Every year, hunters toil at their day jobs and count down the days until autumn begins, visualizing and planning their backcountry hunting camp, hidden far from civilization. They imagine where they’ll go and how they’ll set it up, even going so far as to begin pinning promising spots on Google Earth while scanning outdoor sites for four-season tents. Yet very few hunters actually go through with it. Instead, many choose to hunt the same old comfortable spots they always do because they mistakenly believe going out and building a spike camp is too much of a commitment, especially when they only have a few days to hunt. It doesn’t have to be that way, though. With the right attitude and a bit of planning, you can build a spike camp that’s good for a week or even just a weekend in the backcountry.
Location, location, location
I’ve built, stayed in, and hunted from my own improvised spike camps all over the country, and I can confidently say that location is everything. You want to find a place that not only puts you in proximity to the trophy animal you’re after, but also serves as a safe, secure location to store your extra gear and to sleep. This can be a lot more difficult than it sounds. Many hunters overestimate their physical capability and the distance they can hike or drive into an area. Others become so focused on the animal they’re after, they just set up camp at a random, convenient spot, completely ignoring how much impact their presence in an area has on wildlife. So the real key to finding a good location for a spike camp is making a plan—not only for how you’re going to camp in an area, but how you plan on hunting it.
Spike camps make an impact in the woods. No matter how small a camp you make, how little of an effect you intend to have, the sights, sounds, and smells of your presence are going to be noticed by the local wildlife, and game will be pushed out of the area. With that in mind, pick a camping spot as far away from the area you plan to hunt as possible. If you intend to use a vehicle to get to and from your chosen hunting spot, then your camp should be nowhere near your hunting grounds. Find a camping spot that allows you to drive into your hunting spot and get away from your vehicle to hunt as quickly as possible. If you’re using a car or truck, this can be as far as 10 or 12 miles from your hunting spot. If you’re using slower-moving mode of transportation, such as an ATV or snowmobile, then camp no more than five or six miles out.
If you’re hiking from your camp, it’s important to know your capabilities. Know how fast you’re able to hike out given your hunting location’s terrain and with the gear you plan to carry. If you plan on hunting five miles away from your chosen camp but are unable to make it there and back comfortably without completely exhausting yourself, not only can it blow your chances of getting your animal, it can be dangerous. When it’s cold and dark and you’re tired, mistakes happen. Many hunters have broken a leg, gotten lost, or even died trying to go farther and faster than they are able to after the sun goes down. Don’t overestimate your capabilities and remember to play it safe. If you can hike five miles, camp four miles out. If you can hike three miles, camp two miles out. Give yourself some leeway.
The key to everything is timing. Visit your hunting spot and choose a camping spot long before hunting season. Practice hiking into it with full gear and driving into it as fast and slow as possible so you know how long it’s going to take between camping and hunting once the season arrives. If you are unable to do this, say because you’re flying in on a DIY hunt, then train and plan at home as much and however you can. Look at maps and call local outfitters to ask about camping, game, and terrain. Do whatever you can to plan ahead so you have at least some idea of what you’re getting into and won’t have to improvise so much when you get there.
Tarps, propane, and canned chicken
Every single hunter envisions hunting from a spike camp as crawling through the flap of an elaborate outfitter tent or even a homemade cabin every morning, but that just isn’t going to happen. If have a week or a month to hunt, and plenty of time to set up an extravagant tent camp, that’s great. But if you only have a weekend to hunt, you may have to make do with what you have on hand. You can sleep in a cheap pop-up tent, in the back of a truck bed, or simply wrapped in a sleeping bag under the stars if you must. The only thing that really matters is that you’re able to hunt and camp while being as safe and comfortable as possible.
Tarps are invaluable pieces of equipment for a spike camp. They are lightweight, easy to pack and carry. They can be used as a rainfly for equipment; something to load and drag snow with; a clean, dry place to put meat; and, in desperate times, even used as an improvised sleeping bag. Although there are a lot of expensive, high-quality four- or three-season tents out there, you can always buy a cheaper one and cover the whole thing in a tarp. Tarps are great because they not only help to waterproof a tent, they also provide a lot of insulation, keeping the heat in when you need it.
Although we’d all love a spike camp where we can have a roaring campfire—one capable of spit-roasting an entire moose outside under the stars—sometimes that just isn’t an option. Having a campfire is great for moral, warmth, and for just making a spike camp feel authentic, but when you’re tired from having hunted all day, or when you’re scrambling to get your stuff together when you have a long day ahead of you, only having a campfire to cook on can be a pain in the ass. They take time to build, cook on, and extinguish, and sometimes you just aren’t up for it. That’s why I love having a small isobutane-propane stove with me. It doesn’t have to be elaborate, just a single burner that can fit a coffee pot or frying pan. They’re light to carry and easy to assemble, and when paired with a couple of 16 oz. canisters of fuel, they make for a bit of extra weight I am happy to carry.
When it comes to camp food there are numerous options out there. Military MREs and dehydrated gourmet backpacking meals that you simply add water to are available on the shelves at Walmart and can save you a lot of time when you’re out in the field. However, these options are often expensive, and when you’re planning on being out for more than a few days they can take up a lot of room in your pack. Additionally, while just adding water to something and eating it is incredibly convenient, there’s something satisfying about actually cooking something in a pan and having a hot meal after a long day wandering forest and field. That’s why I always try to bring something along that I can cook. When it comes price and convenience, it’s hard to beat canned chicken. These small tins of protein can be found on most grocery store shelves for only a few dollars, come fully cooked, are small and light and easy to carry, and they provide a lot of bang for your buck. Canned chicken is amazing stuff because it can be made to taste like just about anything. It can be mixed with rice, canned veggies, or simply heated up and eaten right from the can. It’s a tasty and inexpensive option that fills you up when you really need it.
The mother of invention
I think many hunters stop at dreaming of hunting from spike camps because they overcomplicate the fantasy. A spike camp doesn’t have to be some elaborate backcountry camp built of massive tents, wood stoves, and meat poles that take weeks and weeks of planning and a mule train to transport. It can be as simple as sleeping in your car or in a pup tent at a convenient place on the mountain. It can be a lean-to and a fire pit thrown together in a couple of hours on a chunk of public land, or an old farmer’s cabin that you rent for a couple of days. The most important thing you need for a spike camp hunt is to simply be inventive and to never let your time, money, or physical limitations stop you from fulfilling your hunting dreams.