Hunting Gear for the New Hunter

By Cole Styron

For the novice, there is a three-stage process to buying new hunting gear:

Put it down.
Back away slowly.

I became a hunter in my early thirties, a time when I was employed with a decent salary, not yet blessed with children, not yet a homeowner. What few expenses I had I shared with my wife. I wasn't exactly flush, but I did have enough disposable income to be a danger to myself when faced with the prospect of a new venture that required, in my mind at least, a lot of shiny new equipment.

Unlike some other equipment-intensive human endeavors, say technical ice climbing or skydiving, hunting has been practiced by humans literally as long as we have been humans, somewhere in the region of 200,000 years. While advances have no doubt been made in hunting equipment since the Pleistocene, the fact remains that very little is needed in the way of equipment that you don't already possess, and a lack of specialized equipment should be no bar to entry.

A hunting weapon, a small knife, and appropriate footwear round out the list of necessities, and perhaps even those are somewhat debatable; I once drove a couple hours in the November predawn darkness to an all-day upland hunt in my Crocs and didn't realize I'd forgotten my boots until arrival. Rather than forego the hunt, I wore the Crocs. They certainly weren't ideal footwear, but no lasting harm was done and the day turned into a really pleasurable bobwhite and cottontail hunt with friends and family, cold and wet feet notwithstanding.

The Essentials

Seriously suggesting that a novice hunter head out with nothing more than a weapon and a knife would be foolhardy, perhaps even negligent, so let's look at what you might realistically add at a minimum. Regardless of the type of hunting you are doing, it is a good idea to have the following:

  • Modern long-life LED headlamp
  • Basic first-aid kit
  • Water bottle/canteen
  • Phone
  • Bag to put it all in (with room left for tasty critters)

Hunting usually takes place in the darker half of the year and it is a good idea to have a headlamp, which keeps your hands free, rather than a flashlight. Modern versions are cheap for something that will see constant use ($20-$40 or so) and have long battery life. You do not need a high end version that could spotlight Ultima Thule. Instead, think compact and light. I keep mine in my emergency kit bag with my first aid kit. Generally speaking, the mainstream outdoor brands such as Black Diamond and Petzl make better headlamps than the hunting brands. Buying one with a camo headband virtually guarantees you will lose it; get something that stands out from the forest floor.

The first-aid kit is self-explanatory and since you only seem to need it when you don't have it, keeping it with you is very good protection against injury. Include something for removing cactus spines/splinters and hours of agony can be saved. Ditto blister prevention/repair. A small mirror is also a lifesaver when you need it. I once caught a piece of windblown crud in my eye on a remote Alaskan sheep hunt and without the mirror I would have been in serious trouble.

A water bottle is a good thing to have for drinking and for rinsing blood off hands and knife. Dogs like it too, in hot weather.

Phone: Emergencies do happen. Head out into the field with a fully-charged battery. I keep mine in a ziplock bag for shower-proofing. When I am duck hunting, fly fishing or dip netting salmon, I keep it in an actual waterproof pouch I purchased for $10 on Amazon, because I have been swimming in my waders a time or two.

If I am small game hunting and the weather is nice, all the above will generally fit in my upland game bag/vest. In Alaska where I live, no matter the weather, I also include a jacket and a warm hat and this requires a backpack of some sort. I usually hunt small game with the same 30 liter/1800 cubic inch backpack I have carried in the mountains for the last ten years. It is not hunting-specific and it is not camo. It is, in fact, bright yellow and it works just fine.

Assemble the above list, plus a shotgun, knife and a pair of boots and you can hunt the upland game birds, rabbits and other small game for the rest of your life without adding anything further. With the possible exception of swapping the shotgun for a rifle, you really do not need anything else for day hunting deer sized big game animals, as long as you are able to transport your quarry whole. With nothing more than the above, I shot my first deer, after missing him the first time at 15 yards with a slug from my 870, and dragged him through the woods back to a road, still in shock at what I had done.

Beyond the Basics: Adding Gear

As you mature as a hunter and the type of hunting you do starts to vary, at some point you are going to realize that your equipment genuinely is the limiting factor in the success of your hunt. This is a great place to get to, because generally you will be able to pinpoint exactly what it is you lack, rather than feeling a vague desire to buy the thing you saw in the advertisement with the guy in matching camo on a mountaintop.

For example, it is difficult to hunt spring turkey without some way to call them in. It is also difficult to find western deer without binoculars, especially if you need to make a determination of legality. Some equipment really does smooth the road and is worthy of consideration. If you are a big game hunter, you will probably want to eventually add the following:

  • Binoculars (and perhaps a chest harness)
  • Performance clothing
  • Game bags
  • Large backpack
  • Game calls

Binoculars will improve your hunting, period. Learning to glass is an essential western hunting skill, because it aids in the crucial decision making processes that put meat in the freezer. Do I go this way or that way? Is that ram/moose/elk legal and/or worth pursuit? Are those mule deer or whitetail?

Being able to make those calls at several hundred yards, without spooking game or wasting time and energy on a tricky or strenuous approach, is essential. You don't need to drop a thousand dollars on a top-of-the-line set of binoculars, although there really are differences in optical quality at the higher end. You also don't want cheaply manufactured junk, either.

At a minimum, shoot for a low-end model from a well known hunting or camera manufacturer, e.g. Vortex, Leupold or Nikon. Compare the warranty on various models; generally the hunting brands offer a better deal there. $200-$250 is reasonable for a 10x42 or 8x42 binocular from a good manufacturer. A chest harness or pack lets you carry them hands free and with immediate access. This is a convenience not to be underestimated.

The mountain men of yesteryear got it done in a flannel shirt and jeans, but they were probably wet, miserable and hypothermic as often as not. Performance clothing does not have to be hunting-specific clothing. Mine rarely is, nor does it need to be camouflage in most circumstances. It does need to be lightweight, durable, breathable and fit for the purpose. Although I feel like this is common knowledge in this day and age, it's probably worth restating here: buy synthetic or wool clothing, never cotton that absorbs water (and sweat).

Hunting clothing does not have to be new. Don't forget, if you are doing it correctly, your clothes are going to be soiled, covered in blood, intestinal matter, animal hair and feathers. Take some time to familiarize yourself with the secondhand market, whether that is eBay, Craigslist, or the thrift stores in your area and you could save a bundle.

Military surplus stores can be goldmines for the right stuff. A couple of years ago I picked up a pair of Polartec grid fleece leggings that I understand were once standard cold-weather military issue. They are just the ticket for the type of winter hunting I do up here in Alaska and a bargain at $10. At thrift stores and resale shops, keep your eye peeled for old wool Pendleton or Woolrich button down shirts, which are ideal for upland hunting. Synthetic fleece is great for warmth, although it can be bulky and makes a great mid-layer.

Steer clear of waterproof clothing on the secondhand market, unless it is new with tags. Modern vapor-permeable waterproof membranes, such as Gore-Tex, degrade with time and that is generally when people drop them off at the Goodwill. If you absolutely must buy a piece of waterproof clothing secondhand, closely examine the inner, white portion of the fabric. That white layer is the waterproof laminate and you can often see small rips, tears and abrasion in high friction areas, such as the shoulders, elbows, lower forearms, knees and seat by turning the garment inside out.

Unless the laminate is pristine, don't buy it. Furthermore, the DWR (durable water repellent) finish on the outside of the garment, which causes water to bead up and roll off without soaking the face fabric, will almost certainly have been rubbed off on a used piece of clothing.

As of 2019, I still ski, hunt, climb and walk the dog in a pair of faded gray softshell climbing pants from Patagonia that I bought in 2008. When, on occasion, I rip them in the alders or on a sharp ski edge, I repair them on the sewing machine in a few minutes.

Last year I bought a pair of hunting pants from a high end hunting manufacturer, which I found deeply discounted online. They are nice, but besides the camouflage pattern, they offer nothing over my Patagonia climbing pants and are slightly heavier, even in a lighter weight fabric. Additionally, at full price they would have been much more expensive.

What is the lesson here? As high tech clothing has moved into the hunting industry from the outdoor recreation space, where it has long resided, the prices have increased dramatically, while in most cases the quality is at best on par with the non-hunting version. Hunting clothing makes up only a fraction of the market share of the general outdoor clothing market. While competition is fierce within the small hunting market, there is not yet enough crossover from outside manufacturers to drive prices downward. Consequently, if you are looking for a deal, do not forget to peruse REI and its clones for muted clothing (never black, see below) that will function perfectly in the hunting environment. After all, hunting is just hiking with more rest time.

This brings us to another topic, camouflage. Major brand advertisements would have you believe it is impossible to kill anything without being outfitted head-to-foot in the latest, most technologically advanced camo pattern. This is, of course, bullshit. While animals do have some degree of pattern recognition, allowing them to pick out forms and shapes, this is really a higher-level function.

Indeed, camouflage works best on humans and other predators, as it is very good at breaking up and defeating the silhouettes and patterns our spotting abilities rely on. The eyes of the ungulates, which can be quite powerful (it's scary at what distance a Dall sheep can see you) rely more on detecting movement than separating your form from the rocks and vegetation that make up the background. Prey species much more generally rely on their noses and their ears. Often when you are spotted by an animal, it will appear confused or curious about what it's looking at. If it gets one whiff of you, however, it will depart instantly.

So, should you buy camo? Sure, if it is the right piece of clothing at the right price. However, do not be afraid to buy non-camo performance clothing. Ultimately, fabric type, durability, breathability and weight are more important considerations than a particular camouflage pattern.

When selecting non-camo colors, drab greens and light browns work well. Do not buy black or blue clothing for hunting. Not much in nature is black, except for bears and the odd wolf, and black stands out against pretty much any background. Blue should also be avoided, as there is some evidence ungulates are able to see this end of the color spectrum more like we do and blue sticks out on a hillside.

Big game bags, not to be confused with upland game bags that are vests with a big pocket on the back, are crucial when backpack hunting for big game, by which I mean any scenario where you must break down a carcass in the field and transport it on your back, piece by piece, to your vehicle or processing location. Game bags are disposable cotton at the cheap end and reusable synthetics like nylon and polyester at the higher end, and woven in such a way as to encourage airflow. They keep dirt, debris, insects and other critters off the meat while allowing it to cool quickly, which is paramount for avoiding spoilage.

If you are using game bags, chances are you will need a larger backpack or frame pack to assist in meat hauling. I hauled my first big caribou out of the field in an old mountaineering pack of 75 liter/4600 cubic inch capacity and it worked just fine. For those on a budget, I would search the used market online, as well as resale shops. Look for something with a substantial hip belt.

Mountaineering brands you can trust are, in no particular order, Black Diamond, Gregory, Mountain Hardwear, Crux, Osprey, REI, and Dana Designs (bombproof, although often heavy), among others. For those with a bit of cash to burn, Stone Glacier, Exo Mountain Gear, Mystery Ranch, Kifaru and Seek Outside are probably offering the best hunting-specific backpacks these days, often rivaling the mountaineering brands for weight, but with features specific to hauling meat or attaching a weapon. Older, secondhand frame packs are noisy and uncomfortable, but are quite good at one thing: hauling heavy loads. They can often be picked up very inexpensively at garage sales in western towns, or on Craigslist.

Game calls are crucial for turkey hunting and advantageous for hunting waterfowl, deer, elk and moose. Focusing just on turkey, a diaphragm call set with an instructional CD can be had for about $20, a pretty modest investment. If you junked your CD player years ago, there are downloadable options for instruction.

Alternatively, you may have a CD player in your car. More than one hunter (including this one), has learned to use a diaphragm call while commuting to work and listening to Will Primos work his magic. For a much gentler learning curve, an inexpensive slate call will also work just fine. The hardest part of slate calling is learning to judge when to put down the call and pick up the scattergun. After just a little practice in my living room, I was able to call in my first turkey, the poor, gullible, tasty thing.

I have never personally used a deer call, but they appear quite effective in certain scenarios and are easy to use. Calling waterfowl, elk and moose, on the other hand, is more difficult. If you are interested in learning these techniques, plan on devoting some time and effort, although the calls themselves are not particularly expensive.

Exercise your Rights

Don't let the high price of modern hunting equipment bar you from your birthright as a human. We have been hunting for nearly 200,000 years, the vast majority of that time with nothing more than sharpened sticks and stones. There really is not much you need to get started. Outside of not hunting at all, the worst thing you can do is be distracted by social media or hunting advertisements. When I started hunting birds, my dog and I would walk out the door with a water bottle, a pocket knife and a shotgun and in the intervening years I have not found a whole lot that needed to be added.

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Copyright 2019 by Cole Styron and/or All rights reserved.