The late October leaves were crunchy with frost under my boots, yet I was far from cold. Quite the opposite: I was looking forward to shedding my fleece hunting jacket once I got to my car and setting down my heavy pack.
My Jeep came into view in the gravel parking lot that led to the public land I was hunting, and I saw two vehicles parked beside mine. They belonged to hunters, who were getting their gear on.
They looked up to acknowledge my approach with a wave, and then did a double take. Not because I was a woman, I don’t think, but because my pack held a sleepy toddler, her head bobbing against my shoulder.
This is the reaction I always get. People are so used to seeing the traditional father and son duo in the woods, an expected rite of passage in hunting families, but they’re less accustomed to bumping into women—let alone a hunter with her kid. It doesn’t bother me that people are surprised to a see a mom hunting with her baby; I know it isn’t the norm. Happily, it does seem to be a growing trend in the past few years, and I’m excited by the idea that, perhaps one day, the sight of a mom packing her kid won’t be such a novelty. Because “Hunting Mamas” are a real thing, not just something invented for social media. And we’re here to stay.
An Accidental Influencer
I know that I play a part in this trend, although it was unintentional. I fell into taking my daughter along with me, somewhat by accident. With a husband who worked the night shift and slept during the day, and no family or friends nearby to watch our baby, taking my daughter along on hunts seemed like the only real option I had to be both a mother and a hunter.
Shortly after I had my daughter, I came across April Vokey’s Instagram page. She had posted photos of herself fly fishing with her daughter in a backpack carrier. I remember thinking, this is the kind of mom I want to be. At first, I was nervous at the idea of taking my young daughter hunting with me. I overcame those fears out of necessity, and practice. Several years later, I’m still bringing my now three-year-old daughter Isabella along.
It all made sense really, the idea of simply taking my child with me to do the things I enjoyed. I know many women feel the same. Too many women give up, or are forced to give up, their hobbies when they become moms. Which is a shame, because the things we love to do are part of who we are. Fortunately, many of us are figuring out that we don’t have to give up our time outdoors. We simply have to bring our children along for the ride. I post about my hunts with Isabella on social media simply to give other moms the idea, like Vokey did for me.
I can understand why the “Hunting Mama” trend (yes, there’s a #huntingmama hashtag) is something that fascinates many hunters, and why moms who hunt are gaining social media followers so quickly. Fellow parents see it as a way to continue to be themselves while parenting. It’s a way to multitask, to make the best of both worlds, without sacrificing too much. Even hunters who aren’t parents or don’t plan to be can see the good in raising their children in a simpler way, and by creating a generation that is raised to appreciate the wilderness and all that comes with it.
A Community of Hunting Mamas
There are may stories that parallel my own. Erin Hill, a mom from Montana who doesn’t live close to family, says, “It’s hard to find a babysitter, especially for times you need to be gone to hunt.”
Hill and her husband realized that if they didn’t start ignoring the “what-ifs” and just go for it, they wouldn’t get to do all of the things they love to do. When her son was three months old, Erin took him on an antelope hunt—and that was just the beginning.
Another Montanan, Dezeray Rathjen, has two daughters. Rathjen will often take her 1-year-old hunting while her husband hunts with their 3-year-old in tow. Sometimes, all four of them will hunt together.
Although I have always wondered how I would get out to hunt with more than one child, there are mothers who are still packing several kids in and out of the mountains for hunts. I guess it all comes down to a few questions: How badly do you want to hunt? And how important is it to introduce your children to that lifestyle?
Andrea Blair, a mom from British Columbia, hunts with her 2- and 3-year-old for the same reason: a lack of childcare options. With her husband working away from home for long stretches, Blair concluded that bringing her children hunting was the only way she’d be able to continue hunting. But apart from a logistical solution, bringing her children hunting aligns with her personal values and long-term parenting goals.
“I want to give them a life that’s filled with outdoor hikes, fishing, identifying trees, foraging mushrooms and plants around our home,” Blair says. “I’m raising future hunters, but also stewards and conservationists who will have a better understanding of our environment, how hard we work, patience, and where our food comes from.”
A few months after her second child was born, Blair pitched a wall tent camp in the mountains, and ended up hunting through a monumental snowfall and cold temperatures. She says her family is very supportive, and that she often thinks about something her husband once said: “If you don’t show them, they’re never going to have anyone more invested to share it with them.”
A Disappointing (but Unsurprising) Backlash
I have found an amazing community of like-minded mothers on social media, and have truly enjoyed following their stories through photos of their hunts. And yet, it’s impossible to separate social media from negativity and backlash.
The main source of concern are from these non-hunting detractors seems to be about the child’s mental and physical safety. My guess is that none of these commentors actually spend much time outside themselves. I can’t remember a time that I ever worried about my daughter’s safety while we were hunting. Most of our hunts are simply hikes through the woods, with little to show for it. Proper clothing and a good backpack carrier have ensured she stays warm and secure for as long as we’re outside. I may be a traditional bowhunter, but I also carry a sidearm, and I know how to use it.
Despite these precautions, and the experience most hunting mamas have in the woods and as parents who know our children and their limitations, our lifestyle seems difficult for the non-hunting community to come to terms with.
Gabrielle Shaker, a hunter from Pennsylvania who brings her 11-month-old son into the woods with her, has received more than her fair share of backlash.
“I’ve gotten death threats and people that are telling me it’s unsafe or that I am raising a murderer,” Shaker says. “I try to just ignore them, because I know that they don’t understand this way of life and never will.
I get that hunting is shocking and even “barbaric” to people who aren’t accustomed to this outdoors lifestyle. Taking your children to the woods and mountains where wild animals reside may seem dangerous to folks who are used to the concrete jungle of city life. But even though hunting mamas may be a novelty on social media, it’s a practice that’s far from new.
Eastern Native American tribes are just one example of women who carried young children on their backs, and it also wasn’t uncommon for women to hunt along with men. (This is true of many Native cultures, going back millennia.) Hunting was an all-hands-on-deck situation made out of necessity. Women of the Great Plains tribes also accompanied men on hunts and brought their small children with them. Those babies and small children were brought along out of necessity, as they needed breast milk and their mothers needed to breast feed. Although these mothers weren’t necessarily hunting themselves, they did the heavy lifting that comes after a hunt: They skinned, dressed, and butchered game, and handled hides for later use.
Hunting Mamas Get Lots of Buzz, But We’re Still the Exception
Despite the growing number of women who are taking their children along on hunts, the actual number of participants is still quite small. Women are in the minority of hunters, fewer of those women are mothers, and fewer still actually bring their children with them. That’s because hunting with kids is not always easy, and it’s not for everyone.
Many variables influence a mother’s decision on bringing her child along. Maybe the weather’s nasty, or the terrain is too rugged. Or maybe Mom just needs to get out of the house and enjoy a few hours of peace and quiet in the woods.
Susie Busta is a hunter from Minnesota who has a two-year-old. Despite the fact that she’s supportive of moms who do take their kids afield, she’s chosen not to hunt with her son for now.
“We hunt public land for the most part,” Busta says. “Maybe it was a combo of not wanting to disrupt other hunters, not trusting other hunters, or not getting that ’spark’ to do it. You have to do what you feel comfortable with, and for each mom that is different.”
Although Susie has never taken Edward along on hunts with her, he’s still growing up in the outdoors. When he was just 7 months old, Susie started taking Edward ice fishing with her, and it has created a special bond between them. So while she’s not technically a “Hunting Mama,” the idea behind their outing still fits the trend. It’s a lifestyle that isn’t just about hunting, but getting your children outdoors at a young—very young—age.
Heather Iverson of Michigan brings her 5-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter when she checks her trapline. Trapping has always been a family experience for them, and Iverson says nothing teaches woodsmanship quite like running a trapline.
“They learn so much being out there and it is amazing to see them taking it all in,” Iverson says. “My kids love finding tracks and scat and trying to piece the puzzle together to figure out what the animals…are.”
The takeaway from all this? Don’t rule out hunting with your kids. No, it’s not always easy. But it can give everyone more time outdoors, and it can teach us all a thing or two.
“The days that we have together just the two of us fishing or hunting are so special and fun,” says Lauren Stamm of Nevada, who hunts with her 3-year-old son. “I often come home empty handed but especially as he gets older he’s learning and noticing so much about the outside world and life in general. Our days spent outside are such a mental break for both of us, and so worth the difficult moments in the field.”