Most of our hunting occurs in the desert. Our hunting areas are characterized primarily by sagebrush, creosote brush, and cholla cacti. It’s pretty rough terrain subject to very harsh weather extremes. From foot scorching, mouth parching heat in the summer to bone chilling nights in the winter, the desert has a range of temperatures. It also has monsoons, flash floods, wicked lightning, and sand storms. Oh yeah, and it’s a desert. So all the water I have to drink to stay hydrated is packed in on my back. The desert is a challenging place to hunt and an even more challenging place to backpack hunt.
I’ve backpacked for most of a decade now, and the desert has definitely provided some of the more uniquely trying circumstances. In this series of posts I’ll share a few of my accumulated tips for desert backpack hunting, something that seems to not get much coverage in the backpack hunting arena. Hopefully I can ease entry into the experience for those who might like to try it out. In this post, I’ll start with my thoughts on the most useful gear. This is a detailed, lengthy post; hopefully those looking for help need look no longer!
First, let’s talk about backpacking in the desert. That’s how you’ll be able to get into the areas that you want to hunt. In order to go backpacking, you’ll need a backpack. Typically in backpacking, the lightest pack you can get away with is what you want. This is great when you’re not hunting and great when you’re not in the desert. Unfortunately, an ultralight pack will typically not carry much weight. Backpacking in the desert typically requires carrying in a hefty amount of water. When I don’t have a known source of water—and I typically don’t—I bring in about 3-4 liters of water per day, depending on how hot it is going to be. Given that a liter of water weighs about 2.2 pounds, that means that for each day I’m in the desert, I’m hauling around 9lbs. For a typical three-day trip, that’s 27lbs of water—an amount that alone exceeds the typical carrying capacity of many lightweight packs. Because I transitioned into backpack hunting after I had already been backpacking for many years, I had a lightweight pack that I incorrectly thought would suffice. Our first time out I loaded it with around 30lbs of water and 15lbs of other stuff and ended the trip nearly in tears from the amount of shoulder pain I experienced. Lightweight backpacking and backpack hunting in the desert requires a pack that can haul weight, especially if you successfully down a big game animal.
First tip: Get a good backpack for hauling weight that maximizes comfort and durability. Go lightweight with everything else where possible. I have found two backpacks that I really like, each of which can comfortably handle in excess of 100lbs (as comfortably as that weight can be handled, I guess). The pack that is my current favorite is the 3500 cubic inch version of the Exo Mountain Gear pack. It weighs around 5lbs, has great features, is comfortable and is durable. I have also found that Kifaru’s Bikini frame and Timberline bag series is an excellent choice (though more expensive than the Exo Gear bag). My best advice would be to try a few packs out, and to ‘buy once cry once’ if possible. I’ve owned far too many backpacks in my time, and cried too many times. Find a great bag for your purposes, buy it, and keep it.1 If you can’t afford it right away, buy a cheap used backpack and save up for the right one. Even the old Kelty Haulers can get the job done, if a bit less comfortably.
Once you’ve got a good backpack picked out, you’ll want to look into shelter. Because the desert can throw a variety of extreme conditions at you, but at most times during hunting seasons be perfectly pleasant and mild, a flexible shelter system is in order. I’ve settled on a system that works well for me. The core of the system is the bivouac. I own a lightweight bivy from Borah Gear and it is my most used piece of shelter. It does well when the wind isn’t howling and the rain isn’t threatening. It also keeps out those rattlesnakes and other critters. Most nights I just toss down my bivy and sleep out under the stars.
In addition to the bivy, I also use a poncho-tarp for basically every trip where rain or windstorm is unlikely. The poncho tarp is a beautifully double use item: it provides both rain gear and a shelter in a pinch, all for little weight cost. I always bring rain gear as I’ve been rained on before in the desert when the weatherman called for zero percent chance of precipitation all week. As you can see in the photo, the poncho tarp can be pitched to give pretty decent coverage from mild to moderate rainfall and wind. One of the drawbacks of the poncho tarp for hunting, though, is that it is very billowy. It’s not exactly a super stealth rain gear option, and that’s why I relegate it mostly to dealing with unexpected rainfall.
However, if the weather forecast doesn’t look so rosy, I pack a dedicated shelter. I’ve chosen to go with a Mountain Laurel Designs Duomid pyramid-style shelter. It’s basically just a shaped tarp that provides good rain, wind, and sand protection. Though the Duomid has an optional bug nest, I typically run my bivy on the inside of it to keep bugs out.2 If it’s going to be harsh enough weather to bring the full shelter, I’ll typically pack my rain gear as well, taking the poncho tarp out of my system.
All of the above offer a flexible sleeping system, able to easily adapt to the volatile weather in the desert. The bivy and poncho tarp can be had relatively inexpensively, while lightweight shelters tend to be more pricey. Again, this is an instance where saving money to buy the right gear the first time makes good sense.
Second tip: Match your shelter system to the projected weather. If it’s November in the desert with highs in the high 70s and lows in the 40s, you don’t need a 5lb tent (though you never need a 5lb tent in the desert…). Bivies are wonderful, most of the time. A poncho tarp is a very flexible piece of gear. The dedicated shelter can just be a lightweight tarp shelter, especially if you practice pitching it in the park like we were doing in the above photo.
The third big-ticket item after the pack and shelter is the sleeping system. Here is another area where I have traded out gear far too many times. I guess you get to learn from some of my costly errors. First, the sleeping bag… err… quilt. That’s right, I sleep with a quilt on my backpacking trips. Rest assured, this is not your grandmother’s quilt. Since I’m a side sleeper, I often got tangled up in my sleeping bag. In addition, I found myself sometimes too warm with too little ability to vent the heat. However, the real coup de grâce was the realization that by sleeping on one side of my sleeping bag, I was compressing its loft and reducing its insulation on the bottom to effectively zero. So I decided to ditch the sleeping bag and transition to a quilt, saving the weight associated with the bottom of the sleeping bag. Great choice.
I have two separate quilts, a synthetic fifty degree quilt that I use for most of the summer and shoulder seasons in the desert and a down twenty degree quilt that I use for colder weather. If I ever do any extreme cold backpacking (below 20*), I can bring both quilts and layer the synthetic on top of the down, easily getting down into very cold temps.3 I use my quilts inside my bivy, which helps reduce any of the draft problems that some might associate with quilts.
However, a quilt alone doesn’t comprise a sleeping system; one also needs a sleeping pad to put some padding between you and hard desert soil and provide insulation from the cold ground. For this I have chosen what I think is the best combination of warmth to weight on the market, the NeoAir Xtherm by Therm-a-rest. Again I’ve owned many sleeping pads, from 3lb foam behemoths to a 5oz clear pad that resembled a pool float and had similar insulating properties (zero). A well insulated sleeping pad is vital as much of the heat you lose at night is through conduction via the ground. Weight and size of the pad are also an issue, as is comfort. I find that an inflatable pad with good insulation, like the Xtherm, covers all those bases quite well. Because the pad is inflatable, it’s subject to puncture. So, after scraping my sleep area clean with my feet, I always throw down a ‘polycryo’ ground sheet under my bivy and my sleeping pad inside my bivy. That way I’ve got two layers of protection from those cactus spines that would seek to deflate my nice night of rest.
Third tip: Sleeping gear is an area where lots of weight can be saved via smart choices and a chunk of cash (unfortunately there aren’t really any cheap solutions for an ultralight sleeping setup). I have found down to be excellent in it’s warmth to weight ratio, and quilts to be fantastically comfortable and flexible. An insulated, inflatable sleeping pad is a great addition, but be sure to always use a groundsheet!
Next to the three main backpacking gear items, nothing is as important for your comfort as a good set of clothes, adaptable to the varied circumstances the desert will throw at you. A good clothing system will be able to work well at 30 degrees and 100 degrees, in the sun and in the rain. I think I’ve cobbled together a pretty effective system at much less expense than the typical ‘full clothing system’ would run you from one of the big hunter clothing outfitters (think FirstLite, Sitka Gear, Kuiu, etc.).
I start with a good (white) sun hat… it’s a vital piece of gear in the desert. Full coverage is important, back of the neck, face, and ears. This is a pretty custom decision, so I’d just recommend finding one that fits best and is comfortable for you, as long as it keeps the sun off as much as possible. I also find that this is one—and probably the only—area where cotton is a good choice. Cotton absorbs moisture from your sweat and releases in more slowly, keeping your head slightly cooler in the heat. I picked up the hat you see in the photo above on Amazon.com.
Next comes the base layer shirt, which sees most of the action. White again, pretty much no exceptions. I have found that a cheap white polyester shirt works great, but a very lightweight wool shirt would work well too. ‘But, I’m a hunter and the deer will see me!’ you might be thinking to yourself. Well, I’m of the crowd that thinks that camo is a bit overrated, especially for general purpose use in the desert. You’ll be spotting game out often over a mile (more on this in another, optics focused post). Deer, or anything else you’d be hunting, can’t even really see you at that distance. If you wear a darker color of your favorite camo, you’ll possibly overheat and certainly stink from all your sweat. When it comes time to put a stalk on an animal, only then do I don my camo shirt and mask.
Quiet clothing is important, especially when I’m bowhunting. I make sure that the clothes I would be wearing on a stalk are as quiet as they can be. Fitting with this logic, I wear a pair of long underwear as my primary hiking pants. Light colored and polyester, these breezy, easy access long underwear allow for all the venting a man could want. Heh, but in seriousness, I realize it’s a little weird to wear long underwear around as hiking pants. However, all the hiking pants I have found are too loud, too uncomfortable, and too stiflingly hot to wear backpacking out in the desert, especially in the summer and early fall. They’re also expensive. In the winter, I’ll toss in a pair of fleece or regular hiking pants to put on in the early morning and late evening, but the majority of time I’m to be found hiking around in my long underwear.
Next on the list is a pair of breathable gaiters. The desert is full of sand, and so also will your shoes be without gaiters. I’ve found that these lightweight gaiters do a great job of not being too hot at the same time as keeping out most of the grit. They’re all the rage with the ultramarathoners, so I figured they were probably pretty useful. The gaiters keep my lightweight wool socks free from abrasion; a pair of wool socks will keep the stench factor down.
Finally, I really, heartily recommend a pair of trail runner shoes and not heavier boots for hiking and packing game in the desert. Boots can get very hot, bog down in the sand, and are quite heavy. This is a topic for another post, but I’ll have my preference be known now: wear lightweight shoes!
So, that’s the clothing that I wear the majority of my time in the desert. In my bag goes a lightweight windshirt (very useful!), one of two lightweight down jackets (depending on how cold it is), a rain jacket (if rain is expected), a pair of gloves, and a down beanie. All of these items of gear have my strong recommendation. Some of the items are not cheap, and I’ve bought them piecemeal over many years and typically deeply discounted. It pays to wait and look for online coupons. The basic everyday clothing items are relatively inexpensive though, and should work well for most desert conditions. Each of these items could be the subject of their own post, so please ask questions in the comments if you have any!
Fourth tip: Select light-colored, lightweight clothing as your typical desert garb. Because the desert is a harsh environment full of abrasive rocks and thorny cacti, expect wear and tear. I certainly get a fair share of it on my typical bushwhacking clothes, which is one of the primary reasons that my shirt and pants are as cheap as they are… easy to replace when they wear out. Have insulation and wind and rain protection when needed. Gaiters help keep out the grit. Most importantly, get a good sun hat! Note: My thoughts on clothing choices have evolved since this post was written. Please refer to the gear updates below!
I’ll mention a few miscellaneous items that I carry specifically as they relate to the desert. For example, I carry eye drops. Desert sandstorms are no joke. I came back with a severe corneal abrasion after getting a piece of grit lodged in my eye and then inadvertently rubbing it in my sleep. Wish I would have had eye drops on that trip. Chapstick is nice, too. It isn’t super-ultra-beastmode-manly, but it certainly helps avoid bloody, split lips in the arid desert environment.
So, those are my thoughts and suggestions on gear for backpack hunting in the desert. In other articles we will focus on topics obviously missing from this post: choice of optics, field dressing gear and techniques, and backpack desert hunting techniques. Gear not specific to desert backpack hunting will also find its way variously onto the site. I hope the above info can be useful to you, and please chime in below with any questions or thoughts on backpack hunting in the desert!
Disclaimer: I have purchased all the gear discussed above and am in no way affiliated with the merchants. This post “Desert Backpack Hunting Gear” represents lessons from my own trials and tribulations, funded by me.
I decided to keep my Kifaru Timberline 3 pack with Bikini frame and returned my Exo Mountain Gear pack. While I very much liked the Exo pack in general, after many miles the belt was just not as comfortable as the Kifaru belt around my hips. Because belt comfort is of paramount importance in a pack that will have to carry up to 100lbs, this fact sealed the Exo’s fate. The Exo is clearly working well for many other hunters though, it just wasn’t for me.
On the shelter front, the MLD Duomid just recently held up to a very intense desert wind and rainstorm. It’s a real winner, though I realized that I needed to get better stakes. Getting a solid anchor in desert sand can be tricky, so I use big rocks whenever I can find them. However, in this storm we needed both big rocks and better stakes… the 50+mph wind actually pulled out the stakes and then drug the rocks at one point in the night. Not fun.
On the clothing front, after a busted archery stalk on a mule deer doe — she picked me out of the surroundings at 150 yards — I decided that maybe I was under-rating the importance of camo. So I picked up a Kuiu shirt and pants to help break up my figure during archery season. The verdict is still out on these; their Attack pants seem to be of great quality though possibly a bit too warm for early season. I will likely continue to use my lightweight stalking long-johns for the really hot trips. Kuiu’s Tiburon long sleeve shirt is quite well designed and breathable, but after a day or so it gets pretty smelly, and I’m not a particularly stinky guy on average. Finally, I’ve taken to wearing a camo neck gaiter and ball cap in the cooler temps this fall, again because of concern that my big white floppy hat was too noticeable to deer when I was on the stalk.
I’ll try to keep this post updated as anything changes in our setup.
- I’m pretty sure I’ve got the keeper now in the Exo, and as it’s cheaper than the Kifaru packs, it’d be my main recommendation for someone wanting a good all around backpack hunting pack. But, be sure to try others, as most of the main manufacturers will allow for a 30 day trial period, as long as you don’t get the pack dirty. ↩
- One of the other advantages of the bivy is that it helps to keep my sleeping system free of drafts. Also, one of the primary concerns about bivies—condensation—is less of a worry in the desert, especially with somewhat breathable sil-nylon. I haven’t had any issues with condensation in my time out. ↩
- Another benefit of layering synthetic on top of a down quilt in very cold temperatures is that it helps to move the dew point outside of the down quilt and into the synthetic quilt (or on top of it), leading to a drier sleep system overall. Synthetic dries notably faster than down, though the new water-resistant down products are beginning to change this traditional relationship. ↩