Hunters live controversial, even downright unorthodox lifestyles. A significant portion of the American public views our primary tools with contempt, and they question the ethics of killing your own food when you could buy it in a store and thereby let someone else do the killing for you. So it’s really no wonder that hunters such as myself try so hard to justify our discipline in a way that is understandable to the outside world. One of the best ways of doing this, I’ve found, is to point out the obvious health benefits that come from eating a diet of lean, organic, free-range wild meat. But I fear that focusing on the health benefits of eating wild meat causes us to miss out on something much more compelling: the health benefits of pursuing wild meat.

My lifelong quest to feed my family and myself a diet of self-harvested wild game has pushed me harder and farther physically than any other thing I’ve ever been involved with. I strive to hunt in the best and most productive places, which are often amid the roughest terrain. In pursuit of game, I’ve climbed mountains that sometimes go years without visitors, rafted whitewater by nothing but the dim light of a headlamp, forded rivers swift enough to roll head-sized boulders like tumbleweed, slept in places unfit for anything but a snake and lugged a backpack that weighs half as much as I do for many days on end. 

One might regard these activities as unnecessarily risky, and they could be excused for thinking so. After all, hunting has landed me in doctors’ offices and emergency rooms more than a few times. I remember in particular a four-day hospital stay for a condition that found its origins in some Arizona creekwater that I drank while deer hunting, and that was compounded significantly when I butchered a California wild boar who’d evidently been rolling in poison oak.

But I regard even those close calls as healthful experiences, because I’m a believer in the cliché about how what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger. And by stronger I’m not just talking about brute force and physical endurance, though many of the best hunters can claim these attributes. Instead, I’m talking about a rare sort of mental strength that comes from taking on a challenge you believe in and then sticking with it through physically trying times. It’s an invaluable form of strength, one that can be felt through your entire being.

These days, we hear so much about the broader implications of our food. Choices about what we eat affect our world in surprising ways, as each decision sends out unseen waves of repercussions that reach farmers, laborers, chefs, animals, even the land. By eating meat that you’ve hunted, you are able to exercise a tremendous amount of control over the waves you create. The implications of your actions become clearer, because you have to personally witness them as they play out. You don’t need your foodie butcher to assure you about the peaceful and stress-free life that was lived by the dead animal you’re about to purchase from him. Instead, you climbed up there and witnessed that life for yourself. And lest you forget that, the muscle burn in your legs and the ache in your shoulders will serve to remind you.

Steven Rinella is star of The Sportsman Channel's MeatEater, a production of Food Republic parent company Zero Point Zero, as well as an award-winning author. His most recent book is called Meat Eater: Adventures From the Life Of An American Hunter.