Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Practical Accuracy

I've mentioned the concept of "practical accuracy" a couple of times and I've gotten a few questions about what exactly I'm talking about. So, I'll explain in brief.

Intrinsic accuracy is the mechanical accuracy the rifle is capable of with a given load. Generally measured in the size of the group in inches at 100 yards or in the measurement of minute of angle. This is the accuracy test you typically see in magazines or television programs or on the Internet. One thing is the same in all cases however- the equipment used is meant to remove any influence the shooter may have.  Typically, this is a solid bench rest and a Ransom Rest or 50 pounds of sandbags all placed in such a manner to eliminate any error the shooter might induce into the result. The skill of the shooter is nearly irrelevant if he doesn't manage to yank the trigger hard enough to pull the rest over. This is NOT what I'm talking about when I use the phrase "Practical Accuracy".

Practical accuracy is the same measurement in inches or minutes of angle with a couple of differences. The shooter does not use a bench rest or sandbags and time factors into the equation- the shots are fired from a field position under time pressure. In other words, the measure of intrinsic accuracy is that of a rifle isolated from it's firer whereas practical accuracy incorporates the firer and the rigors of field shooting into the measure. These two numbers will not be the same although a highly skilled master can get pretty close under ideal conditions- but they are not the norm. If your practical accuracy gets to 200% of your intrinsic accuracy then my hat is off to you and you'll be a deadly marksman indeed- far above the ability of your peers. The prone position will yield the best result and offhand typically the worst which is why my effective range is three or four times farther prone than offhand. Your results will likely mirror that as well.

Why does it matter? Well, in my hunting ground there is a notable absence of bench rests and sandbags and I'd wager yours doesn't have them either. You really have to know what you and your rifle are capable of as a system, not just the rifle itself in some abstract construct at the range. I've coached a number of hunters with marvelously sub MOA accurate rifles from a bench that literally had trouble hitting the vitals on a deer at 100 long paces. Their rifle was up to the task but the hunter wasn't.

It would certainly behoove the hunter to get out and practice from field positions- offhand, sitting and prone- to see a realistic picture of what they're actually capable of in the hunting ground. I'll refer the reader to my posts "Practice Makes Perfect" Parts 1 and 2 for more information. Testing a new load or zeroing a new scope from the bench is a great idea and we should test the intrinsic accuracy of our pieces from time to time administratively as barrels do burn out, scopes fail to hold zero, bedding shifts and so on. But don't confuse yourself- it does little to prepare you to fire at game animals and says little of your skill as a shooter.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

You Go Girl!....GO Hunting that is.

A friend of mine was tabulating the hunting license data from 2011 and found that 18% of all hunting licenses sold in the The Great Land were, in fact, sold to women. When you separate resident hunters, the number jumps to 19%.

That's right- nearly 1 in 5 Alaskan hunters in 2011 was a woman.

 For you industry types- I believe this is what you refer to as a "growth market".

This data makes the work my wife has put into the Becoming an Outdoors Woman program very rewarding. Way to go!

Monday, January 28, 2013

Hate Mail...Thoughts on Killing.

I do enjoy correspondence with my readers, almost always. There are exceptions to such generalizations however, and the rare occasion of "hate mail" is one of the odd such times that I don't relish interaction with my readers. I must confess that I rarely read through an entire email- particularly once I've determined the sender is venting vitriol. I rarely respond to these emails either- in my experience those folks are looking to pick fight or take my correspondence and send it somewhere else for others to read. So as hard as it is, I generally rely on executive privilege and reduce diatribes to so many disjointed electrons in the round file. Deleted.

I don't publish these emails for a couple of reasons. First, they are seldom written well enough to convey rational thought and often contain quite a lot of profanity. I can't pretend to say that profanity offends me greatly and I'm prone to utter expletives myself in dire circumstances despite efforts to refrain- but relying on the shock value of profanity in written word usually just reveals a lack of wit and imagination. Second, I don't really want to see debates running in the comments section of my blog and have no desire to either provide a bully pulpit or run one for myself. So topics like hunting apologetics and gun control I generally just leave alone despite having strong opinions on them. But there are certain aspects that keep coming up that I believe I'll take the opportunity to address. So dear reader, bear with me as I answer some common accusations.

The accusation that offends me the most is that I'm some form of bloodthirsty killer. I'm not. I've said previously that killing isn't something I particularly enjoy. It is a regrettable, and completely necessary part of the hunt. Reducing other animals to food requires their death- whether you're a human hunter or a tiger or a sparrow. I've had a number of conversations with people who refuse to eat animal products in an effort to eliminate the death of animals for their own sustenance. It's a nice thought and one that I know folks hold quite seriously. But our world doesn't work exactly like that. Agriculture on even a small scale requires the death of animals either by habitat reduction or direct intervention like depredation of crop damaging creatures, be they a weevil or a deer. Continuing our life ultimately requires death. Sometimes the shortest path between our sustenance and that required death is a bullet.

I approach the death of the animals I hunt quite seriously, I don't find joy in the killing. I do find joy in the success of the hunt but that isn't quite the same thing. I realize the distinction might appear nonsensical to the non-hunter but the successful hunt doesn't depend on the death of an animal although it is a component of a lot of them. That is also not to say that I don't find joy in being proficient in the killing that hunting demands. I take genuine pleasure in being an efficient killer of game and work very hard in both the technical aspects of rifle craft and field craft- knowing when a shot is good and when it is too risky, too far, knowing exactly where to place the bullet. Escapes in that arena bother tremendously because I am a hunter, when I kill I want to do so with maximum dispatch. The ideal death of my quarry is one in which the animal falls at the shot and never moves. Quick. Painless. I take any deviation from that as a personal failure. A journey from wildness to death in a second. It may seem grim to the non hunter but it is a better deal than the wolves and the cold offer. Nature holds no such human inhibitions against suffering.

I also take exception to the concept that I find killing fun. I don't. The notion is sick at it's core as are the people who hold such views. I find the hunt exhilarating, and exhausting. Lying in a tent in a storm, in the middle of bear country covered in three days of my own stink and sweat and the blood of an animal I've just butchered and hauled on my back down a mountain isn't the least bit fun. It's a lot of rewarding hard work. but I rarely think- this is fun. To borrow from Steven Rinella, if I found killing "fun" and it was the sole purpose of my hunt then I'd volunteer at the local ASPCA shelter euthanizing unloved stray pets or work in a meat packing plant and kill all day in comfort at union wages. I've observed both firsthand and neither could, or would, do either.

I also take exception to the notion that I should somehow "join reality" and just buy meat at the store rather than make the effort to subsistence hunt. Let's see- most Westerners will eat a meal of an animal they never saw in entirety, had no hand in killing, and probably couldn't narrow down it's life to a state. Then they sit down to an evening of entertainment watching scripted "reality" on an electronic screen or talk to "friends" they've never met and never will and if the truth was known have nothing in common with other than mutual electrons. I'm not sure actual reality is a place I've ventured too far from. Not that I want to sound condescending to those who don't hunt- I'm no better than anyone else for the effort I expend. It's how I choose to focus my energy in pursuit of a goal I find meaningful. I also won't accept the accusation that because I take an active role in procuring protein that I'm somehow a deviant.

So why don't I spend more time talking about such things on my blog? It's a fair question and I'll answer. I don't really feel the need to defend something that humans have done since the very beginning. If hunters and non hunters and anti hunters want to go somewhere and argue in circles endlessly about the ethics of any aspect of hunting then the internet certainly has hundreds of venues that will provide. I don't really want this one to be one. I'd rather tell good hunting stories and show some pictures of my life in the field. I like to put up some recipes of things I've made the animals I hunt into. I like to help newer hunters understand some of the techniques and equipment that I use. I'd hope that some of what I do will help others understand what I do better and replicate it themselves if they choose. I realize that putting my life out into the digital ether opens me up to criticism, but that was a risk I knowingly took. Sometimes I feel it is worth it when I get correspondence from a new hunter who found success using a technique they read about here or correspondence that reports a person gained new insight about what I do by reading about it here. Sometimes it's just someone telling me they enjoyed reading a great hunting story. I appreciate it- I really do.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Mindful Carnivore- Tovar Cerulli

In the long winter months I like to pass days that are too cold or windy to venture out much by reading hunting literature. I must confess that most modern hunting literature doesn't do much for me since so much of it centers around trophy hunting or exotica that I have a hard time relating too as someone primarily focused on hunting for the table. As subsistence hunting becomes more unusual, the amount of literature written in that genre gets smaller and smaller. As a partial response to that I turned largely to blogs, where I could interact with some of the authors and find some material that might never make it into print otherwise. Occasionally, one of those author's material makes it into print.

I first ran across Tovar back on Holly Heyser's (sadly now defunct) blog Norcal Cazadora where he was a frequent commenter. Much of the content on Holly's blog centered on the ethos of hunting and killing game and many of the readers were not hunters and the content there was not your average hunting blog by any stretch of the imagination. I followed Tovar's comments from there to his own blog and was delighted to hear he was working on a book. Time, being what it is, moved on and I lost touch with Tovar's work among many others but was delighted when I ran across him on SBW's Facebook page. I was pleased to see the book was finished and even more pleased when Tovar agreed to forward me a copy to review for my readers.

In summary, for those of you unfamiliar with Mr. Cerulli, is basically the story of a vegan turned hunter. He is a wonderful story teller and the book is basically the inner voyage he makes from typical American eater and angler as a teen to a vegetarian in his twenties to sick middle aged man. His doctor suggested he needed more protein in his diet and in one of the most poignant lines in the book, "she didn't mean more tofu."

Faced with a dilemma of needing to include animal protein in his diet but being leery of readily available industrial farmed meat products commonly available- his attention turned to hunting. The reader is taken through the entire process in Tovar's mind- how someone so intent to cause no harm in their existence comes to see that everything we eat has consequences intended or not and how when faced with what is ultimately a requirement to become a carnivore- hunting becomes the path of least harm and highest awareness of what actually goes on your plate.

Centered entirely on the East Coast of the US, most of the hunting action centers on whitetail deer and small game. Tovar presents some great information about the history of hunting in early American history and tells the story of deer and deer hunting very well. It also tells the story of some of the people in Tovar's life and weaves a rich tapestry of how those people contributed to his journey from boy to vegan to hunter. In reading the book, I was reminded that none of us become hunters on our own- it is through a mentor (or several) that we achieve that status and the conservation of game is a community wide endeavor. While I have an interest in hunting solo, that is really a misnomer- none of us are solo hunters- it is the efforts and contributions of many who make it possible to be hunters.

One of the better segments of the book is toward the end where Tovar takes us on a series of unsuccessful hunts before finally taking his first deer. It is a great representation of what goes through our minds when we are learning to hunt a new species and how hard we can work at hunting to no avail. I've long been critical of the common notion among non hunters that hunting is easy and frequently successful and this narrative disputes that perfectly.

I enjoyed the book a great deal. Mr. Cerulli asks hard questions and brings an unflinching look at what is on your plate. For the reader tired of another "whitetail story" or perhaps is uncomfortable with what place hunting has in our food supply- this book is recommended. For new hunters or people exploring the notion of hunting as an ethical way to obtain food- it should be required reading. I really hope that Tovar is hard at work on a second book because I would certainly like to read about more of his story.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Book Review: The Call of the Mild by Lily Raff McCaulou

Some time back I was surfing on Facebook and a post about a NY Times Op-Ed piece about a "new" trend in hunting was linked and the poster asked, "What do you think?" I read the NY Times piece and found it interesting but (at least in my opinion) written with a perceptible  tone of derision that modern, sophisticated, educated humans would sally forth into the woods and hunt for their own dinner. The authors mentioned had all published a book or two about it and I'd read nearly all of them. I've reviewed a couple of Rinella's books (admittedly not on this blog) and last year published a piece about Georgia Pellegrini. I had corresponded off and on with Tovar Cerulli over on Holly Heyser's now (sadly) defunct blog several times and I'm happy to report a review of his book is forthcoming on this blog as well. The last author was Lily Raff McCaulou, whose book The Call of the Mild had just been released and I was completely unfamiliar with her work. I posted my opinion about the piece and at that moment one of those occasionally remarkable things occurred.

She posted her comment right after mine.

By coincidence we were members of the same hunting and conservation organization. I wasted no time in dropping her a note offering to review her book for my reader's pleasure and she was gracious enough to comply. A few days later, review copy of her book hit my mailbox. I had to shelve the review project while hunting season and some out of state travel occurred but the inevitable happened.


While I make every effort to stay active in winter, at some point the dark and the cold just overwhelm my desire to go out and our brutally long Arctic winter gives me some time to catch up on my reading and nothing makes me happier than reading about hunting and fishing. Particularly well written hunting and fishing adventures.

I'll give you a brief synapsis of the book but you really need to get your own copy to read it in depth since I won't be able to do it due diligence here.

Indie film producer Lily trades her New York career and lands a job as a reporter in Bend, Oregon. Getting over her initial culture shock, the first part of the book focuses on her adjustment from animal loving, gun fearing environmentalist to integrating into life in the West where loving animals, fearing guns and caring for the environment mean some very different things. As Lily watches the transformation of Bend take place before her eyes as people immigrate into the area and transform it, she decides to learn all she can by immersing herself into what life in Bend was like before she arrived. Her desire was driven by interviews of Bend citizens- hunters, loggers, and other very ordinary folks.

After learning to flyfish from boyfriend-turned-husband Scott she decides to do the seemingly radical thing given her lifelong thoughts about such things- she decides to get in touch with what's on her plate. She decides to learn how to hunt.

The rest of the book focuses on several episodes where she does all the things we hunters do- except from the standpoint of a total outsider. It reveals something about us- how inhospitable we can be to people and how much navel gazing the hunting and shooting community actually engages in. It also reveals the excellent efforts of some of our community to make hunting approachable for those who didn't grow up in a hunting family or in a hunting community. I had never considered it so much previously, but hunting is a tough subject to approach as an adult new to the sport and it makes my meager efforts to that effort all that more important.

One of the most refreshing things about the book is seeing how the hunting and fishing community is viewed by those outside it and considering some of the valid criticisms those outside (and some inside) our community have of us. Coming from one of the "reddest" spots on the map in one of the "reddest" States in the Union- seeing how hunting and fishing provides common ground for people on both sides of the political spectrum is probably the best part of the book, and one of the most rewarding, since hunting isn't a liberal or conservative issue- it's a human issue.  Refreshing in our increasingly polarized society.

While all of the books I've reviewed mentioned in the article were worthwhile I probably enjoyed this one the most (I still haven't completed Tovar's) but I enjoyed it precisely because it came from such a different viewpoint than any I have. Let me illustrate- I loved Rinella's books, but it could have been written from the viewpoint of any number of my hunting companions. Not to take anything from Mr. Rinella- but he didn't write anything that I found shocking or describe familiar things in unusual ways. For me, reading Rinella is like a favorite pair of jeans- comfortable in it's familiarity. I ended up feeling like I could have been on a hunt with Rinella or could go on one next week. Georgia Pellegrini's work on the other hand was somewhat exotic- hunts among the very well heeled and politically connected, British estates, huge corporate ranches, that kind of thing. In short, I found her work unapproachable- so foreign to my experience that I had a hard time connecting to it.

Lily Raff McCaulou approached what I love and know- Western hunting and conservation- from precisely the opposite angle I have. She describes something so familiar to me from such a different perspective that I found it simply fascinating and much more than being merely entertained- I learned some things among the backdrop of gun shops, fly fishing and elk hunts.

So the next time you find yourself in a book store or cruising Amazon looking for something new- you could do a lot worse than Lily raft McCaulou and The Call of the Mild.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Recoil- A Pain in the Neck

As a confession, I've never been particularly prone to being affected by recoil. I've enjoyed shooting the big guns for most of my adult life and often thought of the hard kickers as "exhilarating" rather than "terrifying".  I still hold to the notion that most people feel recoil primarily between their ears than on their shoulders- which is a round about way of saying that recoil is mostly a mental detriment to good shooting rather than a physical one. I've held to that for a long time and very little in my experience leads me to think otherwise and I've always looked sideways at most of the myriad of products (ie. read gimmicks) that are promoted to reduce or eliminate recoil. I've also taught many people to shoot high powered rifles and seen firsthand that most rank amateurs (a lot of ladies and children) who've never learned to fear recoil simply don't and as a result can effectively shoot powerful rifles without detriment. I've also seen grown men close their eyes in anticipation of the shot at even mild levels of recoil. So much has been written and discussed about recoil over the years that it's taken on mythical status among hunters and shooters.

We need to realize that recoil is viewed in a cultural context. In the when and where I grew up, the standard big game rifle was generally a 30-30 Winchester in some variety of lever action rifle. The recoil level was mild and rifles that kicked harder were often viewed as unnecessary. I've actually heard the phrase- "kills at both ends" in reference to the 30-06 and saw several shooters wearing a recoil shield while firing such moderate cartridges as the .270. In comparison- the '06 is a hard kicker when stacked up against the 30-30. When one goes West where the .270 and '06 are the more common hunting cartridges they aren't considered unapproachable by even novice hunters. If you go to Alaska or Africa where critters tend to be XXL or eat you back the '06 is seen as a "light rifle" and magnum cartridges and the century old .375 H&H are common. In Alaska and Africa, a big gun generally starts with a 4. It was examining this that lead me to believe that recoil is primarily a mental affect than a physical one since the folks firing these rifles are all pretty much the same.

What are some ways to deal with recoil? Here are some thoughts....

First, we need to limit recoil levels with beginning shooters. Exposing kids or beginners to high levels of recoil is a good way to develop a flinch that will take years to overcome. Almost without fail, all of the adult shooters that I've talked to that had the most issue with recoil were exposed to a rifle beyond their capability at an early age. An inappropriate cartridge coupled with a poor fitting stock is a good way to ensure you're kid closes their eyes before yanking on a trigger for a long time to come. Some will overcome it and some won't. So if you're thinking about sticking Grandad's '06 in your 10 year old's hands the next visit to the range- stop and reconsider what you might just accomplish.

Second we need to examine the stock. There are a number of stock designs on the market and a variety of materials and we need to realize that each handles recoil differently. Stocks that are straighter, without much drop in the butt, tend to avoid the torquing effect and keep recoil off your check bone. Rifles that run narrow in the butt concentrate recoil force over a small area and increase the pressure. The old big Winchester lever actions like the '71 tend to have lots of drop in the narrow butt and are some of the uncomfortable guns on the planet to shoot. In a similar fashion the wide "Monte Carlo" stock with a raised cheekpiece angled to the rear keeps the recoil from the cheek during the firing cycle by pulling away from the cheek and spreading the force over more shoulder area as the rifle moves to the rear. It is not by coincidence that the Weatherby rifles feature an exaggerated Monte Carlo stock and some of the hardest kicking cartridges on the market. Rifle fit is important and I wrote an entire piece related to youth and ladies rifle a few months ago.

Moving to the rear of the rifle, a decent butt pad like Pachmayr's Decelerator helps manage recoil and it often enough to tame a rifle that you find a bit too much. In the old days, the butt plate was usually a simple plate of plastic or metal without any give at all. I had a Winchester 70 in .375 at one point with a stock that looked like it was hacked from a 2x8 with a hatchet and finished with a plastic butt. It was my first exposure to the .375 and when I sold the rifle it included a partially fired box of cartridges. I never fired the whole box that came with the rifle- it was miserable. Knowing what I do today, I'd have simply restocked it and had a jewel of a rifle.

The other component of the stock to examine is the composition. Stocks of walnut tend to have some "give" in them- wood is a living material and the cells of wood have some natural space between and in them. It is a minor effect, but those spaces reduce the recoil impulse as those spaces absorb some of the whack. I have several rifles made of synthetic material- Kevlar and fiberglass or simple plastic- they tend to transmit all of the recoil effect without any sort of dampening at all.

Second, and related to composition, is overall rifle weight. The most effective way to dampen recoil is simple weight. Heavy rifles kick less than light ones and transmit that recoil to the shoulder slower- simple high school physics. Of course, in the hunting field lugging a heavy rifle overcome a single shot's worth of recoil is a trade off of diminishing return. I have one rifle in particular- a .300WSM that weighs 7.25 pounds in a Kevlar stock that kicks hard and it kicks fast. It is manageable on the range and a joy in the field, but I admit I don't shoot it very much. In contrast, I have a heavy .270 with a steel quarter rib, a beautiful wood stock and it weighs just under 10 pounds. It's a complete joy on the range but the thought of lugging it 5000' up a sheep mountain makes me tired just considering it.

You'll notice that at this point I haven't mentioned any of the gadgetry you see marketed as recoil reduction. For good reason- I'm deeply suspicious of it and most of it comes with as many detriments as advantages. The first thing, and the oldest, are the various "recoil reducers" marketed under several names but all are some form of mercury filled tube or simple weight placed in the butt of the rifle. It works, the law of physics says it must, but you have to carry that weight and on some shotguns they ruin the handling so badly they are just a waste of time. I'd rather invest money into a better fitting stock than making my current one heavier any day.

The next thing are the (newish) muzzle brakes that are growing in popularity. They work by redirecting some of the muzzle gas perpendicular to the bore via a series of small ports either drilled directly into the barrel or into a threaded apparatus screwed onto the muzzle. There are a number of figures reported about the efficiency of various brakes and the ones I've messed with do work. That reduction in recoil force comes with a vicious price though. On a conventional rifle the single quietest place during the firing cycle is directly behind the stock. A brief review of high school physics shows that to be true. When you redirect that gas perpendicular to the bore, that gas will generate sounds waves that travel back toward the shooter and radiate more sound waves to the side of the muzzle than a conventional muzzle. While it's not true that a muzzle brake will make a rifle louder (at least according to physics) it is absolutely true that it will expose the shooter and those nearby to more of the sound waves.

How loud? It depends greatly on the cartridge and the brake but I had a companion fire a braked rifle to the side of me about 10' away on a hunt a few years ago- my ears rang for several days and I'm sure I lost some of my hearing that day. Some African PHs will no longer allow muzzle brakes for fear of hearing damage to their guides, trackers and themselves with good reason. While a brake isn't an issue on the range where hearing protection is worn few hunters carry hearing protection to the field. I fired a friend's rifle a couple of years ago chambered in .338 Winchester Magnum, he had trimmed the barrel off to 20" and installed a muzzle brake. While it is true that the recoil was very mild for such a hard kicking rifle, the muzzle blast was simply unbelievable. I can only describe it as something akin to detonating dynamite on the end of a broom handle and even experienced shooters found it incredibly unpleasant to fire- recoil not withstanding. It is also my experience that most shooters will find muzzle blast more disconcerting than recoil regardless of hearing protection. As attractive as the recoil reduction is, I just can't tolerate a brake.

In case you haven't noticed, I've now said quite a few words about recoil for a guy whose been quite content to just ignore it for a lot of years at pretty substantial levels. While I do hold that recoil effect is mostly mental that leaves room for occasion for it to be partially physical. An active life has left me carrying a few injuries over the years, some have healed and I carry nothing but the scars but some just won't go away. As I type this I'm hanging out in my pajamas with a heating pad on my neck and a bottle of ibuprofen on my counter. This is the third such occasion in the last year where a compressed disk in my neck has allowed a pinched nerve to nearly stop me in my tracks. The occasions for such an injury are numerous enough but I believe a bad tumble down a scree slope a few years back was the culprit. As cool and true as the "scars are tattoos with better stories to tell" theory is, the truth of the matter is that a persistent debilitating injury pretty much sucks.

A visit to the doc and a CAT scan reveals a particular persistent injury that won't heal and can only be managed- such is the price of middle youth. The other option is a distasteful surgery that I'd really just like to forestall if i could. One of the suggestions is to avoid hard kicking rifles on an ongoing basis so my exploration into recoil goes beyond the mere hypothetical into the necessary. Range sessions with my .375 leave me aching these days rather than exhilarated. So dear reader, my interest in rifles is apt to change over the next few years- likely from my favored rifles in .300 and .375 to lighter numbers in .308 and .270. I'm also confronted by my own long running advice that I never considered might apply to me- if a shooter just can't handle the recoil the only course of action is to pursue a lighter cartridge.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Hunting from Skis....a Primer

I spent a wonderful New Year's Day doing what I love to do the most- spending time outdoors hunting. I was hunting in a manner that some may consider unusual, on skis. The Europeans, particularly the Nordic countries, have a rich tradition of hunting from skis and that activity when performed with a rifle is the beginning of the Olympic sport Biathlon.

In the US however, we have no such traditions even in areas with substantial snow. In Alaska, the Natives have no tradition of skis but rather with snowshoes which most Americans consider a more practical application for a hunter. Most of this is pretty academic at any rate since the modern Alaskan is more apt to be riding a snowmobile than striding around on either.

Resources on cross country skiing are everywhere on the Internet but articles on hunting from them are not particularly common. As motorized backcountry travel becomes more restricted in many parts of the US and a lot of hunters pinched by the strain of the down economy are looking for a more economical method of backcountry winter travel. So whether by legislation or finance- skis are starting to look like a more attractive option for a lot of hunters. What I've endeavored to do here is just assemble some basic information as a starting place for hunters interested in utilizing skis rather than an exhaustive resource which is well beyond the scope of this blog.

First off, you'll need some skis. While the neophyte would assume that any simple XC ski would do- you'd be surprised at how much specialization has crept into the industry in the last few years. For the hunter, who'll be often forging across untracked snow or navigating frozen river corridors, you need to avoid the typical "track ski" made for groomed trails common in city parks and golf courses wherever snow blankets the ground. What the hunter needs is a wider ski to float better and something with metal edges to gain a lateral groove on glare ice or a windblown frozen river surface. Every maker of XC skis offers something that works under the moniker "Backcountry". As a practical caveat- consider slightly longer skis than you'd normally use since you'll also have equipment and a rifle to add to your body weight that the maker's chart doesn't account for. Much is said about waxless and waxable skis- there are advantages to both depending on where you live and the snow conditions typical to your area so some research on your part will be required to pick the best application. I have both and typically use waxable skis although I'm something of a minority on that point.

To lash those skis to your feet you'll need boots and bindings. Most of the track skis are equipped with tennis shoe-like low boots more suited to racing and the bindings are often too delicate for the rigors of backcountry use since they're most often used, literally, for a "walk in the park". A backcountry boot is heavier, taller and more robust to hold up under more strenuous conditions. The bindings are more robust as well, falling something between standard 'NNN' and telemark bindings. These are mostly found under the trade name 'BCN'. As a practical matter- fit is crucial so take some time and make sure the boots have the best fit possible- you'll regret it if you don't. For the beginner- reliance on knowledgable staff at a local retailer is likely a better choice than just picking components off a website.

To round out the package for skis, you'll need some poles. Just about any solid ski touring type pole will work fine and there's little magic to the pole with one it a bit longer than you would for track skiing to account for the additional powder you'll have and steeper grades you may encounter.

Since hunting generally involves more gear than you'd commonly need for a day ski, some sort of back pack is in order. Not only to use to carry some equipment, but to also serve to attach a pulk too. More on that later, but a backpack should have some form of light frame panel and have a waist belt and sternum strap. Lashing loops to attach carabiners or some other attaching mechanism for the pulk poles is essential and many packs come so equipped, so look at what you already have. I have a great admiration for the Mystery Ranch line of packs and they've performed exceptionally in the role of pulk harness. In fact, mine have performed better than a dedicated pulk harness I had some years ago. Don't worry about the capacity of the pack much since the bulk of the gear is going into the pulk. I like to keep some miscellaneous articles in mine, particularly water since it resists freezing longer due to body heat coming through the pack.

The pulk is likely the most unique piece of gear since it's somewhat specialized. Millions of people XC ski in the US, but relatively few do any significant backcountry touring. Finding a commercial pulk is somewhat difficult and even those who manufacture them may only do so on an intermittent basis. There are a few out there as well as several excellent resources on the web to adapt a commercial plastic sled into a dedicated ski pulk. My first pulk was an adapted Paris freight sled and it gave excellent service and my current model is a Northern Sled Works ski pulk made from heavy duty HDPE.  As a word of advice- if you make your own, consider carefully the poles that you'll use to pull the pulk. They must be rigid enough to stop the sled and prevent it from running into your legs from behind and they must be flexible enough to not injure you when you inevitably fall onto them. As another consideration, the pole material must be flexible at cold temperatures- fiberglass and HDPE have much to recommend.

That is the basics of the equipment you'll need- nothing fancy but durable should be a consideration since having something fall apart several miles in the backcountry with a couple of hundred pounds of venison wouldn't be the start of what should be a good day. Even though it may seem like a lot of gear- it isn't. With minimal care, a set of XC skis will last decades so think of it as an investment rather than something you can upgrade next season. My frequent hunting partner uses a set of skis he purchased about the time I was born and they've suffered wear better than I have. A top quality set of new equipment costs about $500 and spread over 30 years doesn't look like a bad deal at all. If you're feeling the pinch financially, used gear- given it's durability and wide availability as well as the enthusiast's knack for constantly upgrading functional equipment- is widely available. There are likely three pairs of skis in America for every XC skier so finding them won't be an issue- your bigger challenge will be finding appropriate backcountry gear but it is out there. You may have to haunt used sporting goods stores for a few months but you can likely assemble a usable set-up for less than $100.

You can move quite a load in that type of setup- I've hauled 125 pounds on my pulk without any issues and more weight wouldn't have been particularly detrimental. Do be careful and realize that downhill will be worse if the load starts to push you, particularly when that downhill trail goes around a corner. I know from experience...scars to prove it. It takes a bit of practice, but hauling loads on the pulk is far more efficient than on a backpack in summer conditions and many places that would be a day long slog over spongy tundra in summer are but an hour's ski during winter months.

The rest of the techniques are pretty standard for anyone experienced with cold weather hunting. I've actually found I enjoy hunting on skis because the amount of equipment I can carry on the pulk is much greater and more comfortable than I can carry on my back. While a caribou may take 2, 3 or even 4 loads to haul out in a backpack- even the biggest bull can be broken down and hauled out in a single load on the pulk in all but the steepest terrain. As a consideration, a carbine type rifle was born for this type of hunting. A full size rifle is a real pain to carry slung and use with ski poles but the short barreled carbine rides nicely and, unless you're a very small framed person, will be tucked behind your back and out of the way. My Steyr Scout performs admirably in this function but any light carbine with a short barrel will work as well. With a standard length rifle I have no choice but to leave it in the sled.

So there you go- the basics of hunting from cross country ski equipment. For those with appropriate snow cover during hunting season I believe you'll find the speed and silence the skis afford as well as the load hauling capability are a real asset to the cold country hunter. Good luck!
 Here is a clip form my GoPro Hero2 during a recent ski action but it gives you an idea of the speed and silence skis are capable of.