Top tips for having your best season ever from hunting coaches Maranda Ratcliff and Travis Hough
Last fall, when Travis Hough drew a general season Idaho mule deer tag, he knew it was a tough hunt, but he never could have imagined just how difficult it would be. The remote unit had few roads and an EKG line of topography, and when Hough and his hunting partner, Maranda Ratcliff, arrived from their home in Montana, snow had already blanketed the mountains, with wet and cold forecast for the week.
Undeterred, the two proceeded to hunt the backcountry terrain they’d scouted, which meant slogging ten miles and 3,000 feet of elevation through mud and snow each day. Hough thought he’d connected with a nice four-pointer late on day four, but early dusk meant the couple had to make the arduous journey out and back in the next day only to discover he’d missed. When ten days passed without a harvest, Hough said the grind of early mornings, cold, and massive days was almost enough to shut down them down. “Obviously the fitness had to be on point to put together all of those huge days, day after day,” says Hough. “But I think what really kept us going was the mental aspect of our training. Pushing yourself hard in the gym in the off season gives you the strength to know you can push through and get it done.”
Hough and Ratcliff, both accomplished hunters who make their home in Billings, Montana, operate side-by-side coaching companies aimed at preparing hunters and outdoorspeople for the rigors of challenges just like the couples’ Idaho hunt. Ratcliff, an ex-collegiate power lifter, offers a formalized regimen called The Maranda Method, which combines gym work, cardio, and diet and lifestyle coaching for a holistic, full-year approach to health and mountain fitness. Much of her expertise is catered to women, whom Ratcliff feels are underserved in hunting circles, though she has plenty of men as clients, too. “As a three-sport athlete in high school, then a competitive weightlifter in college, I saw firsthand how gym work transformed my body and mind,” she says. “I realized that I wanted to use my knowledge and experience to help others perform and live their best lifestyles.”
Hough, a lifetime hunter who got his start as a personal trainer, crafts shorter term plans targeted to hunters’ specific needs and goals. “I had so many people who saw how far back we were hunting, the places we were going and the success we were having, and kept asking, ‘How are you doing it?’” says Hough. “I wanted to help them get there.”
We asked Ratcliff and Hough for their top tips for hunters chasing peak performance this season:
FITNESS IMPROVES SUCCESS
In the West, especially in general season or over-the-counter units where hunting pressure is high, the ability to go deeper into the woods than other hunters creates opportunities. “There are chances to be successful off the road,” says Ratcliff, “but if you’re able to walk, and especially if you are willing to walk farther than the hunters with horses, you get into places where animals are less pressured, which means more success.” Size up your hunt, then make a plan as early as possible to begin getting ready. The better your condition, the more land you’ll see. And the more country you can cover, the more opportunities you’ll have for success.
THINK LIFESTYLE, NOT TRAINING PLAN
When do Ratcliff and Hough start training for hunting season? “We never stop,” says Hough. For many hunters, hunting is a year-round lifestyle, not just confined to a couple weeklong seasons. Ratcliff says the off season is the perfect time to work on body imbalances or personal structural challenges, as well as building general body strength. She contends with knee instability, for instance, so she spends the winter doing box step-ups, leg presses, and work that will build muscle and shore up strength. “It’s not always that fun to work on your weaknesses,” she says. “But weaknesses dealt with in winter turn into strengths and opportunities later.”
“When people ask me how they can hunt better,” says Hough, “my first and most basic advice is, ‘Go hike!’” He recommends loading up a backpack with weight, say 25 to 30 pounds, or wearing a weighted vest, and spending at least two to three workouts per week hiking up the nearest mountain. And no matter how flat your home terrain, there’s always some option, Ratcliff says. “A short subdivision hill is great,” she says. “Hike it as hard as you can over and over. Don’t worry if the neighbors think you’re crazy.” And if time or terrain doesn’t permit allow for outside workouts, hit the Stair Climber at your local gym.
DON’T OVERLOOK STRENGTH
Both Ratcliff and Hough say that too often hunters’ training puts too much focus on cardio activity and not enough on weights. “You have to make your body adapt to hunting,” says Ratcliff, “and that means carrying weight in tough terrain.” The pair both recommend that, in addition to cardio work such as running or hiking (or treadmill sprints or stair climbers in the gym), hunters log at least a few days per week doing strength work. Their top five exercises for hunters: 1) Lunges, especially weighted walking lunges, 2) Shoulder Presses, barbell or dumbbell, 3) Dead Lifts using heavy weight, or Leg Presses for older hunters concerned with injury, 4) Pull-ups, 5) Box Step-ups and Step-Downs, and 6) High-Volume Calf Raises.
IT’S NEVER TOO LATE
Though fitness is best treated as a continuous pursuit, and pre-hunt conditioning will be most effective if you begin at least two to four months before your goals, don’t despair if you’ve fallen behind. Adding even a few weeks or a month of regular fitness work and movement will ease the transition of getting in the field. “Many people will be surprised how much difference even just an hour or two a day, a couple days a week will make,” says Ratcliff. And Hough stresses that it’s not only about the fitness but also the mental toughness. “Putting in hard work beforehand gets your mind okay with suffering,” he says. “When you’re in the field suffering, you’re ready for it.”
Back in Idaho, on day ten of the deer hunt, Hough was having second thoughts about making the long, hard walk again. Maybe it was time to pull the plug and head home. Ratcliff argued to give it one more shot, and the couple doubled down. “We were so exhausted,” Hough says. “But knowing all the work it had taken to get there, on the hunt but also in the months leading up to it, it just gives you the confidence that you can handle whatever else happens.” After a 2a.m. start and another brutal hike in, the two finally found a good herd of deer below them at dawn. Hough took a clean shot and dropped a nice buck at 200 yards.
Says Ratcliff, “That moment, when you have the success that you weren’t sure would come, that’s when you realize that all the training and preparation pays off.” Even with a deer on the ground, the couple still had to draw on their reserves. With a field butcher job plus five miles of steep hiking with huge loads remaining, the couple dropped their packs and got to work.