Load Warriors

A Guide to Becoming a Human Packhorse

I’ve done my share of packing. As an elk guide, it’s the crux of the job. I’ve packed out countless elk, using every method known to man. While horses and mules are an awesome way to get game out, they aren’t always feasible. IMG_0339 (1)The vast majority of elk hunters pack meat out on their backs. For those who carry the weight, this article is for you. While no elk pack outs are easy, there are tactics that can make it easier. There are ways to carry more weight and feel less strain, as well as methods that make the pack out smoother. Although these tactics won’t carry the elk for you, they are lessons I’ve learned from packing a ton of meat, primarily on my own. They’ve kept me injury-free and allowed me to relish the challenge no matter the level of difficulty.

Pack Choice and Adjustment

Anytime you’re lugging a heavy pack, it’s uncomfortable. However, there are some simple things you can do to make it better. For heavy loads, pack choice is crucial. I’ve tried a lot of packs and have gotten rid of a lot of packs, because I want a pack that can do work and comfortably haul heavy weight. If it can’t work as hard as I want, it’s gone. Look for a pack with a good frame designed to carry 100+ pounds.

There are two different versions of frame packs – internal and external. These boil down to personal preference. I use both and each has its advantages and disadvantages. Both can be constructed to haul weight, but how they distribute the weight and how they should be loaded can be different. In my opinion, a frame pack is generally better for hauling heavy loads, but there are some great internal frames that can be put to the test. I really want to focus more on the “how”, not which specific pack to choose. No matter which pack you choose, the most important thing is still the overall fit. I’m always surprised at how many pack companies come out with a pack that isn’t adjustable to fit your torso, or how many hunters have a pack that is adjustable, but don’t know or haven’t taken the time to fit it properly. An improper fit on a pack is the same as boots that don’t fit, and can often be worse. It can hinder movement, misplace weight, be inefficient, and even make it harder to hike.

One time I wore a pack that was too long in the torso. I couldn’t figure out why I was so worn out. After undoing the waist belt, I realized that hiking was much easier, because my legs and hip flexors had been working against the pack. When fitting a pack, it should be on your hips, not your waist. If you were to put your hands on your hips with your thumbs back, you would be on your iliac crest. This forms a shelf above your waist near the top of the hipbones where the pack should rest and bear the weight. Your pelvis is designed as the weight bearer for your upper body, so you want to have a pack that fits your torso and doesn’t sit too high or too low. When fit properly, the waist belt should come around the front and be centered along the two points of the pelvic bones.

Weight Distribution

Weight distribution is critical. It’s a game of loading the pack to make the same amount of weight feel lighter and ride easier. The easier you make it for yourself, the more you can carry
per trip and minimize fatigue. The intention is to place as much weight on your hips as possible while maintaining proper balance. In general, when packing any heavy pack, the best way to distribute weight is to place heaviest items closest to your back, near your shoulder blades so the weight doesn’t extend away from you and pull you back, which forces your core to work insanely harder. Mid-weight items should be higher in the pack and more central. The lighter gear goes to the outside and bottom.

Internal: Optimal weight distribution varies between internal and external packs. With an internal pack, you want the heaviest piece of meat centered high between your shoulder blades and tight against your body. The bonus to an internal frame is that you can lower your center of gravity for stability, with the weight slightly lower on your back. When packing an internal frame, I generally put a hindquarter haunch-side down in the pack with a jacket or lighter items I won’t need at the bottom to keep the weight a bit higher. If I’m carrying two quarters, I’ll put the front quarter in on top, with the heavier shoulder side of the leg up.

External: For an external frame, I load it opposite. The heaviest stuff should be at the top and close against your back. I’ll often load a hindquarter haunch up/leg down. This can be tricky, because you don’t want it above your head. You can do this by cutting the tendons at the knee so it slides farther down the pack. If I’m carrying a front and hindquarter, I’ll load the shoulder meat-side down and the hindquarter meat-side up. This is the most optimal way to maintain stability and put weight into the hips. Just make sure that you feel stable and not too top-heavy. Most good packs come with load lifters. These are the thinner straps at the top of the shoulder straps. They are designed to cinch the pack closer to your body up high, providing better stability, balance, and efficiency.

Getting On Your Feet

The hardest part about a heavy pack is getting off the ground. This may seem like common sense, but there is a proper way to get off the ground. Extending your arm to help someone with a heavy load can hurt you or them by creating undue strain. Many people also pick up the pack, put it to their knee, and twist into the straps. While both are fine up to a certain amount of weight, anything over 70 lbs. can tweak the body, and doesn’t use great form. Most hunters can carry more weight than they think, but they strain getting up or into the pack.

The right way: start with the pack on the ground and feet downhill. Buckle into the pack and tighten all the straps while seated. Then, roll over to your knees and all fours with the pack on your back. From here you can now engage your quads and stand with the power of your legs. This puts less tension or twisting in the back and joints, and lets you stand up using the strongest muscles available.IMG_8406

Hiking Stick/Trekking Poles

The key to carrying weight is to efficiently use your muscles for the longest time possible while eliminating unnecessary effort. A tool as simple as a hiking stick, either found or manufactured, can aid greatly. The function of the hiking stick is twofold. First, it aids in stabilization, which means you can use non-essential lifting muscles like your arms to provide more relief to your back, core, and legs. Second, it reduces the felt weight on your back and the amount of exerted force on your knees by up to 25%, according to some studies. Even the most skeptical hunters who have finally tried this method will tell you – it works.

Floppy Pack Syndrome

There is no quicker way to get worn out than by packing a sloppy load, due to all your extra stabilizing muscles working overtime. Once these muscles get fatigued, the whole process breaks down. To counteract this, once you have the meat in the pack, cinch down every strap available on the bag. Not all loads pack the same, so it never hurts to have a few extra straps. These are especially useful when it comes to securing antlers.

The Multi-Point Pack Method

It’s the age-old grocery bag dilemma: fewer trips with more weight, or more trips with less weight? Think of it like this: Do you A) grab a few bags per hand; or B) load as many bags as you can all the way up your arms to prevent having to go back out? If you answered B, you’re certainly in good company. Often, the thought of just overloading and suffering for one trip is the better option, but in actuality, it can be punishing (both short and long term) and sometimes slower depending on your fitness. I’m lucky to be in great shape and often opt to carry fewer heavier packs, but this isn’t possible for all hunters, and sometimes not practical at all. The balance comes with distance to your destination and the amount you can physically bear. Some trips are just too far and physically too difficult to reduce the number of trips. However, the multi-point method can be easier mentally and allow you to carry less weight per trip.IMG_20151222_231002

This method also works well because it allows for moving rest periods. These are the unweighted hikes in between loaded trips. This packing strategy allows you to make multiple trips but not the entire distance at once. For this, break the trip into multiple manageable drop points. Carry your first load to the first drop point and then hike back to get the next load, and so on. This breaks the work into more manageable sections and allows you time in between carries to recoup a bit. For extreme distances or when I’m hunting alone, I use this tactic often. On a recent elk hunt in Alaska, my brother and I used this method to carry over 700 lbs. for miles with extreme amounts of elevation gain. The trek involved both uphill and downhill over a mountain range. This allowed us to maximize our hiking time with periods of moving rest as we hiked back to the point for the next load.

The Hindquarter DragRemiDrag

Putting this tactic in here is ironic for me because my #1 rule is “don’t drag anything”. Dragging is typically a very inefficient way to move a lot of weight and puts strain on the body. That being said, there are a few instances when dragging works. This scenario mandates that there must be snow on the ground, and the majority of the trip should be downhill (for the uphill portions, I’ll use the multi-point method and ferry the elk). For the hindquarter drag, remove the hindquarter but leave the hair on. The hair will protect the meat from dirt and allow it to slide easily. You may be surprised at how slick and easy the hair-on quarters glide. Dragging in this instance can shave off a large portion of downhill relatively easy. Once I’ve run out of easy dragging, I skin out the quarters and backpack them.

 

Invention of the Wheel

Although this article is about making the pack out easier while backpacking, it’s important to mention a few 100_0377alternatives to think about other than the well-known backpacking or pack stock methods. In the right scenario, a wheeled alternative can make carrying a substantial amount of weight quick and easy. The drawback is that you need an adequate trail or cleared logging road. Carts: Although most game carts are meant for whitetail or antelope hunters, they can also work for elk. Most game carts are designed to take out whole animals, so some modifications may need to be made to haul out a quartered elk. For most carts, the bars are too far apart and the quarters will fall through. This can be remedied by cutting a piece of plywood or attaching a metal mesh to the frame. You’ll also need plenty of tie downs. Bikes: In some instances, a mountain bike can be an awesome option for getting meat off the mountain. The bike allows you to travel gated roads faster than hiking and carry weight with relative ease. Any mountain bike will do, but make sure it has good shocks and is built for rugged off-road travel. The added weight can be hard to get used to at first. As a word of caution, you may want to practice with a lighter pack to start. The first time I packed out an animal with a bike, I went over the handlebars going down the single-track trail. If your area is conducive to biking, look into Cogburn fat tire bikes. These bikes are great off-road and can even travel in three inches of snow. There are models equipped with racks designed for hunters at some Scheels stores. Some options include a tow cart that attaches to the back to carry extra meat. These accessories make it easier to take more weight safely with a better ride.

The Final Determination

The most important factor for a smooth pack out is the mental aspect. I’ve been on some brutal pack outs and attitude is everything. If you start to tell yourself it’s going to be horrible, it will be. The mind is the most powerful motivator. When I first started guiding elk hunters, every time the elk was down the hunter would make a comment about how bad it was going to be. I got into the habit of verbalizing that the pack out was my favorite part and how “the harder it was, the better it was”. I’d be excited for the challenge, whether I truly was or not. Over time, I noticed that this attitude allowed me to push harder and enjoy the experience, even when it was tough. There is nothing more important than a strong attitude, even if you have to lie to yourself to get it! There is no replacing a positive mental attitude. So, lace up and pack on, because a heavy pack is the best part about being an elk hunter.

This article originally appeared in Elk Hunter Spring 2016. To purchase the complete issue, click here!

Also Read:

One thought on “Load Warriors

  1. Kurt Anderson

    Having packed out my share of elk and deer, and now being 60 years old, I am keenly aware of every pound (hell, every ounce!) I have to pack. Your suggestion about walking sticks is excellent for a number of reasons. Yes, they reduce the weight on your back and knees. But sticks also help you maintain your balance and increase your stride, more distance for fewer steps or same number of steps but a helluva lot less strenuous. Balancing requires muscles, the same ones you have to walk with, so anything that reduces the use of those muscles extends endurance. Using a pair of cheap telescoping walking sticks (maybe not all day) employs the muscles of your arms, shoulders and core, which effectively increases your stride under load. Your stride will reach a maximum beyond which sticks are no help, but they still increase endurance, which is important when hunting and when packing out. Try walking through blowdowns with and without sticks and you will be a true believer in them. And they are great for reducing falls and slips that suck the life out of you mentally and physically with a full pack of meat or without. Walking sticks have easily extended my hunting life by 10 years.

    Getting the pack on my back with a quarter lashed to it is a big chore for this oldster. I pack nylon pulleys and rope to first pull the pack up a tree, then lower it on my back. When I stop for a breather I make sure to rig to something to help me get going again. It is also a handy device to raise quarters up out of bear reach for those times you have to solo pack out the whole critter over a couple days. Simply bag the meat, then hoist it up and tie it off on the shady side of the tree. Obviously you need several such pulleys for this, but they weigh next to nothing. Killing an elk on a steep hillside, where they tend to slide further down the hill as you work on them is also a great time to employ these pulleys. String 2 on each end for twice the pulling power; at the elk’s head and at the tree or rock you are pulling from and one guy can easily turn an elk fully up the hill for easier gutting and quartering and rolling. I also pack a small tarp to do my quartering on to avoid the dirt and crud problem. In a pinch it is a shelter for me and my gear if I get caught late or the skies open up with snow or rain, but it sure improves the quality of meat you haul out and only weighs a pound.

    I totally agree on the external frame; it makes life so much easier. But make sure it has a shelf at the bottom to rest the meat on and does not, like you say, interfere with hip or back action. Once you get the quarter on, lash it on with a diamond hitch like on a pack animal. 3 or 4 diamonds is all you need to hold it very securely. I might take out the first load lashed to my internal framed pack, but I’ll swap that for a frame only when I get to camp.

    The choice between fewer loads but more pain, or more loads with less pain was made for me about 10 years ago; more trips, less pain. Break your quarters down if necessary, bone them out (but don’t forget to leave evidence of sex), and reduce the weight of a quarter by at least 5 lbs. Skin out everything but that evidence of sex. The head and horns? Just get the horns, let your taxidermist do the skin and form for you, these days they can slap a cow’s cape on a bull form and you won’t know the difference. On those trips back in, I still carry my bow if I have a bear tag or extra cow tag, but I’ve also left it at camp too. Don’t wear yourself out on heavy trips or you may find yourself in camp with no energy (mental as well as physical) for several more trips. Mark your trail in and out well (I use toilet paper), and they may not be the same. A longer, easier trip back to camp is always better than a shorter hell march. A GPS and compass are very handy as well. If packing out on an easier route that doesn’t end up at camp, but allows you to drive to your meat waypoint, I’m doing it.

    If you have access to horses (even hired ones) and the situation is right, do yourself a big favor and make the call. Two horses can pack out an entire elk in one trip. It may cost a couple hundred bucks or so, but well worth it. Hire the horses and the wrangler to pack your elk, and then tip him or her well. Some outfitters will help you out if you are in the same area and you talk to them first about it. Most want to make money no matter how it is done. The area I hunt these days is a very good one and I almost always pack out meat, and I always give a call ahead to my horse guy to put him on notice, that way he can have a couple animals in the corral and a trailer ready to go. If I don’t get anything or I can pack it myself, I take him out for dinner and tip him just for keeping me in mind. I long ago gave up renting or bringing my own horses; just too much trouble for the cost and potential problems they can cause; blowups, getting loose, getting hurt or sick, or getting me hurt.

    I totally agree with having a positive attitude while you are packing out and returning for several loads. Having the physical endurance is a huge part of that equation. Being in shape for hunting also puts you in shape to pack meat. I would suggest getting in good shape by at least a couple months before the hunt. Cardio and strength in the legs is key. I hate to say it, but power walking 4-5 miles a day, then doing endless squats is the key to that, but it also has the benefits of bettering your health as well as increasing your odds at a successful hunt. Out of shape I can still make 4-5 miles a day in the woods, but not as quietly as when I am in shape. It will vastly improve your attitude toward those tougher hunts where the trail is not so easy in the rocks and at timberline, especially if you have to spend a week or so in the woods. I don’t think the “the harder it is, the better it is” exists in my makeup, but “the easier it is, the better it is” sure works for me. I’m also going to eat like a king while I’m hunting. No more losing weight while I’m hunting!

    Bikes and carts? Nah, I might go for a helicopter or zipline though. Seriously, there are parts of my area where I could use a cart for a mile or so, so maybe I’ll give that a go this fall. Even if it cuts out a couple hundred yards of the work, I am all for it. A bike has very limited use where I hunt elk, and the damn things are out of control with me and a full pack on them. Besides, some of them cost as much as a horse these days. I have used a sled to get my meat out in late season hunts in the snow. One of those big black ice fishing sleds works great, especially if someone else pulls it up the hills and you can stay on open ground. I suppose you could ride it down hills, but I’m not that crazy.

    One last thing; water. You might bring a water bottle on a day hunt, but you’ll need a gallon to pack out meat and I’m not about to pack 8 pounds of water with me. I bought one of those filtration systems because there are several small creeks in my area. It is just essential to keep watered up when you are sweating under a load of meat. It is probably the best thing I have done for myself. I’ll swig down that bottle of water, but then load it back up every time I get near water. I don’t recall the brand, but since I haven’t died yet, I’m assuming it works just fine. I haven’t tried anything but already clear running cold mountain water though. That would be a great blog item for us western hunters, by the way; which one works the best vs weight and cost.

Leave a Comment