-By Everett Headley
Having taught hunter safety for a decade, I am keenly aware of stories that include the line, “I never thought it could happen to me.” What follows are the details of a hunting trip gone wrong with a conclusion that was not anticipated. There are dangers inherent in hunting: unpredictable animals, chaotic weather, gear failing. However, hunting is still statistically safer than golf, but it does require forethought and careful consideration of what you will encounter when you step out of the truck and into the wild. These principles below have been forged out of difficult experiences; a few mine, some from others. The words of Benjamin Franklin, not a noted hunter, but still wise in his own right, are instructional: “By failing to plan, you are preparing to fail.”
1. Know Your Own Limitations
One of the first things I tell people new to hunting is:
"There is no pride in the wild."
It does not care when you get cold, hungry, or tired, those forces will continue to wear on you to the point they create a life threat. Admitting and adjusting to the situation as it presents and not “toughing it out” requires a thorough understanding of your abilities and skill, as well as a small amount of humility. Knowing when to call a hunt and come out of the field demonstrates wisdom, not frailty. This is different from pushing yourself incrementally to expand your range; that is a controlled and thoughtful decision. The opposite of that is assuming you can do more without any reserves to fall back on. This is when hunters find themselves in inextricable danger.
Seeking out more experienced hunters when you travel in new areas and hunt new game can be the quickest way to success and survival. There really is no substitute for experience. Next to that, researching and learning what you might potentially encounter can give you a good sense of what to expect and plan. Those of us who hunt solo, add another level of complexity that requires self-sufficiency and pre-arranging help before it's needed. You can’t foresee every issue, but you can mitigate most of them before they interrupt a hunt.
2. Know Your Weapons
The cartoon image of Elmer Fudd, lackadaisically walking in the woods blasting whatever moves, breaks all four of the Gun Safety Laws:
- Treat all guns as if they were loaded.
- Never point your gun at something you don’t intend to shoot.
- Keep your finger straight and off the trigger until ready to shoot.
- Be sure of your target and beyond.
"When reviewing shooting accidents it’s clear to see one (usually more) of these rules broken resulting in a preventable tragedy."
Mutual accountability with hunting partners puts more that just your eyes on
your rifle. None of us are infallible and asking your buddy to check your magazine to see if its clear or watching to see if a safety is clicked back on after a pass of birds are small actions requiring almost no effort.
Within a weapon's safety is knowing the operation and maintenance of your chosen gun. In the military, we learn the effective range, maximum range, velocity, breakdown, field care and a host of other details about every weapons system we operated. While there were levels beyond our scope, most things that rendered our rifle inoperable we could fix. Keeping a small armory at your camp that can competently fix can keep you hunting in the mountains instead of in town for a gunsmith or bowyer. Never go beyond your qualifications, see principle number 1. Keeping your weapon clean and maintained is the best prevention, so don’t neglect it.
3. Maintain Situational Awareness
I once followed an elk three miles during the rut, each of us cutting off the other with our bugles. Before I knew it, I was deep into dark timber in a place I was not familiar with. The full moon helped light my way back, and I had my OnX to lead me through a setting that could have been much more perilous. I had lost my situational awareness and become tunnel visioned chasing that bull.
Keep an eye on changing weather conditions, the environment, fires burning nearby, and large predators. The best way to get out of an emergency is to have never put yourself in one to begin with. I also keep an eye on my water level (a lesson I learned in the heat of west Texas) and food. “Keeping your head on a swivel” means always being alert to anything that might endanger your health and safety. You won’t predict everything you’ll encounter while hunting, but the sooner you know about it, the sooner you can adapt and plan around it.
4. Never Assume An Animal Is Really Down
I was fortunate enough to draw an on range oryx license for White Sands Missile Range a few years ago. It was an incredible experience with new challenges (when they tell you to not got into an area on an active missile testing range; they mean it). On my first day I was able to locate and harvest a 36” cow. My shot was good and well within range. Walking up to an animal the size of an elk with horns that are known to skewer lions in Africa, I certain have trepidation. At about 30 yards I started talking to it, hoping my voice would give an indication it was still alive. At about 10 yards I tossed a couple of rocks, again trying to see if there was any reaction. I slowly creeped up towards its flank and kicked its back hoof, only to have it kick back to me. My retreat was swift and I gave it a few more minutes before I tried again. This time there wasn’t a kick back and a final poke to the eye assured me she had expired.
"I repeat this same dance each time I approach a downed animal. The will to live and ability to fight is precisely what these animals depend on to survive."
It should be no surprise that they will try while there is still lifeblood in them. A hunter cannot escape this dynamic, but he can prepare for it. And while females generally do not have the same weapons atop their heads, their hooved feet can be just as perilous. There are stories every fall of hunters being wounded by game they hunted with an ending that could have been avoided with just a few precautions.
I tend to hunt in remote areas because there are more animals, but probably more important there are less people. This does not mean I am always alone. After I finished field dressing a bear a few miles in the backcountry of Idaho, I hear behind me, “What you got there?” Four guys from Michigan were on a scouting trip, for a Montana hunt, and wandered over the state line. The short version of the story is they were intrigued and eager to help on a packout, so I graciously allowed them to lighten my pack. This is the best case scenario when meeting someone in a place you don’t expect to find others. Worst case can play out akin to a plot in a B movie.
- Mistaken identification is common in hunting accidents. Most happen with experienced hunters, within 30 meters and 80% of the time are by someone known. Anecdotally, this seems to happen most during turkey seasons. Remembering the fourth gun safety law and wearing orange can greatly decrease the chance of this happening. When approaching someone else in the field, make yourself known, with your hands clearly visible and your weapon pointed down.
6. Don’t Rely On Unproven Skills And Equipment
It doesn’t take many episodes of watching Alone or Survivorman to ignite the mountain man in us. But, moving from enthusiast to experienced requires an investment of time and learning and repetition. Scouting and summer camping trips are controlled situations that are great to practice new skills and equipment where there isn’t the added pressure of filling a tag. You’ll quickly see what you need adjust so when you get into a situation where your performance is critical you will have the confidence of already knowing what will happen.
7. Inspect And Replace Gear Regularly
I inspect my gear at least twice before it gets put into the field. The first is what I call “The Great Reset.” At the beginning of the fall season and before any trips I go through EVERYTHING. Batteries get replaced, straps checked, maintenance performed, etc. If there is any chance something will be brought into service in the next few months, I look it over. The next is just before a trip I will again go through with my checklists and see what needs attention. One of the mantras of wilderness first aid is small things make dead things. Likewise, failures in gear generally don’t happen because of one moment, but after a buildup of little things that cause a catastrophic issue. Creating a checklist helps keep you familiar and hands-on with your own equipment so you can see when something isn’t right.
8. Reduce Unnecessary Risk
Risk management is not about eliminating all risk, but about knowing which are worth taking based on desired outcomes. Nearly all hunters today started managing risk by taking a hunter safety course at the onset of their hunting careers. New adventures carry with them new risks and simple risk management can help to prevent problems:
- Attempt to identify risks before they happen: weather, predators, terrain.
- Recognize your goals: crossing a stream, going deep into a mountain range, coming home safely.
- Understand risk within its context: crossing a stream during a 70° day in August does not pose the same hypothermic risks as in December.
- Plan for contingencies: Sometimes things do not go as expected and adapting quickly can minimize unintended risks.
9. Leave A PLAN
Rescue is much easier on first responders if they know where you are. This seems like such an obvious statement it doesn’t need to be written, but too often searches begin without this vital information. Elements to include: route traveled, who is in the party, contacts for group and home, planned return date and time, and activity. Including more details can be helpful, such as daily medication needed or alternate plans if something changes. Written notes in emails, texts, or on a piece of paper help keep details clear and eliminate the mistakes when trying to remember what was said when anxiety is high. Making this a common practice helps it to become routine and not get forgotten. And since I venture frequently and by myself, I carry a Zoleo satellite messenger to keep my wife updated as things progress. If you’re wondering what could happen when you don’t leave a note, research Ejnar Mikkelsen who decided against it and spent an additional winter on Greenland.
10. Say No To Drugs And Alcohol
I added this to the list because of the number of hunters who don’t return and what prevented them was being impaired. The lasting effects and reactions from common ones like alcohol and caffeine are enough to impact a hunting trip. How much and for long you abstain is up to you. And while I still pour a little Irish whiskey while sitting around the fire recounting the day to my hunting partners, I don’t let it deter me from rising at dawn to pick up the chase again. If I’m hunting solo or in the backcountry, I cut the weight and leave all for when I return. We work hard to research, plan, and execute our hunts and I want to minimize anything that will jeopardize success.
About the Author: Everett Headley is an outdoor writer and educator. He was raised hunting and fishing in Montana. He lives in the Bitterroot with his Chesapeake Bay retriever, Cane, and his peregrine falcon, Freyja. You can find more of his work at www.406.life, on Instagram @everettheadley and his podcast Venery and Veritas.