When I first started deer hunting over forty years ago, I’d head to the woodlots on our farm with four major items: rifle, cartridges, knife, and rope—nothing else. I really didn’t need anything else, and besides—anything else wasn’t even invented yet. But, much like a buck that’s spooked from his bed, the big game hunting accessories that have made tracks since the 1970s have been nothing short of leaps and bounds.
Like most hunters, I enjoy kicking back in the evening recliner and browsing through the catalogs to see what I’d like to add to my wish list. And since Christmas is just around the corner, dropping a few hints to my family is a sure way to find presents and stockings stuffed to Boone & Crockett proportions.
Of all the hunting gear purchases I’ve made, or gifts I’ve received over the years, very few have been disappointments when put to the test. Keep in mind though that what works for one person doesn’t guarantee the same results for another. My brother is married to the hunting boots that I’ve grown to despise, but he wouldn’t be caught dead in the blaze-camo vest that I think is the cat’s meow! Having said that, the following products are at the top of my cool stuff, must have, best buys, hot picks list of hunting gear that I can’t live without.
I rank staying warm and dry as the number one factor for an enjoyable hunt. Once your extremities start feeling the elements, your ability to concentrate on sitting still and scanning the terrain could cost you the shot of a lifetime. So my accessory pack always contains a good supply of disposable hand and foot warmers. Once the warmer is exposed to air, the ingredients begin to build heat, which can last longer than a day’s worth of sitting. And if you’re only planning on hunting for a few hours at either end of the day, the warmer can be snuffed out in a Ziploc bag and reused again once it becomes exposed to air.
Disposable hand warmers can be tucked inside a glove or mitten, or gripped by your bare hand and kept inside the hand warmer pocket of your hunting coat to keep your trigger finger nimble for a surprise encounter with a deer or bear. Heatmax (www.heatmax.com) of Dalton, Georgia, is the only manufacturer of air-activated heat packs in the U.S. Their ToastiToes brand of foot warmers come in ultra-thin pairs as complete insoles or toe-width warmers that work in areas where oxygen is somewhat restricted. I’ve found these foot warmers so effective that I can use them in ordinary lighter- weight insulated boots in cold weather and stay warmer than the felt-packed clodhoppers that seemingly weigh in at thirty-two ounces to the pound.
Sitting comfortably in a tree stand or on the ground requires a soft waterproof cushion, and my buttocks always rest on one when I know I’m in for a lengthy sit. Northeast Products (www.thermaseat.com) manufactures the Therm-A-Seat, a lightweight waterproof cushion that can keep you dry and warm on any surface. I’ve found the Therm-A-Seat especially handy when I’m crossing a barbed wire fence. I simply lay the cushion over the top strand, fold the edges down, then swing my legs over it as if it were a saddle. The barbs don’t snag the cushion material like they do clothing, and many a ripped-out crotch has been saved by that trick.
One of the finest, warmest undergarments that I’ve ever stuffed my legs and torso into in preparation for a hunt is the Minus33 brand of merino wool. Founded by the well- established woolen mills of L.W. Packard in Ashland, New Hampshire, Minus33 (www.minus33.com) is a fabric that’s soft as cashmere, 100 percent non-itchy, plus washable and dryable. Because of its porous fibers, merino wool can absorb vapor before it condenses, and then transfer that moisture away from the skin 30 percent faster and more efficiently than any synthetic. I’ve worked up a pretty good sweat at times while dragging a deer or bear, or participating in a drive while wearing these garments as a base layer, and in no time at all after the exertion came to a halt, I was dry and comfortable. Merino wool is elastic, long-wearing, and naturally odor resistant because it contains amino acids which actually break down odor-causing bacteria. Minus33 products come in long sleeve, short sleeve, turtlenecks, full-zip tops and hoods, plus my favorite garment for cold weather sits, the balaclava, which covers my head, neck, and tops of the shoulders. If your long johns wardrobe needs some upgrade attention, start off with some Minus33 garments and I’m certain you’ll add them to your hot picks for cold weather gear.
One of the newest additions to my hunting gear, and certainly the most valuable in regards to sophistication and safety, is a Garmin eTrex GPS unit. GPS units are invaluable for hunting in unfamiliar territory, and anybody who carries one can vouch for their usefulness. On a recent deer hunt to the big woods of Maine near the Canadian border, I became so involved with tracking a deer on the second day of the week-long hunt that I suddenly became disoriented and ended up spending two hours finding my way out of the dense firs and hardwoods just because I didn’t have my GPS.
The realization of being suddenly lost is a powerful feeling with potential catastrophic effects on one’s frame of mind, and such situations can be a thing of the past with GPS. While bear hunting with my brother and friends in a section of the sprawling 261,000- acre Susquehannock State Forest in Potter County one November, you can bet that my Garmin eTrex was strapped to my waist for quick, precise navigational information. In the event that a smoking hot bear track lured me to parts unknown, I could have done so without any regard to my direction orlayoftheland. All I had to do was record a waypoint on my original route, and whenever I felt the need to return to it or any other waypoint that I’d previously recorded, the eTrex would tell me the straight line compass bearing distance to that destination. Now that’s peace of mind! My brother Ronnie killed a 409-pound black bear on that hunt, and not only was he able to lead us to the kill site by recording a GPS location, but we were also able to determine the shortest route to drag the bear to the nearest road.
The Garmin eTrex (www.garmin.com) features a high-sensitivity WAAS (Wide Angle Augmentation System) receiver that quickly locks on to a network of both solar powered orbiting satellites and ground stations. The signals picked up by these receivers can now steer you within three meters of your destination, compared to the 100 meters of traditional GPS tracking. Even inside my home, my eTrex can display full navigational capabilities from satellites 12,000 miles above the earth—in less than one minute. That simple test assures me that the unit will provide equal results in heavy tree cover and canyons.
Crooked Horn Outfitters (www.crookedhorn.com) of Tehachapi, California, designed a nifty strap called the Bino-System that uses your shoulders instead of your neck to support the weight of binoculars. Ever try running with binoculars hanging from your neck? If you don’t hold on to them, the optics will bounce, twist, and sway with such fury that the strap suddenly resembles a noose. The Bino- System keeps binoculars, cameras, rangefinders, etc. securely against your chest by utilizing elastic straps that prevent whatever they’re strapped to from bouncing out and around when you’re walking or bending over. The straps are fully adjustable to fit over your inside garments or outside of your heavy parka. Quick-release hooks allow the optics to slide up and flex out on the straps for easy retrieval. My wife picked up the Bino-System as a gift for me when she visited the Crooked Horn Outfitters booth at the Eastern Sports and Outdoor Show in Harrisburg several years ago. The product demonstration had her instantly hooked, and now I’m forever hooked to it during all seasons of hunting.
Someone defined photography as, “An art form which isolates single moments for all time.” Photo albums preserve these moments and actually serve as a diary of our lives to remind us of what we looked like or did on a particular day in our lives. As hunters, we experience many happy moments, not only in the harvest of game, but in the companionship of others, the beauty of the seasons, and the endless miles of breathtaking landscapes we roam. Recording these moments has never been easier, thanks to digital photography. Today’s cameras are extremely compact and capable of storing way more images than their counterparts. There used to be plenty of excuses for not carrying one with you—mainly size—but today’s digitals are so convenient they can practically get lost in a pocket or pack. While unloading our gear at a friend’s house one evening after returning from a hunting trip, my digital camera—unbeknownst to me—fell out of my truck. The good news was…the camera was discovered the next morning. The bad news was…the case had a Goodyear tire track across it. Needless to say, the camera was rendered useless, but I was still able to retrieve the tiny, wafer-thin picture card that totally saved my images. If that had been a film camera, the film cartridge would have been crushed.
My final hot pick for must-have great gear should really be listed as: must carry. That’s a headlamp! I’ve had one for years, but found it hard to break myself of the habit of carrying my Mini Maglite LED flashlight. It wasn’t until my brother Ronnie harvested that large Potter County black bear that the advantages of a headlamp really sunk in. Four of us worked diligently for two hours after nightfall, inching the bruin up a steep ravine. Fortunately, two of the hunters had headlamps enabling us to use all of our hands for pulling. Our efforts would have been futile in an attempt to get the bear close to a road if we were toting handheld flashlights. Most headlamps are equipped with ultra bright, compact LED lamps with brightness modes and adjustments to direct light where it’s needed. For the hunter who carries an armload of gear and likes to be in the woods early, using your head to help light your path might be a very bright idea!
I’m sure my picks for great gear differ somewhat from yours. But, who knows, maybe you learned about something that you will add to your must-have list. If something caught your eye, be sure to check with your local merchants before picking up the phone and purchasing elsewhere. If they don’t stock it they might start, and if they do, you’ll have a chance to look it over before you make the deal. Happy gear hunting!
A hunter, photographer, and writer, Roger Kingsley’s articles and photos have appeared in Deer & Deer Hunting, and Pennsylvania Game News, among others.