Hunting at 11,000+ elevation

Posted by Josh Karow on 11/7/2014 to Top Pack Blog
Hello everybody, I got back a few weeks ago from another archery elk hunting adventure in the Gore Range near Vail Colorado and thought I would share my experience. While we unfortunately didn’t fill our tags due in part to some hot temps and uncooperative winds, we came away with a wealth of knowledge on both our gear and tactics. In preparing for this years trip, I was determined to improve my equipment cache to avoid replaying the misery I experienced on my 2012 hunt. A leaking tent, poor nutrition, and heavy gear left me yearning to get the heck out of dodge and never return. But after months of research and rethinking tactics, I was determined to regroup and try it again. Here’s what I learned… In preparing for this years trip I decided to go all out with my gear. I realized that after adding up the cost of tags, gas money from Wisconsin, and the pack-in fee, money spent on good gear was well worth the added expense and if the cost was divided over the years of use it was relatively cheap. After countless hours of research (damn OCD), I assembled a list of equipment I thought would right the wrongs of my last hunting fiasco. Luck would have it that while perusing the countless vendors that assembled at the annual deer and turkey expo in Madison I would run into just the guy to help me fulfill my needs. While looking at some Eberlestock packs with my hunting buddies, I met Tony Orr, the owner of Top Pack Gear based out of Poynette, WI. Tony runs a small, online business out of his house specializing in survival gear and ready made preparedness packs. He, like myself, is a unique breed of guy who cares about one thing…being prepared for any situation and will make no compromises when it comes to his gear. That creed is the driving force behind Top Pack Gear. He saw a gap in the market in high quality preassembled preparedness packs and now supplies the likes of Military Personel, Outdoor Enthusiast, and Emergency First Responders all over the world. After talking with him about our upcoming hunt he told me he was looking for some crazy guys like myself and my hunting buddies to test out some gear and help him learn what works and what doesn’t in extreme backcountry hunting situations. I told him we would torture test the equipment at 11,000+ feet and help him assemble the ultimate DIY backcountry hunting pack. In exchange for a slight discount, I agreed to provide him and the public with an impartial review of the gear necessary to survive and enjoy 9 days of hunting above tree line. Now that I am back down into some oxygen rich air, here are our findings. First, I want to start with the easy stuff. There was a universal consensus on clothing and boots. I had already purchased this stuff for last years hunt and this years hunt just further confirmed I had made the right choice. For boots, two of the four of us had Lowa Renegade GTX hikers and let me tell you, these things are a godsend. Light, durable, and waterproof…I will never look at another pair of boots for early season archery elk hunting as they are PERFECT! As far as clothing is concerned we all agreed there are only two words you need to know…Kryptek and merino. Buy as much variety of both as you can afford as we didn’t have any complaints about anything we tried. For camo, between us we had Ailios pants, ¼ zip merino top, Cerdic hoodie, Vidar scout vest, and Poseidon rain gear. The fit, durability, mobility, and concealment of all of it was like no camo I have ever worn before. Start buying Kryptek and throwing away everything else you have asap…you won’t be sorry. As far as merino is concerned, we were happy with every brand we tried, the key was it has to be 100% merino! The ¼ zip 190 weight Krypek top was probably the perfect balance of wicking and insulation but we were impressed with every piece we had, ranging from 150g Redram up to 230g First Lite. Merino is a miracle fiber in every way and has replaced every base layer I own. Last year we had a cheapo Cabelas tent that leaked horribly and weighed over 70 pounds. Not only did it anchor us to the valley but when all of your gear is soaked and it gets down to 5 degrees with 50mph winds and driving snow, you start to wonder if you are going to make it out alive! This year I decided my home away from home was going to be my number one priority. After countless hours of research I decided to go with the Big Agnes Copper Spur UL3. At only 4 pounds, it was the lightest tent that I could find that I thought would have the size and durability to house two big guys chasing elk all around the mountain side. As mobility was my number one priority this year, weight was a primary deciding factor but I also wanted to be safe and comfortable in whatever nature decided to throw at us. Let me tell you, I was not disappointed! The interior of the tent felt cavernous with the straight up wall design and the twin vestibules added a wealth of space for our packs and boots. During the two straight days of rain we experienced in the beginning of the trip, the tent did not leak one drop and the fly vents prevented condensation build up while we were hunkered down for a whole day during the worst of the storm. The twin doors made entry and egress easy as we didn’t have to constantly climb over each other. Even in the 40+mph winds we experienced, the tent didn’t budge and we found we could assemble and disassemble it in around three minutes, even in the rain! After nine days camping at 11,000ft there is one thing I am sure of: the Big Agnes Copper Spur UL3 is the best all around tent money can buy, PERIOD! The next most important priority for gear I had was sleeping equipment. Nothing can screw up a hunt faster than not being able to sleep because you are uncomfortable or cold. I purchased a Kelty Cosmic Down 20 degree bag for last years hunt and have been happy with it on both trips. It is light, warm, and packs down to nothing. My buddy purchased a Big Agnes Shoestring SL 22 degree bag from Tony and we were both very impressed by it. It was very warm and the quality was second to none. While it didn’t pack down quite as small as my Kelty, the build quality blew it out of the water. In hindsight I think the perfect bag would be one of the BA bags with their Downtek fill (Boot Jack or Spike Lake). This would give you Big Agnes’s impeccable quality with the packability and light weight only down affords. Plus their Downtek maintains it heating properties when wet which will keep you alive if the $#!+ really hit’s the fan. As far as sleeping pads were concerned, there were four models used between our crew. Again, the Big Agnes offerings stood out from the crowd. Two of our group used Klymit pads while the other two used Big Agnes. While the Klymit pads packed down extremely small and were very light, one of them went flat on day one and wasn’t repairable while the other proved to be too thin to be comfortable for an extended backpacking trip. The BA models were another story. One member of our group used the BA Q-Core while another used the lighter Q-Core SL. Both were extremely comfortable and warm at 4” and 3.5” respectively but packed down extremely small when deflated. Both members said they wouldn’t trade them for their pillow top at home but they never thought they could sleep that well perched on top of a frozen rock. While the Q-Core SL didn’t feel quite as durable as its heavier brother, we didn’t have any problems and agreed that at nearly half the weight and size, any slight loss in toughness was worth the trade off. And if the durability is a concern, then you can sleep well (no pun intended) knowing the BA pads come with a patch kit and a best in the business lifetime warranty. As far as food was concerned, we decided freeze dried meals were our best option considering weight and ease of preparation. We tried both Mountain House and Backpackers Pantry and in the end decided Mountain House were the way to go. Although Backpackers Pantry offers a great variety of flavors, we found ourselves staring at the other guy eating his Mountain House as our BP meal was still hydrating. On a normal camping trip this wouldn’t be a problem but we found that after a long day hunting we just wanted to cook, eat, and go to bed as efficiently as possible. As far as flavors are concerned, we found it to be mostly personal preference so I suggest getting together before a hunt and test some flavors to see what you like. We were lucky enough to have differing opinions on some of the meals so we traded and were both happy. Other than the MH breakfast skillet, we weren’t very impressed by the egg options and decided we would bring more desserts for breakfast next year. On a personal note, beware of BP Jamaican jerk chicken as it does unholy things to your insides and you will be forced to live in the fog your tent mate is emitting for ~24 hours! As far as cooking the meals is concerned, look no further than a Jetboil. We picked the Flash for its size and weight but they all work beautifully. We only went through 2 cans of fuel over 9 days and I was very impressed by the speed at which it boiled water. We added the coffee press which is great for those of you that require a little caffeine to come out of your coma in the morning. It also doubled as a water strainer to filter out some of the big chunks when filling our Camelbaks. The only word of caution that I will provide is buy the Jetboil skillet if you are going to fry anything. We made the mistake of trying to hold a regular frying pan over the flame to cook a BP breakfast meal and ended up melting some of the plastic from the heat radiating back down. We were lucky that we caught it early and didn’t ruin the Flash (only a little whittling was required to get it to fit back in the mug) or we would have been up the creek without a paddle on day one! For supplemental food we brought jerky, trail mix, and Millennium bars. While they were all nice to have, the Millennium bars stole the show. With 400 calories in a tiny package, nothing compares to their calorie per ounce ratio. To top it off, they tasted great and come in a bunch of flavors. We preferred the vanilla and raspberry but didn’t have a complaint with any of them. If you are an ounce counter who doesn’t need a ton of variety to keep him happy, I would suggest sticking with the simple combo of Millennium bars and Mountain House Pro-paks…but bring the Jetboil skillet to supplement with backstrap if you are lucky enough! Last year for water purification we had a Pur pump and while it worked, filtering water was the most dreaded part of our day. This year we upgraded to an MSR Sweetwater pump and a Sawyer Mini water filter. All I can say is what an improvement! The Sweetwater is probably the best pump on the market with its high flow rate and dual action lever, all in a lightweight package. We initially used the Sweetwater to filter our cooking, coffee, and Gatorade water and the Sawyer Mini’s were connected to our Camelbaks for our drinking water. They both worked flawlessly but in the end we both agreed the Sawyer Mini was all that was necessary to survive in the bush. While the Sweetwater worked great, it required cleaning about once every liter or it would start to squirt out the pressure relief valve. After trying out the provided squeeze bag with the Sawyer we realized that the flow was comparable and it required cleaning less often. We both liked the MSR but concluded the Sawyer was up to both tasks in a much smaller package. Next year I will bring two Sawyers (one as a backup) and us the extra room for a couple extra Platypus bags so I can go longer between trips to the drainage. To haul all of my gear, Tony talked me into the Eberlestock J34 Just One pack. Boy, am I happy he did! This is by far the nicest all around pack I have ever seen. For day trips out from camp the pack folds down to 2300in2 which was plenty to hold my calls, rain gear, extra layers, game bags, lights and other miscellaneous stuff I needed. It also has a hydration pocket that held my 3 liter Camelbak and had the ability to carry my bow for long stalks. If I had shot an elk, the pack folds out and has a vented main compartment for hauling game. When it was time to move camp, the vented game hauler could be covered with the provided camo panel and expand the payload out to 4600in2. This was more than large enough to haul my tent, sleeping bag, pad, and cooking gear. To top it off, I purchased the Super Spike Duffel which zips onto the pack and brings the total size up to 8100in2! The Super Spike worked great for hauling our food as it allowed us to keep all of our bear attractant in one place which we could easily separate and hang in a tree. Even with the pack fully loaded it was extremely comfortable and the infinite adjustability made the 60 pounds I was carrying nearly disappear. My only suggestion for those of you that end up with this pack is to put your lightest gear in the Super Spike and your heaviest gear in the main compartment as the duffel sticks out behind you a ways and can make you feel a little tippy if you have it loaded down. This wasn’t a problem for us because after divvying up our gear I was able to just put the duffel with our food inside the main compartment and my hunting partner carried the tent and sleeping gear. The duffel also came with a storage sack that I was able to store my toiletries in and attach to the plethora of molle covering the J34. This pack is incredibly well thought out and proved to be an improvement on both fronts over the two packs it replaced. If you are planning on spending any significant amount of time hunting at high elevation, do yourself a favor and get the Just One! Last, but definitely not least, Tony hooked us up with an incredible first aid kit. While Tony is a wealth of knowledge on all of the gear he sells, his custom packs like this first aid kit is where he really shines. He worked with countless military, police, and emergency responders to assemble the perfect kit to handle any emergency medical situation life can throw at you. Labeled as his DDFAK First Aid Kit, this is the first kit I have seen that has everything you need and nothing you don’t! From band-aids and gauze to a dental medic kit and quick clot, this first aid kit can handle anything from burns to gunshot wounds. When you take a look at what is in the kit, you can tell he and other experts have really put some thought into the DDFAK. The plethora of supplies is also nicely bundled in a BDS tactical medical pouch that attached nicely to the molle on the bottom of my Eberlestock pack. Best of all, if you ever have to use any of the supplies in the kit, just let him know and he will refill it for you. Gone are the days of having to buy a new first aid kit because you have used a few of its items. This first aid kit is the last one you will ever have to buy and you will feel much more confident exploring areas far from immediate medical help! As far as the hunt was concerned, we saw elk, had opportunities, but came home empty handed. While we thought camping at 11,000ft would put us in the action, daytime temps in the mid 70’s kept the elk well above tree line and a constant uphill wind made stalking them nearly impossible. We did get within 40yds of a nice 5x5 and 70yds from a brute 6x6, but swirling winds busted us both times. Last year I didn’t get within a mile of an elk, this year I at least got to draw my bow, and hopefully next year I will get to seal the deal. One thing is for sure, after the time and effort I have put into these DIY hunts, finally downing a wapiti will be an accomplishment to rival all others! I want to thank Tony Orr at Top Pack Gear for hooking me up with all of the gear I needed for my hunt. He is truly a wealth of knowledge and you can rest assured, if he is selling it, you can bet your life on it. While you might be able to save a few pennies buying from a big box or Amazon, the wisdom he will provide you is invaluable! If you care about buying from someone who knows what they’re talking about, stop buying from huge chains and start supporting small businesses and the experts who run them. If you need anything for your upcoming hunt, give Tony a call and pick his brain. And if you don’t have the time do the research I did, tell Tony what kind of adventure you are going on and he will do the legwork for you. For more info check out his website at TopPackGear.com, email him at Tony@TopPackGear.com, or give him a call at (608)279-3361. In the mean time, keep the wind in your face and shoot straight!