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As in all things Magic, the Equipment Chooses the Hunter Harry!

I used to think outfitted trips were only for those who lacked the skill to venture into the outdoors on their own. Today, I am a strong supporter of the outfitting industry, recognizing the value of hiring a professional guide outfitter to gain access to prime areas.

By Kevin Wilson: big game hunter and feature writer

If you’re anything like me, you take pride in being your own guide. The idea of having someone else do the work as you enjoy the fun stuff either repulses you or you find it very appealing. Those who enjoy the outdoors recognize one fact - it takes hard work to do just about anything! Maybe that’s why fewer folks are doing it these days. Regardless, one fact remains – with our busy schedules, rising fuel costs and increasingly restrictive access, outfitted trips present a unique opportunity to put us in prime locations by simply booking the time and paying the price.

Well, like anything, there are pros and cons to outfitted trips. I spend nearly 100 days afield each year; it’s what I do and, because of that, most of my outings are self-guided. A number of years back however a friend invited me to go on an outfitted trip to the Northwest Territories. Since that first introduction, I try to book at least two outfitted excursions annually. Contrary to my former way of thinking, for the consummate outdoorsman, they are a must, not because they are a sure thing but because outfitted trips open up an entirely new world of outdoor adventure that most would otherwise never have access to.

If you’ve never been on a guided trip, it’s time to take the plunge. With thousands of outfitters across North America, you can spend as little or as much as you like. If this is at all appealing, read on and allow me to share a few tips to consider when choosing an outfitter.

Your first priority involves deciding what you want to do. The options can be overwhelming. Narrowing your goal and focusing on one species and one window of time will help. Some trips offer higher odds for success than others; e.g., a caribou hunt in northern Quebec, an Alberta whitetail hunt, a Bighorn sheep hunt in Wyoming, or a gator hunt in Florida. Deciding on your species and location of choice is your first decision. Then it’s time to start researching outfitters.

Next, determine your budget. Budgets can open or close doors. I find it best to predetermine an amount that’s affordable, then research who offers what for that amount of money. Keep in mind that just because dollars may be limited, doesn’t necessarily mean you’re out of the game. Remember, some outfitters offer the full-meal-deal, while others offer only transportation into the backcountry; still others offer daily excursions charging only for their guiding service. Regardless of your choice, be sure to shop and compare prices. Take the time to understand whether or not each outfitter is charging a reasonable going rate. Likewise, don’t forget to budget for a sensible tip. Like the restaurant business, this is standard practice in this sector of the tourism industry. In most instances, a basic gratuity is a minimum 10 percent of the cost of the hunt. While it is optional, it is expected and is part of how guides make their living.

From there, consider a preferred destination. Whether you’re planning a trip within the U.S., Canada, or somewhere exotic, determining your destination can be a challenge. Be sure to research to determine the best time of year to go, travel logistics like permits, travel visas, trophy shipping regulations and costs, and the amount of time needed to get there and back. Remember, there are often additional costs associated with securing documentation and shipping and handling trophies.

One of the most important steps I’ve learned to take involves contacting the local tourism departments. They can be an excellent source of information. Most have outfitter listings or directories and can refer you to reputable operators. Websites can likewise be a great source of information. Most professional outfitters have an online presence. A quality outfitter will cover off frequently asked questions on their site, i.e. costs, what to expect, licensing, species-specific information, photos, contact information, items to bring, references, and sometimes video clips – basically the who, what, where, when, and why of what they offer. If references are not provided on the website, be sure to request them and follow up with each and every one. Ask to speak with guests who have been both successful and unsuccessful.

Finally, contact the outfitter. It is during this initial correspondence that you will gather the most valuable information. Keep in mind, that brochures and Internet advertisements can make anybody look good. Be sure to speak with the owner/operator directly. Ask them who would be guiding you specifically. But remember, if you’re calling during their peak season, they may be difficult to reach. When you do manage in-person contact, be sure to find out what the price includes and/or excludes; i.e., expediting services, licenses, meals, accommodation, guide, equipment, trophy care, and so on. It’s also a good idea to ask if they are insured, how long they have been in business, if they have ever had any serious problems with clients and what you should expect if you were to book with them.
Most outfitters require a deposit to hold your booking. Again, this is standard booking policy, but be sure to get a receipt. Your deposit should guarantee your spot. Most require final payment either prior to your hunt or upon arrival.

Prepare thoroughly and all the pieces should come together. If you’ve done your research, chances are you’ll enjoy the hunt of a lifetime.