Article By Emory Wanger
I’ve been told time and again I would never bridge the gap between the backcountry hunter and the long distance thru-hiker. It baffles me as to why we sometimes go out of our way not to interact with one another when there is a vast pool of knowledge waiting to be tapped into, sometimes a mere arm’s length away. You might say that the backcountry hunter could never relate to thru-hikers, and vice versa, but I challenge your sentiments. Those who venture into the backcountry laden with backpacks have everything in common — a shared love and admiration for wild places that are free from the distractions of modern life.
I had been a hunter for a number of years, so the idea of hiking miles into the backcountry without the excitement of chasing wild game seemed like a waste of time. Backpacking just to backpack didn’t appear to be much of an adventure at all until I learned of these freak-like thru-hikers who backpack thousands of miles in a single summer. I’d seen them previously along the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and couldn’t help but notice they looked no different than the homeless guy standing on the corner downtown asking for my change. It turns out that after hiking for five months straight, you tend to look a little rough around the edges.
Hiking for five months straight? You can’t be serious! Fact: it happens a lot and these thru-hikers do it incredibly well. Thus, began my research into why and how this even happens in the first place. How could anyone hike over 2000 miles (sometimes 3000) in a single go? I began researching to find answers and found myself oddly attracted to the world of thru-hiking to the point where in April of 2017, I stepped off from the Mexican border in California with my feet pointed north along the PCT. I wanted to find out for myself how someone could ever cover up to 25 miles per day for weeks on end through some of the most incredible wilderness the United States has to offer.
I remember going into my thru-hike thinking I had it all figured out. I knew how to backpack from my days of hunting and had a well-laid plan. In the words of Mike Tyson, “Everyone has a plan, ‘till they get punched in the mouth.” I got punched in the mouth by the PCT over and over and over again until I learned my lessons — far too many to list here. As I made my way north, and with each passing 100-mile stretch, I began to learn how to backpack efficiently. By the time I reached the Canadian border in September, backpacking had become a mindless activity, almost like driving a car. I felt far more capable in the wilderness and my confidence soared. My focus shifted to things that actually matter in the backcountry — the backcountry itself. I shed some of my backpack hunter tendencies and replaced them with techniques thru-hikers have been using for years. I had adapted to this extreme new world yet retained my previous knowledge I learned in hunting.
Having been a backpack hunter prior to my hike, I knew a thing or two about carrying loads. This served me well when after the first few weeks on the trail; my ultralight backpack was killing my neck and shoulders, causing headaches. My knowledge of how backpacks are meant to support loads made me realize that the pack I was using was not working properly. Instead of accepting my fate and being miserable for the next 1,500 miles, I decided to swap backpacks with one that was better suited for carrying more weight. It worked. What I had previously learned from wearing a hunting backpack helped me to address the issue I was having with an ultralight thru-hiking pack. For the remaining miles of my journey, I was comfortable and happy while I watched others struggle with their crazy-ultralight, weigh-nothing backpacks.
I’ve been on both sides of the fence and experienced that uncomfortable moment when leaving the trailhead toting a rifle next to a perfect little family heading out for a weekend getaway. I’ve also been that tree-hugging, hippy-looking thru-hiker that stumbles upon a father and son out bear hunting along the PCT right after a successful harvest. The look I received from them was awkward and tense to say the least. I’m sure they expected me to begin stomping my feet asking how they could live with themselves after taking the life of an animal in such a beautiful place. But when I asked how they were doing, how the hunt was treating them, and found common ground, they lowered their defenses and saw me for who I was. We were out there for the same reasons: to escape the distractions of modern life and witness something that can only be seen when you push yourself miles into the backcountry.
I found a way to bridge the gap for myself between the world of hunting and long-distance backpacking. Two worlds that have nothing to do with one another on the surface actually synchronize well once one begins to understand them. The skills I learned from my days of hunting prepared me for my experiences on the Pacific Crest Trail, and my time spent on the trail will no doubt serve me well going forward in future hunting seasons. Since returning home from my hike, I’ve revised my hunting gear to the point where I now have a great balance between how I operated on the trail and how I will operate off of it, chasing game. In doing so, my pack weight has been reduced which will increase my stamina, efficiency, and my overall happiness in the backcountry, while still allowing me to haul out a heavy load when needed. Had I not taken those steps to learn about thru-hiking, I never would have learned of these newfound techniques; and had I not had previous experiences hunting, I would have spent my journey up the PCT in a significant amount of pain.
We as hunters have an opportunity to build bridges by reaching out and learning from other backcountry communities. I challenge those reading these words to find a long-distance trail near your home, camp near it, and question passing hikers on how and what they’re doing. Give them a cold beer, a bag of chips, or a ride to town and you’ll likely find yourself in one of the most brilliant conversations and in the company of a fellow lover of the backcountry. You could also do some of this electronically, checking out lightweight backpacking websites. I believe you’ll find that the overlaps are vast and mutually beneficial.
Hunt, learn, and build bridges.
For more from Emory, check out Episode 69 of our Beyond the Kill podcast.