Secrets of the Deer Hunting Gear Minimalist
From tree saddles to truck camping, the minimalist approach is winning the hearts of hardcore deer hunters who are sick of hauling around too much gear
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More is more, or so we seem to believe. Just spend a few moments browsing social media and the feeds of Insta influencers. You’ll find plenty of virtual vomit from users who shout, “Look at me and all my stuff!” And you’ll see one comparison after another: John’s buck is bigger than yours. Shane’s camo cost more. Jeff’s truck has bigger tires, and Karen’s bow is newer. That world can get tiresome, and there’s a growing legion of hunters who have but one thing to say about it: Enough.
Minimalism is a devilishly simple concept of redefining what you need versus what you want. For minimalist hunters, the result is a tight collection of specialized gear that weighs less, is simpler, and fosters a hunting style that’s mobile and nimble—and in many cases, more effective and enjoyable.
So read on and go light.
To Be One, Meet One
Missouri hunter Chet Donath got the start in hunting that many dream of. “Yeah, I was pretty fortunate. My dad owned a couple hundred acres. I started hunting at about age 10 with my dad and brother. We did the cameras and all that. We had big deer running around, plenty of ground to hunt them on. It was…almost easy,” he says. “Then I decided I wanted to do something different.”
And different is what he did. Gone were the piles of gear, the plethora of trail cams, and, eventually, his treestand.
“As sportsmen, I think we all have the same thing in common: We do this because it’s fun and it’s a challenge,” Donath says. “To me, some of the over-hyped products that were coming along, it was just taking away from the experience. It seemed like that direction of hunting was one I didn’t want to go in—and it was making me not really enjoy hunting anymore.”
Today, Donath spends the bulk of his season on public land and employs a greatly pared-down, spartan setup. “I just started thinking, What do I really need? I like to get back in off the road, and when you do that, you have to pack everything in and out. So you really start to think about what you need and what you don’t,” he says.
“You look around and you just sort of say, ‘Why? Do I really need that?’ ” he says. “I was in the Army for a while, so I was already used to wearing BDUs and ACUs. You can pick those up at a surplus store or Goodwill for $5 or $6. And they work just fine. The way I look at it, if I spend a full day working to buy some new hunting toy, that’s a day I didn’t spend hunting. That seems to defeat the purpose.”
Donath’s most significant savings actually came in the form of weight, when he ditched his treestand. Now, he pays more attention to where deer move than where a suitable tree is located. It’s not a complex system: Find the deer and get among them. The result?
“I killed one of my biggest bucks from behind a tree, on the ground,” he says. “I was wearing Carhartt bibs and a navy-blue sweater.”
Adopting the Philosophy
A typical hunting outing for me used to mean loading up my pack with calls, camera gear, extra clothing, ozone units, a spare trail cam (or two), saws, knives, and accessories wrapped in fancy camo. Then I’d strap on a treestand, a full set of climbing sticks, and whatever else I felt was required to spend a day in the woods—and look legit in my social feed.
I can’t tell you how many gallons of sweat I’ve left across the Midwest hauling that burden of ego across the woods. But then one day last winter, I was reading Everything That Remains, a book by Josh Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, the duo best known as the Minimalists. I was inspired. I grabbed a buddy heater and headed for the room off the back of my garage that serves as the catchall for my hunting gear.
I took a quick look around and started making piles. I had 18 jackets. The number didn’t shock me so much as disgust me. And so the purge began.
With the money I made from selling some of the items, I put together a brand-new arsenal of hunting gear. The goal wasn’t to go cheap—it was to get the very best of what I needed, and get rid of everything I didn’t. Some of the individual items were expensive. But the total dollars spent is well under the value of all the stuff I used to have. Now I have an ensemble of gear that’s of higher quality than anything I previously owned, and I carry less than half the weight—literally and figuratively—in the field. (Check out the author’s current gear list at right.)
Few things are as representative of the minimalist-hunting movement as the tree saddle. Greg Godfrey may not technically be a true OG in the world of saddle hunting—that honor goes to Michigan’s John Eberhart, who first started writing and talking about saddle hunting back in the early 2000s—but he is certainly a player in the current saddle revolution. An active-duty Army member, the Florida native grew up hunting from lock-on stands. Then Uncle Sam “asked” him to move.
“They took me to Colorado. The permanent treestands I was used to just didn’t work out there,” Godfrey says. “So I started researching online and looking into all these different options, and that’s when I discovered John Eberhart and saddle hunting. That kind of sparked a 10-year quest to push things forward.”
And push he did. Godfrey took full advantage of what he credits as the single most important tool in saddle hunting’s rise to near-mainstream status: YouTube.
“That’s been the key. Without the internet, I don’t think it would’ve gotten as big as it has,” he says. “The technology we have now has made saddle hunting much more comfortable and effective. Lightweight climbing sticks have only been available for the past 10 years or so. The internet resources where guys can learn from each other, build off ideas from each other…that wasn’t around like it is now.
There was just no way to really learn about this stuff, especially not from guys like me who don’t really have a voice or an outlet.”
Godfrey started by modifying products to create saddles that were lighter, more nimble, and more comfortable. And then he did what any red-blooded American entrepreneur would do: He decided to see if he could make a business out of it.
“It’s funny because my partner Ernie [Powers] said, ‘Hey, maybe we can sell enough saddles over the next two years to pay for an elk hunt in Colorado,’ ” he says. “We really didn’t have any idea it would turn into this.”
What it’s turned into is a company called Tethrd that produces the Mantis saddle and the Predator hunting platform. With wait times for product shipment being measured in months, it’s safe to say the two have cleared enough for that elk hunt.
To Godfrey, the saddle isn’t an “every hunt” solution, but it’s pretty close.
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“Honestly, there are only a few select situations where I feel a stand is better than a saddle. In heavy evergreens, a saddle wouldn’t be the best choice. But for everything else, I think it beats a treestand,” he says.
The saddle’s ability to adapt to trees that are crooked, have lots of limbs, or are very large (all difficult, if not impossible, obstacles for a traditional treestand), coupled with its extreme portability, are big selling points. The most common concerns for those reluctant to try out a saddle? Safety, comfort, and usability.
To that, Godfrey has a simple response:
“Those are all understandable concerns that are resolved as soon as you hang in a saddle,” he says. “You have to be willing to get out of your head a little bit. They’re not treestands. But once you try one, you realize they are very comfortable. They’re every bit as safe as, if not safer than, a traditional stand. And you can shoot from every possible angle, unlike with a traditional stand.”
Another potential hindrance: cost. While a new treestand hunter can test the waters by choosing from stands that range from $35 to $350 each, saddle hunting has a higher minimum investment. There are really only two brands in the saddle game: Tethrd and AeroHunter. Both feature models that start at about $200.
“That is one downside. There’s a little bit of sticker shock. There’s really no ‘try it’ price level with a saddle,” Godfrey says. “But you won’t lose any money, because if you don’t like it, you can post that saddle on any online forum and get your money back, because it won’t take long to sell it.”
Godfrey doesn’t think saddle hunting is just a trendy trick all the kids are doing either. “If you ask the people who’ve been using them for 30 years, they’ll tell you they’re not a fad,” he says. “I think in three years, people will ask, ‘How do you hunt?’ and the answer will be, from a climber, a lock-on, or a saddle.”
When deer hunting starts to become less fun, it’s time to change things up. So that’s exactly what I did, and this fall I plan to hit the woods with only the most necessary of items. The minimalist mentality allows you to focus on what’s truly important about deer hunting: the woods, the critters, and the experience. Even in this world, which is obsessed with comparisons, nothing can compare with that.
The Gear Purge
Here’s just about all the gear I need for a successful deer season.
1. Under Armour Cold Gear
I don’t know what magic is in these compression shirts, but they keep me warm like nothing else.
2. Browning Hell’s Canyon Hellfire-FM Speed pants
These pants are one of the few items to survive the purge. I love the stretch fabric, and they’re weather- and windproof.
3. Sitka Stratus Jacket
It’s the ideal weight, quiet, and well-made. I wear it through most of October and November.
4. Carhartt Rockland coat
This may be the best bowhunting jacket I’ve ever owned. It keeps moisture at bay, blocks the wind, and is lined with Sherpa fleece.
A down-filled vest can be paired with the Stratus jacket for moderate temps or over the Carhartt for really cold sits. Pair it with Sitka’s fuzzy-lined neck gaiter, and I can handle any weather conditions I might face.
6. The Pack
The Mystery Ranch Pack Mule is a day pack that can transform into a legit meat-hauler—which also makes it ideal for carrying climbing sticks. I load it with a single grunt call, a rattle pack, a trim saw, a small folding knife, a handful of reflective tacks for marking tree locations, a headlamp, a bunch of zip ties (great for securing brush on makeshift blinds), a spare release aid, and two bottles of water. That’s it. If I plan to hunt all day, I’ll throw in a couple of sandwiches as well.
7. The Bow
I use a quality three-pin fixed sight, a 6-inch stabilizer, and a drop-away rest. I make my own wrist slings for my bow from paracord. If I need some cord, I simply remove my sling and whack off a piece. When I’m blood trailing, I’ll also use the brightly colored cord to mark blood locations. A D-loop and peep sight round out the setup. No sidebars. No movable or complicated self-ranging sights. No color-coordinated strings and dongles. It’s a simple rig, with less to fail.
8. The Setup
I hunt away from home a fair bit each fall. In the past, that meant loading my truck with six treestands and four sets of climbing sticks. Now I tote a single stand and a tree saddle. I have two sets of climbing sticks: Hawk Heliums and Lone Wolf Custom Gear sticks, plus a rope aider that allows me to use fewer sticks to reach my desired height.
When hunting an area I’m familiar with, my first task is to set up the treestand in a proven location, using my climbing sticks. Once the stand is in place, I take the sticks down with me for mobile use. Now within an hour of arriving, I have a spot set up where I can hunt with confidence. But I’m also off to scout other areas, including new spots, for hot sign. I carry the climbing sticks in my pack at all times, and I wear my saddle. Because of this, if I find a good place, I can hunt it immediately. I’m not only toting around less crap, I’m more efficient and maximizing my time afield.
The Minimalist Ride and Rest
A hefty percentage of my annual hunting expenses used to be tied up in lodging and travel. I had tried every option, from flea-ridden motels to VRBO-type cabins and houses to campers and tents. Some were nice; some were more hassle than the savings were worth. But all cost something, whether it was time, money, or both.
This winter, I made an investment that has already paid me back about five times over. It started when I found (1) a used truck topper to fit my F-150 for $250. Then I spent another $200 on (2) lumber, hardware, (3) LED lighting, foam padding, and other odds and ends. Over the course of two weekends, I turned those materials into a kick-ass mobile hunting camp in the bed of my truck.
My DIY camp has LED lighting, a full-length elevated bed with a 4-inch memory-foam pad, and (4) a pair of slide-out drawers that house a single-burner Camp Chef stove, utensils, and assorted gear. I have a deep-cycle marine battery paired with an inverter, which allows me to charge my phone, laptop, and camera batteries. It even powers a small fan for warm nights.
Everything I need for a week (or more) of hunting fits easily into the truck. I spent 14 days turkey hunting out of it across the Midwest last spring, and spent exactly $0 on lodging. I simply parked where I was hunting and camped. I saved a ton of back-and-forth driving time, and a quite a bit of money on food too, because I was able to cook most of my own meals right there on the tailgate.