“Mental Wilderness” - A psychological guide to preparing for the back country

Updated: Jan 14, 2020

“To those devoid of imagination a blank place on the map is a useless waste; to others, the most valuable part.” – Aldo Leopold.

My hunting rig finally creaked to a halt next to a deserted ranch house where I took time to assess the damage. Now some thirty miles from the last icy trail I realized my condition was a lot like that dilapidated shack. Time to pop-a-top before the shakes start in but the road had been so rough most had exploded in my cooler. Perfect. The pucker effect was starting to dissipate and quickly filled with elation as I cracked a cold one and helped liberate the last remnants of the fenders from their original position. It was 8 am, breakfast, and that cold one hit the spot so I strolled around my beat up rig and had another. Around then I reflected on the huge sense of satisfaction I had for surviving the back country and making it out with minimal wear and tear. My smile was broad as I started on again, and so began my preparation for the next adventure!

No matter the species hunting big and wild country can be a tough task for the average person. It’s an arduous ordeal to tackle but it is definitely a life changing journey that evolves the average homo sapiens into a stealthy predator. Although difficult for those who aren’t part of the certain population used to thin air and walking in the elements, with the right amount of preparation it can be a frequent soul soothing experience. Preparing to hunt the back country is half the battle whereas if your desire to take such path there is no better time to start than the present! Now, I’m not going to give you the same break down you hear everywhere – work out twice a day, carry your pack with rocks, eat like a caveman, shoot your bow at every 3D tournament you can, use this spray, this bow, these bullets, ingest these supplements – no sir, although important in their own right I want you to be successful in your endeavors. I’m talking about going deeper and preparing your mental strength! The mountains can be a cruel and unforgiving beauty that will test the mettle of even the most experienced mountain athlete. Preparing mentally for your hunt is even more important than your personal bench press. Being mentally strong will keep you the field longer, make the experience incredibly more enjoyable and honestly keep you alive. Let me illustrate my methodology.

Now, I am not some super human hunter originating from the blood lines of Orion. No sir. I don’t log months in the back country every year, I don’t have a team of hunting buddies, I don’t have a YouTube channel and I don’t have abs (well we all do, refer back to Human Anatomy 101 – but mine currently reside incognito). But, I am of a rare breed; a person longing to see what lurks beyond the next ridge, a person that thinks as a carnivore but also as an understanding steward of flora and fauna. A conservationist by mind and a hunter by heart. I strive to go beyond all others and come back - perhaps not always unscathed. But nevertheless triumphant at the terminus in possession of a trophy or a fulfilled soul and content appetite for wild things. Nevertheless after a couple days of being wet, cold and eating freeze dried food I start longing for a soft bed and tacos! I am no different than any other human but I try to be - So how do I gain my mental strength? I commence with my mental preparation prior to my physical conditioning and strive to buttress this positive mentality by creating firm hunt goals. My targets are pronounced shortly after I make those initial decisions on where and what to hunt. Of course I have to keep in mind my budget, vacation time and all the logistics of leaving civilization for days at a time. Once I have these primordial decisions massaged into shape I culture my hunt goal planning: What are my goals on this hunt? Am I looking to go after the trophy of a lifetime or just fill that freezer? What weapon am I going to choose? Can my physical condition digest what my desires have ate? These questions are directly correlative to my choice of state, budget, unit and more importantly my availability. The creation of and continuous culturing of these ambitions build a strong foundation that will keep you positive mindset during your hunt.

My latest hunt was a solo archery elk hunt in Colorado whereas without a strong mentality I would have been a goner. I decided to get as wild as possible in an attempt to sharpen my physical and mental capabilities for some subsequent hunts. I also decided to utilize my Pack Wheel ( in the wilderness as I needed to bring enough supplies to stay for an extended period of time but not break my legs’ budget of carrying everything on my back. Most Southern gentleman don’t get the same Alpine training with the StairMaster at home so I needed all the tools in my arsenal. This is an awesome tool so do your back a favor and invest in one! Pack Wheel you can send my royalty checks to my address – call my editor, thanks. Back on point, I also wanted to stay flexible enough to pack out and try some National Forest if I needed a break from the Neanderthal lifestyle. I decided on the third week of archery season utilizing a highly sophisticated algorithm to pinpoint my exact hunting dates, which was basically I could get off work and I thought the weather would be forgiving. At this moment I had my plans set so I made some goals of (1) taking advantage of an either sex OTC tag and (2) being prepared to eat my tag if I didn’t put an animal on the ground. I told myself I would still feel successful because I was in the wild and not at work! DUH. It’s a shame that most hunters most hunters don’t see success unless there is a tangible benefit on their wall. Today’s modernized hunting, Facebook, Instagram, TV or whatever there are a lot of hunters out there that judge their success on scores or at least harvesting a bull/buck. They have to have a trophy to gauge their success. We might have all felt some anxiety in coming home empty handed as if we are less of a hunter or something absurd like that. I can tell you now public land hunting, OTC, solo, wilderness, national forest etc the chances are stacked against you bigger than Vegas and the quicker you are to accepting this realization the more successful your adventures will become. I can tell you without a doubt I have learned more from bad hunting experiences than good ones! I have learned to keep a positive attitude, survive, trust in my preparation and not be disappointed with going home empty handed. Period.

My pre-hunt mental preparation ties directly to being familiar with my surroundings. I have heard of people being lost in the wilderness who were paralyzed by choice. They were terrified of perhaps venturing further from safety because they didn’t have or couldn’t read a map. Their mental status quickly deteriorated as they had no idea where they were in the world. There comes a time when you have to move to get where you’re going just as Confucius said, “Wheresoever you go, go with all your heart.” The comfort of having a good map, and knowing how to read the thing, is a huge stroke to a hunter’s psyche. Buy them long before the hunt and study them! All the while knowing that to be successful and to keep you alive it may be a good idea to know where the hell you are. I use different venues to contrast and compare my hunt area and look for places where there might not be many hunters or areas that could hold game depending on the time/moon phase/weather. I believe maps are the greatest tool you can have to get you excited about your hunt and keep you interested during those hours of sitting and glassing. I use the internet to secure all these tools and sometimes even find pretty much FREE avenues. Keep looking, I mean shoot you aren’t doing anything in your work cubicle anyway! We have scoured the dark corners of our unit with contour/topo maps, identified our prospective hunting area(s) and called in a favor to our Navy Seal buddies to have these erased from the internet, so what do we do now in our mental preparations? Be realistic. Keep in mind that the mountains are bigger and steeper in real life then they appear on Google Earth! WTH? You have me all jacked up and I’m ready to tackle Everest, so why be realistic now? Because it’s all about mental preparation and staying in the field longer. Now you need get into country to hone the mental preparation you have sharpened thus far.

If you are a flat lander here is a novel approach to testing your gear, mental preparedness and cojones – DO SOME SCOUTING TRIPS! Scouting trips will test your willingness to be a solo/back country hunter before you spend $600 dollars on an OTC tag. This type of hunting can be difficult but with the right preparation can be immensely enjoyable. The mountains are a great place to be during the summer and, depending on location, it can be accessible by airplane/rental car. Bring your camping gear and soft cooler for a low cost three day weekend adventure. Shoot, bring the wife and kids as the weather is fairly mild and will secure you a hall pass when your hunting trips comes around. I pre-scouted on my previous solo venture whereas I drove to my hunting destination and camped at the trail head late the first night. This gave me a day’s pack in (ten miles), a day of glassing and close proximity scouting, and a day’s pack out. I was able to confirm my initial hunting area was going to be a beast and unfortunately already had an outfitter’s tent in place. It did allow me some time to fish however whereas OTC tags can include fishing which I recommend. Fresh trout on the fire is almost orgasmic after a few days on freeze dried food! Pre-scouting will also show you what skills you need to work on and what gear is just weight in your pack. Honing these skills is the key to building strength of mentality before the hunt which will make the difference in your success later. P.S. - Think about your logistics of getting back and forth between hunt and home. I decided that instead of driving back and forth twice I would leave my hunting vehicle in the closest city I could fly into. In this instance Albuquerque, NM best location to store my vehicle. This may seem a little peculiar to most but it’s very inexpensive to lock a vehicle in a storage unit compared to leaving at the airport (total cost was under $100 even with the lock!) I left all my camping, hunting gear, food etc in the unit with my truck and flew back home. Of course my seat mates didn’t enjoy my four day-no-shower smell but I didn’t care as I was used to it! Upon my return, I continued my mental and physical prep the remainder of the time and flew back to my truck some twenty days later. This saved me a lot of behind the wheel time and dinero!

So here we are, back home to the rat race between our scouting trip(s) and our hunt. We are evermore excited and our mental conditioning is in full swing – What to do now? Just like a celebrity hunter always says, Get Hammered! No wait. Don’t get hammered! Hammering keeps you grinding? Hell I don’t know, but basically keep your conditioning going but don’t overdo it. If bow hunting, shoot your bow in hunting scenarios rather than at static distances and positions. One shot when you wake up in the morning before taking the commute to the office, one shot after ten o’clock news in the back porch lights, or one shot over here from a weird position; over the lawn mower, through the swings and ten ring! It doesn’t matter when/where/how but condition your mind into knowing you’ll only get one shot and make it count. Further condition your mind as to being alone for vast portions, if not all, of your hunt. Humans are social creatures whether you believe it or not and we long for human interaction. Taking this into account and accepting the fact and you’ll be a lot better off all by your lonesome. Chances are Mommacita will be complaining about this trip that you’ll be in need of some quiet time but I suggest that if you aren’t a hermit you better bring some people with you. The inner labyrinth of your dark and twisted mind is NOT someplace you want to venture to in the wilderness, Tinkerbell.

Perfect. Now that I have some of you crying at the therapist and others contemplating hunting in a loincloth (See my up and coming 2018 African article titled “Eastern Cape in a Codpiece”) let’s get right into continuing our strong positive mentality during our back country hunt! The most frustrating thing about hunting back country is getting away from the crowd. Seriously. Depending on the access there could be folks everywhere and more than likely you will see numerous in your “secret spot”. My first archery elk hunt was in the Flat Top north of Vail, CO. My dad took me up there to hunt where he had guided some thirty years previous. At that time I was an efficient bow hunter. Racking up thousands of kills on deer, hogs, beer cans, hay bales, stray cats, etc. and I was ready to conquer anything the back country could throw my way. During the next two days we never found one of our “for sure” hunting spots without a dozen ATV’s or RV’s parked in it. Evidently everyone had the same idea as us amateurs. We were discouraged to say the least but we stayed positive that the trip would be a success no matter the outcome. On the third day we drove back to the beginning of National Forest and harvested a 6X5 bull within sight of the front gate. We didn’t let this discourage the team and found a spot that had little or no direct hunting pressure. So how does the average guy know where to hunt? If you don’t have a lot of experience in this type of hunting or new to the unit, I would use the first couple days of your hunt to scout. Drive around a bit and take in the lay of the land AND where the heck everyone is camped or more importantly where are they are hunting. Just like that first elk hunt my latest unfolded about the same. After getting beaten up with the wilderness I drove into National Forest about 30 miles from the black top and ended up camping within 150 yards from two separate camps. That first morning their four wheelers fired up and the herd droned into the distance long before sun up. Frustrated I remembered that initial hunt and decided to hit the trail by foot. Two hours later of slow stalking a game trail I was within 75 yards of seven elk – these girls had done just like before! They were waiting on the hunters to leave and when it got quiet they got up and fed; never being more than a mile of these hunters’ camp! Sometimes the best areas are those so overt, they are covert. I also like to walk the edges between BLM and National Forest (typically there is a barrier there – barb wired fence, etc.) and hunt the areas that everyone drives by to get to their “secret spot”. If you’re really feeling froggie hunt the hardest places to access, hunt the darkest timber and north facing slopes where they like to lay up during the heat of the day and hunt when it rains. Just remember your realistic goals because at this point of your hunt you need to stay diligent to make it to a successful end!

During the hunt it’s important to take it slow and steady. Being sore kills your positive mentality, which can possibly waste that moment when you need to make the most of a moment. As a semi-professional guide myself, and the son of an old guide, you always put your hunters to the test the first day. Mostly it’s to gauge how bad they want it or to exercise the asshole out of them that some were alluding to in camp. We always tested their “want” but that was during a guided hunt; you are the lone solider here baby so be smart and take it slow and steady. The mountain is a beautiful place even during her worst moments but you have to realize that to successfully enjoy the experience you need to not blow up in the first couple days. Remember you are out here for the long haul and to harvest your quarry you have to be in the field more than sometimes your “want” is comfortable with. If your physical negativity is eroding your positive mentality on day three you are more tempted to go back to camp for a candy bar you hid in the ice chest or drive off the mountain to go see Momma. To keep that positive mental attitude I set small goals each day that I use in preparation for the inevitable big push. If I haven’t previously seen game in the area, I prefer to slow stalk and glass in intervals. I will challenge myself to slow stalk, stopping every couple yards to glass for a certain period of time. Then I pause for another period continuing to glass but resting legs and reflecting. Bring something to entertain yourself during these slower times. Take your boots off and relax or whittle a stick – anything to get you away from any negative thoughts. You’re out here all alone so use whatever tricks in your bag to cover ground and find your prey.

When hunting back country you’ll need to be flexible because the mountain doesn’t care about your schedule. The weather on the mountain can be very unpredictable as it creates its own environment and even though Miss Tight Dress on Channel Four Action News said the weather would be peachy, I’d have my rain gear at a very close reach! My last hunt kept me inside my tent for two days while it rained or hailed. And I’m not talking cute mountain hail but more like chunks of ice falling from your ex-wife’s heart type of hail. When the weather finally broke I headed down the mountain but like I said the mountain had a different schedule! The next twenty miles took almost six hours and all in four-wheel drive. Several times the amount of hail on the ground caused my truck to crunch into rocks and dead fall Aspens put my ax to the test. The mountain had set the pace whose schedule I was forced to accept. It is a frustrating endeavor bending to the will of the mountain but I had given myself adequate time to safely maneuver the route back onto the grid. Like we have said before the entire premise is to stay in the field longer and be in front of the targets. Making hasty, rushed moves even leaving the mountain can be disastrous and take you out of the game forever! Upon reaching the flat land I was able to assess my condition at which point I commenced reflection of the adventure. I particularly like to reflect over a large plate of tacos/enchiladas but on this excursion I stopped at the first tavern I found in Red River, NM for some local brews (try the Panty Slinger AYIIIII!). Reflecting on the adventure helps you continue and develop a stronger mental toughness that’ll carry over to your next excursion. Of course my reflection is to write down my experience in an attempt to relay to my readers but I truly believe this reflection buttresses my mentality for each subsequent hunt. I commence the immediate self-reflection along the lines as: What did I learn and how can I apply that to next time? What gear worked and vice versa? I’m not saying that you have to follow my way, as I’m sure the other patrons thought I was loco having a one-person Barbara Walters Q&A session at the bar but it keeps me moving and looking forward to a return to the back country.

The ultimate goal of hunting wild places is in itself being satisfied with those wild places - whether internal or external. Strengthen your mentality to support your physicality and your time in the field will be of a fruitful kind. -

McKennon “Mac” Laas

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