I’ve hunted in 22 states, many more than once and several dozens of times. I’ve made new friends, and shared truck cabs and wall tents with new and old friends. My dogs have banked enough windshield time to get a driver’s license.
What have I learned from crossing so many borders, time zones, and area codes? Plenty. Here’s my list, in hopes that it makes your season more productive and enjoyable for you and your dog.
1. Keep things ship-shape. Everything in its place, every time. When you stop for gas, check the oil, diesel exhaust fluid, empty your trash, and clean the windshield—because at the next stop, it might be cold or raining. My dog food stash is near the dog medicines, which are near dog bowls, which are near the dog crates. The guns are located near the gun oil, which is near the ammo. Shooting glasses, license, whistle, and gloves are stowed in my hunting vest.
2. Feed the dogs on schedule (but not the morning of a hunt, where food in the gut can inhibit performance and risk a stomach twist). Feeding time is one of the few constants your dog will have on a road trip. Why not give them that little measure of emotional comfort?
3. Bring extra batteries and owner’s manuals for everything. Cram in as many warm clothes as you can. Bring extra rain gear. Carry a bottle of something old and brown from Scotland and leave it with your hosts. Save your back, invest in those fabric fold-up dog kennels for pet-friendly hotels.
4. Call ahead and stop to visit friends along the way, even if you don’t think you have the time. Send thank you notes. Find off-the-beaten-track places to park so dogs are safe and unstressed. I like high school athletic fields and county fairgrounds. Bring tie-out stakes.
5. Make a plan, but don’t etch it in granite. Some of the best experiences are spontaneous. Last season, someone’s curiosity about my dog at a book signing I did at Cabela’s led to a richly-textured lodge hunt with new friends who love L.C. Smith shotguns.
6. Go somewhere often enough to be known—and know locals in turn—by first name. Some day, in some way, it will pay off. I try to save my far-flung friends a trip to town, picking up necessities en route. They get Christmas cards. I learn to make the coffee at my favorite café-general store-motel and save someone a few precious moments.
7. Carry water for your dogs and yourself. Refill at every opportunity. My dogs’ water is right behind me in the truck bed, ready to grab as I exit the cab and head toward their crates. Same for your fuel tank; there are a lot of empty spaces on the map.
8. Eat at local joints instead of chains. Be nice to wait staff. Carry a thermos. Buy your groceries and fuel close to your destination—in many communities you are economic development. Learn a little bit about the place you’re visiting. Pronounce place names correctly. Visit with kitchen staff at the lodge.
9. Find something to compliment: your buddy’s dog, a good shot, a well-managed covert, fine booze, a special dinner.
Admittedly, none of this will help you shoot more birds or make your dogs better looking. But in the long run, you will be enriched by the memories you make, and the friendships forged. The journey will rise a notch or two on your life list. Whether your trip is across the county or the country you will be a better hunter. And person.
Now, what would you add to the list?