All Photos Credit: Talus Creative
Hunting during the prime months of the year—August through October—can have its challenges, but for the most part, the gear list is reasonably straightforward. Depending on species and location, there are a variety of ways to skin the proverbial cat, regardless of the budget you’re working with. To put that more simply, you don’t need the best of everything to increase your chances of success and have a hell of a hunt.
Assuming your boots fit and can handle the terrain, your apparel system manages the exertional and environmental demands you’ll be faced with, your weapon shoots true, and your tent and sleeping bag allow a good night’s rest, you’re going to have a decent outing. But as the temperatures drop, and snow becomes the norm not the exception, the margin for error becomes critically slim. Late season hunts that find us chasing game in November, December, January and even February are when our gear choices can make or break the outcome of a hunt.
In late February of this year, I embarked on my third late season mountain goat hunt in as many seasons. The first trip occurred in late December 2015, and although it was a great outing with two solid hunting companions, on paper it was an unmitigated failure. In large part because of the gear we packed—or more specifically didn’t pack—into the mountains with us.
Having just returned from a third, and wildly successful, late season mountain goat hunt, I wanted to share my thoughts on the essential gear for what I would consider to be the most demanding mountain hunt available in North America. The list below is where no expense should be spared, and no corners cut. If you do not own any of the items on this list, and have a hunt like this in your future, you would be wise to make room in your budget to add these crucial items to your gear shed. As this article is appearing in our Roam column, I will focus on gear that is critical to safely and effectively travelling overland and surviving the harsh conditions that are inevitable in mountain goat country in the winter months.
The Must Have Winter Goat Hunt Gear List
1) Mountain Worthy Snowshoes and Crampons:
With the explosion in popularity of the “sport” of snowshoeing, it can be daunting to make the appropriate selection for a hunt of this nature. Most outdoor retailers carry a vast selection of snowshoes that come in all shapes, sizes and intended applications. Some are best suited to packed trails, some are designed for “snowshoe running”, while others are tailored to handling deep snow in flatter terrain. On this recent hunt, our party of six naturally headed into the mountains with a sampling of different models and brands. As the hunt wore on, it became obvious that certain models were better suited to the terrain and challenges than others. In short, you are best served using a snowshoe that is designed to provide traction on hard crusty snow and steep slopes, while still providing decent flotation in deep snow in the flats. If you had to choose between traction and flotation, traction is without a doubt the most important design feature to look for. The best snowshoes for the task on this hunt were either the MSR Evo Ascents or MSR Lightning Ascents. Both models feature aggressive steel crampons under the forefoot and rigid decks built out of plastic or steel that are “toothed” for biting into steep terrain. Snowshoes that do not combine these two traction features should be avoided. Same rule applies for crampons. They must be mountain worthy. This is not the situation where Microspikes, or similar traction devices, are acceptable. For crampons, nothing short of a ten-point crampon should be used on these hunts. One of our party was using six-point crampons and these were not sufficient for the terrain we faced. The ability to toe-pick is critical when things get vertical.
2) Trekking Poles and Ice/Climbing Axe:
Typically, these two gear items are compared in an either/or capacity. Not so for these hunts. I firmly believe you need both. Trekking poles are indispensable for travelling through the valley bottoms when you’re breaking trail, and equally handy on ascents and descents for taking load off your legs. But when you get into the steep stuff, especially in the trees where snow cover will be lighter and you’re more likely to encounter hard packed snow and ice, the ice/climbing axe becomes the better tool for the job. A trekking pole is simply not strong enough to use in a self-arrest situation and can’t be used to create a handhold where none exists. Some in our party relied solely on trekking poles, while others preferred the uniquely designed Whippet from Black Diamond and although they managed, I was happy I carried both with me. The axe I’ve been using for years now is the 75cm Peztl Glacier Ice Axe, weighing in at less than a pound. It has earned a coveted spot in my gear shed and is without a doubt one of my most prized gear possessions. The brand and model are less important than the point I’m making, if you want to be ready to handle anything the mountain may throw in your path, I’d advise you take both good, collapsible trekking poles and a quality ice/climbing axe afield.
3) Climbing Rope, Carabiners, and Ultralight Climbing Harness:
Mountain goats live in steep shit. And if they’re not hanging out in the steep stuff, you’ll need to navigate it to get to them. On this hunt, we needed our climbing rope and carabiners on two separate occasions. Once when we got cliffed out and had to rope our packs down as descending with the packs on was not a safe proposition, and again when we had to retrieve the billy we eventually killed. We literally had to rope him up and haul him up to a ledge to break him down. Admittedly, we could have used more rope, we only had two sections that were roughly fifty feet in length each. We would have been better served with double that in two separate sections. The carabiners saved us from fumbling with complicated knots in the freezing temps and although we didn’t use the ultralight climbing harness, we came damn close to needing it and I was glad to have it in my pack. It will most certainly come in handy if I keep going on these sanity-check hunts.
4) Collapsible Avalanche Shovel:
If you’re not hunting solo, this isn’t something everyone in the group needs to carry but at least one is advisable. We used ours daily on this hunt. Whether that was for digging and packing snow into workable one-man tent platforms on the side of the mountain, carving and packing “snow-couches” around the fire of an otherwise spartan campsite, or digging our way through nipple deep snow on the ascents, the avy shovel was indispensable. Find the lightest, most collapsible one money can buy. You’ll be happy you spent the extra money.
I’ve mentioned it in on the podcast before, I’ve written about it in past articles and this is as close to gospel as you’re going to get in gear world. Synthetics are the ONLY choice for these hunts. Specifically, for apparel and sleeping bags. I have been running a nearly exclusive synthetic apparel system for years now, in large part due to the time I’ve spent learning from John Barklow at Sitka. The only exceptions to this (for my kit) are my boxers, toque/beanie, socks—all merino or wool-synthetic blends—and my heavyweight down puffy. I was testing a new heavyweight down jacket from Sitka on this hunt that was a significant upgrade in performance from the previous iterations of the Kelvin Down Hoody, a jacket I have been very happy with. This new jacket is something else. That aside, my base layers, mid-layers, pants (including insulated pants) and tops were all synthetic and using Barklow’s “re-warming” technique (for more watch this video), I managed to stay warm and dry throughout the hunt. This was no small feat. Our ascents were grueling and I would often be soaked through by the time we stopped to glass or set-up camp. But, by following Barklow’s system, and putting on my insulation layers as soon as we stopped, I’d “cook” myself dry with my own body heat. Related to this, are synthetic sleeping bags. A few guys in our group were running down bags, and these were problematic. They would have to spend time drying their bags out by the fire every morning and evening (due to condensation accumulated overnight) and would often wake-up partway through the night because they were cold. If we had not been able to get a fire going most nights, they would have been in real trouble. The down bags just weren’t up to the task. In my case, I’ve been using a Mountain Hardwear HyperLamina Flame synthetic bag rated to -6C for a few years now and couldn’t be happier with it. Although we were contending with temps in the -20C range most nights, I would simply wear my insulated pants and jacket in the sleeping bag and never had issues with being cold. Circling back on the apparel side of things, if we hiked late into the day and I went to bed with damp clothing, the synthetic bag plus synthetic apparel combo ensured I woke up bone dry every morning. With temps like we faced, this was crucial. If you use a down bag for most of your hunts, then adding a relatively inexpensive synthetic bag like the HyperLamina is a must for a late-season goat hunt.
Like everyone, I need to watch my budget when it comes to mountain hunting gear. It is far too easy to get swept up in the “grass is greener” mindset and blow our hard-earned dough on non-essential items. But when it comes to a late-season mountain goat hunt, there is no room for subpar gear. At minimum, the wrong gear will send you home early, wishing you’d known or planned better. In a worst-case scenario, you could be facing a life or death situation in some of the harshest environments and hunting conditions North America offers. These hunts are not for the ill-prepared.