Opening day for rifle season 2018 is about 6 weeks away, and that means many across Northern Michigan are starting to air out their thermal gear and sight in their rifles.

Responsible hunters generally do a great job preparing for the big day by making sure their equipment is in good working order.

Unfortunately, there is one key piece of equipment that is often ignored: their body.

From falls while walking in the woods to back injuries from dragging trophies back to camp, physical therapists tend to see an uptick in hunting-related injuries the week or two after the season opens. Fortunately, an ounce of pre-season prevention can help ensure part of the season isn’t missed because of injury.

Here are a few areas to think about while there is still time to make some improvements.

Heart and lungs

For many hunters, walking through the woods and (if they’re lucky) dragging out a deer will be the most intense exercise they will get all year.

A casual springtime morel hunt in the forest is one thing, walking through the woods in full hunting gear while carrying 20-25 pounds of gear is another. Imagine carrying three gallons of milk on your back during your trek to the blind.

This will get your heart rate up and likely get you breathing heavily by the time you arrive. Every year, we hear about a few hunters that have heart attacks on opening morning, and the increased cardiac demand is often a contributor.

Muscles and joints

Depending on how Mother Nature treats us this fall, you may be wearing several layers in the woods this winter. Warmth is good, but for every added layer, you lose a little flexibility and mobility.

If your body is already tight and stiff to begin with, climbing up into that tree-stand may become more difficult and dangerous than if you had your street clothes on.

The best way to compensate for the extra layers is to work on improving your flexibility before you head into the woods. Hunters tend to be tight in their upper back, chest (pecs), and shoulders, so those are a few great places to start. It is worth noting, however, that each stretch isn’t necessarily needed by everyone, so it’s best to see a physical therapist or athletic trainer for specific recommendations.

Balance

Stepping over fallen branches and trees in dry weather is difficult enough; doing so in the snow can be significantly more challenging.

Our balance system requires the cooperation of our vision, inner ear, and proprioception. If any of those 3 systems are compromised, the risk of a fall increases unless the others are able to compensate. Many falls occur on the way into or out of the woods at dusk and dawn.

Because these usually happen in the dark, it is important that the other two balance systems are ready and able to stabilize the body.

To ensure you have a long and safe hunting season:

Get your yearly physical

Some avid hunters schedule their physicals in September or October so they know they’re good to go before opening day. If you’re over 50 and haven’t had a physical in a while, call your doctor to set one up.

Get your heart rate up

If you’re not used to getting much cardio exercise, now is the time to start.

And no, unfortunately, walking around at work or around the house all day does not count, at least as far as your heart and lungs are concerned. There are lots of other ways to improve your cardio function, including biking, using a treadmill, and interval strength training. Pick one that fits into your lifestyle and get started at least 6 weeks before the big day.

Get flexible

It may surprise you to learn that you can actually improve your flexibility in just a week or two. Since not everyone is tight in the same areas, stick to general mobility exercises or see your physical therapist for a custom program.

Check your balance

This is crucial for hunters over 55. If you can’t stand on one foot for at least 30 seconds, your risk of falling is increased. A great drill to improve balance is to just work on standing on one foot for about 30-45 seconds a few times/day.

If you do end up tripping or slipping on logs or under brush, your ability to prevent a fall will be better.

Jeff Samyn, PT, OCS, CSCS is a Physical Therapist, Orthopedic Clinical Specialist, and Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist at Northern Michigan Sports Medicine Center in Petoskey. He can be reached via e-mail at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. This information is not to be considered medical advice and is not intended to replace consultation with a qualified medical professional.