Mule Deer By Backpack

Your backpack can be a tremendous asset whether you're miles from camp or just up a canyon from the road. In fact, this versatile tool will help you hunt in areas you wouldn't think possible.

by Dave Smith

We huddled in the steep draw to catch our breath and make sure we had our plans straight. The bright noonday sun and lingering September snowfields dotting the mountainside illuminated the day to an infinite high-country clarity, but we were protected from the alpine bowl across the canyon by a jagged rock outcrop.

Pulling bottles from our backpacks, we drank cold water in the shade for a while. We decided that Craig and Chadd should sneak down the draw another couple hundred yards to get on point, and then I would move quickly across the open talus face and drop into the small meadow lush with shrubby alpine willows.

I had hunted this country with my father for 23 consecutive years with great success, but this particular spot was not one of our favorites. The nameless two miles of twisting, churning talus and glaciers we referred to as Left Hand Canyon never held the allure of Gunsight or Buck Basin or the other great spots of our deer country. It was simply a place, we figured, that was just rugged enough and just far enough out of the way that it might hold a buck someday.

This was, above all else, backpack country. The canyon was so steep and rocky that getting a deer out would be virtually impossible otherwise. Maybe it was the fact that horses couldn't negotiate Left Hand Canyon and hunters without packs were wise enough to avoid it that made this place intriguing. We had never seen a person or human track in the canyon in all those years and that little willow patch high on the mountain looked like such an inviting spot for a buck to rest in the afternoon.

However, the odds of us killing a buck on this fine September day were not in our favor. We'd hunted the canyon a dozen or so times over the last two decades and managed one paltry forkhorn. All the other days were exercises in - well, exercise. Dad was 64 years old and had learned these things. That's why he took the gentle circuitous trail down to base camp, leaving Left Hand Canyon for 30-something legs and foolish ambition.

So there we were, full of great plans and disrespectful of the odds.

When Chadd and Craig were in place, I moved swiftly to the top end of the willow patch and sat down. It was a good vantage point, so I pulled out my tattered old predator call and gave a gentle squeal. Nothing happened. Again with the call. Still nothing.

Ed Smith (l.) and Scott Yarris head down the mountain with Scott's 5x4 mule deer loaded in their backpacks. Photo by Dave Smith

Finally, I rose to go beat the brush the old-fashioned way and heard the crack of a rifle down the canyon. I ran up to the next rise and saw Craig and Chadd across the canyon with their rifles on the rocks, looking into the vacant talus slope below me. Finally, I spotted the buck and felt the surge of jubilation that comes from helping a good friend kill a nice buck. As it turned out, the buck had been bedded in a talus depression just below the willows and bolted into the open when I blew the predator call.

Soon we were all three down there, Craig a little worse for the wear from an excited tumble in the talus, but all grinning real big. This wasn't just any buck. It was the biggest to come out of our family deer camp in 30 years. The massive 4x3 measured 27 inches wide and field dressed right at 200 pounds. Not bad for my friend's third mule deer buck, right after two yearling forks!

After some photos, Craig walked over to the edge and gazed at the job we had in front of us. It was three miles down some of the steepest country in the West, a composite of sheer bluffs and loose talus. Dragging this deer more than a few hundred yards would have been out of the question.

Thankful for our backpacks, we got busy and in less than an hour had the deer gutted, skinned, cut in half, and in white cotton deer bags. Craig loaded the hindquarters, which weighed 75 pounds, into his pack. I stuffed the front quarters into the deep bag of my backpack and we filled up Chadd's pack with all the loose items and extra clothes.

For three hours we trudged down the canyon, one sure step after another. The packs were heavy and our feet grew sore from the million little stones, but we persevered and wandered into camp at dusk to a roaring fire and a well-earned night's rest.

That night as I went through my deer camp ritual of re-stocking my backpack with food, water, extra clothes, and other hunting items, I realized it was actually our backpacks that put us in that glorious canyon with that old buck. I never would have hunted Left Hand Canyon that day had it not been for the old pack with the frayed strings and bloodstained bag. Beyond abhorring the back-wrenching task of dragging a deer in steep country, I have too much respect for mule deer to shoot one in a place where I'm not sure I can reasonably get the deer out.

I've hunted mule deer with a backpack for so long that I simply feel naked without the pack. Yet each year while swapping pre-season hunting stories with friends, I'm amazed at how few others actually use backpacks the way my friends and family use them.

Most hunters relate backpack deer hunting to: 1) a style of hunting best suited for a remote wilderness setting or 2) an insane "death march" endeavor undertaken by physical fitness loonies unafraid to skin, quarter, and carry a deer - not to mention all the gear - on their backs for miles.

These stereotypes have origins in reality. Just go a few miles up a trailhead on opening weekend and you'll see bona fide backpackers in hunting camps. These types of hunters do "pack in" to wilderness country with a backpack and willingly face the discomforts of eating freeze-dried food, sleeping in backpack tents, and later, if successful, packing their deer and gear back to the rig.

However, let's assume you can get to your camp via pickup or horse, or afoot, with pack animals carrying your gear. Under these circumstances, the backpack can be a tremendous tool for the average hunter whether you're a mile from a road up a canyon on BLM land or hunting out of a spike camp in the wilderness.

Hunting with a backpack involves several underlying assumptions and rules of general practice.

Rule No. 1: You must be willing to skin the deer at the point of the kill or at the nearest tree.

Some folks have a problem with this, but I've found that skinning the deer immediately is not only simpl

e and easy, but that it also results in excellent tasting venison.

Rule No. 2: You must make a habit out of hunting uphill so that your return to camp is downhill.

While the backpack is an incredible tool for extracting a deer from rugged terrain, it has its limitations. Carrying a deer a significant distance uphill is not advised in any form, including in a backpack. Not to say that it hasn't or cannot be done, because a mule deer hunter with enough resolve can do most anything.

For example, I ignored the advice of my father a few years ago and backpacked with a friend into some wilderness country - rather than going with a horse drop camp - and ended up carrying a nice 3-pointer nearly 2,000 feet over a mountain and back to the truck. My father's advice came from his own ill-fated experience involving the same mountain 20 years ago. Still, it's not a good idea.

Rule No. 3: The pack allows you maximum independence if you carry all the items necessary to sustain yourself, field dress the deer, and carry it in the pack back to camp or your vehicle.

Having to make an extra trip back to the truck or camp defeats the whole purpose. Obviously, the actual weight of the deer may necessitate a second trip if you are hunting alone. For this and other safety reasons, I generally try to hunt with at least one other person. Thus, unless we are both successful at the same time, we can always pack the deer out in only one trip without boning it out.

The real value of hunting with a backpack is that it allows you to remove the game retrieval part of hunt planning from the equation. How many times have you come up with a good plan on how to find a buck but then decided against it because of the difficulty associated with getting the deer back to camp? Or realized in the middle of a promising hunt that you were getting too far from the truck or ATV and, consequently, called off the rest of the day? The backpack allows you to hunt the way you want to hunt without worrying about what happens when you are successful.

It's a simple as this: A backpack allows you to carry a deer back to camp in not longer than it took to reach the spot of the kill. My family and friends have hunted mule deer all over the West for all of our lives and have found this to be the case, with very few exceptions. This is important because it allows hunters to distance themselves from road hunting types that will only hunt where they can achieve easy retrieval with a vehicle or ATV.

Mule deer hunters are notorious for trying every imaginable contraption to help them extract a deer from rugged country with minimal effort. For every handful of enterprising hunters there's probably at least one long-since-abandoned metal frame deer carrier lying out behind the shed. These wheeled devices, while still used by some hunters, have never really lived up to their promise due to one simple fact - they are not practical.

The backpack, on the other hand, is long on practicality. Its very origin ensures that it will carry your gear in the most comfortable and well-balanced manner possible. Yet, its hunting critics are quick to throw out reasons why backpacks are unfit for hunting.

The story is repeatedly told with passion, if not good logic. Backpacks are bad because they're heavy, they get in the way, they don't feel comfortable, and it's easier to drag a deer back to the truck than worry about hunting with a backpack.

These arguments don't hold up when you consider that dragging a deer in steep country is extremely physically taxing, if not outright dangerous. In the event you can't get a jeep or an ATV close enough to avoid such deer-dragging pain, you simply must look for another place to hunt.

Next, how much heavier and more uncomfortable is a 7-pound backpack than a daypack? Hunting mule deer some reasonable distance from the truck involves carrying all the gear necessary to properly sustain yourself and field dress a buck if necessary, including water, food, knife, saw, rope, tags, extra clothes, and safety items such as a compass, matches, and raingear. Thus, if you plan to have this gear with you anyway, why not place it in a well-balanced pack that makes toting it around as comfortable as possible?

Further, when it comes to carrying a deer off the mountain, what better way to do it than carefully packed into the bag of a quality backpack made for helping backpackers carry their sleeping bags, tents, and food for days a time? A quality pack takes the weight off your pressure points and distributes it evenly across your back and shoulders.

Finally, a backpack is a made-to-order rest for shooting a rifle. Any backpack laid faced down and turned sideways will provide a reasonable rest. However, I have found that by far the best rifle rest is an exterior frame pack with a "V" in the center of the frame. This allows you to simply pull off the pack, turn it around facing you, and lay your rifle in the nook of the "V" while adjusting the trajectory of the pack with your off hand. To expose the "V" frame on most backpacks, you may need to adjust the bag downward and remove the top portion of the frame. This leaves two posts exposed and allows you to slide the rifle directly in the "V" from above. The bag will ride a little lower on your back, which is advantageous for carrying a heavy load with the greatest stability. Some packs have a straight cross bar rather a "V" but still function much the same.

The use of a backpack as a rest is particularly important to open-country mule deer (and bear) hunters because finding a good rest in endless expanses of sagebrush or talus is usually pretty difficult. I learned this technique the hard way, repeatedly missing running deer off-hand or leaned up against a rock that was never where it needed to be, while my dad consistently made good shots with the pack as a rest. I finally let go of youthful stubbornness and figured I'd try it Dad's way. Once I learned to throw off the pack, spin it around, and lay the barrel in the nook, my shooting improved dramatically. It's not a perfect solution - there are times when you're shooting from a ridge that's too steep - but generally using the pack as a rest is very helpful.

Hunters looking to purchase a backpack for deer hunting have a plethora of choices thanks to major advances in backpack technology over the past few decades. Today's backpacks are lighter, sturdier and more comfortable than ever before. A hunter can purchase a quality pack for $150-$300, which is a pretty small investment considering it will typically last for at least 10 years.

Backpackers have shifted mainly to long and slender internal-frame packs in recent years due to the superb comfort afforded by these high-tech packs. Internal-frame packs fit the body exceptionally well, but I'm still partial to quality external-frame packs. The external frame provides a shooting rest, a post to drape your rifle sling over to the take the weight off your arms and shoulders, a large bag, and, at least with the newer models, has much of the

comfort of an internal frame pack. Yet some of the better internal frame packs are designed for carrying heavy loads and will also function well for deer hunting if the bag is wide enough to fit the hindquarters of a deer.

The most important considerations are weight, comfort, and design of the bag. A quick analysis of some of the industry standard backpacks reveals that a 6,000-cubic-inch capacity backpack generally weighs about 7 to 8 pounds. Backpacks specifically designed for hunters may include additional features and weigh up to 12 pounds. Both internal and external frame packs now come equipped with padded hip belts and shoulder straps, so basically any moderate to high end pack will give the hunter a high level of comfort.

However, the design of the pack bag is crucial. It is very important to ensure that the pack bag has one large compartment of sufficient size to place the hindquarters of a mule deer. Some packs are divided into many small compartments, making them useless for carrying a deer. The front quarters can always be lashed on top of the bag, but getting the hindquarters down into the bag is key in balancing the weight. The ideal deer hunting bag is one that has a large main compartment, perhaps with a removable nylon divider, and a couple of long side pockets for carrying extra shells, food, water and other supplies.

Field Dressing For A Backpack
Skinning the deer near the spot of the kill allows you to get the deer back to camp or your vehicle in short order while allowing the meat to cool and form of thin crust around the outside (even in warm weather).

Try to hang the deer in a nearby tree. It will provide the same clean skinning environment as you have at home. Carry a small saw and some rope to make a gamble; place the gamble through the slot in the deer's hind leg joints, and hoist the carcass up until the antlers barely touch the ground.

Using a sharp skinning knife, gut and skin the deer. While the carcass is still hanging, cut off the head and front legs and slide a cotton deer bag over the front quarters. Then make an incision along the third rib from the back and - holding the front quarters - saw through the spine. Hang the bagged-up front shoulders so the meat continues to cool.

Place a deer bag around the hindquarters, saw off the legs, and repeat the process. Finally, remove the antlers from the head.

The final key is to get the hindquarters down as far as possible into your pack. To carry the whole deer by yourself, lash the front shoulders on top of the bag; otherwise, a hunting partner can carry them. In good weather and daylight hours, you should be able to start back to camp or your vehicle with your deer in less than an hour from the time of the kill.

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