Hunting, as a sport, runs the spectrum of physical challenge. It can be done from a chair on a front porch with only a slight increase in heart rate just before a shot is fired, or hiking through the mountains in a storm it can be a demanding test of physical strength and cardiovascular endurance. Every year a significant number of hunters enter the field and are seriously injured or die from underestimating the rigors of hunting or overestimating their own physical strength and endurance. While many of us hope that our last minutes of life could be spent hunting with family or friends on top of some pristine mountain, I would hate for this to occur prematurely for me or anyone else. With this in mind, this article will provide several important suggestions for assessing and preparing for the physical challenges of your upcoming hunt.
KNOWLEDGE IS KEY
No rational person would enter a foot race without knowing where the race will be and how much distance the race will cover. Hunting should be no different. Whether you are booking a hunt with an outfitter or putting together a DYI hunt with family and friends, you should be asking several important questions before you enter the field. First, what are the altitude extremes where the hunt will occur? Altitude sickness can make you feel miserable at a minimum but can also be life threatening. For example, our operation has hunting properties that may average altitudes of 5,000 to 6,000 feet, but depending on the chase, we may be pursuing animals up to 10,200 feet. This can be a huge problem for someone from Ohio depending on their cardiac reserves and physical preparation. Terrain characteristics are another important consideration. Steep terrain at lower altitudes can be more challenging than a flat plateau at high altitudes. On steep terrain moving across side hills can be torture on weak ankles, especially without proper ankle support in the form of good, broken in, boots. Next, know the extremes of weather that may be encountered where the hunt will occur. Again, knowing average conditions may be helpful but you need to know what could happen if things really turn bad. Hunters need to prepare for a wide spectrum of hot or cold, wet or dry weather. Whole books have been written on preparing for extreme weather but as it relates to physical preparedness there are several simple important considerations. Hiking to the top of a peak on a cool fall morning may be a walk in the park, but if temperatures push up into the hot range this can push heart and muscles to the brink if hunters aren’t prepared. It is also important to carefully consider your exit strategy. Specifically you may be going in with a rifle or bow and a 20-pound daypack, but if the fates are with you, you may have to cover the same terrain and distance back out with a 100-pound elk hindquarter. I learned this lesson the hard way after spotting a nice mule deer buck bedded down 2,000 yards away across a valley and 1,000 yards below our camp one snowy day in the Utah Wasatch Mountains. Excited and traveling light I covered the distance through the rocky terrain and 3 feed of snow in about an hour. After a careful stalk and a well-placed bullet, I had a beautiful, 200-pound, Rocky Mountain mule deer at my feet. In my haste I had left my good knives in camp and was barely able to field dress the animal with the dull knife I found in my daypack. In short, it was getting dark and three of us had to carry the whole deer back to camp. I have never been so exhausted or come closer to losing my friendship with two close buddies.
APPLICATION OF KNOWLEDGE GAINED
Armed with a good understanding of altitude, terrain and weather conditions, it is now time to apply this knowledge to you. We will focus on two specific areas: cardiovascular endurance and musculoskeletal strength and conditioning. The heart is what it is all about. It is what we aim for to accomplish a quick and humane kill and it is what hunters should focus on when preparing for a hunt of any physical nature. First, get to know your own heart history. Does heart disease run in your family, do you smoke, are you significantly overweight, do you have diabetes, high cholesterol or high blood pressure? With the exception of family history, you can and should do something about a yes answer to any of the above questions. Under your doctor’s guidance and with knowledge of your exciting, upcoming hunt, institute a heart-healthy plan for smoking cessation, exercise and a healthy diet. This may seem daunting but with your hunt as an incentive, you can feel better in even a few weeks of mild exercise and manageable changes in your diet. Hunt-specific exercise can begin simply with extended walks that progress to carrying a partially loaded backpack up gentle hills or stairs. Finally, mimic the backpack weight, distances, and if possible, the altitude of your anticipated hunt at least three times a week in the month before you hunt. Remember to stay well hydrated and learn how to regulate your temperature by layering clothes rather than wearing a single bulky jacket.
MUSCULOSKELETAL STRENGTH AND CONDITIONING
While cardiac endurance is important, hunters can’t underestimate musculoskeletal strength and conditioning. Simply, you can have a great engine, but if you got no wheels, you won’t get far. Unstable ankles can lead to unstable knees which can lead to debilitating joint injuries that can ruin a hunt or risk your life. This is where hunting can be very different from other sports in that training on flat ground in tennis shoes might leave you ill prepared for hunting in steep terrain. Good ankle strength coupled with comfortable, broken-in boots can literally be a life saver. Invest in quality boots that are applicable to the weather and terrain conditions where you will be hunting. Backpacks add loads to joints that can increase the possibility of injury if joints and muscles aren’t conditioned to this additional strain. Though you may be laughed at by your running buddies, from the very start of your conditioning plan you should train in your carefully-selected hunting boots. This will allow the boots to be broken in prior to the hunt reducing the chance for hot spots and blisters. As mentioned above, train on gentle slopes gradually increasing the slope angle to help condition joints and muscles to lateral strain for hunting in steep terrain.
In summary, know your hunting destination: Altitude, terrain and weather. Under the consultation of your doctor, stop unhealthy habits and start a gradual exercise program. Condition for both cardiovascular and musculoskeletal endurance and strength. Mimic your hunting terrain as much as possible. Finally peak your training one month before the hunt. Remember, healthy hunting is fun hunting.