Training: No-Comms Plan The sun was low on the horizon as the bugs started to assault my head, and I didn’t know where my hunting partner was. He had left an hour before to look into a basin and said he’d return in 15-20 minutes. I told him I’d wait on this rocky knob and keep glassing until he returned. As darkness approached, I started becoming concerned with his absence. Crickets chirped, and the moon broke the horizon as I sat, unsure of my actions. Questions began running through my head; should I abandon him and hike back to camp? Did he fall off a cliff, kill a bear, or get attacked by one? Or was he in camp cooking dinner, worrying about me? Checking my phone and InReach again, I packed my gear and headed to camp. I figured if he wasn’t in camp, I’d wait till morning, then hike out to get help for a search. I was pissed at this unforced error. We’d made a simple plan before separating but hadn’t discussed our actions if we didn’t link back up. Lights flickered through the trees as I approached the camp, getting madder by the minute. My hunting partner was sitting in a chair, cooking dinner, listening to a podcast, oblivious to my angst and anger. Upon questioning, he simply shrugged it off and said he hadn’t seen anything, so instead of hiking back uphill, he merely headed to camp, knowing I could take care of myself. He and I are no longer hunting partners. Electronic communications are taken for granted. We’ve been conditioned to believe we can pick up our phone or satellite communicators like a Zoleo or Garmin inReach and communicate with anyone, anytime. The truth is we can’t. A No-Comms Plan is cheap insurance to improve communication in the mountains and increase safety. The plan doesn’t need to be complicated, but it does need to be discussed between partners before separating and, ideally, before even beginning a trip. As the name implies, a No-Comms Plan is a protocol everyone can follow when the primary form of communication falters. Dead batteries, poor coverage, broken electronics, lost phones, etc., are all real possibilities that compromise our primary communication in the backcountry. Establishing a No-Comms Plan with your partners and the person you leave your pre-trip planning itinerary with saves time, anguish and reduces risk. No need to worry about a friend returning to camp until the designated rally time has been missed. No need to rush a stalk worrying about your friend leaving and heading back to the truck if you’ve established where and when you’ll link up. A No-Comms plan should not be complicated. A good rule of thumb is, The Less Complicated, the Better. It can be written down in your wet notes pad but should be easy to remember. Discuss where and when you’ll link up. a. Be specific about the location. Drop pins on your digital or paper maps or write down the grid coordinate if you’re old school like me. b. Make the rally point a prominent terrain feature like a fork in a river, an obvious rock outcropping, or the truck or camp. c. Align on the time you’ll meet and build in a buffer, such as “We’ll meet at the fork in X river at 1800 plus or minus 15 minutes.” Establish your actions if one person does not arrive at the time discussed. a. Such as “I’ll wait an additional 15 to 30 minutes, then hike back to the truck. b. Then I’ll wait till morning, drive to town and implement the prescribed search and rescue plan. c. You should know your friend’s skill level and the gear he’s carrying to understand their capabilities. For example, knowing that my partner has experience in cold, wet conditions and always carries rain gear and a puffy jacket reduces the urgency if he misses a link-up in these conditions. Make sure and leave your pre-trip itinerary with someone not going on the trip and ensure they know what to do if you do not return or hear from you at the designated time. a. “We plan to return or communicate that we’re out of the field on X date, and if we don’t, wait 24 hours and then contact the local sheriff, SAR team, or friends designated in the document. b. Be sure to leave waypoints of grid coordinates in the document. c. To see a great example of a Pre-Trip Planning checklist, go to www.knowledgefromstorms.com and download it. Shit happens in the backcountry, and schedules and timelines often don’t align. But hunting partners have a sacred bond in the mountains to support each other and are each other’s safety net. Communication is vital, so don’t take it for granted that you’ll always have it or that it’ll be by an electronic device. Gear Locker: Gaiters My two friends and I had covered over 100 kilometers in the last four days. The weather had been amazing as we’d navigated the length of Kodiak Island, hiking from South to North along the highest feasible route. We each experienced highs and lows, covering vast amounts of uncharted terrain while managing our crisis nutrition, lack of sleep, and at times, technical route finding. On the final morning, we needed to cover 40 kilometers to meet our self-imposed timeline, not run out of food, and beat a monster storm forecast to smash the island that night. However, the storm rolled in early, hard and fast, with high winds and heavy rain. Before leaving camp that morning, I had reasoned that rain pants would suffice for the numerous yet short stream crossings and that I didn’t require gaiters. However, The first stream crossing convinced me I needed gaiters to keep my feet dry and healthy. So after rock hopping across and slipping a few times into the water, I quickly and foolishly put my gaiters on top of my rain pants, not wanting to slow down our pace. The gaiters layered outside my rain pants merely served as a funnel to channel water into my boots by wetting my pants and soaking the tops of my socks. The capillary action of the wool socks quickly wicked water inside my Gore-Tex boots, rendering my feet as soft and vulnerable as a newborn. Again not wanting to slow the pace and admit to my mistake, I pressed on, pissed at my unforced error. Stopping to fuel up a few kilometers later, I’d already formed large painful blisters on my heels, making a long but otherwise enjoyable hike a trail of tears. You won’t win any fashion shows wearing gaiters but overlook these vital pieces of kit or wear them improperly, and you’ll likely pay a hefty price. For those unfamiliar, gaiters cover the tops of boots keeping debris and moisture out. There are many styles of gaiters, from small, water-resistant scree gaiters for trail running to knee-high, expedition-worthy waterproof gaiters. For most hunters, the taller, waterproof gaiters should be the default. Folks think about wearing gaiters for rain but hunt the Pacific Northwest or coastal Alaska, and even on seemingly dry days, the vegetation can soak you from the waist down. It’s best to apply gaiters preventatively and not make the mistake that I did and strap them on too late. They should always be worn under rain pants to prevent water from funneling into your boots as happened to me. Wearing gaiters and rain pants in this configuration allows for small stream crossings without stripping off pants and boots or bringing lightweight hip waders like the Chota. Water just doesn’t have enough time to navigate its way up and down through the layers to seep into boots. I’ve successfully hunted Kodiak Island and the Northern tundra with this configuration for years with success. A gaiter for hunting should be durable, waterproof, repairable, and tall enough to cover the tops of your boots. The weakest point on most gaiters is the strap that routes under your boot, so look for gaiters with durable and field-replaceable straps to get the longest service life. Gaiters increase your capability in the backcountry and aren’t just another thing to carry in your pack. Without them, you may find yourself hobbling through the backcountry, wishing you’d invested in this crucial but often overlooked piece of kit. Sitka Gear – Stormfront Gore-Tex Gaiters www.sitkagear.com Outdoor Research – Expedition Crocodile Gore-Tex Gaiters www.outdooresearch.com The Closet: Sitka Gear Intercept Pants Eighty yards of open ground separated me from a potential shot at the big, mature Aoudad ram. I’d be exposed often during the stalk to the group of sheep and would need to keep a very low profile. But the crux of the exercise was going to be the ground I had to drag myself across. It was a bowhunters nightmare; cactus of every kind, Yucca, coarse rocks, jagged boulders, and the always present threat of snakes. Seeing no obvious path, I crawled and dragged my body forward, letting the contour of the terrain reveal itself. Cactus spines stabbed, rocks scraped, and I wished I’d taken some yoga classes as I contorted myself into odd forms and oozed over the wickedness. Halfway across, I wasn’t sure my bow or I would make it intact. Eventually, I successfully got to a final shooting position, but a shift in the morning thermals an hour later ruined my chance for glory, and for my attempt, I spent the next month pulling cactus spines from my ass, arms, and legs. That stalk was the final sign-off for the new Sitka Gear Intercept pant. I’ve been wearing some version of it for the last two years, bowhunting elk, Mule deer, antelope, Auodad, and even early-season Whitetails. The Intercept pant is the pinnacle Big Game pant for hunters who value quiet performance and durability. It was a difficult task to pull off, almost like mixing oil and water, but the team achieved the project’s objectives. Hunting pants have come a long way in the last decade. Performance fabrics, technical features, athletic fit, and joint protection are all now options for the hunter. I feel the Sitka Gear Intercept Pant is the best expression of this technical pant evolution. Of course, I’m biased, but I wouldn’t have wasted two years of the team’s time, my reputation, personal hunting success, and my hide if I didn’t believe in it. The key to the Intercept’s high performance comes from the proprietary fabric. A durable yet quiet Nylon exterior provides durability and quiet performance, while the Polyester/Wool inner fabric manages moisture and body odor. The “raised dots” on the inside of the pant help promote airflow and trap a bit of body heat on cold mornings. Archery elk seasons showcase dynamic weather, often being cold in the mornings and evenings but can get quite warm in the afternoons. Zippered hip vents allow the hunter to dump heat when aggressively chasing bugles or as the day warms up, then zip them shut as temps drop in the darkness. The absence of mesh in the hip vent provides unencumbered airflow and allows the new D3O knee pad to be inserted or removed on the go. The high-end knee pad shares its DNA with other joint protection solutions from professional hockey, football, military Special Operations units, and the action sports world. The knee pad has high-impact strength, doesn’t get stiff in cold temperatures, has proven durable during arduous stalks, and, absurdly enough, even has some breathability. Because details matter when closing the distance on a wily Mule deer or sheep, we didn’t want to overlook any. The Intercept pants taper near the bottom of the leg to limit swooshing during stalks, allowing them to be tucked into socks when leaving boots behind to close those final yards but also cover the tops of all but the burliest mountain boots. The Sitka Gear Intercept pants are offered in Optifade Subalpine and Deep Lichen and sell for $289.00. This technical hunting pant stands on the shoulders of its predecessor, the Apex, raising the bar again for the obsessive hunter and may be the only hunting pant you need this year. www.sitagear.com Courses: Backcountry Mission Planning Backcountry Mission Planning is 16 chapters, drawing on my 30+ years of mountain experience. It focuses on preparing you for the upcoming big game seasons and all backcountry travel, making you a more knowledgeable Student of the Game. Use code BARKLOW to receive 20% off an annual Outdoor Class membership and get access to all the courses available on the Outdoor Class website. www.outdoorclass.com The Word: Wheel Book Review Wheel books are great tools for documenting lessons learned, but they’re only good if you take action on your comments. Now’s the time to break out last season’s Wheel Book and review those lessons and the improvement plan you hopefully created last winter. Ideally, you started taking action months ago, but if not, get off your ass and do it. Adam Foss/ Foss Media I’m not infallible, but when it comes to my gear and clothing, I feel I have my systems dialed, but I’m always open to new ideas and suggestions. Most of my lessons now revolve around strategy, mindset, and training. My biggest lesson from last year was overtraining in the gym. It’s easy to see yourself differently than in reality. I still think I’m 30, but the miles on my body tell me differently. I kept a volume and intensity of training last year that was counter to my objectives. I kicked my ass! I love to train and exercise, but I needed to be wiser. I wasn’t. I consulted a trainer, physical therapist, and nutritionist this past winter to get smart and healthier. I’m doing my part and will leave the rest to fate. I’ve mentioned it before but settling into the rhythm of the mountains is crucial. The sooner I do it, the more enjoyment and success I find. It takes me less time to assimilate when solo, but this is not to say partners aren’t important and enjoyable. I came close to killing a great bull in Montana last year by plugging into the environment, leaving behind all distractions, hunting on instinct, and not overthinking it. My third lesson, which I had to re-learn, was not establishing a no-comms plan with partners. I’ve detailed the no-comms plan above, but to summarize, it’s a simple plan that adds a layer of efficiency and safety to your backcountry trips. Laziness and assuming others had the same knowledge and experience proved inefficient and dangerous. It landed squarely on my shoulders to inform my partners and implement a plan. Aside from frustration and lost time, it wasn’t a big issue, but I’ve been burned before by this inattention to detail and am committed to doing better this year. The biggest takeaway from your Wheel Book entries is to create an action plan from your lessons. Don’t think it all has to be completed in one season. Some lessons may take years to build the skills and evolve to a level of competency to meet your needs and expectations. Define what success looks like each season and work towards your goals. Wheel Books full of lessons learned are valuable tools and great to review even years later. They show your progression as an outdoorsman and provide insight into this evolution.