Ready your rig for a Montana safari.
Wildlife abounds around Bozeman, and a dedicated hunter can day-trip to his heart’s content, exploring incredible country and taking all manner of game. At least once a season, though, every hunter should pack up and head east — to the mountains, fields, and forests beyond the Bozone, where old Montana awaits. Stop at the town bar, chat up the locals, and gain access to a massive ranch teeming with sharptails. Or hop from one Block Management sign-in box to another, glassing for mule deer among rolling hills and rocky ravines that seem to go on forever. It’s big, wild country, and it stirs the soul.
Daily forays from a campground or motel are fine, but a self-contained rig turns the trip into a full-on safari. Chase game from river-bottom to sage-flat and set up camp wherever you find yourself at day’s end. Cook dinner on the tailgate as the stars brighten above you, with no sound but the wind across the prairie and the occasional yip of a coyote.
But how to keep game from spoiling? Counting on cold weather is a recipe for disaster — many a hard-won ungulate has been lost after an unexpected warm spell in November. The safe bet is to pack your own refrigeration. Not only will your meat survive the heat, but you’ll have peace of mind. Instead of worrying about that deer baking in the back of the truck, you can focus all your attention and excitement on the next day’s pheasant hunt. Which, of course, is the reason you’re out here in the first place.
You’ll need a large, quality cooler and a method to keep it out of your way. Plenty of options exist, but here’s a rig I built last year that kept a quartered antelope and a dozen game birds in top shape for four days, and didn’t interfere with gear-storage, cooking on the tailgate, or sleeping under the topper.
Start with a Stowaway swinging hitch frame ($300; stowaway2.com). Loaded with features and nice little touches that increase convenience and stability, this baby is easy to use, strong as hell, and built to take plenty of abuse.
One of the Stowaway features I like is the inclusion of a little stay-pin, to keep the hitch in place after you swing it out. That means you can park on uneven ground and still have the cooler right where you want it.
The Stowaway comes with a hitch tightener, which is essential when the cooler's full of hindquarters and you're bouncing down a bumpy dirt road.
Atop the hitch frame goes a custom wooden platform. I built mine with about $25 in materials I had around the house: ripped-down 2x4s and a sheet of 3/4-inch plywood, sealed with outdoor paint to protect it from the elements. Eye-bolts on either end provide sturdy attachment points to secure the cooler. (20/20 hindsight tip: drill a small hole in one corner to allow water to drain.) Here it is all assembled, attached to the hitch frame, and ready to accept the cooler (or whatever else you want to put on it):
Finally, load up a Pelican 150-quart cooler ($500; pelican.com). With room for two sets of deer/antelope quarters and a bevy of game birds — plus groceries and beer — this burly ice-chest will keep you afield for a week on three blocks of ice.
Crank it tight to the platform with cam straps. (Pelican makes a marine mounting kit specifically for this purpose; it includes a mounting bracket which didn't quite fit on my platform, so I installed eye bolts instead.)
Snap shut the heavy-duty buckles and you're ready to hit the road. (More hindsight: Pelican coolers come in a wide ranges of colors; I should've gotten a green or tan one. I ended up painting mine with a matte green spraypaint, which worked fine.)
Once you're out there, this enormous cooler can handle whatever you bring in from the field plus whatever you brought from home. (There's an antelope underneath all those pheasants, grouse, and huns; note how much room remains. Three blocks of ice line the bottom; this year, I plan to put a block on each side for more uniform cooling.)
So there you have it: a do-it-yourself safari rig offering full self-sufficiency for days on end. Good luck making your own rig, and enjoy the season afield, moving light and free across the open landscapes of Montana — no motel, restaurant, or game processor required.