Before you take to the woods, make sure you’ve got all your bases covered with this hunting essentials checklist.
Like most things, deer hunting is what you make of it. The end goal is the same for almost everyone (kill something), but how you get there is largely up to you. It can be a low-budget affair with the minimum equipment, or you can spend thousands of dollars each year on the latest gadgets.
Most of us find ourselves somewhere in the middle of this gear spectrum. We have tried and true favorites that we use each year, but we’re always open to new products that might up our chances at bagging a mature animal. That said, don’t neglect the necessities or all your new gear is for naught.
Many months lapse between the end of one season and the start of the next, so it’s always a good idea to take stock of your gear and get it in line before heading out to the field again. We will not cover the obvious items like a bow, rifle, or shotgun, but instead, we’ll focus on the overlooked and underutilized things that will serve you from the time you load up to the time you tag out.
1 | Camo & Required Blaze Orange
This might seem obvious, but it’s worth mentioning for the reason that there are as many different camouflage patterns as there are hunting environments. If you’re in Texas hill country, you don’t want dark greens that would work in a swamp or hardwood bottom.
Obviously, you will have to dress for the weather (bow hunting in August in Florida is a tad different from a late season in Minnesota) and as you begin to search for jackets, shirts, pants, bibs, hats, and more, you might quickly get overwhelmed with the choices.
The bottom line is that you want to match your location as best you can, but if choices are limited or you’re torn between two options, go with the darker one. Classic camo patterns are still effective today, and many are pretty dark. Heck, how many deer have been killed by a guy sitting on a stump wearing black-and-red flannel? The answer is millions.
In many states, as a hunter, you are required to wear blaze orange while in the woods during the fall. Some states allow you to take it off once you reach your stand, but regardless of this, it’s just good practice to keep from being mistaken as something with antlers. Yes, it sounds outrageous, but it happens every year. Make sure you know your regulations as well and wear orange when you need to.
2 | Appropriate Boots
Boots are something that can make an otherwise good day miserable. If your feet are wet, cold, or wet and cold, you’re going to have a bad time. Finding the right boot-and-sock combo takes some trial and error. Whatever boots you choose, having a quality pair of merino wool socks is an absolute must for cold weather.
You might get non-insulated boots and try one or two pairs of wool socks depending on the temperature. You might go the whole hog and get some monster rubber boots with Thinsulate insulation for extreme cold. Either way, make sure they’re waterproof. It’s like an insurance policy for your feet. You will not always need it, but when you do, you will be glad you have it.
3 | Quality Game Calls
Calls are essential for getting more shots at critters. Talking to deer via a grunt tube, turkeys on a slate call or elk on a diaphragm gets their attention by communicating a number of things. Calls tell animals everything from “let’s have a date” to smack talk fighting words. You are wanting to get a reaction so they come and investigate what the fuss is all about.
There’s no shortage of YouTube videos on different folks’ opinions of how to operate various calls, but the best way to learn how to use a call is to be in the woods and hear the critter itself vocalizing. Many human callers are accomplished and effective in the woods, but it is always better to go right to the source for the best info, rather than second-hand hearsay.
4 | Scent Control Products
The odors we give off are not natural in the woods. Whether it’s BO, the residual gas scent from a pump, sausage gravy from breakfast, or fabric softener, we have to do our best to get rid of it. A deer’s sense of smell is its best defense, and the toughest sense to fool.
You might see the deer that spook because they saw you move or shift in the stand, but the ones you will never know busted you are the ones that smelled you long before they saw you. Deer live downwind, so masking as much of your human stink as possible pays dividends.
Whether you hose down with a scent-killing spray right before heading into the field or keep your clothes in a scent-eliminating ozone locker, it is best practice to do something to mitigate your scent. Playing the wind is always best, but you don’t always know where the deer might come from.
For a great all-around approach that doesn’t break the bank, wash your camo and soft hunting gear in scent-eliminating detergent then hang it outside overnight so it does not pick up any smells. Then spray down before you head to the woods. This simple routine has paid me dividends for decades.
5 | A Good Sling
This one is overlooked an awful lot. “Oh, but my stand is only 100 yards from the truck, I’ll just carry my gun.” Ok, but how about when you shoot that deer at dusk and it runs a mile across a stream and into a thicket? Now you’ve got to carry your rifle, pack, and flashlight. Plus, using a sling makes it much easier to climb up and down your stand too.
Even if you just have your rifle to tote, you still have to carry it and seldom are the blood trails that lead through nice, open pastures and fields. Wounded deer usually run downhill and to thick cover, and what’s downhill? Water. You might have to cross through thickets and briars to find that deer, and being able to secure your rifle to your back is absolutely essential.
Here at Flatline Fiber Co., we create a wealth of camo slings for a wide variety of guns and connection methods. We offer both standard and padded versions to fit every environment. And the best part? Every sling is sewn right here in the USA by American workers.
6 | Clear Binoculars
This one is pretty straightforward, but one that many overlook—especially those who hunt in woods or timber. There’s no other way to explain it, except that you simply do not know what you’re missing until you take a nice set of binoculars into the woods and look around.
You might see a tail flick, an ear, or an eye; all things that will be missed with the naked eye. If you can swing it, make sure you get ED Prime or HD glass (some are proprietary marketing terms—just spend a couple of hundred bucks from a reputable optics maker, and you won’t regret it). The clarity is noticeably better than non-ED glass, which translates to greater effectiveness at dawn and dusk.
Plus, spotting critters through your binos gives you ample time to set up and prepare to make a shot when it’s presented. I can attest to this firsthand. The first time I was in Illinois hunting whitetail, I overlooked thousands of yards of corn fields all around me. I used my binos to spot a hardy bachelor group about 800 yards away. After watching them for a while, I knew exactly where they would be when they came within range.
7 | An Accurate Rangefinder
This might not apply if you are hunting thick woods with a rifle, but if you are over a field or stalking prairie or mountains, a rangefinder is essential for gun hunters—as well as bow hunters everywhere.
Knowing your yardages ensures you are giving yourself the best chance of humanely and ethically connecting with game at longer ranges. Plus, once you have messed with a rangefinder long enough, you will be able to “eyeball” distances better, which is helpful if a shot presents itself quickly.
8 | A Top Tier Knife or Two
A good hunting knife is worth its weight in backstraps. If you are only going to take one, consider one that pulls double duty as a gutting and boning knife with a gut hook. The blade can be anywhere from 3” to 7” inches in length, and make sure it has a big “belly”, which is the curved part. This gives you more area to use as you work.
If you want the best tools for the job, take two and use the stouter knife in the field for gutting and skinning back at camp, then use a boning knife once you’re ready to take the meat off the bone. A boning knife has a thinner, longer blade to make more precise cuts along muscle groups. You get what you pay for when it comes to knives, so this is not the place to cheap out.
9 | A Headlamp or Handheld Flashlight
A light is something you will not (or should not) forget twice, especially if you have made the after-dark trek without a light or with your meager cell phone light illuminating your path. Handhelds offer the most power, but you do not need blinding lumens when sneaking through the woods.
Look for a good water-resistant headlamp with several light color options. Using white light in the morning will spook everything and mess up your vision, but a red bulb gives off enough light to show the way without making your pupils dilate, preserving your night vision once you get to your stand.
For tracking in the dark, a quality handheld light is a must. I use a 400-lumen flashlight that comes with a red light setting, and a blood light setting. It works wonders while tracking. It is bright enough to light up the woods around me and lasts long enough to let me track for hours. That may not be the case with a higher-lumen light.
10 | The Backup Gear
You do not want to be the guy who gets to the stand and realizes he has forgotten his bow release or left his quiver at home. Yes, that has happened… Regarding releases, strap it to your bow when not in use so the two will never be apart. Or at least always leave it in your bow case.
Like many things in life, the simplest solution is most often the best one. In other words, don’t overcomplicate it. When it comes to critical gear, the saying “two is one and one is none” applies greatly. Missing a critical piece of the kit sidelines you with quickness.
Gear is an essential part of hunting, and is designed to make you more effective in the woods. Whether you choose to go all-in with top-of-the-line everything or just start with a modest selection at first, keep the above essentials in mind and build from there as you grow as a hunter and outdoorsman. Good luck out there!