This post is partly for Phillip, partly for other readers like him who are in the contemplation stage of hunting, and partly for my own reference as there will be some point in the near future when I’ll start to forget all the things I used to not know. Beginners mind is a perishable thing, and worth preserving for future reference. If you’re interested in what I think an aspiring or beginning wilderness hunter, primarily in the western US, ought to do, read on.
Assuming you have a background in hiking, backpacking, and other outdoor activities, the first thing you need to learn to do is shoot. Rifles are the easy way here, because the learning curve is simplest, the effective range is longer, and their killing power provides for a greater margin of error than a bow. As will be addressed later bowhunting provides some unduplicable opportunities, and if you get truly into hunting you’ll want to be able to do both, but nonetheless rifle is the simple way to start, for a variety of reasons. The rifle question is the subject of multiple other posts, but my short answer is as follows: get a bolt action in 7mm-08, .308, .270, or .30-06. These cartridges are versatile, and factory ammo is common and inexpensive. Buy the first two if you’re a smaller person and/or you anticipate not hunting elk or bear often, and the later if you’re larger and/or might hunt the big critters frequently. Get a Ruger American if you want to spend less, a Tikka T3 or Remington 700 if you want to spend a bit more, and a Kimber Montana if you want to spend still more and if you’re pretty certain you’ll get obsessed and end up with rifle weight as a priority. Put a Leupold 6×36 scope on it, buy a bunch of ammo, and shoot a lot.
After you get acquainted with your rifle, have it sighted in (and understand what that means), and have a bit of proficiency shooting paper, the best way to get decent at hunting is to go hunt. Check your state regulations, find out what (if any) small game is legal at what times of year, and go hunt it. A .22 rimfire rifle is great for this application, and the practice ammo is a lot cheaper, but there is no substitute for field use of your big game rifle. Plus, using full power ammo to shoot squirrels and rabbits forces you to only take good head shots in order to not blow the critter into dust. Killing small game in turn provides good practice gutting, skinning, and general field dressing which is directly applicable to big game. Skinning (and cooking!) rabbits is perfect practice for doing to same to deer.
To that end, right along with your rifle, scope, and ammo, buy a Havalon knife and a few cotton thrift store pillow cases to use as game bags. Shoot a lot of paper. Shoot a lot of stumps and rocks. Shoot, skin, butcher, cook, and eat a lot of small game. Do this as regularly as possible for the better part of a year, or even more, then go big game hunting.
While you’re perfecting head shots on grouse at 30 yards, and brines for squirrels, start researching how hunting works in the western US. Listen to episode 10 of Steve Rinella’s podcast, read state regulations online, and start to understand just how complex the western hunting game actually is. Three years ago it never would have occurred to me that the ability to persevere through and cross reference lots of PDF documents with confusing wording would be important for hunting, but it is, assuming you’ll come to pursue hunting in the same way a series climber or backpacker wants to go on road trips. What state you live in is also of massive importance. Phillip lives in Utah, which is great for climbing, backpacking, and canyoneering, but in most ways total shit for hunting. The combination of a larger human population, smaller big game populations, and management which favors trophy experience over opportunity means that even Utah residents have to play the draw game for deer and elk (to say nothing of bear, moose, sheep, etc).
Montana is the opposite. In 2014 I hunted upland game, turkey, deer, elk, black bear, and bighorn sheep, all on over the counter tags which any resident of the state can buy, for a total cost of a little over 200 dollars. This included three deer tags: one the general over the counter tag, one a special draw doe tag, and one a regional over the counter doe tag. This adds up to a lot of practice hunting, which played a big role in being able to go to New Zealand early this year and do relatively well. If you live in a state like Utah, Nevada, or Arizona that has more limited opportunity, you’ll be harder put to accumulate field experience. Or it will at least cost a lot more.
All of which is to say that knowledge is power, and the faster you can get to know your interests in hunting the faster you can develop a strategy for cultivating the opportunities you’ll want. This will mean buying licenses in multiple states, paying out of state fees for tags, and paying money to accumulate bonus and preference points for use down the road. It also makes sense to develop a fund for those big, rare out of state tags. For example, I’m building points for desert bighorns and bison in Utah, neither of which I’ll have a reasonable chance of drawing for a decade or more. So I spend ~120 dollars a year for a Utah non-resident license and bonus points for these species. It’s a good investment because both of these hunts are unlike anything else, and are ones I want to do. Idaho and Alaska, on the other hand, don’t have bonus points. So I’m saving up a ~2k tag fund to pay the substantial cost of an Idaho mountain goat or Alaska bison tag for those years in the future when I’m in a position to apply for and potentially go on those hunts.
It should also be said that antlerless hunts and hunts in rugged areas with less than good odds often have excellent draw opportunities, and in some ways represent hidden opportunities so long as you’re willing to dig into the regulations and find them.
Lastly, get some good optics. Eventually you’ll want a spotting scope, tripod, and tripod adaptor for your binoculars, but to begin get good binoculars. Yes plenty of folks get buy without these things, especially the binos on a tripod, but if they say the tripod won’t vastly improve your effectiveness they are simply wrong. Learning to glass effectively is vital; go out and practice, go over to Rokslide and read everything Robby Denning has written about mule deer hunting, then go back out into the field and practice some more. This is tough to learn for a backpacker because it involves so much sitting, and I still suck at it, but modern glassing technique works, period.
Lastly, you’ll need a good hunting backpack for backcountry hunting. Realistically, you’ll need one even if you never backpack (overnight) hunt, because not having a pack which can move serious weight will keep you tied to within draggable distance of a road, which is a restriction that makes hunting most areas simply untenable. Dragging a deer out also just sucks, even if the distance is only 1/2 a mile it’s better to cut the critter up in the field and carry it out. Most backpacking packs, even the best ones, come up short when it comes to the ability to transfer big weight between shoulders and hips. They also typically come up way short on compression, and the ability to keep a heavy load of meat up high (see photo above), which is vital for comfort and good balance over rough terrain. These packs cost a lot, starting at 350 dollars and going up to double that figure. Various shortcuts exist, but if you’ll be hunting a lot a pack which is durable, light enough to use as dayhunting, and which will carry out a deer in one trip is a necessity.
Good luck. It’s worth it.