What gear does an upland hunter need? That question covers an enormous variety of habitat, weather, birds, and preferences. While gear requirements vary for hunting quail in Texas, grouse in New England, chukar on the Snake River, or pheasant in the Dakotas, the following items go with me on all of my hunts, regardless of where or when.
1. BEST FRIEND
The dog tops this list, because seeing great dog work makes all the miles driven and hiked worthwhile. Even if I miss every bird I swing on, if I’ve seen great dog work, the day was successful. Pup might not agree, but he’ll eat a steak for dinner if that happens!
Labrador Retrievers are the most popular hunting breed for good reason—they can do it all. I’ve hunted with German Shorthair Pointers for the last 16 years and wouldn’t do it any other way. Pudelpointers, Griffons, and Wirehair Pointers combine the best of both worlds, with wonderful pointing instincts and a coat that protects them in the coldest weather and water. Regardless of breed, flushing, or pointing, a well-mannered gun dog makes the hunt.
You can’t hunt upland birds without a shotgun, though the best type is debated as much as Ford vs. Chevy. The 12-gauge is the most popular and probably the most versatile, while a lightweight little 20-gauge can be a joy to carry for smaller birds at closer range. The 16-gauge sits nicely between them, but shells aren’t as readily available. Pump shotguns are inexpensive workhorses, while semiautos can shoot rounds quickly, with less recoil. Double-barreled shotguns, over/under or side-by-side, are a classic choice that balance nicely and have few moving parts. With their narrow sight-plane, over-unders are often preferred, while side-by-sides tend be a bit more compact, with a lively feel. Whatever type you prefer, a well-practiced hunter can hit birds with any style of shotgun.
Hobbling for miles on sore feet is no fun, so wearing the right boots is imperative. They should have a substantial sole that protects your feet from rough terrain while offering enough support to prevent twisted ankles. Some hunters like flexible boots, while others prefer them to feel like leg casts. I wear Filson Insulated Highlanders for hunting quail and pheasant in cold weather, and when I’m hunting chukar in the steep stuff I prefer stiff mountaineering-style boots.
Layering is crucial when it comes to choosing hunting clothes. Layers allow the hunter to adapt to changes in temperature and exertion levels. My standard kit is made up of Merino wool base layers, a midweight shirt, and a Mackinaw Wool Vest. For wet weather, the NeoShell® Reliance Jacket breathes better than any waterproof jacket I’ve found, and Single Tin Pants protect my lower body from thorns and barbed wire, wet grasses, and sagebrush.
Heatstroke can kill a hard-running dog if it doesn’t get enough water. To prevent this tragedy, I carry a minimum of three and as many as five liters, depending on weather and groundwater availability. Cool down and water the dog frequently, force-feeding if needed—sometimes the hunter’s brain must overpower the dog’s desire to keep hunting.
Maintaining your energy level will help you hunt better when you’re burning calories. Plastic bags of trail mix, jerky, and dried fruits allow all-day snacking with minimal weight and bulk. For the dog, feed extra the night before, and little or none the morning of the hunt. Dogs burn fat most efficiently for energy, and a big breakfast can lead to potentially fatal gastric torsion.
7. FIRST AID
A basic first aid kit is a must. Mine contains canine-specific additions such as EMT® Gel for minor cuts and a wound stapler for more serious ones. Self-stick wrap and duct tape can be made into emergency dog boots, much like taping your ankles prior to a football game. Saline solution can rinse seeds from Pup’s eyes. Bandanas work well to fashion a splint or for a muzzle while tending to injuries, and needle-nose pliers are invaluable if Pup gets up close and personal with a porcupine. Additional tools include a whistle, lighter, headlamp, folding knife, and parachute cord.
8. HUNTING VEST
A hunting vest carries the essential gear, and every hunter has individual preferences for pocket arrangement, strap-style vs. full-coverage, and choice of fabric. In the country where I chase quail, chukar, and pheasant, a Mesh Game Bag works well—it’s cool and breathable in the early season, while fitting over warm layers when temperatures drop. A grouse hunter in thick forests might prefer the Filson Upland Hunt Vest to protect the torso from branches and wet cover. Whichever vest style you prefer, it should provide fast, easy access to plenty of shells and a game bag that’s easy to load with birds.
While your gear needs will vary from trip to trip, these are the essentials that accompany each trip, early season or late, whether we’re chasing pheasants in the Palouse or chukars in the rimrock.