Prep School for Outfitters

Pre-season prep is extremely important. Miss a beat now, and you'll pay later. Here's help.
Jun 6, 2023

Administrative tasks are not fun and easy to put off or overlook. To-do lists, however, can help you keep on task and help you keep track of clients who have and who have not signed contracts. Such lists also are constant reminders of any correspondence that needs to take place between you and your clients.

Many people are of the opinion that outfitters live a charmed life. I’ll concede that at times we do. In the off-season, our days are more or less our own. On the other hand, there are days, especially when guests are in our care, the responsibilities are heavy and overwhelming.

For most of us, there’s plenty of downtime between seasons to prep for the busy seasons, but when it’s go-time, there’s little room for mistakes. Successful outfitters learn early on that proper planning and preparation grease the rails so the train runs smoothly down that long track ahead.

To-Do Lists Are Key
Pre-season to-do lists can be long and labor-intensive. From administrative duties and repairing equipment to scouting, staffing, and procuring supplies—there are so many little tasks. But before you get overwhelmed and look for a new career, we’ve broken down the major tasks so that you can get your head around them a few months before the first guests arrive.

The business aspects of outfitting involve a fair bit of administration. Throughout the year, you’ve prepared, issued, signed, and filed your hunting and fishing contracts, but from now until autumn, however, lists are your best friends.

Aside from any state or provincial regulatory requirements, common admin tasks that should be on your list include retaining legal documents, such as signed hunting or fishing contracts and liability waivers. Prep and send to clients recommended gear lists and other stuff they need to bring. Use this list to begin maintaining regular contact by e-mail, text message, or phone up until the day they arrive. Expect your clients to ask a lot of questions, but the last thing they want is ambiguity. If they’re not getting questions answered, anxiety and frustration could follow and that could lead to a canceled trip or at least unrealistic expectations. Avoid all of that by communicating.

As their arrival days draw near, get in touch with them, even if it’s brief, the week prior to their hunt. This contact should address any last-minute admin requirements confirming any allergies or medical considerations, flight itineraries, pick-up and drop-off times, confirmation of gear items they need to bring, and a quick overview of weather forecasts or any changes to hunting or fishing trip plans that may need to be brought to their attention. No one likes surprises, especially paying clients.

Having been an outfitter for two decades, I’ve learned to take a 50 percent deposit upon booking and collect the balance 30 days prior to my guest’s arrival. In the past, I took credit card payments, but no more because of fraudulent activities. I’ve also learned that it works best for me to receive all payments either electronically or by certified funds such as money orders or bank drafts. I’ve had one hunter who wrote a personal check. He gave it to me upon arrival, enjoyed a successful hunt, and then canceled the check. I later learned he had a track record for this type of behavior. In the end, I changed our payment policies and have never looked back.

As far as licensing goes, where I outfit in Alberta, we can purchase our hunters’ and anglers’ licenses for them. One of my last-minute pre-season admin tasks is securing all of our guests’ permits ahead of time so that they have them upon arrival.

Some outfitters opt for digital organization. Some things, however, I do like to have on paper. I keep a binder with several dividers in it.

Sections of my binder include copies of hunting contracts, signed liability waivers, hunting and fishing licenses, flight itineraries, bills of lading and authorization letters for transporting harvested game, government harvest-report forms, client-specific medical information, copies of guides’ licenses, a copy of provincial hunting and fishing regulations, blank score sheets, landowner contact lists, and blank wildlife export forms.

I stock my binder a few weeks prior to the first hunt to ensure I have time to think it over and address any last-minute additions or changes.


If you operate a remote camp, well-maintained wall-tents are a necessity. After the season ends, it’s a good idea to make repairs to extend the life of the tent or replace any tents that are too far gone. During the season, I set up tents and everything else I need for our remote camp a few days in advance of the hunters, just to make sure everything is working properly. And I keep a list to remind me to do all those things in a timely manner.

Day in and day out, we put ATVs, boats, trucks, trailers, tents, lamps, decoys, cameras, chainsaws, firearms, and a list far too long to mention in its entirety, to the test. Equipment wears out or breaks, and during the season, there’s little time to repair or replace it. What happens then? We park it and find some other alternative to get us through our crunch time.

When our hunts or excursions are over, most of us want nothing more than to lie down and sleep for a few days. Downtime may be well-deserved, but it’s then that repairs and replacements are usually best addressed.

In my experience, and to beat a dead horse, it pays to keep a running written or digital list of equipment that has broken or needs replacement. My lists are then easily revisited and items are checked off as each issue is resolved. If I fail to record it, I risk missing something altogether. In my pre-list days, on more than one occasion I entered the season having completely forgotten about a specific piece of equipment, only to find that it had to be addressed then and there. The complication could have been avoided by addressing it in the off-season. Procrastination is never a good thing. Most issues are best addressed at your earliest convenience.

Change the oil and winterize the UTV and boat motors before any cold weather comes. One of my first off-season tasks is to remove, recycle, and arm all battery-operated equipment, like spinner decoys, flashlights, and trail cams, with new batteries. If you forget to do this, you’ll risk corrosion or worse yet, taking dead batteries into the field the following season.

I also restock my first aid kits. Each season, kits get ransacked. One of the little, but critical, things I’ve learned is to stock kits with Advil, Tylenol, and aspirin. Clients often go through over-the-counter pain medicine like candy.

Equipment that’s been in the woods for a while, such as treestands, usually needs some TLC. Seats get nibbled by squirrels or eaten by bears. Broken or worn-out duck decoys and blinds also have to be replaced. Wall tents need to be patched or refinished with waterproofing, and the list goes on.

My own downtime from outfitting occurs around show season from January through April, and then again now, from June through August. Once August 25 hits, I’m flat-out working until Christmas. In turn, I’m a firm believer in servicing equipment repairs either immediately after my last clients leave, or if necessary, during the winter months. If certain equipment needs to be replaced or upgraded, I like to walk the floor at trade shows and check out any new products that might help me improve the services I offer. Waterfowl and big-game decoys, along with tree stands, are great examples of this. Daily use exacts a toll on decoys, and these items especially need to be upgraded or replaced regularly.

Another routine equipment upgrade is trail cameras, which are great for my line of work, and by upgrading my cameras to ensure they have Wi-Fi or other remote-communication capability, I have saved time, energy, and mileage.

Equipment maintenance schedules and priorities will vary for each outfitter, but in the end, we all face similar challenges. For my operation, the last two weeks before our first clients arrive are crucial. By this time, I’ve checked off all of my to-do list equipment items and start reviewing to make sure nothing is missed. Once that’s done, I can invest that time in setting out last-minute equipment needs such as deer stands and blinds.

As far as staffing goes, we all need to have our guides, cooks, spotters, and logistics personnel lined up well ahead of the season. Secure your staff during your off-season months. But in most instances, guiding is a part-time gig, and that means most of our guides and cooks either have regular jobs or float from operator to operator. This presents challenges. Despite best-laid plans and pre-season organization, sometimes staff commitments fall through. Maybe either a new guide isn’t working out, a cook becomes ill, a guide gets injured, or a staff member’s regular job takes him away for one reason or another. Things happen, and it’s up to you as the outfitter to find a solution.

Locating a warm body isn’t usually a problem, but if you’re good at what you do, you want more than just a person to fill the spot—you need someone skilled who can represent your company with excellence. Again, as a rule, I make it a practice to secure my staff early on in the year. This is done verbally and in writing, to show the importance of communication and mutual understanding.

Essentially, I formalize my staff ’s acceptance by my company, along with the dates that they will be working, the requirements and their job descriptions, rates of pay, and a request for notification as soon as possible if anything should change. While this protocol tends to work well, things happen. This is where it’s imperative to ensure that pre-season planning involves a plan B and even a plan C.

My plan B involves developing a list of back-up guides and talking with them long before the season. Essentially, these folks are on-call and ready to go. Similarly, I do this for cooks and so on.

My plan C involves pre-made meal plans and catering. Fortunately, plan A usually works, but when challenges arise, having a second and third option can save your hide.

Every outfitter knows their own needs and what time of the year works best to scout their area. For me as a whitetail- and mule-deer outfitter, my pre-season scouting begins early. I shed hunt in late January and February. Picking up shed antlers allows me to learn which bucks made it through the previous season.

Similarly, I leave trail cameras up after the season to capture game movement through the end of February, then I collect the cameras, clean them and store them without batteries inside. I don’t place cameras again until July when antlers are beginning to show. I then arm them with new memory cards and fresh batteries. Then, whenever I check or collect them, I load all images onto my laptop and then back them up on an external hard drive. My filing system allows me to easily choose folders and sub-folders labeled by property and date.

One of the most important pre-season steps involves recording the number of times given bucks are captured moving past the camera, specific dates that the biggest deer are captured, and taking note of the buck-to-doe ratio. I also pay attention to the number of new bucks and especially trophy-quality bucks that move in front of my cameras during the rut. By recording and studying this data in the pre-season weeks just prior to placing stands, I can make best guesses based on this feedback and historical information about which stands produce year after year.

There are similar scouting and trail-cam strategies that can be employed for other species such as bears or deer on bait, and even elk and moose on wallows or natural or manmade mineral licks. If you ignore your cams in the off-season, you’ll be blind heading into hunting season.

Camp Supplies
My own wall-tent camps are generally accessible by road, so setting up and stocking supplies is usually straightforward. Weather and health permitting, I can usually take care of this a few days before my hunters arrive. My routine involves watching the weather forecast and setting up my wall tents, outdoor toilets, and shower facilities a couple days ahead. Then I rig my electrical and set up freezers and generators in advance to ensure everything is functioning. Next, I bring in my groceries and make sure targets, tool chests, chainsaws, and firewood are in place prior to my clients’ arrival.

If, on the other hand, you run a remote camp, stocking supplies can be a major undertaking. I know several bear- and fishing-camp outfitters, for instance, who take advantage of ice roads or frozen lakes to transport camp supplies and bear bait for their spring hunts into backcountry wilderness camps during the cold-weather winter months. Storing non-perishable supplies in sealed 45-gallon drums, they can take several trips when the weather conditions are hospitable.

In the end, as an outfitter, taking care of business is about taking care of people who are paying for a unique experience. And that requires organization, equipment, supplies, and staff members who know how to hunt, fish, and take care of your clients. From the very biggest details, such as transportation, down to the smallest, such as handwarmers, the key is to cover all of your bases to avoid hassles and ensure success during the season. Lists, which allow you to see what needs to be done and what has been done, can help you keep track of all of it.

Kevin Wilson owns and operates Alberta Hunting Adventures in Canada. His business, which opened in 2001, specializes in full-service whitetail, mule deer, black bear, and coyote hunts.

From the Summer 2020 issue of Guidefitter Journal.

Kevin Wilson
Edmonton, Canada