As any experienced hunter can attest, there’s a lot the deer and elk woods can throw at you. From inclement weather and nefarious insects to long-distance meat hauls and the exploration of vast and unfamiliar terrain, there’s a lot to prepare for before you head out after your meat. If you hold as dearly to the Boy Scout motto, “Be prepared,” as I do, then it’s worth considering as many needs as possible that you’ll face off grid and in chase of game. Fortunately, there’s more gear solutions than ever; the only challenge is sifting through them all to find the true winners.
They say necessity is the mother of invention, which certainly holds true when it comes to outdoor and hunting gear. Based on decades of time spent afield, and with plenty of real-world experience testing the best and worst gear, I’ve compiled a list of hunting gear that’s both essential and the best in class for you this fall. So read up, gear up, and get after it!
Of all the gear I can’t live without, my Garmin 64ST with the OnXMaps Hunt chip is at the very top of the list. The same goes for the iPhone Hunt App, which now syncs with OnXMaps’ new online platform and overlays satellite imagery with public and private land sections (also available on iPad). OnXMaps gives you the confidence to negotiate tracts of land you’d otherwise ignore for fear of trespassing, and it enables you to scout new and unfamiliar territory. The program also displays the names of private landowners, state wildlife areas and BLM roads. The Hunt App runs $29.99 annually, syncs with the online platform, and allows you to map out routes, drop waypoints and save maps to your phone for offline viewing (even when you don’t have service, the GPS in your phone will show your location on the offline maps). The hunt chip for a GPS unit runs $99, with a $30 fee for an annual update (purchased separately). OnXMaps is quite simply the most useful tool in my hunting toolbox. (HuntingGPSMaps.com; GPS chip $99; App $29).
As Outdoor Life’s annual survival issue makes clear, getting stuck out in the wilderness by yourself in an emergency situation is thrilling to read about but something we’d never want to experience personally. Because I often hunt or scout remote locations by myself, I don’t leave home without my SPOT Gen3 device, which allows me to send messages to friends or alert emergency personnel via satellite if things go south. I can even set the device to track my progress in different time intervals, and my wife can follow my route via the SPOT app on her smartphone. The device also allows you to send a couple of different pre-programmed messages along with your current location—you can let a friend know everything is OK, request non-emergency help, or let your wife know you’ll be late packing out elk quarters. (FindMeSpot.com; Gen3 $170, service charges vary)
Serious hunting calls for serious clothing, and no one has mastered hardcore adventure hunt wear like Sitka. The company has mastered the concept of a clothing system, each of which is built for every season and the continually changing climate you might experience in a single day in the elements. Two of its best pieces of gear are the Dewpoint jacket and pant, incredibly packable Gortex rainwear that weigh right around 20 ounces. For day hunts, the Ascent 12 pack is remarkably lightweight and sturdy. It has a bow tie-down system and side straps, plus a hydration sleeve and 1,200 cubic inches of storage. When the late season hits and you need waterproofing with extreme insulation, the Coldfront GTX glove is almost impossible to beat. High-grip leather palms ensure you won’t lose your hold on the mountain. (SitkaGear.com; Dewpoint Jacket $399, pant $369; Ascent 12 Pack $169; Coldfront glove $149).
When it comes to speaking the language, nobody does it quite like Primos. From whitetail to elk, Primos calls have always been among the best in the business. For calling in elk, the Sonic Dome mouth calls are in a league of their own. The dome allows you to keep pressure on the diaphragm without collapsing the call on the roof of your mouth, and the sounds they produce for cow, calf, satellite bull and bugle are phenomenal. The Mini Dome three pack ($15) features three of Primos’ best mouth calls, and for bugling I utilize the Terminator System ($40) with the same diaphragm calls. When rifle season rolls around, my go-to set of shooting sticks is the Jim Shockey Trigger Stick Gen 2 tripod. With a squeeze of the “trigger” on the grip, the gravity-powered legs extend out to fit the contour of whatever ground you’re standing on. They are incredibly sturdy and feature a rubber-padded, V-shaped rest for the stock of your rifle. The sticks aren’t exactly cheap, but they are vital to my hunt. (Primos.com; Sonic Dome three pack $15; Terminator Elk System $40; Trigger Stick Gen 2 $195)
It’s absolutely essential to protect your feet when you’re churning out mile after mile in rugged country, which is why I’ve always invested in the best boots I could afford. No company has earned my trust more than Lowa, which has a reputation for industry-leading construction and award-winning boot designs. The Bighorn Hunter G3 GTX is perfect for nasty country and late season hunts, giving you the kind of rigid foot bed and supportive upper that deliver superior performance on steep slopes and in cold weather. The boot features 200 grams of PrimaLoft insulation, a Gore-Tex lining and ultra-durable Nubuck leather upper with a rubber rand that adds optimal protection against rocks and debris. The Bighorn Hunter isn’t light (67 ounces), but it’s my go-to workhorse when chasing down and packing out meat in mountainous terrain. (LowaBoots.com; Bighorn Hunter G3 GTX $460)
A frame pack that weighs just 3 pounds and can carry more than 100 times its own weight? You’ve got my attention. Tenzing’s CF13 pack features a carbon fiber frame with detachable top fanny and main cargo bag with 11 compartments and pockets, making it a completely modular solution for hunters hauling out meat or hanging treestands in the whitetails woods. The pack accommodates a 3-liter water bladder and has a fully adjustable suspension system and waist belt for heavy loads and multi-day pack trips. It’s not a stretch to call the CF13 the ultimate in frame pack systems. (TenzingOutdoors.com; CF13 Pack $900)
Montana Decoy RMEF Cow Elk Decoy
I’ve gotten my fair share of critical remarks for hauling around elk decoys, but I’ll gladly take the heat because they flat out work. Nobody builds a packable, life-like decoy quite like Montana Decoy, which is why I’ve been relying on them for years. One of the best new models is the RMEF Cow Elk, which folds down in about two seconds and fits on the back of my pack. Two lightweight poles stake into the ground and hold the decoy upright. Once the calling starts and that bull sees the decoy, it’s game over. (MontanaDecoy.com; RMEF Cow $110)
No companion sees more time in the truck with me scouting the early mornings and late nights than the Microlite 500 from GSI. A stainless constructed, vacuum-sealed bottle means you can throw it in a pack or on the ATV and not worry about spillage even on the bumpiest of roads, and your coffee is still hot hours later. At less than 8 ounces it’s amazingly light and features a locking, push-button lid. It’ll hold 500 ml of fluid, or roughly 16 ounces. When it comes time to fix a quick breakfast on the tailgate, heat up some quick road tea or lunch around the campfire, the Pinnacle Dualist two-person cookset is a nimble and packable game changer. A high-efficiency, 8,768-BTU burner boils water in no time, and all of it packs down into a miniscule single pouch that includes two bowls, Foons (fork spoon), two insulated cups and a windscreen. Throw in your go back, truck or backcountry pack and you’ve got meals in a hurry. (GSIOutdoors.com; Microlite 500 $25; Pinnacle Dualist $110)
When you’re perched on a mountain running OnXMaps on your smartphone, or sitting in a treestand conquering Candy Crush while that king of bucks keeps you waiting, you can never have enough backup juice for your electronic device. Enter Lander’s Cascade power bank, which provides 5,200 mAh of power and about two full charges and comes in a portable, rugged body with lanyard for easy stowing. The power bank features micro and full-size USB ports and LED power indicators with Smart Charge Technology so you get the most out of your charge for extended outdoor excursions. (Lander.com; $50)
When you spend the entire fall chasing game through the woods, no item is more pivotal than your backpack. One of my favorite packs of all time is Blackhawk’s YOMP pack, which is available in black or camo and is constructed with 500 denier nylon for extreme durability. It comes with a water pouch that will accommodate a 100-ounce bladder, a main pocket with internal mesh pouches, and two sizeable side pouches for stowing field gear. My favorite part is the rigid mesh frame that provides stability and lumbar support for the days when your load is stout, as well as the ergonomically designed shoulder and waist straps that fit more like a full-size pack rather than a cheap day bag. This is a serious pack for serious hunters. (Blackhawk.com; Multi-Cam $255)
Editor's Note: A portion of this hunting gear guide was featured in the October 2016 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.