I loved the trip backpacking and bird hunting along the Maah Daah Hey trail in North Dakota. But the logistics involved in such a trip meant that it was no small feat to plan for. I was relatively self sustaining being that I was backpacking the trip, but my host Brian Koch also had his dogs, fat tire bike, and camera gear to worry about. It’s worth breaking down the type of logistics involved in a trip like this, as it’s out of state, long distance, and self-supported.
We chose to camp at the many campsites along the route, but there are a number of hotels — and bird hunting season is the tourist off season for Medora outside of mountain bikers. You may be able to get lodging deals, but you also may face seasonal closures of some lodging.
There’s a number of camp sites along the Maah Daah Hey trail or with some smallish spurs from the main trail, spaced on average 10 or so miles apart. This makes the average distance between those campsites doable for even someone hiking the trail, but more than easy enough for someone biking the trail. The MDHTA website lists the campsites and their GPS coordinates for planning your adventure. Carry cash in small bills, as the Forest Service has envelopes at each USFS campground. Expect around $10 / night per site with a site allowing 2 tents.
There are also private campsites and those ran by the State Park program in North Dakota nearby if the Forest Service sites are full. Most camp sites are primitive with the exception of a vault toilet. But some offer pump water, fire rings, and picnic tables. You can reserve spots at Sully Creek State Park online, and the trailhead is right at the front and center of the camping loops. However, the website for the State Parks system in North Dakota leaves a little bit to be desired. Maybe get your reservations in at home, on mobile we struggled.
There are a couple of options for maps of the Maah Daah Hey. You can get my KML or GPX file from the downloads section and import it into your GPS app of choice, you can buy the 2018 updated map from the Maah Daah Hey Trail association here along with a map of the Little Missouri Grasslands. There’s also an option for a National Geographic map of the area.
The trail itself is well worn but has several re-routes. Somewhere in the early 20’s for the milemarkers we’re fairly confident we saw the milemarker 23 several times. It’s also not that difficult to inadvertently walk an access path to a ranch and find yourself off-trail. So have some way to ensure that you’re staying on track. The last thing you want is a mistake of navigation to cost you distance from your campsite at night.
With the rolling hills of the North Dakota badlands I’d encourage you to carry a satellite messenger and know where you’ll likely get cell signal. Most of the ideal camp sites are in valleys protected by the onslaught of wind you’re likely to endure during your trip. For as much of a windbreak as those valleys provide it also saps your ability to communicate to the outside world. Climb to ridge tops for cell signal and you’ll be able to have adequate signal to inform folks you’re still alive and post wild bird photos to social media.
This is legitimately the easiest part of the trip. The North Dakota Game and Fish make it incredibly easy for out of state folks to hunt. They offer licenses for nonresidents and offer two blocks of time that you can pre-schedule or change as necessary. This means for one non-resident license you can hunt sharpies and huns in the early season and come back for some late season pheasant action. That’s pretty great if you live in a nearby state or you’ve been blessed with time.
They offer a fourteen day license or you can chunk it into two 1 week licenses as a non-resident for small game. All for the cost of $100. For me the ability to hunt two weeks in North Dakota is well worth the price of two tanks of gas in my truck. Check out the North Dakota Game and Fish department for more information.
My dogs didn’t join me this trip. Abbey is still overweight and Lily tends to flush wild and run after birds. I’m working on Lily’s recall, but having slept with neither of them in a small 2 man tent I just didn’t bother. Brian however had his two dogs Ida and Rio for the trip, and they performed admirably. Any sort of dog specific items for the trip are minimal. You’ll want:
- Dog Pack
- Dog Food
- Extra Water / Collapsible Water Bowl
- Canine Medical Kit
I keep a dog med kit in the truck when I’m hunting with them. At least enough to patch up small cuts, pull porcupine quills, and some anti-inflamatory meds. Benadryl is safe but makes the dog sleepy.
For dog food I plan for two cups per day per dog at a minimum, and they’ll still lose weight during a trip like this. Have additional dog food at caching points and snacks in the truck. Put the food in the dog pack and make your dog carry their own weight during the course of the hike.
During our trip we ate mostly dehydrated food. I sourced mine from Heather’s Choice out of Anchorage as well as Mountain House. While it’s a guttural time bomb I like meals like Mountain House’s Biscuits and Gravy during extremely high activity days like a long push to get extra miles in. Trail snacks had to be high in protein and fat while low in weight. I usually take into account how snacks fair in freezing weather, but this early in the season it was a non issue.
Along with my dehydrated meals I kept a couple snack items to keep me going. A couple new additions as well as some crowd favorites. These included:
- Stinger Waffles
- Clif Shotbloks (mint)
- Heather’s Choice Packaroons
- Epic Jerky Bars
- Clif Nut Butter Bars
- Instant Apple Cider Mix
All of those snacks led to diversity without burning out over the course of a week long hike. I counted out snacks and separated them into gallon bags for the trip making sure that each day was portioned out with some slack in the last day’s bag. Food weighs quite a bit, but not as much as the water requirements. This impacts your logistics on your Maah Daah Hey adventure more than you’d think. How much weight can you shoulder? How far are you willing to hike? Do you have two vehicles or a shuttle?
Meals that aren’t Just-Add-Water
Need a hot meal after you’ve cleaned off the trail dust? Whether you’re hiking or biking the Maah Daah Hey trail it will take it’s toll on you. Once you’re back to town there’s a few options for a cold beer and hot food. The Little Missouri Saloon and Dining room had a fine tap list, local knowledge, and some delicious pizza. It was a perfect place for some calorie intake therapy after a long week on the trail. We met some locals and talked everything from fishing in the area, to pronghorn, and got some pointers on getting water from stock tanks.
Once we were off-trail and back to truck-bound hunting we made a day of scouting walk in areas. After running a loop of some of the Little Missouri Grasslands we looked windburnt and our eyes were soft focusing from staring at maps and dusty windshields. We needed something to replace the calories spent throwing ourselves out of the truck and into the wind. Boots Bar and Grill in downtown Medora delivered with a cold beer and a hot french dip. Like much of the town, they’re seasonal, but opened most of hunting season — so check the hours before you go.
Water and Caching
Okay listen up, this is extremely important. If you are thru-hiking the Maah Daah Hey trail, especially with dogs make sure you’re caching. There are eight cache boxes for water, put your name and date range on the gallons. The date range is key with a drop-dead date so others can use your water if you forget.
While hiking and biking we found that water was the most limiting factor in the North Dakota badlands. I had a 5 gallon water cube in the back of my pickup for instant top-off when we got off trail. Otherwise we had to rely on running water. In October — there was none. Every creek was dry, the Little Missouri River ran a café au lait brown. You can only carry so much water on your back. At 8lbs per gallon and a consumption of at least 1.5 liters (.4 gallons) a day you just can’t keep up. That’s not even accounting for dogs.
Stock tanks are an option, but the water might not be great. Sharing water with Bessy is less than ideal. So, cache yourself some water and food, GPS mark them, label them thoroughly, and make sure you pick them up at the end of your trip. Ultimately the Little Missouri River ended up breaking my Katadyn water filter with all of the pressure I was exerting on the plunger, so a gravity based system would be preferred if you’re toting a filter in addition to your caching.
Morning Fuel Up
Right on the main drag in Medora is the hub of the town, the gas station and Medora Convenience and Liquor Store. They have hot breakfast sandwiches, coffee, and supplies you’ll need for most of your trip. They’re open year round, whereas a lot of the town seems to be semi-seasonal. This is in tracking with the tourist season surrounding Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
The parking lot is quiet enough to have your morning meeting with your hunting buddies. Put your map on the hood of the truck while downing donuts and breakfast burritos. But it’s busy enough that you can ask a rancher fueling up for some local advice. I can say for the days I was off trail I hit the convenience store almost every morning, it didn’t disappoint.
Lacking a second vehicle to do a two-person shuttle you can hire someone in town or you can hope for the kindness of strangers. It is North Dakota after all, and the folks in the area were uncommonly friendly for this lifelong east coaster. At some point I was able to score a ride from an older lady in a sprinter van after Brian and I spotted bird hunting and pointing dog stickers along the side. She was going to town anyway and would pass by my truck. The kindness of strangers cannot be overlooked or overstated in this neck of the woods.
However, you could be waiting forever for a ride if you just sit there at the trailhead with your thumb out. During the course of our week long adventure we encountered maybe ten other people on the trail. The area around the trail is vast and population sparse. I recommend having the phone numbers of the two businesses in Medora that cater to the mountain biking crowd and offer shuttle services.
I would suggest contacting Dakota Cyclery in Medora for shuttle services. Make sure you get a quote from them directly about how much gear you’re taking. I was perhaps unnecessarily cagey with them over the phone. I never know who is anti-hunter during trips like these. But they seem to be tolerant if not friendly of hunters and don’t mind dogs if you need to shuttle them. Contact them via phone or email, their website lays out different options for mountain bikers as well. I should note that this is also the only place in town to get supplements for the trail if you’re out. If you need ShotBloks, Gu, Stingers, electrolyte drink powder — this is the place to get it.
Hours vary on season
365 Main St, Medora, ND 58645
Boots Bar and Grill
Hours vary on season
300 Pacific Ave, Medora, ND 58645
Little Missouri Saloon and Dining Room
Mon-Thurs 3pm-1am Fri–Sun 11am–1am
440 3rd St, Medora, ND 58645
Medora Convenience and Liquor Store
M-Sa 5:30a- 8:00p, Su 6:00a – 7:00p
200 Pacific Ave, Medora, ND 58645
|Did I miss something? Do you have a burning question as to how we planned our trip? Drop me a line at our Contact Us form if you have any remaining burning questions about how to plan your out of state backpacking bird hunt.|