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How to Hunt: A Step-by-Step Guide for New Adult Hunters

There are plenty of reasons to hunt. Best of all? It's fun.
There are plenty of reasons to hunt. Best of all? It's fun. (Dustin Lutt / Rockhouse Motion/)

There are plenty of reasons to learn to hunt. The most ancient and trendiest modern reason for hunting are actually the same: it’s a great way to secure lean, free-range meat for yourself and your family. Wild game meat reduces your reliance on the commercial food chain and helps you know exactly what you’re eating in our age of processed foods. Hunting is also a great way to learn more about the natural world, and to support wildlife habitat and conservation in the U.S. Best of all? Hunting is fun.

But getting started isn’t always easy. Hunting is a commitment that takes time, interest, specialized gear, and lots of leg work. But it’s worth it. That’s why we pulled together this step-by-step guide to help you navigate all the essential stages and skills of becoming a hunter, from signing up for a hunter safety course to cooking your hard-earned venison, and everything in between.

Let’s get started.

Navigating this Post

Because there’s a lot to hunting, there’s a lot to this article. Here’s a handy list to help you find the information you’re looking for more quickly. Read straight through, or click on a chapter to jump right to it.

<a target="_self" href="#section1″>Hunter Education</a><a target="_self" href="#section2″>How to Find a Hunting Mentor</a><a target="_self" href="#section3″>Navigating Hunting Laws and Seasons</a><a target="_self" href="#section4″>Hunting Gear</a><a target="_self" href="#section5″>Guns, Ammo, and Shooting Practice</a><a target="_self" href="#section6″>Finding a Place to Hunt</a><a target="_self" href="#section7″>Basic Tactics for any Hunt</a><a target="_self" href="#section8″>Field-Dressing, Butchering, and Cooking Wild Game</a>

2. How to Find a Hunting Mentor

Hunter education classes are critical, but there’s no way around it: learning to hunt from one is like learning to drive by reading a driver’s ed manual. The only way to get good at either is to practice, and to do so with guidance. That’s where mentoring programs and other hunters come in.

The best mentors are patient, experienced hunters who are happy to help coach you at the range and in the blind.
The best mentors are patient, experienced hunters who are happy to help coach you at the range and in the blind. (Natalie Krebs/)

Your Personal Hunting Mentor

If you already know someone who hunts, start there. This might be a friend, family member, coworker, or neighbor. Depending on your relationship with them, you might just be able to ask them to take you hunting sometime. If you don’t know them as well, ease into it. Ask them questions about what you need help with the most, like finding a good archery shop or buying the right hunting license.

Work your way up to asking them to join you for an in-person project. Maybe you need help picking out a deer rifle at Cabela’s, or navigating your first trip to the shooting range. Eventually you should know each other well enough that you can ask to tag along on a hunt. Better yet, your new mentor will hopefully invite you to join them.

Once you find someone who’s willing to help you, be sure to pull your own weight. Never forget that this hunter is doing you a favor, and that helping you learn to hunt cuts into their own schedule. Absolutely ask them for advice, tips, and to hunt with you, but take initiative, too. If they take you to the range once, go back on your own next time. If they recommend a public-land spot, go check it out. Don’t count on them to hold your hand for years to come, or to hunt with you every time you want to go.

If you don’t know anyone who hunts, there are lots of learn-to-hunt programs that will teach you everything you need to know to start hunting.
If you don’t know anyone who hunts, there are lots of learn-to-hunt programs that will teach you everything you need to know to start hunting. (Natalie Krebs/)

Learn-to-Hunt Programs and Community Support

If the hunter you hoped would help seems non-committal, that’s okay too. There’s someone else out there who will be excited to help you, whether you know them yet or not.

This is where learn-to-hunt programs come in. These in-person workshops are usually organized either by your state game agency (like these, in Indiana) or a wildlife conservation organization, like the Quality Deer Management Association’s Field-to-Fork program. Search for programs by state or by the critter you’re interested in learning to hunt. Critter organizations include the National Wild Turkey Foundation, Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever, the Ruffed Grouse Society, and more. If you want to talk to a real person who can give you tailored advice, contact the R3 coordinator in your state. It’s their job to help you get started.

A lot of learn-to-hunt programs fill up fast, so if you’re having trouble getting into a class, don’t give up. Keep trying, and in the meantime, do your best to meet people in the hunting community. Go to a Ducks Unlimited banquet or a Backcountry Hunters and Anglers pint night. These are great ways to get to know sportsmen and women in your area, who can offer you the advice you’re looking for, and maybe even take you hunting.

Finally, if you’re having trouble finding classes or events to attend, consider finding a mentor with digital resources like Powderhook. And if all else fails, remember: There’s not much you can’t learn from YouTube. —N.K.

4. Gear

While there’s plenty of shiny (and expensive) gear out there, you don’t need all that much to get started hunting. Different species may require specialized gear, but the basics for every hunt are pretty similar. If you don’t want to invest in a bunch of new clothing or gear right away, borrowing gear from a friend or buying used gear is a great option.

A Note on Camo

While you can usually identify a hunter by his or her camo, camouflage isn’t mandatory for hunting. If you look at old hunting photos, you’ll notice that hunters tended to wear wool coats, flannel shirts, and blue jeans. It’s only in the last 50 or so years that hunters really started relying heavily on camo. More important than any camo pattern is your ability to remain still and conceal your profile (more on that below). Ducks, turkeys, and predators are typically exceptions to this rule thanks to their sharp eyes, though you can certainly kill any of these species while wearing a pair of Carhartts.

While many hunters prefer to wear all-camo clothing, others simply wear jeans and other durable clothing. More important than what you wear to hunt is how you hunt.
While many hunters prefer to wear all-camo clothing, others simply wear jeans and other durable clothing. More important than what you wear to hunt is how you hunt. (Dustin Lutt / Rockhouse Motion/)

Layers

Like most outdoor and athletic pursuits, layers are key and cotton is your enemy. The weather on a hunt can range from steamy 80-degree days during early bow seasons to the fridge temperatures of deep winter. Layers allow you to dress for the weather and the type of hunting you’re doing. If you’re going to be sitting in a deer blind most of fall, you’ll need more layers than if you’re chasing elk all over the mountains.

Base layers (long underwear and a long john top) are the best place to start. These should be synthetic or merino wool—wicking fabrics that keep you warm even if you get sweaty then start to cool down. Synthetic or wool socks are key, too. If you need mid-layers, opt for a sweatshirt, a fleece, a down vest—whatever fits under your outer layers and keeps you warm without adding too much bulk. You’ll likely want a camo jacket and camo pants, both dedicated outer layers. If you don’t have camo, wear natural, neutral colors like green, tan, brown, or gray.

Boots

A good pair of boots can make or break your hunt, so it’s wise to invest in a pair of these. Again, these don’t need to be camo, but many good hunting boots are available in camo patterns.

The type of boot you choose will depend on where you live and what you want to hunt, but it’s hard to go wrong with a durable mid-calf leather boot. Something similar to the classic, ever-popular Danner Pronghorn is a good place to start. Hiking boots can work well for early-season hunts across dry terrain. If you want to do a lot of backcountry hunting that requires packing heavy loads, you’ll want a sturdier boot built for that kind of weight. If you live in swampy country or you’re planning to turkey hunt (which often coincides with heavy spring rains), you’ll probably want a pair of knee-high rubber boots. Pay attention to whether your boots are waterproof, and what kind (if any) insulation they have.

Big Game Gear

If you’re going to be hunting deer from a treestand, invest in a safety harness. Think of it like a helmet for your bike: You probably won’t need it, but if and when you do, it could save your life. If you’re planning to hunt whitetails in the timber on public land, you’re also going to want a climbing stand. If you’d prefer to hunt on the ground, opt for a collapsible ground blind. Other important gear includes a pair of binoculars, a hunting pack, a bottle of wind indicator, and a haul line to raise and lower your bow or rifle if you’re hunting from a treestand.

Turkey Hunting

Camo is your friend when it comes to turkeys. You’ll want a face mask and thin camo gloves, and a box or friction call to get started. If you’re really intimidated by calling, try a push-button call. Many turkey hunters prefer to wear a vest with a built-in seat cushion, but a small camo hunting pack is fine if you don’t have one. You’ll also need decoys. If you only have the budget for one decoy, get a hen deke; if you can afford two, opt for a hen and a jake. A small pair of binoculars on a bino harness are handy, too.

Ducks and geese require a lot of gear to hunt, but that shouldn’t stop you from trying it out. Waterfowling is also one of the more social types of hunting, which means you can easily tag along. Many hunters are happy to have an extra pair of hands to help set and retrieve decoys.
Ducks and geese require a lot of gear to hunt, but that shouldn’t stop you from trying it out. Waterfowling is also one of the more social types of hunting, which means you can easily tag along. Many hunters are happy to have an extra pair of hands to help set and retrieve decoys. (Natalie Krebs/)

Waterfowl Gear

This is one of the most gear-intensive types of hunting, which often requires lots of decoys and, frequently, a good duck dog. For new hunters, your best bet is to tag along with an experienced waterfowler, who can hopefully lend you a pair of waders (which aren’t cheap). If you’re field hunting, you can skip the waders and wear regular hunting boots or, better yet, a pair of knee-high rubber boots. You’ll also want to bring along ear plugs or electronic ear protection, especially if you’re hunting in a metal pit blind. Without them, fast shooting by multiple hunters can damage your hearing and give you a ringing headache in short order. Bring a camo hat to conceal your face from sharp-eyed ducks. If you already have a pump or semi-auto shotgun, bring it; if not, ask to borrow one.

Upland Gear

Camo isn’t important for hunting rabbits and upland birds like pheasants, quail and grouse. This style of hunting involves covering lots of ground and combing heavy brush to flush animals rather than hiding from them. Wear a pair of sturdy pants that can protect you from thorns and cacti. Don’t forget to layer, too. Even if it’s frigid out, you’ll warm up quickly. Good boots are critical on an upland hunt, and you typically want something lighter-weight without too much insulation. Hiking boots with good ankle support are a fine option if the terrain is dry or steep, but sloppy and snowy conditions call for a waterproof or warmer higher-profile hunting boot.

Women’s Gear

If you’re having a hard time finding hunting gear that fits you well, you’re not alone. Check out our women’s gear guides here and here for our favorite women’s hunting pants, boots, sports bras, and more.

Accessories

Don’t forget blaze orange (if required), a beanie or ball cap, gloves, and a camo face mask for bowhunting or turkey hunting (though you can use face paint if you prefer.) Remember to pack a hunting knife for any gutting or cleaning work (see the section on butchering, below, for more). —N.K.

There are tons of choices when it comes to rifles, shotguns, scopes, and ammo. This lightweight Weatherby Mark V Camilla rifle was designed as a women's backcountry big-game rifle, but it works just as well for Eastern whitetail hunts or open-country antelope.
There are tons of choices when it comes to rifles, shotguns, scopes, and ammo. This lightweight Weatherby Mark V Camilla rifle was designed as a women's backcountry big-game rifle, but it works just as well for Eastern whitetail hunts or open-country antelope. (Dustin Lutt / Rockhouse Motion/)

7. Basic Tactics for Any Hunt

Every hunt for each different species calls for different tactics. Your hunting strategy can even change based on location, or weather, or season. But there are some very basic tactics that all hunts require no matter what the game or location. Understanding these basics will help you grow into a better, more effective hunter.

Scouting for sign (tracks, game trails, droppings, etc.) is critical for learning what properties hold game and how they use it. These turkey tracks are a helpful indicator that there are birds nearby.
Scouting for sign (tracks, game trails, droppings, etc.) is critical for learning what properties hold game and how they use it. These turkey tracks are a helpful indicator that there are birds nearby. (Natalie Krebs/)

Scout More Than You Hunt

The most successful hunters spend more time scouting than hunting. Learn to love scouting—exploring new areas, learning about the species you’re hunting, and spending lots and lots of time outside. The goal here is to find areas that game animals hang out in before you actually start hunting. You can do this by spotting the animals, or by reading sign they’ve left in the area. Before the season starts, it’s a good idea to get out and walk the areas you plan to hunt. This will help you determine if there are critters around, but it will also help you get more familiar with the terrain. As you walk a new property, imagine that you’re a critter trying to travel through an area without getting spotted. Pay attention to the trails you take. Often times they will lead to natural terrain funnels (like a strip of dry ground between two ponds). These are good places to target and if you walk trails back from these funnels, they’ll often lead you to bedding areas or feeding areas. If it’s legal where you are hunting, setting trail cameras is an invaluable scouting strategy.

Once the season begins, keep scouting! Now you must try to find areas to hunt without spooking game. If you’re after deer or turkeys, that usually means exploring new areas midday, when the animals aren’t moving as much (you don’t want to scare them out of the area). You can also scout from your vehicle with binoculars. In more open country, just driving roads in the mornings or evenings can give you an idea of the areas animals are using. For example, if you’re after waterfowl, driving around and watching where ducks and geese are flying and feeding is key.

Wild animals, like these whitetail deer, have incredible senses and survival instincts. To get close, you’ve got to be stealthy enough to slide in under those senses, undetected.
Wild animals, like these whitetail deer, have incredible senses and survival instincts. To get close, you’ve got to be stealthy enough to slide in under those senses, undetected. (Dustin Lutt / Rockhouse Motion/)

Get Sneaky

Animals know when they are being hunted. You’ve probably seen deer in a park or maybe even in your backyard. Those deer might have mostly ignored you, maybe they let you get close to snap a photo with your phone. But deer on public hunting ground (or private ground) won’t let you do this during hunting season. All wild animals have incredible senses and survival instincts. To get close to wild game on their turf, you’ve got to be stealthy enough to slide in under those senses, undetected.

It starts with being quiet. When you are in your hunting area, walk softly and slowly. This helps you avoid that loud crunching march of a hunter tromping though the woods, which wild game recognizes instantly. But it also gets you in the right mind set. It forces you to slow down, think, and watch before you move. Speak softly, too. The human voice carries an incredible distance in the woods. But on top of that, staying quiet will help you hear game coming. The quieter you are, the easier it is to hear all the sounds around you, like a turkey gobbling on a distant ridge, or a deer shuffling through the hardwoods.

If you are hunting big game, your most important consideration is wind direction. The sense of smell is the most powerful survival characteristic for critters like deer, bears, elk, and antelope. The only way to truly beat a big game animal’s nose is to use the wind in your favor. You want stay downwind of the critters, but also downwind of their bedding areas and trails. A simple windicator is an essential tool for any big game hunter. It will help you see how the wind swirls in valleys or drainages and shifts throughout the day.

Using terrain to your advantage is a fundamental tactic for any hunt, especially in the wide-open spaces out West. Take particular care not to skyline yourself by standing at the top of an open hill or ridge.
Using terrain to your advantage is a fundamental tactic for any hunt, especially in the wide-open spaces out West. Take particular care not to skyline yourself by standing at the top of an open hill or ridge. (Dustin Lutt / Rockhouse Motion/)

And you also have to beat wild game’s vision. Camouflage clothing is useful, especially for sharp-eyed game like turkeys or waterfowl, but it isn’t essential. Dressing in earth-tone clothing that is quiet and suitable for the weather conditions works just fine. The real secret is to use the terrain and conditions to avoid being spotted. Don’t stand at the top of an open hill or ridge. This is called skylining yourself, because you stick out obviously against the skyline. Try to keep the sun at your back when possible and stay in shaded areas (animals can catch the glare off you and your gear if you’re in open, direct sunlight). If you are stopping to take a break or maybe do some calling, keep a wide tree at your back. If you’re hanging a treestand, pick a spot where the trunk and branches will break up your outline. Always use the terrain around you to break up your human profile.

Be Patient

A lot of content and advertising around hunting pitches the experience as an action-packed, adrenaline-fueled, adventure. It’s true that those moments exist in hunting, but for most of the time you’ll be sitting quietly, watching, listening, and WAITING.

This in fact, is the hardest part of hunting for many people—establishing the right mindset so that you are happy to go into the woods by yourself and sit quietly for hours on end, while still being focused enough to detect game before it detects you.

The secret is to enjoy the wait. Slow it all down. Watch the natural world come alive around you. Listen to the birds, look for squirrels, stay alert and stay off your damn phone. If you do this for long enough, the critter you are hunting will appear and then the adrenaline-packed showdown can begin. But even if the critter doesn’t show, you’ll have appreciated a different experience—the experience of actually hunting. My general rule is this: Wait until you are totally certain no game will show up, then give it another 30 minutes (or just wait until legal shooting light ends). —A.R.

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