Training: Your Decision Matrix The ability to think clearly and make correct decisions in high-stress situations is crucial when living in the backcountry. Confidence born from training, both physically and mentally, will aid in this ability. There are no shortcuts, and it takes time to acquire over many years and, hopefully, living through some poor decisions. The burned hand learns best is an apt analogy. The failures and setbacks that hurt the most provide the biggest opportunity for growth. We are often faced with making tough decisions while in the wilderness. Many times, the choice is choosing between the best of several poor choices. When faced with these dilemmas, the decision matrix you run through in your mind or with partners may be the difference between an epic trip, a total suffer-fest, or a tragedy. Either way, hard times and poor choices strengthen your decision matrix for the next time you’re in a jam. To consistently achieve success and not just get away with something takes time and a concerted effort. Don’t become a statistic. It all starts with your mindset. Are you confident and decisive in your decision-making based on years of experience? Or is it false bravado built on a foundation of bro science and hearsay? Approaching your learning as a Student of the Game provides an open mindset for learning. I’ve been teaching professionally for over 25 years and have built a pretty solid foundation of experience. Yet, I’m still open to learning from even a first-day student. I try to keep my mindset flexible and open to new ideas, understanding I’m on a life-long journey towards mastery. The more you train and prepare, the more confident you’ll be in your abilities. Confidence helps keep things manageable in your mind and prevents you from being overwhelmed and panicking. This is one reason I chose Backcountry Mission Planning as my first Outdoor Class course. I’ve witnessed what good training, preparation, and planning can do, both good and bad. There is no substitute for it. The best-performing sports teams, businesses, and military units all rely heavily on the grinding, unglamorous work behind the scenes to achieve consistent success. Having the proper gear and the ability to leverage it to its full extent also provides confidence and true capability. If caught out overnight in unfamiliar terrain, it’s a much easier decision to hunker down under a tarp or tree and await the daylight to safely navigate back to camp, vise pushing the issue, and fall off a cliff. But great gear doesn’t provide you with some magical powers just because you own it. Confidence to trust your life to the clothing and gear comes from realistic and difficult training. Review in your mind and discuss with partners some of the critical decisions you made this past season and what you’d do differently. Yes, hindsight is 20/20, but it’s also an opportunity to strengthen your decision matrix. Think through what was at the core of your choices, then craft a plan to improve the next time you find yourself having to make tough decisions. The Closet: Sleeping with Warm Feet Sleeping outdoors in frigid weather and suffering from cold feet is a common issue that can be challenging to solve. Cold feet can be damn miserable, ruining both sleep and recovery and can drive you out of the field. I thankfully don’t suffer from cold feet anymore, not because I have great circulation but because I’ve dialed in a system over many years camped outside in the winter. Often, it’s not any one thing but a few techniques combined that yield you warm feet and a good night’s sleep when the temps drop below freezing. Photo: Jay Beyer Imaging Keeping your feet dry is crucial to warm feet. Always change your socks each night in the tent. Let them air out; maybe apply a foot powder or antiperspirant, and work on any blisters and hot spots. When you’ve completed your foot maintenance, put on a dry pair of socks before going to sleep. Dry the damp socks in the pockets of your puffy jacket or at the bottom of your sleeping bag. In the morning, these socks should be dry and can be put back into your pack for use the next night. Camp Booties and Hot Socks are lofted insulation for your feet, just like the puffy jacket you probably wear to bed. These special booties are worn directly over your dry hiking socks and help trap what little heat your feet produce. They also allow you to get up and move around camp if nature calls in the middle of the night. I bring a pair of synthetic insulated hot socks in milder temps, but when the mercury plummets, I swap those out for a pair of down-insulated booties for increased warmth. A trick I learned from an old winter warrior who trained with the Norwegian special forces is placing a Nalgene bottle full of hot water into the bottom of the sleeping bag. I prepare the bottle after eating dinner and just before racking out. The addition of this outside heat source is an absolute luxury and game changer for those with chronic cold feet. When the weather’s below freezing, you’ll need to stash your water somewhere in your tent anyway to keep from freezing, so you might as well boil it and use it to keep warm. Chemical heat packs can provide some extra warmth, but I’ve never had great luck. If you choose to use chemical heat packs, don’t place them directly next to your skin to limit the risk of chemical burns. Having your internal metabolic engine properly fueled and hydrated is crucial to keeping warm at night. I’ve written and talked extensively about this topic. In cold conditions, I like to eat right before going to bed to maximize the amount of time the food works for me, keeping my metabolism running to produce body heat. Hydration is a tougher challenge as you don’t want to be getting up all night to pee, but staying hydrated can’t be overlooked as it keeps blood flowing efficiently down to your toes. Keeping a midnight snack handy in the sleeping bag to eat if you wake up chilled or need to piss will re-stoke your metabolism as dinner is burned off and often is enough to let you get another few hours of sleep before morning. Sleeping warm starts with a quality sleeping bag and ground pad, but don’t overlook your clothing system for added warmth. You’ve spent considerable money to assemble it, and you’ve already carried it into the field. Aside from a standard 8-piece clothing system, packing a pair of puffy pants you can wear glassing and to bed helps keep warm blood flowing down to your toes. The better insulated and fed you are, the less your body has to work to keep warm. You don’t have to suffer from cold feet while sleeping out in winter. Spend a few nights close to the road and dial in a system that delivers the performance you require. Sleeping out in winter will never be like your warm bed at home, but it doesn’t need to be something you dread or avoid. Puffy Pants www.sitkagear.com Kelvin Lite Down Pants www.kifaru.net Lost Park Pants Hot Socks www.rabequipment.us Lightweight Hot Socks Camp Booties www.westernmountaineering.com Expedition Down Slippers www.outdoorresearch.com Tundra Trax Booties Courses Backcountry Mission Planning Backcountry Mission Planning has 16 chapters and draws on my 30+ years of experience hunting the wilderness. It focuses on preparing you for the upcoming big game seasons and all other backcountry travel, making you a more knowledgeable Student of the Game. Use code BARKLOW to get 20% off an annual Outdoor Class membership and unlock all the knowledge on the platform. www.outdoorclass.com Seminars Backcountry Seminar I’ll be presenting a Backcountry Hunting seminar with Aron Snyder at Archery Country in Austin, Texas, on Thursday, 30 November, from 6-9 PM. Tickets are limited, so sign up now at www.austinarcherycountry.com Survival for the Modern Hunter The Wild Sheep Convention Reno, Nevada, 18-20 January 2024 I’ll be presenting a seminar, Survival for the Modern Hunter, at the annual Sheep Show. I don’t have the exact date or time yet, but will communicate them when I do. The Word: Lessons Learned from 2023 I’ve reviewed my field notes from this past fall’s hunting season and reflected on the things I did well, where I got lucky, and where I can improve. Some of these lessons I immediately implemented into my late-season hunts and some I’ll work on over the winter as I prepare for spring. Here are my top Lessons Learned from the 2023 Season that I felt were worth sharing. Patience Randy Ulmer said years ago that “Patience rarely goes unrewarded in bowhunting.” That statement struck a chord with me, and since then, I’ve always remembered those words when on a stalk. I found success this past season, but it came slowly, and the urge to push too hard and become impatient was always boiling below the surface. I needed a lot of patience for shot opportunities to develop late into my hunts. One opportunity never did fully develop on what would have been my biggest bull to date. I made the right decision and stayed patient, but it certainly didn’t feel like the right thing at the time as I watched him trail a cow back into the timber. Two days later, I got a decent shot opportunity at a solid, mature bull and capitalized. Blood Trails The shot I put on my bull this year was a bit back and low. Experience has taught me that pushing a rut-crazed bull elk, especially when other bulls are around bugling and cow estrus on the wind, is a fool’s errand. So I did what was difficult and backed out for 8 hours. When I came back, I found my two arrows covered in blood, but there wasn’t enough on the ground to instill a ton of confidence in the outcome. With the help of great partners, we were able to slowly and methodically unravel the blood trail and found the bull 170 yards piled up on the edge of a meadow. After many years of hunting elk and tracking lots of arrow-shot bulls, I’ve learned patience is required. My rule for recovery is a minimum of 1 hour on “perfect” shots, 8-10 hours on liver hits, and marginal shots may take 24 hours. The dichotomy with elk hunting, though, is that you need to be patient but also default aggressive. The key is knowing when to feather the throttle, which only comes with experience in the field. Readiness You must always be ready to strike the entire time you’re in the field. This means from the time you step out of the tent, cabin, or truck till you return. I missed my only good shot opportunity on a black bear hunt in Canada because I wasn’t prepared the first morning we left camp. My release was in my optics harness, my shooting glasses were in my pack, and my attitude was too chill for an encounter. Calling elk can be exciting when they’re fired up, but most calling is met with silence, which can breed complacency. But as soon as you let your guard down and aren’t set up for an encounter, you may blow your one opportunity. Unfortunately, this has happened too many times for me to want to remember. This rookie move happened again this year when a partner randomly threw out a bugle into an unlikely patch of small timber, and we immediately got an aggressive bugle back. I’m not sure we could have killed that bull if we had been set up better, but lack of readiness didn’t help our cause. Another lesson I reaffirmed this past season is to always reload your weapon and be ready to take follow-up shots no matter how good you think the first shot was. I got a long follow-up shot on my bull this year as he stood around trying to figure out what just happened from my first shot. That second arrow was the one that created the blood trail, as he only bled internally from the first liver hit. I shot my Aoudad ram three times this year as he circled us, trying to figure out what was happening. If an animal is going to stand around and let you shoot again, take the opportunity and keep shooting. This reaction needs to be trained on the range in the off-season to become subconscious. Experience has taught me that until I’m touching the animal, I stay vigilant and ready to shoot again. Instincts The best hunter I know reminds me before every season that instincts kill and what separates success from failure is split-second decisions. You don’t have time to be consciously analytical as you close in on a buck or bull. But when I’m hunting my best, I’m in a flow state where instincts take over. Overthinking situations has cost me a lot of animals. It takes time & experience to acquire hunting instincts, but that’s what it takes to consistently kill animals. If you’re hunting with a partner, these instincts can be dulled until you’ve spent a ton of time in the field together. The off-season is a great time to hunt with your partners and get reps with hogs, exotics like Axis deer, or a trip to the Dark Continent, where you can get ten years of stalking and shooting experience in ten days. Ambushing I enjoy calling elk, but I’m always open to employing any tactic that I think will yield the best chance at success. After a couple of days of bugling and cow-calling this year, I got the urge out of my system and started to refine my tactics. Based on the terrain, animal movements, and rut activity, I concluded that ambushing elk was the best tactic. As much as I want a rut-crazed, bug-eyed, and pissed-off bull to rush into my perfect setup, providing a broadside shot, it just doesn’t happen too often for me. Most of my success with elk has come from maneuvering on them and setting up an ambush. This tactic usually allows for unrushed shots on animals not on alert, which stacks the odds that I’ll get a killing shot. Maintenance The details matter when archery hunting and the most successful obsess over all of them. Knowing your weapon intimately and its nuances helps you identify if something is not quite perfect. Aside from a cable-driven drop-away rest that blew up on me in New Zealand, I’ve not had many equipment issues, even after traveling extensively with a bow. I’ve never had a problem with my peeps moving or twisting, but this year, I had one move after flying down to Texas. I’d always tied in my peeps with a few overhand knots and marked the string to identify its proper placement. But this year, my peep was off my ⅜ of an inch, which I identified at the range prior to the hunt. I’ll now be paying more attention to this small but crucial detail, tying them in with a more secure method. I also had a d-loop break on me, but I knew it was close to failure. I wanted to see how far I could push it, and it happened on the range and not on a hunt. But strings, d-loops, and peeps are weak points on a bow. A failure like this could easily ruin a hunt and is one reason I carry a basic bow repair kit with me, even on stalks. Gear I remember a time elk hunting when it looked like we were busted as the wind shifted suddenly at our backs. As we tried to figure out how we weren’t busted, my buddy floated a piece of milkweed. It headed straight towards the herd, then suddenly, about 100 yards from them, took an abrupt right turn and sucked downhill. You can observe the wind and thermals much longer with milkweed than with wind check powder. I made it a point this year to use milkweed, and it confirmed what I’d been told: milkweed is a necessary tool for the spot and stalk hunter. I feel that wind check powder is also needed as it’s quick and easy to deploy one-handed and is better for indicating the wind in your immediate area, but milkweed now has a spot in my optics harness. Documenting your Lessons Learned is important, but it’s equally important to take action on them to become a better hunter and outdoorsman. Develop an action plan with a timeline, then hold yourself and your partners accountable for implementing it. You’ve got all winter to become a better Student of the Game.