Preparing Your Most Fundamental Piece of Hunting Equipment

This piece was written for an upcoming hunting magazine in central Ontario called “Homegrown Hunter”, published by the owner of Rack Stacker. Unfortunately, the magazine was unable to continue, but there is a great accompanying video series called Homegrown Hunting TV.

Many of our hunting stories focus on our time in the stand or the blind, highlighting the more stationary aspects of hunting. While important experiences, these may obscure the fact that a full day of hunting usually involves a good deal of physical activity, from a hike out to the stand, carrying your gear for the day (which might easily include a fifteen pound pack and gun or bow), a slow and controlled stalk through the woods, wading through water to set decoys, or climbing up and down to the stand. If we are successful, the level of physical demand we put on our (often over tired and under fed) bodies increases dramatically, usually beginning with that critical moment of truth to draw your bow in what is often a less than ideal position, steadying a gun at long range, and then possibly a pack-out or drag-out over a range of terrain, butchering, lifting, or hanging an animal.

There’s no denying the dramatic increase in discussion recently about the physical training that hunters do to prepare for the season. My caveat here is that I’m not a personal trainer. There are plenty of highly experienced people who do have this training, and typically I leave this topic up to those people to discuss and just try to learn much as I can from them. I also realize that many of us aren’t hunting the backcountry mountains out West, a very different physical situation from the smaller plots of relatively flat mixed farm and wooded land of the East. However, I think approaching hunting with a similar training oriented mindset as other athletic endeavors can have tremendous benefits for all of us, regardless of where we are or what species we hunt. In particular, I think there are three general reasons to adopt this mental approach, and then I’ll discuss some basic exercises everyone can do to improve your physical fitness for the woods.

  1. Creating healthy, fit hunters can help address stereotypes: many of us have had discussions about the negative stereotypes of hunters in the media, such as the bumbling, lazy, beer-gut wielding goofs of cartoons. These images obviously do not reflect the vast majority of us, and it’s up to us as a collective to represent ourselves positively and work to change the way others perceive us. Being active, healthy, and fit shows that we are proud of what we do and portrays hunting itself as an activity that creates positive individuals.
  1. Being healthy will allow you to more fully enjoy hunting: we all hunt because we love it, but there’s no doubt that those early cold mornings make it tough to get our feet on the floor sometimes. Being fit and healthy will help ensure you have the energy and the will power to go farther in the field and stay out longer before tiring. Having a strong foundation will also help prevent those common injuries while hunting, like twisted ankles and tweaked backs.
  1. Having a strong physical foundation will make you a more successful and ethical hunter: as hunters, we’re always looking for more knowledge and tools to make us more successful. We try to understand wind, topography, forest composition, deer habits, and we look for the optimal combination of gear. It’s important to remember that the most basic tool we can hone to improve our hunting is our own bodies. Being healthy and in good shape is going to ensure you can continue to follow that blood trail to recover an animal, get the meat out in time to ensure it doesn’t spoil, and draw a bow heavy enough to guarantee a fast kill.

My goal at the beginning of every season is 0% doubt. I want to know without a doubt that I can draw and hold my bow as long as I will need to; that I can hike in and out to wherever I want to go; that I’ll be able to keep going as long as I need to without being out of breath or too tired; and that I can drag that deer out and have the endurance to do it. So getting myself in shape in such a way that I can use my muscles in very compound ways and have the endurance to continue that for as long as I need is key for me.

There are plenty of resources out there to help you learn these exercises and perform them properly. For example, the Train to Hunt YouTube channel has some great tutorials, as does Hoyt’s “Get Serious Get Fit” series. Bowhunter magazine online also gives some good exercises that require very little equipment. The Hunting Fit blog has been a great source of information for me in recent months and I encourage everyone to check that page out.

Let’s talk about a few key muscle groups and exercises you can use to get started. I always like to think of this topic in terms of function in the field, so I’ve organized this based on the activities in which you will use these muscles. There are obviously hundreds of exercises and workout programs, and I would encourage everyone to do your research and work with a personal trainer who can design a program specific to your goals and needs. These are merely a few examples that I found to be helpful starting points.

Back and shoulder muscles: the main muscles you need to keep strong for bowhunting are those back and shoulder muscles, in particular your rhomboids, trapezius, and rear deltoids.

Exercises: focus on things like dumbbell back rows, rear delt flys, bent over “Y-T-W-L” raises (you can use dumbbells, rocks, cans of soup, bottles of pop for any of these exercises), and pull ups.

Lower body: following blood or animal trails often requires us to crawl through brush, climb over logs, and otherwise do a lot of up and down motions, not to mention all the hiking most of us do. Hunting starts and ends with lower body, so give these muscles plenty of attention.

Exercises: deadlifts (be sure to pay attention to proper form, and start with higher reps and lower weight), squats, lunges, and split squats. Add weight by balancing a bar bell on your shoulders or holding dumbbells in your hands (you can hold firewood, rocks, or a bucket filled with water).

Core: preventing injury and building a solid physical foundation means a strong core, which helps stabilize our entire bodies, improves balance, and is imperative to carrying packs and awkward loads.

Exercises: there are endless numbers of core strengthening exercises, and opinions vary on the best type to do. For starters, some good all around exercises to focus on are variations of planks (elbows on ground, balancing with elbows on a stability ball, and side planks), light back extensions, and various other “anti-rotation” exercises.

I often talk about the off season as more of a preparation season to be used to scout, look at maps, plant food plots, and all the other things we need to do before opening day. It’s important to use the off season to improve our own physical fitness as well. If we begin the day after deer season closes and work until the day it opens, most of us have about nine months to strengthen all those muscles we need to use for the three months of hunting. Focusing on that opening day also provides the much needed motivation to put in the time either in the gym or out in the backyard, and remember, doing something is always better than doing nothing.