Since I was young I've always dreamt of an "out west big game" hunt. Horseback, wall tent, wood stove, campfire dinner under the stars while a mountain stream gurgles past - like the cover of a Field and Stream magazine. As the years ticked by, that dream began to feel less and less like a possibility and more so relegated to someone else's adventure I would only ever read about.
And then a few years ago, when my son started attending Montana State University, the dream started to become more of a possibility.
Beyond the excellent Engineering program offered at MSU, Kyle's college selection may also been heavily influenced by his passion for the outdoors. Hiking, fly fishing, hunting and skiing, he has fully embraced his Montana setting. And I haven't minded either. The door began to open.
His Freshman year I traveled out for a September visit that included a heavy dose of trout chasing. Last year we opted for a fall grandfather/father/son fly fishing outing in Yellowstone.
This year the stars finally aligned and I was able to draw both a general elk and deer tag and I finally have my dream hunt within reach. Best of all, I get to share it with my son. There won't be any horses. And there isn't a wall tent or wood stove in this version. Just me and my boy, our packs and rifles, miles of empty backcountry and tags to fill.
While I have backpacked all over the country and beyond and spent many years chasing Michigan Whitetail, I have never combined the two into a true DIY backcountry public-land hunt for large game. So, while I had gear for both, I didn't necessarily have all the right gear for the combination of the two. And that has led to an upgrade to my kit.
Here are a few of the pieces I added this year specifically for this hunt and a little insight into the "why".
1. The KUIU Axis Hybrid Jacket was specifically designed for the active late-season hunter and is a true hybrid, combining fabrics and technologies to provide a garment that is more versatile and performs better in a wide range of temperature and moisture conditions. The Toray K-DWR treated high-stretch face fabric is bonded to a midweight fleece backer for added warmth and wind blocking, with strategic waterproof paneling and fully-taped seams in the hood, shoulders and tops of arms.
The fabric is soft and quiet, has incredible stretch, and provides protection from the elements while regulating body temperature. This jacket is designed protect from the elements, while providing enough breathability to keep you from wetting out from the inside. It features pit zips, draw cords, hood and adjustable hook-and-loop cuffs in an athletic cut that still provides room for layering. $300
2. The KUIU Axis Hybrid Pant is a similar hybrid, combining fabrics and technologies to provide a garment that is more versatile and performs better in a wide range of temperature and moisture conditions. Like the jacket, the Toray K-DWR treated high stretch face fabric on the pants is bonded to a midweight fleece backer for added warmth and wind protection, and features strategic waterproof paneling with fully-taped seams in the knees and seat. Like the jacket, the pant fabric is soft and quiet, has great stretch, and provides protection from the elements while regulating body temperature. The pants are athletically cut with zippered thigh vents and multiple zippered pockets. $230
3. The KUIU Guide DCS Vest is a core insulation piece that performs as either a mid layer or an outer layer in cold damp conditions. The Toray Primeflex vest is both a packable layering piece and stand-alone weather resistant vest. It is designed to provide warmth for your core, and the K-DWR weather resistance excels in a wide range of conditions. Featuring double chest pockets and two hand pockets for storage it is versatile, durable, and quiet. $160
Why? The camo I have was designed for Michigan hunting - specifically stand hunting, with little movement. What I needed was gear that was better suited to long treks in which your body heats up followed by long periods of glassing when your body cools off again, followed by (hopefully) active pursuit of a targeted animal. I read a number of reviews, talked to a bunch of friends, and hemmed and hawed over this decision the longest.
From both my hunting and backpacking backgrounds I had very specific features I was looking for but I wasn't really able to find them all in one package...that is until I found Kuiu. After a lot of research and a few conversations with the folks from the company I landed on the Axis system for my jacket and pants. The Axis products feature an entirely new Toray high-stretch, fleece-backed fabric, providing enhanced wind resistance through bonding technology, and strategic hybrid waterproof construction panelized in critical areas to protect from melting snow and wet ground. So basically weather and wind protection while still being breathable and not wetting out from the inside from perspiration.
The vest was added to serve as an outer layer for rifle season, offering a bit of added weather protection and visibility, but also with a fit that can be used as an insulation layer as needed during other seasons.
4. The Snowbee Nivalis Hooded Down Jacket is designed in the UK and was the winner of the EFTTEX “Best New Product 2018 Award”. The Nivalis features an entirely unique construction technique consisting of an internal and external 3-layer laminated fabric and uses hidden internal stitching to form waterproof pockets of down and feather. The value of this technique is that no external stitch-line is created to allow water to penetrate into the down pockets.
The down pockets are formed using 2 layers of double-knitted tricot material and then protected, inside and out, with a thermoplastic polyurethane waterproof membrane, so the down remains 100% dry. The natural down filling contains 90% duck down, 10% feathers, with a fill power of 700 for total warmth. The waterproof membrane has a hydrostatic pressure resistance (waterproofness) of 5000mm, to keep the wearer dry and provide total wind resistance. The outer shell is a woven micro-fiber polyester fabric with durable water resistance treatment, so raindrops bead-up and run off the surface.
Inside the jacket, there is a super light woven polyester lining with a peach-skin finish for wearer comfort and two deep pouch pockets at the bottom for cell phones, small accessories, etc. The main front zipper and the two hand warmer pocket zippers are waterproof and the fully adjustable 3-panel hood is made of the same insulating material as the body. For complete weather protection, there are Velcro adjustable cuffs and two internal bottom hem adjusters with drawcords for cinching. $300
Why? My hunt is taking place late in the Montana rifle season. The weather is a total crapshoot. Snow, rain, hail, wind...probably all in the same morning. And everyone I talked to said "get a good puffy for glassing". Sure, there are a number of brands out there that make these jackets, but I had some very specific features in mind. First, it needed to be hooded - that was relatively easy to find. Second, it needed to provide solid weather resistance given this was going to be acting as my outer layer while glassing. Most of the jackets on the market didn't have a solution for that - yes some offered a DWR coating - but as you know, when down gets wet it doesn't really work. I was willing to trade a little weight savings in order to achieve total weather protection and Snowbee (primarily a fly fishing manufacturer) had what I was looking for. Bonus for me is that this piece will double as my winter Steelhead jacket.
5. The Lowa Tibet Superwarm GTX is a workhorse of a boot and a cult favorite among hardcore backpackers and hunters. This boot is an insulated version of the Tibet GTX, providing superior stability combined with insulation, making it ideal for carrying heavy loads over long distances in cold weather. Smart features, such as the I-Lock lacing cam which allows you to separate the lace tension between the ankle and the top of the foot, keep feet comfortable over miles of tough terrain. The GORE-TEX lining provides durably waterproof/breathable protection against the elements and the Arctic Grip outsole is VIBRAM’s most advanced cold weather traction system ever, providing extraordinary grip on wet, icy surfaces. $460
Why? Given the late-season nature of this hunt I needed a boot that provided some insulation, but one that was also meant for carrying heavy loads over miles. My normal hunting boots are plenty warm, but not meant for this putting on long miles. And my backpacking boots are great for carrying heavy loads but provide no insulation value or warmth. I needed a hybrid and found it in the Lowas. These might be the most amazing boots ever.
6. The Alaska Guide Creations Hybrid Max accommodates binoculars up to around 42mm objective lenses. It features a combination of the rangefinder pocket from the Kodiak Cub model and the mesh sides of the KISS model. The H.B.S (Hook and Bungee System) closure allows for quiet, easy one-hand operation to open and secure the main compartment.
The main compartment measurements are approximately 6.5 inch tall x 6 inch wide x 3 inch deep. The front compartment measures approximately 4 inch tall x 6 inch wide x 1.5 inch deep and includes a bungie cord tether that is perfect for carrying your rangefinder. The side compartment measures 3 inch tall x 2.5 inch wide x 1 inch deep. The rear compartment measures 4 inch tall x 6 inch wide “flat”. The M.A.X. pocket option adds one additional pocket at the bottom of the pack that is about 1 inch tall and is the same depth and width as the main compartment. This pocket is perfect for storing a light pair of gloves, headlamp, knife, or any other small necessities.$115
Why? My current bino harness is just that, a harness, but offers no real protection for the glass and the binoculars "bounce around" a lot. I needed something that offered more protection and also had additional pockets for my rangefinder and other small gear. The AGC Hybrid Max checked all the boxes: great fit combined proper gear protection, a rangefinder pocket with bungie and room for a few small extras without being overly big and bulky.
7. The Maven B1.2 Binocular in 8 x 42 is Maven's go-to for an all-purpose optic for hunting, and general-purpose wildlife viewing. Developed to handle most any situation, the B.1 features superior low-light performance, tack-sharp edge-to-edge clarity, generous depth of field, and a silky focus mechanism and includes a neoprene neck strap, lens caps and a double-layered microfiber storage bag. $950
Why? Simply put, I needed better glass. I knew this effort would involve a great deal of glassing and while I already own a pair of 8 x 42 binos, I knew that spotting was at least half the battle and I wanted to come prepared. I have been following Maven for a while and after reading a number of reviews, decided to pull the trigger on some high-level glass that would work well out west and back in Michigan.
8. The Maven RS.1 Riflescope 2.5-15 x 44 was designed specifically for hunters who require increased precision and flexibility to cover a variety of hunting situations. This purpose-built scope is waterproof and anti-fog, features fully-coated Japanese ED glass, a first focal plane, a 2.5-15x zoom range, side parallax adjustment, solid click detents, a durable anodizing and an unconditional lifetime warranty. $1,200
Why? For this hunt I intend to use my Weatherby Vaguard Deluxe chambered in 30-06. The previous scope on that gun was a Zeiss 3-9 x 40 and it was decent glass, but again I wanted to make a step up both in quality and in range. With its broad magnification range and crisp ED glass, the RS.1 gave me the clarity and magnification I would need to confidently make shots out to 300 yards, without being obsolete back in Michigan where many of my shots are in the 100-yard range.
9. The Leupold RX-1600i TBR/W Rangefinder - When it comes to versatile, accurate range finders, theRX-1600 is billed as the Jack of all trades. From dinging steel at incredible distances, tracking down that trophy of a lifetime, or sitting in a stand with a bow, the RX-1600i TBR/W meets the need. Leopold's True Ballistic Range (TBR) technology takes into account the angle of your shot and your rifle's ballistics to put you dead on every time. An easy-to-read OLED display and rubber armor coated aluminum body make it the perfect range finder for any adventure, at any time. $400
Why? My previous rangefinder, the Leopold model RX-1000i, was seven seasons old. The OLED (organic light-emitting diode) display was no longer working properly. It also didn't really offer the range I required for an "out west" hunt. So I needed to upgrade. While Leupold offers a lifetime warranty on scopes and binos it only offers a two-year warranty on electronics, which was a bit of a bummer. They did, however, offer a discount on replacement of the rangefinder -essentially allowing me to upgrade to this model at a reduced cost ($235).
Luminox was born in 1989, driven by a commitment to offer cutting-edge luminescence and readability in its line of high-performance sports watches.
In 1992 the Assistant Officer in Charge (AOIC) for Research, Development, Test and Evaluation (RDT&E), West Coast, Nick North, together with the Luminox founder, Barry Cohen, worked to develop a watch specifically for the Navy SEALs and the Navy SEAL watch was born.
Luminox's reputation for building watches to not only withstand but perform in extreme conditions make it the perfect watch for outdoor pursuits of all types. This year they partnered with Bear Grylls, the world's most recognized face of survival and outdoor adventure, to roll out the Luminox X Bear Grylls limited collection made specifically for outdoor adventurers. $975
Why? Ok, I'll be the first to admit that this addition was as much a "want"as a "need". I have always been a huge fan of the Luminox products - from that very first Navy Seal watch. The 3741 Master Series is basically indestructible, completely water-proof (up to 300 meters) and provides instant at-a-glance visibility, even in complete darkness, through the proprietary Luminox Light Technology. Besides that, they look cool. This timepiece will be a perfect companion to all of my outdoor adventures from hunting to hiking to fishing and water sports.
11. The Hultafors Aby Forest Axe is hand forged and made from Swedish quality steel in the forge at Hults Bruk. The forging tradition goes as far back as 1697, and the steel head is struck 40-60 times to increase density and durability to the head. This axe is named after Åby, the nearest village to Hults Bruk, where many of the workers lived in the middle of the 20th century. It is a beautiful hybrid with many types of uses and features a straighter edge and grinding, plus a finger notch below the head for increased precision. The long, thin ergonomic handle minimizes the weight, at the same time giving you great force when striking. This axe is perfect for shelter building, chopping, splitting and carving as well as precision work. In short, it is your perfect forest companion and comes with a full lifetime warranty on the axe head. $170
Why? There are a number of unknowns for this hunt - exact location, weather, number of miles we'll need to travel, etc. I don't know if we will be base camping and hiking in every morning and then back out at night or if we plan to bivy deep in for a number of days before coming back out. I wanted a tool that could help with fire wood and also be a resource if needed in a survival situation. One that would be enough for chopping and splitting, but portable if I did decide to bring it along on a bivy-style hunt. After a lot of research, the Aby was the obvious choice.
12. Modeled after Jerry’s most popular knife design, the Sendero. This all-purpose knife from White River comes with a tough Micarta handle on its ultra-strong, full-length, hidden tang. The Sendero Classic blade features a curved edge from tip to tight-fitting hilt. The stonewashed, leather-stropped, 0.13" thick, curved profile blade cuts with an almost friction-free feel. The Sendero Classic is one of White River’s finest knives. $300.
13. The White River M1 Backpacker Pro is their flagship knife and an excellent multi-purpose design. On the hunt or as an everyday carry, the Model 1 is just the right size for the job. This popular and versatile survival knife features pre-fastened textured G10 handle scales secured by stainless steel bolts that can be removed. The textured G10 material provides a rugged grip, and these knives are "hair shaving" sharp out of the box. The Kydex sheath can be configured in many options so you can wear this knife on your neck, boot, or belt. $125
Why? The Sendero was added for the bigger cuts. Quartering. The heavy work. The Backpacker Pro was added for the finer cuts. Skinning and Caping. The detail work. Both knives are heirloom quality, razor sharp, durable and meant for serious adventure.
14. The Princeton Tec Mossy Oak Gamekeeper Remix Headlamp is equipped with an asymmetrical single arm bracket, easily accessible battery door enclosure, and large push button switch. It features a white Maxbright LED, and a cluster of red, green and blue ultrabright LEDs to give you a high degree of versatility. Combine these features with a simple and lightweight design and you have a headlamp built to perform in any environment. Whether your requirements call for long distance spotting, or close range area light, the Remix is up to the task. The end result; true versatility in a compact, water resistant, and self-contained package. This model is a partnership with Mossy Oak, featuring their bottomland pattern for the strap, and a headlamp in olive drab and hunter's orange.
Why? A proper headlamp isn't luxury, it's a backcountry necessity. I needed performance AND reliability. Princeton Tec has always delivered both. The Remix is lightweight, compact, water resistant and bright when needed (300 Lumens) plus it features a red light LED option for close-up work without disrupting your vision.
15. Nosler Trophy Grade, 30-06 Sprg 180 gr. Accubond ammunition is high quality, production-run ammo manufactured to strict tolerances and inspected as it is hand-packaged. Trophy Grade features Nosler Custom brass and the dependable, high performing AccuBond bonded core bullet. Through a proprietary bonding process that eliminates voids in the bullet core, AccuBond marries Nosler's traditional copper-alloy jacket with its special lead-alloy core. The result is a bullet that flies true, penetrates deep, won't cause extensive barrel fouling, and will retain 60-70% of its weight. The white polymer tip helps protect against deformation while initiating expansion upon impact. $50
Why? Unlike the relatively smaller and thinner-skinned Whitetail I am used to chasing, Elk are large game animals with thick hides. I needed ammo specifically designed for this hunting situation to get the most out of my 30-06. Range plus penetrating power. And I found it the Nosler Trophy Grade with AccuBond.
All images in this post were shot by my friend, Geoff Shirley. See more of his amazing work at: https://www.thegsstudios.com