In 2017 we decided to put our research to the test. All of the months planning, all of the days saving, and all of the gear bought put to test on what would be our biggest adventure yet. A ten day Montana backcountry rifle elk hunt in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Our first taste of mountain elk hunting started as a guided hunt in Idaho with our dad. During that hunt, although we never saw an elk, there was much I took from it. With what I had learned and experienced on that hunt, I gained confidence that I could do it myself for much cheaper. So I began my research on gear i needed and where to go.
A Montana Rifle Hunt
That next year we decided we would apply for Montana, being it was relatively close to us so we could just drive. We looked at season dates and decided to do a backcountry rifle hunt because they offered a season during the rut in September. With September in mind, the thought of relatively nice weather throughout the week was enticing, as well as hearing bugling bulls in the wild for the first time. I began to research the unit from google earth and OnX maps to determine a spot for camp. Due to the wildfires near the area we had to come in from the east, which meant a much further hike. We picked our spot for camp, got a strategy together, now time to buy gear.
Trying to stay somewhat on a budget, we skimped on certain things we deemed to be not as necessary and vital. I will now explain why that turned out to be a terrible decision.
Buy Once….Cry Once
As we left Friday after work to make the eleven hour drive, we were expecting the temps to be in the 30s as a low and 60s as the highs. We had our packs loaded up at 67 lbs, and ready to rock. We got to a town near where we were going to hunt at 4 a.m. In this town was a forest service station, where we wanted to stop in and discuss where the fires were at and if we would be able to use our backpack stove for heat in our tent or not. After getting the ok, our mission started. When we got to the trail head, there was 8 inches of fresh snow. Something we had not planned for. As we took off, crossing the first 6 inch deep, cold running water creek, our minds were flooding with “did we make a mistake”, “are we in over our heads”. But the excitement was too much to stop us. After the first mile and a half, we cleared our first unit. Only one more unit to cross until we can hunt. At this time it begins a heavy, wet snow for the remainder of the hike. As we clear the next unit, we see signs pinned to the trees. “Caution Grizzly Area’, “Be Bear Aware”, “Keep a Clean Camp”. You think of these things before you enter, but the rush you feel “knowing” these animals ARE in the area, is incomprehensible. We continue on, only stopping to catch our breath and eat, until we reach a spot where my brother can no longer push on. He begins to cramp, starting in his legs and slowly progressing to every muscle in his body. We had planned for keeping hydrated with some Mtn Ops products and Wilderness Athlete products. We decided it was a good idea to stop where we were at and set up camp, refresh, rest, and re-hydrate for the next day. After twelve miles of hiking, we had about one half mile until we made it to our unit to start hunting.
Things that Go Bump in the Night…
As we set up our tent on the cold, wet, snowy ground we began to realize just how unprepared we were. Our tent had no floor. Our sleeping bags, although light in weight, were only rated for 40 degrees Fahrenheit. We began gathering wood and filtering water as we only had a couple of hours left of daylight. As we got the tent warm with the fire from the titanium stove, the snow inside melted. Another thing that happened that we didn’t research well enough was the condensation inside the tent. As the night went on, the temps dropped into the low teens. The condensation began to form on the tent walls and drip onto the sleeping bags, thus making everything wet. If you’ve ever been wet and cold, imagine being wet and cold, twelve miles from a vehicle, in the middle of bear country. Your mind tries to make you quit every second you are awake. As the wet heavy snow settled on the trees branches, it began to break branches. From inside a tent, in the middle of bear country all alone, it sounds like a bear walking through the woods. Getting closer… and closer. We had our bear spray and .45 Caliber pistol, and we were ready to use them. As the night progressed and the fire died out, still battling cramps, there were multiple times that we thought if a bear does come and eat us it would be a blessing.
Tomorrow is Another Day…
To our surprise we woke the next morning to a beautiful sunrise and warm weather. With the sun shining and melting most of the snow, it gave us a new outlook to push on. We left camp with lighter packs and started the trek to our unit. When we got there we climbed to the highest point to get to a spot where we could sit and glass. As we were sitting atop this ridge, the smoke from the wildfires begin to blow in from the west/southwest. Sitting and glassing for half of the day and not seeing any animals we became very discouraged, but the thought of getting all of the meat out of this area would be a task that we had not prepared for.
When you think of a backcountry hunt like we did the first thing you think of is, I need to get in shape. But we didn’t work nearly as hard preparing as we should have, as realized on the hike in. Between the physical unpreparedness, the gear failures, weak minds, and the fires moving closer, we decided to pack up camp and head out. This meant hiking out the twelve miles from camp, through grizzly country, in the dark.
Defeated by the wilderness and very low self esteem, we started our 3,000 ft elevation descent. We were hopeful it was all down hill, but for some reason seemed there was much of it that was uphill. Like the story your parents tell of walking uphill to school both ways through a foot of snow. That story has never seemed so believable. The sound of the truck horn beeping as we neared the trail head, was like no other sound I’ve experienced before. Safety and warmth was all I could think of.
Although this story sucks to tell as we seem weak minded and not dedicated, it helps to tell it to learn and grow from our mistakes. Below I will highlight where I think we went wrong in gear, and how we’ve corrected our issues to make future trips more comfortable.
Nothing Better Than Experience
What Went Wrong Gear List
- The tent was very light but had no floor and no way to keep condensation off of our gear
- Sleeping bags
- We bought 40 degree bags from Walmart because of budget concerns. Spend the money and buy good gear
- Quality clothes
- Most of our clothes were excellent gear for mountain hunting. All was good except my brothers rain gear. He bought a cheaper pair which ended up ripping causing him to end up wet and cold
- Physical Training
- We had not taken this as seriously as we should have, and it proved dire in our leg strength and stamina.
- We got a lightweight tent that has the floor and body to keep us dry at night.
- Sleeping bags
- Invested in a much higher quality sleeping bag that will carry through a variety of lower temps. As well as got a bivy sack to put the sleeping bag in, to help prevent getting wet from outside sources
- Quality clothes
- Finished investing in the full line of clothes, including rain gear, so we can better layer to stay comfortable
- Physical Training
- Beginning of this year, we are working harder than ever to train cardio and weights to build endurance to last on the mountain. Also developing the mind to be able to stick it out through those tough moments when all you want to do is quit.
To follow more on the author through his IG Outdoor.Marshall