Fear in the Backcountry
By Brian Barney
Being afraid or nervous about the dangers in the backcountry is a feeling that nearly all of us will have. Fear is a natural feeling that is meant to keep us safe and sensible in a bad situation.
Fear comes on you when you feel your life or safety is in danger. It comes across you like a wave of anxiety and starts to cloud your decision-making and judgment. You start second-guessing what you are doing deep in the wilderness and why you are risking your life out in the wild when you could be home safe and sound in your normal routine.
I can tell you that being adventurous out in the wild, pushing my limits, is when I feel most alive. Conquering my fears makes me into a stronger person and opens the door to some of the best life experiences I have ever had. To overcome these feelings and come out on top it helps to prepare yourself for these dangers and have a plan for each challenge that comes your way. If you have a plan for these dangerous situations, you have already made up your mind that you are going to see your way through them, instead of throwing in the towel. So, before your next backcountry hunt make sure you take some time to think of the possible challenges and how you will overcome them.
There is a lot of fear of the unknown or being alone in the wilderness. Sometimes just getting going in the backcountry is the biggest challenge. Just know you can walk out of about any backcountry spot in a day. Have faith in yourself and your skills and know that you are embarking on a great wilderness adventure. Focus on one thing at a time, like making it to the spot you want to hunt, finding a spot to set up camp or getting water. Keep your mind on the task at hand and do not let yourself even consider quitting as an option.
Back when I was 19, I made a big move from my home state of Washington to Montana for more hunting opportunities. I had made friends with a local guy and opening day of bow season we found ourselves hunting hard. The first morning I heard a bugle and even saw a handful of elk. In the afternoon we tried to find where those elk had disappeared to. Suddenly, I heard a bunch of scraping and clawing. I looked up and saw a bear skidding down a tree then jumping out and coming at us at a full charge.
My buddy Pat carried a pistol and had it out in time to fire a shot at the charging bear. The shot ended up hitting a branch right above the bear and that turned him. Right at that moment a bear twice his size stood up and started coming at us. It was the mama grizzly and she was not backing down. You know that feeling when your arm falls asleep and you get pins and needles – my whole body was doing that. She was close, maybe 30 yards and just walked at us as we slowly backed up to the timber edge. She was a good bear and did not charge us but that experience scared the hell out of me.
The next couple of years I really hunted timidly, thinking there was a griz behind every tree. Since then I have been around countless bears, both black and griz and spent hundreds of nights in the wilderness. I have learned a code of what to do in different situations and how to camp in bear country. I have gone from a scared kid to a wilderness nut that feels totally comfortable in bear country. I will share some of my secrets that keep me safe.
I have learned that most of the bears I run into would rather run away than attack. The danger is inside 100 yards when that bear has to make the decision of fight or flight. A sow with cubs ups the odds that bear may charge but the key is to not get in this situation. I always carry bear spray in a quickly accessible spot and when you see a bear it’s time to get it out and ready.
If you see a bear a ways off, give him a wide berth and stay out of his way. If you do find yourself in this danger zone try to back out of there without the bear knowing you’re there. If the bear does notice your presence, try backing out slowly as if not to pose a threat. If the bear keeps hanging around or coming at you, start talking to it using a soft voice saying, “Whoa bear, whoa bear.” This will let the bear know you are a human.
If the bear charges, this is where you stand your ground and shout loudly at the bear. I never curl in a ball; I stand my ground, shout and get ready to spray the hell out of that bear. Like I said before, the best thing you can do is avoid the whole situation by being aware of bear sign, glassing and watching the woods as you walk. Also be prepared as you make an elk calling set; bears key into elk calls and will come in to investigate. So keep your head on a swivel and if a bear does come in, stand up and let that bear know you are a human.
Night time in bear country can get the better of you if you let it. Sitting in your shelter having visions of a big griz making a Twinkie out of your tent will drive you insane. The key here is to prepare yourself and your camp to be bear safe. Then, don’t let fear get hold of you.
The first thing is to always hang your food downwind of camp. It is easy to get lazy here after a long day and stash your food bag in the awning of your tent or away a few yards in the brush. Make a point to hang your food every night in the backcountry. Also, never eat in your tent. Make a sitting spot 100 yards or so away from where you sleep.
Another thing I do to make myself sleep better is to set up my tent in a natural barricade of brush or trees. Then I will move branches, logs and brush around my tent on all sides to kind of protect my shelter. It also acts as an early warning system for anything around my camp. If I do hear anything in the night, I get my flashlight and bear spray ready and get my tent unzipped. I look around and if I do think something is out in the night I will start shouting, “Get out of here bear!” For the most part, being scared at night is in your own head and after a few nights you will start to feel more comfortable.
Moose are a very real danger hunting out West and a lot of guys are more scared of moose than bears. Handling them is the same as bears, give any moose a wide berth, especially a cow with a calf. If you do find yourself in close quarters with a moose try to back out first without being noticed. If your presence is noticed, stick your bow above your head and make yourself look as big as you can. Talk to the moose calmly ramping up to a shout if the moose starts coming at you. Be ready to keep a tree in between you and the moose or climb the tree if needed.
If you are bowhunting out West, there is a good chance you will find yourself in snake country. Running into a snake on your hunt will definitely rattle you, no pun intended. It is important for me in snake country to slow down a bit and make sure I am looking at the ground in front of me. If it makes you feel better you can wear snake boots or chaps. For me, they are just too hot to wear while I hunt. Even in country where there are a lot of snakes, they are not behind every bush and you just have to be aware. The biggest challenge in snake country is not letting the fear of them get inside your head.
Weather in the Backcountry
Mother Nature can be your best friend or worst enemy in the backcountry. Having the right clothing and a good tent is one of easiest ways to be prepared for nasty weather. I can usually hunt through a little rain or snowstorm but if it continues to be nasty weather, I will ride it out in my tent or next to a fire. A fire always helps with morale and will help pass the time. Always carry the right fire starting equipment with you in case you need some warmth or to dry out. Practice your fire building skills, as it is not always as easy as just lighting a fire. I like red, dead pine needles and dry branches down low on trees. One of the biggest secrets to dry material is to take a dry piece of wood and carve off wood chips with a knife.
Lightning storms have been some of the scariest moments I have had in the backcountry. It is like being in enemy territory with bombs going off all around you. Nothing will make your heart check like a flash of lightning within a half-mile that instantly claps thunder like a gun going off right next to you. Check the weather when you are leaving to go hunting and make sure to camp down off the peaks if there is any danger of lightning. It is nice to have camp in a spot where you can safely ride out an electric storm in your tent. If you are camping up high, have a lightning plan for the middle of the night where you will leave your camp with your rain jacket and ride out the storm in a safe spot. Most electric storms will happen in late afternoon or early night so watch the clouds and how they move through country. Make sure you do not get caught on the peaks in a big storm, it is the worst place you can be. Have a plan so the anxiety of lightning storms does not scare you back to the truck.
If you plan on hunting high country mule deer, steep terrain will definitely be a factor. I practice free climbing all summer long because I know those big bucks love cliffy country. Know your limits and do not get on a slope you cannot handle. Analyze the climb or descent and always be willing to turn back and find a different way if it gets too bad. When on a climb, strap your bow to your back, keep calm and think clearly. Keep three points of contact with the face you are climbing and move slowly and deliberately. Climbing and high country mule deer hunting go hand in hand but no mule deer is worth tumbling off a cliff for, so keep it safe.
Fear can be a powerful force inside the human mind but don’t let it get the better of you. In fact, I try to harness and control my fear to use it as motivation. I flip a switch in my head, fear of calling it quits and having the whole off-season regretting my decision is my motivation. I fear not giving it all I had and having to tell my friends and family I gave up early. I fear putting in all the hard work throughout the year and failing on my hunt in the backcountry. Fear will definitely creep in the mind of any life-loving hunter but it is how you deal with it that will determine what kind of person you are.