Driving into the backcountry to hunt? Make sure you've got the essentials along for the ride.
You wouldn't drive across town without a jack, tire iron, and spare tire. Nor should you drive into the hunting mountains or plains without those same tools-and many more. You're on your own out there, and you'd better be prepared to help yourself.
I wasn't. At least not on that near-fatal afternoon when I drove my Toyota van off a Forest Service road. A single, small pine caught the front wheel, holding roughly $20,000 worth of equipment, not to mention my precious, dirty hide, above a long fall to rocky oblivion. The rear wheel that should have pulled me back onto the road couldn't because it was spinning about a foot above the surface. You've seen those cars teetering on the brink in movies? That's the picture.
Well, I thought I was prepared. I had a "come-along" hand winch in the back. All I had to do was attach it to the nearest tree and crank my rig back to solid road. But the nearest tree wasn't near enough. Nor was it near enough when two more hunters came along and offered their chains and cables. Nor was anyone willing to tether their truck to my van and pull it up for fear of being pulled down themselves. I had to call a wrecker out the next day-a long way out. Two hundred fifty dollars worth of "out." That taught me to carry not just a comealong winch, but also an extra-long coil of cable, and last November I needed it.
That time my Chevy 4x4 slid sideways off a slanted, slimy Forest Service trail. The cable easily reached an uphill trunk. While my wife slowly spun the wheels, I cranked the winch, eventually sliding the rig back onto the road. Sticking to the extreme high-side edge, with branches screeching across the side panels like fingernails on a blackboard, we cautiously backed out, returning the next morning-on foot.
Sometimes extra cable isn't enough. During a South Dakota prairie-dog expedition, my guide drove onto wet clay-what locals call gumbo. Our macho Toyota 4x4 was spinning helplessly on flat prairie, burying itself deeper with every turn of the heavily lugged tires. There was a big winch on the front bumper, but the nearest tree was somewhere in Wyoming.
"I usually use a fencepost for my winch anchor," the guide said, looking around hopefully for the fence that was not there. I tightened my boot laces. "But when I can't find one, I use this." He pulled an old truck axle from his rig. "Grab that sledge hammer and follow me."
We drove the thick steel rod into the ground, winched the truck to it, repeated the process twice, and were free at last. That may be an extreme example of the Boy Scout motto, but a hunter's gotta do what a hunter's gotta do. Hauling a ten-pound axle around beats hiking five miles for help. It's quicker, too.
Depending on where and when you hunt, you may need special tools that would be unnecessary elsewhere. Think through likely scenarios and pack accordingly. During a bighorn sheep hunt in Idaho's vast Owyhe County, my buddy Alan insisted we throw an extra spare tire in my Ford.
"Two spares? Isn't that excessive?" I queried.
"Not in this country. It's isolated, extremely rocky, and hours out by vehicle. We might have to hike fifteen miles to the nearest ranch."
He was right. We ended up needing both spares. We could have used a spare battery, too. Through excessive use of electricity in our camper, we ran out of juice and had to push-start the truck. Thank goodness it was a manual transmission.
In many areas, the Forest Service requires backcountry drivers to carry a shovel and bucket to extinguish nascent fires started by sparks, catalytic converters, or poorly managed matches. I've never heard of anyone being fined or jailed for breaking this commandment, but it's a good idea to heed it. You may also need the bucket to fetch creek water for an overheating engine, and the shovel to fill an erosion channel sufficiently to drive over it or to lever a boulder off the roadway. A long-handled sand shovel is the accepted tool, but a square blade will suffice. A sharp, beveled edge helps for cutting roots and tough sod.
Here are more tools you should consider carrying on your next drive to a hunt. Some are for fixing your vehicle, some for building a surface to drive on, some for general use. Reject them at your peril:
Cell phone: It's the new, all-purpose, universal Swiss Army survival tool. If you can get service, you can call for reinforcements, even an evacuation helicopter in real emergencies. For true wilderness use, consider a satellite phone.
Tow rope: It can be nylon strap, steel cable, or logging chain, but include enough to reach across a mud hole or road to the nearest tree. Figure at least forty feet, and double is better. Cable coils and takes up little space. Be sure the ends are looped and clamped so one can be run through the other to secure around things. One end or both should have a big steel hook.
Handy-Man jack: Wimpy auto jacks, the kind that come with every car, rarely work off pavement. For serious jacking of heavy objects in broken terrain on mud, gravel, and rocks, you need the classic, long-post Handy-Man (or Hi-Lift) capable of lifting three feet.
Four-way lug wrench: Forget those angled, one-piece lug wrenches. Buy a four-ended cross wrench. They fit every wheel nut and provide enough leverage to break the most stubborn nut. Well, most of them. You might have to slip a long pipe over one end to increase your leverage (see next item).
Three-foot pipe: Inside diameter should be sufficient to fit over the biggest end of your lug wrench.
Ax/sledge: A heavy sledge with an ax blade on one side serves many functions, from cutting limbs to busting boulders and driving stakes.
Chain saw: Trees, sometimes huge ones, regularly fall across forest roads. If you want to pass, haul a chain saw around. You might need to cut a log bridge to span a deep ditch. If a chain saw takes up too much room, at least carry a big bow saw and plenty of muscle to use it. A small bow saw is good, too.
Winch: An electric, bumper-mount version is wonderful, but a hand-powered "come-along" works wonders, too. You may need both.
Claw hammer: You can figure this one out.
Vise-grip locking pliers: Multiple uses, including providing a stand for holding a flashlight. Carry a small and an extra-large.
Channel-lock pliers: Also called water-pump pliers, this is the angled version that opens to several channels to accommodate small to quite wide nuts, pipes, etc.
Needle-nosed pliers: Good for precision holding or reaching screws that drop into tight spaces.
Screwdrivers: You'll want a pretty complete set of straight blades, Phillips, Allen, square, and star heads.
Ratchet and socket set: Metric or standard? Check your rig before choosing. Carry both to be safe. Even if you're a poor mechanic, you may find a loose nut that needs to be tightened.
Open-end/box-end wrenches: As with sockets above, to fit your rig.
Crescent wrench: The multi-adjustable open-end wrench real mechanics love to hate, but amateurs put to good use time and time again. Get a small, medium, and large.
Malleable wire: Down on the farm we used to say you could fix anything with baling wire. Carry coils of light, medium, and heavy gauge. You can wire up a falling exhaust pipe, wrap up a broken tool handle, wire a pulley to a tree, etc. The inside bevels of your pliers will cut wire. In emergencies, bend it back and forth until it breaks, or chop it with your axe.
Pulley: One or two medium-sized pulleys might come in handy if you have the rope to go with them. If nothing else, wire them to a limb to hoist your elk for skinning and boning.
Duct tape: This stuff will repair nearly anything, such as a split radiator hose, busted windshield, cracked shovel handle, ripped tent or air mattress, even a down jacket.
Small lengths of hose: These can be split and wired or taped over punctured or split hoses for temporary repair, so check what's under your hood and get odd pieces to fit.
Brake fluid: Pack a small bottle in case you spring a leak. Duct-tape the hole, refill the reservoir, and limp out. You don't know the meaning of "hairraising" until you've tried coasting down three thousand feet of winding mountain road with no brakes.
Engine oil: Two quarts at least. Puncture an oil pan and you'll be going through spare oil like a fish goes through water.
Transmission fluid: In case your automatic tranny runs low.
Sealants: Check at your auto-parts store for various sealants-things like Bars, which seals radiators and J.B. Weld, which seals oil-pan leaks. Some shade-tree mechanics report that a BB slipped into a brake line will migrate to a leak and pretty well seal it.
Gasoline: Here's a commonly desired additive. Rough terrain and unanticipated "shortcuts" can wreck the best miles-per-gallon estimates. But don't carry your spare gas inside your rig. Strap it to a bumper or roof rack, well protected from flying stones.