day trip with one fuel canister, which weighs in at 7.4 ounces. Combine this with a titanium pot and spork and your complete kitchen weighs less than a pound.

Speaking of food, this could be where mountain hunters have seen the greatest improvements of all. It’s not at all difficult to live well on a pound, or less, of food a day and that includes a few luxuries like trail mix and jerky. Freeze-dried food is incredibly tasty these days, comes in a wide variety of meal options and can be eaten right out of the bag, eliminating the need for plates or bowls. There are some autumns that I end up eating more of this type of meal than I do meals cooked at home and I honestly enjoy them. There are many different brands and flavours, so it would be worth your time to pick up a few before your next mountain adventure and give them a try to see what you like and don’t like.

The advent of energy bars and snacks have also greatly reduced the need for more bulky foods and have increased the distance hunters can go. Even items like super concentrated drink crystals have greatly reduced the weight of food that we now carry and electrolytes help our bodies recover quickly at night while sleeping. Don’t underestimate the workload you put your body under when mountain hunting and backpacking, and stores that cater to marathon runners and other more extreme athletes are often your best source of food and supplements

Sleeping bags, pads and tents have also changed a lot in the past few decades. I’m still a fan of down bags, but new technology has greatly reduced their size and weight. I use a bag rated for zero degrees Celsius during the early season and a bag for -15 degrees Celsius during those late-season forays. My early season bag weighs just over a pound and a half and I’ve seen some new bags recently that are as light as one pound. Not only is weight a consideration with sleeping bags, but so too is bulk and the new bags can be compressed extremely small, leaving plenty of room in your pack for other necessities. Getting a good night’s sleep is paramount in the mountains and in addition to a good sleeping bag, a high-quality sleeping pad is a must. Inflatable pads are definitely the most common today, with some as light as eight ounces, although you are likely looking at something in the one-and-a-half-pound range for a bit more comfort.

I’m not a big fan of sharing a tent in the mountains and I just picked up a new one, which weighs in at three pounds, six ounces. While rated as a two-person tent, it makes a super comfortable one-person domicile in the mountains and at less than four pounds is one of the lightest on the market. Vanessa and I have done a few multi-day trips with it and it does work for two people. But if you happen to get tent bound by weather, there isn’t a lot of room, especially after a few days without a shower.

Items people don’t think about can be as simple as a pocket knife. I carry a lightweight, good quality folding knife, which comes in at five ounces. Believe it or not, it’s easy to save half a pound on something as simple as a knife.

As technology increases, so too does our reliance on it. However, and I now find myself packing a few things I never carried previously. The biggest one is a satellite phone. I carry it strictly for emergencies and thankfully haven’t needed it yet. While a satellite phone may not be in everyone’s budget, for those considering excursions into the mountains, I’d consider a personal locator at bare minimum. I also carry a GPS unit, although this is one piece of gear I do consider optional unless you are tackling some tricky navigation in the mountains. Some of these units are getting small enough that you can wear them as a watch.

The list of lighter and better backpacking gear never ends, but for old guys like me, it may just extend my years as a mountain hunter a little longer.

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