20 Skills Every Hunter Should Know

20 Skills Every Hunter Should Know

The quest to become an expert hunter is a path of learning that never really has an end. It's not about the number of animals killed or the variety of game or places hunted, but how you handle yourself afield.

To master the hunter's art, a certain amount of bushcraft needs to be learned along the way. Some call it DIY skills, others simply call it woodsmanship, but regardless of nomenclature, these 20 essential skills will separate the greenhorns from the Nimrods, will make you more effective afield, and a few of them will even keep you alive when the chips are down.

1. Start a Fire When It's Wet

The toughest time to start a fire is when you need it most. Break away wet layers of dead wood to expose the dry chunks underneath. Pull dead branches off trees rather than picking them up from the soaked ground. Gather all the fuel you need before you try to light anything. If you have a butane stove in your pack, use it like a blowtorch to get things started. — KW


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2. Use a Compass

A compass only does one thing: It points north. Unless you're heading north, you don't follow the needle. Use the compass to orient yourself and pick a spot on the horizon in the direction that you want to travel. Walk directly to that spot and reorient with the compass. Pick your next spot and keep repeating the process until you get to where you need to be. — KW

3. Load a Pack for a Backcountry Hunt

Save your back with a properly loaded pack. Stuff soft, lightweight items — sleeping bag, tent, pillow — in the bottom. Keep heavier items centered and near your spine. This is where a stove, food, and field-dressing tools can go. Pack


extra clothing around the sides. Up top goes ready-access gear like rainwear, maps, and lunch. Keep optics and small essentials in exterior pockets where you can access them easily. — DD

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4. Sharpen a Hatchet


From busting an elk's pelvis to building a shelter, a sharp hatchet is a handy tool in your kit. Repairing a damaged head requires a file, but honing can be done with a whetstone. Hold the hatchet firmly. Spit on the stone or dab it with a little oil. Starting on one corner, work the whetstone in a circular motion along one side of the edge to the opposite corner. Repeat on both sides of the blade until your hatchet is shaving sharp. — DD

5. Get Permission from a Landowner

Be honorable, but pull out all the stops. Be a man and look the landowner in the eye, but don't be afraid to use your cute kid or charming bride for all they're worth. When striving for permission, a teen or woman with a tag can be the golden ticket — farmers like helping the young and tender as much as they despise being used by hardened vultures in orange. The proper thing is to ask early, and if in an area where trespass fees are common, offer up front to pay. And if you proffer a pie, it had better be homemade. — JvB

6. Make a Long Shot

You can't always get as close to an animal as you'd like. If you're going to shoot at distance, you'll need a solid rest, a grasp of wind, and knowledge of your bullet's trajectory. Pick a spot and don't shoot at the whole animal. Don't fight the trembling crosshairs. Shoot at the natural pause after you exhale. Trigger control is everything. Pre-hunt practice is the key to success. — KW

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7. Quarter an Elk

It's miles from the nearest road, you're alone, and there's a massive bull elk at your feet. What now? Quarter that critter up and pack it out, preferably on a horse. But if you must rely on your back, the key is to cut carryable pieces, boning to reduce weight if necessary.

Start up front, lifting the leg and cutting through the "armpit." Stay close to the ribs and keep slicing. That whole quarter will peel up and off in short order. Skin it off first if it's hot, leave the hide if it's cold and you forgot the meat sacks.

Rear quarters are harder. Cut deep along the backbone and around the pelvis and hips. Prop a heavy elk leg on your shoulder and slash between the legs, following bone and cutting the quarter free until you find the ball joint. Heave the leg high and gnaw through the exposed joint with your knife. Dead lift the meat to a shady spot and get started on the backstraps and tenderloins. — JvB

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8. Resight a Rifle in the Field

Hunt deep wilderness and you will fall on your riflescope. Or drop it. Or have a horse fall on it. Any of these mishaps will knock your zero off. But with sufficient cartridges and small tools, disaster can be averted. Go prone with a rest and fire at a paper plate or a spot on a wide, clean tree trunk. Fire three shots, minimum. Then hold solidly on your target's center and have a buddy dial your scope's turrets, moving the crosshairs to the three-shot group. Fire three more to confirm. Repeat for perfection. — JvB

9. Find a Shooting Rest...FAST!

Sometimes you have time to pile up packs and replicate a benchrest. Other times you must get steady fast. While hunting, you're always looking for game€¦but also look for rocks, trees, or anything you can take a rest over if a shot is offered. At the range, get away from the bench and practice using horizontal and vertical objects to steady your rifle. The only rule: Never rest your barrel against a solid object! — CB

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10. Protect a Rifle

You never know what Mother Nature has in store on a hunt, so protect your rifle for the worst case. Remove the stock and cover all of the metal parts but the trigger with a synthetic oil such as Corrosion-X. Flush the trigger with lighter fluid. Treat any raw wood in the inletting with sealer and cover the barrel with a piece of electrical tape (the tape won't affect your shot). — KW

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11. Tie a Bowline

The handiest knot in a woodsman's repertoire is also the easiest to tie. Form a small eye in the rope, leaving enough tag end to make a loop around whatever you're securing. Pass the tag end through the eye from underneath and around the standing line before coming back through the eye. The resulting knot won't jam or slip­ — a fixed loop perfect for securing loads to a tree, post, or other lashing point. — DD

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12. Shoot a Recurve

Compound bows are accurate because they are machines. Consistent. To successfully fling sticks through rib cages with a recurve, your body must become the machine. Great traditional bowshooting requires a posture almost like that of a boxer. With slightly bent knees and stooped shoulders, draw the bowstring to a consistent spot, anchoring with a fingertip in the corner of your mouth, bow canted away from the arrow. Focus hard on a target like a specific tuft of hair or feather, relax your fingers on the bowstring while pulling rearward, and ride that arrow all the way to the kill. — JvB

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13. Took a Fall, Scope is Broken

No worries; you've got iron sights and the tool to remove your scope. Neglected in this era of scopes, iron sights are a good backup and are superior to scopes in hard rain or snow and some close-range situations. Practice with them on the range and make sure they're zeroed. To adjust, move the rear sight in the direction you want the bullet strike to move, opposite if the adjustment is in the front sight. — CB

14. Build a Keyhole Fire

Cooking over open flame results in black pots and burnt steaks. A proper cooking fire delivers controlled heat, with a constant flame to provide a steady supply of hot coals. Build a fire ring in the shape of a keyhole. Start a fire in the round section of the ring, fueling it with hardwood. As the wood burns, rake the hot coals to the bottom of the keyhole, where a grate or rocks can support a skillet. — DD

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15. Treat a Blister

City folk let a blister be, claiming that fluids inside promote healing. In the field, hiking on watery bubbles causes them to burst, leaving a raw, open sore. Sterilize a needle in flame or alcohol and pierce at least a quarter inch away from the edge of the blister. Remove the needle and gently press, working the fluid down the tunnel and out. Medicate with Neosporin, pad with moleskin, and hike on, brother. — JvB

16. Purify Water

Contemplating drinking from a stream? Bad idea. Even high mountain streams can contain Giardia, which can ruin your trip. Bring a pot of water to a hard, rolling boil and keep it going for at least five minutes. Remove the water from the heat and let it cool down. The water is now safe, but it may taste flat due to the lack of oxygen, so shake it up inside your water bottle to restore flavor. — KW

17. Read a TOPO Map

In these days of GPS, reading a map and compass is almost a lost art. But there are times when there is no substitute. Lay out your map with your compass and orient them together...understand the scale of the map (usually either 1:25000 or 1:50000, the latter covering twice the area). Streams, draws, fingers, and ridges will tell you where you are; contour lines, giving elevation and pitch, will show the easiest routes. — CB

18. Safely Sling Your Rifle

A slung rifle with a cartridge in the chamber is a bad idea. If you need it quickly, you're unlikely to get it off your shoulder for a fast shot anyway. When slung, many safeties can be rubbed into the "fire" position, and the muzzle is out of control if you fall. Carry the rifle with a cleared chamber when slung, only fully loading when the rifle is in your hands and ready for use. — CB

19. Judge a Muley Buck on the Hoof

When a mule deer is jumped and going away, it's a bad time to make a snap judgment call. Muleys often look bigger when they are walking away. Wait until he stops and gives you a look at all sides. Try to count points, look at mass, fork depth, symmetry, and height. As a general rule, a mule deer's ears are 22 to 24 inches wide, which comes in handy for figuring overall rack width and height. — CB

20. Secure a Tent Above Timberline

The wind always blows on top of the mountain, but often it's the best place to hunt. Pitch an alpine tent by finding a spot on the leeside of a boulder or cliff or anywhere the wind is reduced. Loop short cords around four fist-sized rocks and tie one to each corner of the tent. Pile bigger rocks over the small rocks until the tent is secure. Do the same for the guylines and sleep dreaming of full-curl rams. — DD

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