Beginner’s Guide To Upland Hunting – Part 2: Essential Gear

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In my last blog entry, Beginner’s Guide To Upland Hunting – Part 1, we learned a little about what upland hunting was and how one might even explore it further. Some of you may have decided that you are all in and are ready to get started for the next season! I applaud you, but also want to be clear that there is a bit of preparation that is involved to have a successful upland hunting experience. You want to enjoy yourself. Your enjoyment is largely dependent on preparation and ensuring you have the right equipment to perform. Without preparation and good equipment in the field, you risk sabotaging a perfectly wonderful experience. Why would you ever want to try anything again that you a bad time doing? Don’t risk that! Go in prepared! Get the right gear!

In this entry of the Beginner’s Guide To Upland Hunting, we will focus on gear. Gear is an essential part of upland hunting. When you think of an upland hunter, you probably think of a plaid-clad, blaze orange wearing, double gun toting, pipe smoker with earth toned briar pants. That is a very classic picture, isn’t it? Although I tend to believe that most upland hunters are practical folk, some, including myself, have gone off the deep end when it comes to gear. You don’t have to necessarily look a certain way and you don’t need every little gadget. I have been guilty of going “gear-crazy” in the past and there were some costly mistakes! It is easy to walk into your local Bass Pro Shop and walk out spending hundreds if not thousands of dollars on non-essential gear or looking like an Orvis catalog model. We will stick to functional gear and keep it simple! You’ll thank me later!

The Shotgun

The shotgun is the most iconic and probably the most important piece of your gear. Without it, you are just a bird watcher! Many of you probably have a romantic picture of yourself setting off at dawn through the briars, toting a classical double-gun. I did too! That stubborn vision I had of myself and lack of knowledge led me to make a very bad shotgun purchase when I started upland hunting, however. The more research you do before purchasing a shotgun, the better.

Choosing a gun for upland hunting comes down to preference (and your budget). Keep in mind a shotgun is in an investment. Like all investments, careful planning needs to occur to ensure the best return (ROI). A whole book could be written about the various platforms of shotguns, gauges and chokes (I’ll reserve that for another day). Do you need to spend a lot of money? No. Should you spend a lot of money? Not necessarily. Like cars, shotguns can have economically-minded and practical uses, or have many expensive bells and whistles, and even represent status. If you can afford the nice $10,000 heavily engraved double or Olympic grade Semi-Auto, more power to you! A budget shotgun can put away as many birds as an expensive shotgun. At the end, it is a tool. The wielder ultimately makes the shots happen.

To the dismay of many and at the risk of being lynched, I am going to simplify things for those of you who are new to upland hunting. If you do not already have a shotgun, try to get something that has the capability of switching out the chokes. Stick to a 12 or 20 gauge (I can hear the mob grumbling), which are the most common gauges. This will ensure that ammo is plentiful and cheaper. 16, 28, and 410 are all great and fun gauges to shoot, however, there is a bit of an issue of finding ammo at times. Smaller gauges like the 410 also require quite a bit of mastery to shoot effectively as well. Women and smaller stature hunters may prefer a shorter and lighter 20 gauge.

The most common chokes are Full, Modified, Improved Cylinder, and Cylinder. If you can, stick with Modified and/or Improved Cylinder. These are ideal for most upland hunting scenarios.

In my opinion, a brand spanking new Remington 870 is one of the most reliable, versatile and economical shotguns out there. With an option to change out chokes, you can have an upland gun, a pass shooting gun for dove and waterfowl, long range turkey and coyote gun, and self-defense gun all rolled into one. The pump platform is super reliable and can be easily field stripped if needed. You cannot go wrong. Used 870’s can often be purchased for a couple hundred bucks.

When all is said in done, pick a gun that fits you. There are no rights or wrongs.

Ammo

Regardless if you choose a 12 or 20 gauge, you will find that most vendors carry #7-1/2 shot size in abundance. In my opinion this is the bare minimum size you should use, especially if you are hunting wild birds with no dog to retrieve your downed birds. Having said that, my personal preference is #6 shot. I have used #6 shot for years after seeing that many birds I was shooting with #7-1/2 were still flying off and running a bit after being shot. To me, it appeared when I used #6 shot, I was getting less cripples/runners. I never have had a bird mangled with #6 shot. It is very effective and humane. That’s my $0.02.

As mentioned, you can pick up “sleeves” of shotgun shells at your local Wal-Mart for some great prices. $20 for 4 boxes of 25 rounds! People will tell you these bargain bundles of Remington, etc. are garbage, but I have never had jams or misfires with this ammo in any of my guns and they still put birds down just as same as the premium brands.

If you hunt often or shoot clays often (and miss as much as I do!) it is a good idea to begin stockpiling some ammo before the season starts. It may be worth your while to attend some gun shows. You can score some good deals on whole cases of ammo!

Cutlery

At minimum, you need one good quality and sharp knife. I usually carry a pocket knife and a multi-tool out in the field. I have a spare in the car. I always end up using them at some point, whether cleaning out birds or making small repairs, etc.

What to Wear

It’s very easy to get caught up in the excitement when those pre-fall catalogs arrive from Orvis, Filson, Bass Pro and the like. I am guilty of flipping through the collection of catalogs I have in the restroom for hours, dog-earing pages. I usually end up not buying a lot of it.

When it comes to clothing for upland hunting, I like to stay practical and functional for the most part. Although I enjoy ogling at the $100 Orvis outdoor shirts and $300 Filson Tin Pants, I have accumulated a lot of quality garments that have lasted me for years for a fraction at the price. Premium prices do not always equal quality. That’s not to say those durable Filson pants are not worth it, a good pair will last you years. But I would personally much rather use that money to buy more ammo or gas to go hunting. At risk of creating competition for myself and losing out on some fine clothing, a little tip I will share with you is to check out your local thrift stores for some of these items. If you do not mind lightly used items or pushing aside a few hipsters to get to a couple shirts and pants, you can score some quality upland hunting clothing! Aside from that, I urge you to stick with quality vendors like Orvis or Filson.

The Upland Vest:

The upland hunting vest is an essential piece of gear for upland hunting. You can make due without many of the specialized garments below, but the vest is a Godsend to us upland hunters. Firstly, most vests have some sort of blaze orange present on them (I urge you to try to stick with a vest that has this option). Even when (seemingly) hunting alone, the blaze orange will alert others of your presence. I have been out in the field and was sure I was the only hunter out there, only to bump into another hunter a few hours later. Better safe than sorry. Wear blaze orange. If not on your vest, at least your hat or shirt. Somewhere.

The upland vest also serves a practical use. It carries your birds and your ammo. Some have multiple options, with multiple pockets, etc. I have used the same Filson game-bag for years. It is minimalistic. Two pockets in the front where I can get to my ammo quickly and a roomy game-bag in the back (that’s where I store my water bottle too). Simple. That’s the way I like it, but there are some cool options out there if you like a ba-zillion pockets for your gear and such.

Shirts:

As far as shirts go, I am a big fan of light wool shirts. Wool has many benefits, will keep you warm in the cold and regulates to your body temperature when you heat up, wicking away sweat naturally. Wool shirts are perfect for the early days of the season, where the weather is brisk in the morning and the afternoons can be quite warm still. Long sleeves are a must, especially in the uplands, where birds live in habitats filled with pokey and prickly vegetation. If you ever reach for a bird that flew into a thorny bush, you will be thankful for long sleeves. Canvas or flannel shirts are great alternatives to wool, although they tend to feel heavier and do not breathe as well as wool. I use these shirts later in the season when it’s colder. There are many high-quality shirt manufacturers out there. Try out Orvis, Filson, Pendleton, & Woolrich. Watch for sales!

Layering shirts is a good idea. Again, during early season hunting, the mornings can be quite cool and get gradually hotter as the days drag on. Under my wool shirts, I usually wear a light shirt with wicking capability like Under Armour or similar brand. When rolling up sleeves is not enough, I can take my wool shirt off and toss it in the back of my vest. During the winter months, I will bundle up a bit more. As you are standing there freezing before your hunt starts on a winter morning, you may be tempted to wear a thick coat or jacket. Please keep in mind that once you start moving, you are going to warm up. Having a thick coat on after a hiking a few minutes will have you feeling like you skipped winter and jumped right into summer. Layer smartly. During the late season, I have worn thick canvas or flannel shirt over a light wool shirt/under shirt combo or thermal. Lately I have been favoring lighter shirts that allow me more movement in the shoulders with an ability to shed off layers as needed. Last season I wore my Pendleton wool shirt with a light “Heat Gear” Under Armour shirt that kept me toasty in the 29 to 40-degree weather. I only wore a jacket once and I ended up shedding it off within a few minutes of my hunt. Some of you folks back east experience colder weather, however, and might find it necessary to carry the extra bulk.

Pants:

Pants that are suited for upland hunting need to be thick and durable. The uplands are filled with thorns, briars and cactus spines that are just itching to pierce through your drawers into your fleshy legs. There are specific “briar pants” that can be picked up at various merchants. These briar pants usually have extra material sewn on in strategic points on pant legs and keep many of the pokey-sharp things from getting through. Some guys I know wear chaps made of thick canvas and they seem to work out well. As you plow through miles of brush pursuing birds, the clothes you have on will begin to wear over the months and years. Canvas work pants like Dickie’s, Red Kap, and Carhartt have been making durable pants for working-class folk for generations, and they work well for upland hunting in my experience. During the late season, you might find it beneficial to wear thermal under pants.

I get asked a lot if I ever wear snake resistant chaps or pants. I don’t wear them. If you hunt in the wild, especially in the west, you are bound to see a rattlesnake or other venomous snake. It’s a given. My experience is that there is no substitute for awareness. However, the reality is there is a possibility that you could be struck by a venomous snake (however, very unlikely). It may be your preference to wear gear like snake resistant pants, but please continue to be aware of their presence and respectful of their space. We are hunting in their home after all.

Hats, Gloves, Glasses & Bandannas:

In the early part of the season I usually wear a lighter baseball cap style hat. During the fall, there are still many bright and sunny days and a hat will protect you from the elements and the sun. Later in the season, I might switch over to a wool wide-brim fedora/cowboy style hat with waterproofing which keeps m head warm and dry in case it rains/snows.

Gloves have become a happy addition to my gear over the years. After getting thorns or spines in my hands multiple times and hopping over barbed wire fences, I wised up and started wearing leather gloves in the field. Simple deer leather work gloves work great! You might decide not to wear gloves because of dexterity issues when handling your guns. In that case, you may want to reconsider and maybe cut out a hole for your trigger finger.

Shooting glasses protect your eyes. I am very guilty of not always wearing shooting glasses when I am out hunting and I should probably be a better example to you all. Particles from firing or ejecting shells have been known to hit shooters and hunters in the eye. Why risk it? Aside from that, wearing yellow tinted lenses has been known to enhance vision outdoors.

The bandana is an often overlooked and underutilized piece of fabric. The bandana has many uses such as emergency signaling, bandage, tourniquet, sling, hot-pot holder, handkerchief, napkin, emergency TP, etc. I always carry a couple. If they get dirty, they can be easily washed and are reusable.

Boots and Socks:

Without a proper pair boots on, you may as well go home. You may have to go miles to see a few birds and if you do not have the proper equipment on your feet, you are not going to go far. There are many boots out there that are designed specifically for upland hunting. You do not necessarily need a boot specific to upland hunting, however, they should be quality and durable, with good ankle support. Most of all, they should be comfortable! Take your time in choosing the right boot and when you finally do, be sure to break them well before the season starts. You do not want to wear a brand-new pair of boots out in the field for the first time. I would recommend a boot that is waterproof. Non-insulated if you are hunting out west. You guys back east will have to decide if it is worth getting insulated boots.

I had a pair of Bob Timberlake Uplander boots (discontinued) and they lasted me for years. I bought them in 2009 and just now switched over to Redwings/Irish Setter Wingshooter boots. Do yourself a favor… go to your local Redwings store. Try them on. You will walk out with them!

With proper boots, a proper pair of socks go hand-in-hand. Thin and loose socks in even the highest quality boot is a recipe for disaster. Friction is the main cause for foot blisters and they can ruin a perfect day of hunting. Wool hiking or hiking specific synthetic socks are life savers. Be sure to pack extra clean pairs, just in case.

Camping/Cooking Gear

You gotta eat! On the season opener, I will camp out a couple of days. On those weekends, I spend outdoors living like a hobo, I ensure that I have enough food for 3 meals a day and a couple of cold beers for dinner and guests that might drop in. A portable Coleman stove ensures that I have a hot meal at least a couple times out of the day (breakfast is usually a bar or some beef jerky). Simple foods like hot dogs or pre-made burritos can be easily heated up on a cast-iron pan. Be sure to bring more than enough water for yourself. Always carry water with you in the field along with a few snacks like energy bars.

A cooler keeps your food and any birds cool and from spoiling. Freeze a gallon of water a couple of days before heading out and stick it in your cooler. Keeps everything from getting wet and it can be defrosted for emergency water.

On single day hunts I will usually leave the stove at home in favor of a thermos full of hot soup. Returning to your truck for clam chowder and crackers after chasing birds for miles is heaven. A thermos is also useful if you are coffee drinker. A hot drink on a cold morning or night can be a great treat!

In order to keep myself as mobile as possible, I usually just camp out in my car (SUV). It is roomy enough for me to lay out a blanket and pillow and sleeping bag. You may choose to use a tent if you camp out. The days of over complicated tent set-ups are mostly gone. Today just lay out the tent and pull a loop in the center and voila!

Last, but not least, a folding chair and a good book are an awesome combo at the end of the day.

Gadgets

Early mornings and evenings can be dark. I like using a multi-function headlamp that allows me to be hands-free. This is especially useful when working around camp or while holding your shotgun in the field. Be sure to check your local laws when using a head lamp. There are some laws that prohibit the use of high intensity lights which that may disturb wildlife. My headlamp has a “map-light” function that emits a low-intensity red light and I use that to get around in the early morning. Having an extra flashlight and batteries is always a great idea as well.

Quick Chargers are a great tool in this day and age of technological wonders like the smart phone. We use our phones to record video and take pictures and many of us want to share our outdoor adventures. This kills a lot of battery life and could leave us without a phone to call anyone in the event of an emergency. I carry a quick charger that gives me about 3 full charges on my phone. While driving I am always sure to hook my phone up to the car-charger.

Navigating out in the wild can be tricky, especially if you are newer to hunting. Although I do not own one, a GPS is a great tool to help you better and safely navigate out in the wilderness and they also have cool functions like marking waypoints and points of interest, like where you spotted that covey or where you left your vehicle! Although, I advocate the use of a GPS, you should not solely rely on one. Having a good sense of your surroundings and having supplemental map will outlast the battery in your GPS.

Automobile

Aside from not having a dog, the other reason I hear people tell me they don’t or think they cannot hunt is because of limitations of their vehicle. Sure, having a high-profile truck with 4×4 can be very useful when trying to get out to the uplands. Some areas will only be accessible by a good old 4×4 in low gear, unfortunately. However, there are multiple areas that any vehicle can reach right off of paved roads. You just may have to hike in a little further to get to the spots where the birds are.

After I got rid of my Nissan Titan, I got myself into a small Subaru Impreza. Although the vehicle had All-Wheel Drive, the clearance limited me sticking to areas in the lower elevation. So, I parked where I could legally and hunted just off of the main highways. I was surprised to find many spots where no hunters ventured and actually bumped large coveys of quail minutes from car. This was just off of Highway 10 in California heading toward Arizona. I also made similar hunting trips with my front-wheel drive Ford Focus (what a hunk of junk). When my daughter was born, I upgraded to a SUV with AWD. In my opinion, it is more convenient (I can actually sleep in it without waking up the next morning with a creak in my neck) and economical than my truck ever was.

 

With that, you should have a good idea of the type of gear you need. As you become a more seasoned hunter you will learn what works for you and what you can live without or even add a few things (I’d love to hear what works for you). In our next installment, we will cover preparing for upland hunting. You have (or you are getting the gear), so now what? See you in a couple of weeks!

God Bless and Happy Hunting! -J.R.

 

 

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