Want to take up bird hunting but are on a tight budget? This article will help you get started
Upland hunting gets a bad rap for being an expensive hobby. Certainly, the idea that upland hunting is expensive is perpetuated by the industry. Flip through most upland hunting magazines or follow one of the many upland hunting social media influences and you’re bound to get lost in a sea of premium name brands. Although most of us (if not all of us) aspire to tromp through the uplands in Russel-Moccasin boots, donning Filson Tin-Cloth head to toe, while carrying an Arrieta side by side, the price tag on those items can be cost-prohibitive to some of us.
I would say that someone could spend under $500 and be well equipped for upland hunting (excluding ammo, license fees and gas). If you’re super resourceful and willing to sacrifice some luxuries, I’m sure you can venture into the uplands straight “bare-bones” and slash expenses further.
On could in fact easily spend tens of thousands of dollars on guns and upland gear alone. If you have the will and the means, certain vintage shotguns can easily run you a cool $10,000. Flipping through that Filson catalog, shopping for the latest Tin-Cloth vest and you’ll be spending about $200, easy. Why and how can upland gear be so expensive?
A lot of the quality upland gear out there is handmade, and some pieces are basically functional pieces of art. Buying quality gear is an investment that ensures top performance in the field. We end up handing down these relics to our children so that they may eventually pass it down to theirs and they become priceless heirlooms.
In my early 20s, I was a bit of a vagabond, living out of spare rooms, garages and small studio-apartments. I had a sporty (yet temperamental) vintage car that broke down often. I had steady work, but it didn’t pay much and the unstable living situations and constant car repairs left me living paycheck to paycheck. Aside from that, I also had food expenses, one of the many things I didn’t consider when I left the “nest” to live on my own. To say the least, I was living on a Top-Ramen diet, with an occasional can of sardines.
Despite my hardships, I had my own ambitions and aspirations of picking up a shotgun and chasing wild birds in far-off places. I did what I could with what I had and within my budget to get my start in upland hunting. I made some mistakes and in some cases my resourcefulness paid off. A little luck here and there helped, too.
A good rule of thumb is to buy what you can afford and do it over the span of a few months. Saving. Buying. Stockpiling. Figuring out what you need, creating a list and setting a budget early is beneficial to meeting your goals. Luckily, there is not too much of what I would consider essential gear for the uplands. The bulk of your expense will be on your shotgun and boots initially, taking care to not skimp too much on quality in these categories.
The most expensive piece: the shotgun
Unless you plan to use a sling shot or you have ambitions of using archery equipment (weirdo) to take your quarry, you are very likely going to need a shotgun. The best-case scenario is that you are gifted a shotgun, or one is handed down to you from a family member! In that case, the most expensive piece of gear is taken care of for you, you lucky bastard!
I wasn’t that lucky. You might not be either. A shotgun, as mentioned, is likely to be your most expensive investment. Special care and research should be done before making your shotgun purchase. Consider quality, brand reputation and your budget. Stick with 12- and 20-gauges for the plentiful and economical ammo options. Ammo for obscure gauges like 16, 28, and .410 caliber is harder to find and can often require more dough out of your pocket.
I have been a fan of vintage guns from the beginning. My first shotgun that I bought on my own was an old Hopkins & Allen double. I really wanted a vintage-double and when I saw the $150 price tag I was all in! It was well within my budget at that time. What I did not consider was that I needed special ammo to keep the Damascus-twist barrel from exploding and the subsequent parts and repairs that would be needed later as the thing started breaking down. All in all, it was not a very cost-effective decision, but a lesson learned.
My advice would be to steer clear of vintage guns if you are on a strict budget. Older guns can have higher price tags and the cheap ones tend to have issues because of hard use. Furthermore, as I experienced, many vintage guns were not designed with modern ammo in mind and I had to buy expensive alternatives. Using modern ammo or even steel shot in a vintage gun could destroy your investment and even put you or others around you in danger.
Used shotguns are a cost-effective way to procuring a new-to-you upland gun. As mentioned, stay away from vintage guns, however. You can find lots of post-1960 guns that are quality and can handle modern loads. Stick with well-known models that have plentiful parts and support still available. Some good choices are old pump guns like the Remington 870 or the stout single shot H&R Topper, which I have seen readily available in the used-rack for well-under $100. Frequent the small gun shops in town or prowl the gun shows for deals. Don’t be afraid to haggle a price for a used gun. Expect to pay about $200 – $500 for a quality used gun.
If you like that new gun smell, there are some great budget options for you! The Winchester SXP and several Mossberg models can be found in the neighborhood of $250 or cheaper depending on sales. One thing to keep in mind is that these budget or entry level guns tend to be cost-effectively mass-produced and with that comes some inherit QC issues at times.
Cost Estimate: $200 to $500
Now that you have a shotgun you are going to need shotshells to actually use it. Shotgun shells can be just like buying a shotgun; you can go very expensive to pretty cheap. Optional things that change prices can be the type of metal like lead, steel, or bismuth. The brand that produced the shell, the velocity, the length of the shell. All of this can be pretty intimidating and you should not be afraid to ask for help in a store.
Choosing shot size is going to have a lot to do with what your options are for purchase. The most popular shot sizes tend to be No. 6 and No. 7 1/2 but again can change with what game bird you are hunting.
If you are environmentally conscientious about your choices, you can expect to pay a slightly higher price for steel. Steel does not perform as well as lead and can make hitting said game bird a bit more complicated. That’s why some gravitate towards bismuth loads, which can really drive up the cost.
If you are hunting doves, that will most likely require a lot more shells than if you are headed out to hunt quail or grouse. Where some hunters can go a season with just a few boxes, a dove hunt could eat that all up in a single day if the action is hot and the shooting is not so straight.
Cost Estimate: $7 to $10 (lead) and $8 to $11 (steel) per box
Theoretically, you can hunt the uplands in any old T-shirt and pair of board shorts if you really wanted to. Not always super practical but doable. I recommend at least a long sleeve shirt and jeans to help you with brush-kicking duties and a piece of blaze orange. I am a fan of wool shirts like Pendletons (layered with a cheap moisture-wicking shirt from Target) in the early season. Quality wool shirts can be pricey and no one wants to tear their $120 dollar shirt while pushing through the brambles. I like to walk downtown and snoop around the vintage clothing shops or the Salvation Army for used Pendletons and other wool shirts for a fraction of the price. Otherwise, any old long-sleeve shirt will do. I also like heavier “flannel” shirts that can take some brush-busting. Costco often sells these types of shirts for about $15.
Any light jacket can be used in the later parts of the season when the temps drop. I find that heavy jackets are cumbersome, and I just end up getting too hot and taking them off. Again, I’m a fan of light wool or canvas jackets. If you don’t want to use your fancy Levi’s jacket, you could always visit the local thrift store for a come-up.
Pants come down to preference, comfort, and functionality. I have worn everything from Levi’s, Wranglers, Dickie’s, Carhart, heavy Filson Double-Tin and even light “hiking” tech-pants. Something that you’re comfortable in and offers some protection for your legs is ideal. Consider that these pants are going to get thrashed and torn by brush and cactus. I know guys who are handy with a sewing machine and just beef up their jeans with reinforced panels from other old pairs of jeans. It’s super effective and cheap.
Don’t forget your hat! It seems simple enough, but a hat is a necessary piece of equipment that shades you from the elements. Any hat will do. Baseball cap. Whatever sports team. You probably already own a hat. Heck. Sign up for Quail Forever and they might throw in a hat for your paid membership! I typically try to incorporate blaze orange in my own hats. Not a requirement in my state, but I appreciate my face not being mistaken for a quail, so I take the extra precaution. You should consider this as well.
Cost Estimate: $0 to $100
Having some sort of way to carry game in the field and back to your truck is essential. I do not recommend carrying a dead bird in your pocket. The motions of traversing over rough terrain and climbing over fences just makes that a bad idea.
Backpacks can be repurposed as “gamebags” and you probably already own one. Backpacks are not only convenient for carrying your birds, but they can also be used for anything else you might need to carry, like your lunch and water.
There are also very inexpensive game-vests available (for under $20: Bass Pro Shop). I hunted with a no-frills vest like these for a couple of years. It held my shells and birds and was blaze orange. What more do you need?
Footwear for bird hunting
I know people who use “trail-shoes” or even a pair of Vans when they go out hunting. I’m a fan of using what you got, but I am not so sure I would ever compromise my feet. Your feet are probably one of the most important parts of your body! If your feet are not supported or protected properly, you’re gonna have sore, achy and blistered feet and that just makes for a miserable time in the field. So take care of your feet!
Quality footwear is essential. Believe it or not, you can buy inexpensive boots that are sturdy and will get the job done in the uplands. Retailers like Big 5 offer inexpensive hiking boots that are decent quality. You may also be able to find quality boots at a local military surplus store.
While you’re at it, spend the extra twenty bucks and pick up a pair of Merino wool socks. Your feet will thank you later.
Hunting license fees
Depending on what state you are going to hunt is going to make a difference on how much a hunting license will cost. By this point you should have already taken a hunter safety course and familiarized yourself with season dates, regulations, and license fees. There are a few things that will really effect this aspect. First, if you are buying a resident or non-resident license. Secondly, what license structure the state you hunt uses. While some states offer small-game-only licenses others may require a general hunting license.
As a hack to non-resident hunting, most states offer a 3 day small game license (or similar) that will allow you to save some money and experience a few-day trip into some new territory.
Cost Estimate: $15 to $100 (check local license fees for more accuracy)
Check out: Bird Hunting by States
*States will continue to be added and updated over time*
Optional budget gear
These items are optional, but in my opinion they are important pieces of gear and can certainly help out an aspiring upland hunter. If you are on a strict budget, never fear –
Flashlight/headlamp: You might not need it, but why take the chance of getting stuck out in the dark without a light? Need to look for something in the backseat of your truck in the dark? Need to signal someone . . . in the dark? Get a flashlight, or better yet, a hands-free headlamp!
First aid kit: Boo-boos happen in the uplands. At a minimum, you should have a small kit that has band-aids, antiseptic, and pain-reliever meds. Minimum.
Water bottle: Don’t plan a trip without water. I like to use reusable plastic or aluminum bottles for water. But even store-bought bottled water on the way to your hunt will work. Carry a couple if you can manage.
Pocket knife: A small knife is useful for cutting paracord in camp, portioning out cheesecake, cooking, field dressing birds, or can be used as a last-ditch weapon to fight off a hungry bear (not recommended). And don’t forget the quail camp blood oaths. You don’t need to spend a ton to own a small utility knife that can accomplish various jobs.
Bandana: The bandana is an often overlooked, but very versatile piece of equipment. Need to cover the back of your neck from the sun? Need to handle a hot coffee pot? Need a snot rag? A bandana can also be used as a sling, a signaler, or even T.P. in emergencies. You can pick one up for a couple of bucks at the liquor store.
You do not need a dog
One of the most frustrating reasons why people don’t even start upland hunting is because they don’t have the means or ability to own a bird dog. Yet there is this implied notion that, either by prestige or necessity to perform, you need a dog and that dissuades some would-be upland hunters from even stepping into the field.
Hunting dogs can be pretty expensive. When I was in my 20s, I could barely afford to feed myself. There was no way I was going to be able to afford to feed a dog, let alone pay for vet bills or training. Getting a dog was out of the question for me on day one. Guess what? You don’t necessarily need a dog to hunt in the uplands. I have primarily hunted without a dog for about 20 years with no issues. So, forego the pooch expense and tell the world that you do not need a dog and go out and start hunting some birds.
If you still have the desire to hunt behind pointing breeds and flushers, make friends with people who already have bird dogs and weasel your way into getting some hunts in with them. Zero cost. Zero commitment. You get to hunt with dogs, and it did not cost you a penny.
This isn’t a fashion show
As you can see, there are many budget-friendly options for gear and, if you shop around, you can find some quality equipment that will get you squared away for the uplands. Don’t get me wrong, to this day, I still take a budget-conscious approach to gear. My gear has evolved over the years and become more specialized as I matured as an uplander.
With more financial stability and saving, I eventually upgraded a lot of my gear. I will spend top dollar on certain pieces of gear if I believe it is warranted. For other items, I might be able to use off-brands or cost-efficient alternatives. Don’t worry about what people say or think about your gear. We’re hunting here. This isn’t a fashion show.
If you’re just getting started or you just have a tight budget, your gear doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive–it just needs to perform. When it comes down to it, the birds don’t care if you are wearing the latest Filson gear or the thrift-store special off the bargain rack. The birds all flush the same no matter what you wear or what you’re shooting with.
Go on. Get on out there.
Jorge Ramirez is a writer, artist, and upland hunter who was born and raised in Southern California. His passion for upland hunting led to the creation of his blog/website, UplandJitsu: The Art of Upland Hunting. His blog primarily consists of articles dedicated to the traditions of quail hunting with an emphasis on introducing new hunters to DIY public land hunts, without a dog. He currently resides in Long Beach and hunts in the nearby National Forests for upland game.