DIY Elk Hunting Tips, Part 1

33 Chris BaraBy BHA Board Member, Sean Clarkson


For many of us who hunt and happen to live in areas where there are currently no elk, the dream of a Rocky Mountain Elk hunt is one that keeps us up at nights and fuels our daydreams.  If you spend your time watching some of those “hunting shows” or reading most of the glossy magazines, elk hunts are right up there with exotic cars and fancy yachts; something that “you” will never get to experience because it costs a bunch and takes expertise you don’t have and will have to hire.  Baloney!


You can hunt elk without breaking the bank, and you can do it on your own.  I’ve done it, as have many others, and am gearing up to do it again.  What I’m going to discuss with you in a two-part series is what I learned doing it on my own: what is important in hunting elk, and what you can do to do it yourself, too.  My first elk hunt was in the fall of 2011 with a friend from back home.  Neither of us had ever hunted elk before, and aside from being in the Denver International Airport, neither of us had ever set foot in Colorado, either.  In the end, and for less than $1500 each, we both spent 9 days in the field (plus 2.5 days driving each way), both filled our elk tags, and both had a fantastic trip.  If we can do it, so can you.  Let’s get started.

Get in shape

If you are serious about elk hunting, the first thing that you should start doing – right now – is getting in shape.  Elk hunting is not easy.  You will be carrying a good bit of weight on your back before you pull the trigger and if you are lucky enough and put in enough work to get an elk then you will be carrying a lot more weight later.  You will be on your feet and hiking for miles every day with that pack on your back over very steep and rugged terrain.  Running is mandatory to get in shape.  If you have hills and can run them, that’s even better.  By mid to late summer, you need to be running with a pack on and gradually increasing the weight in that pack.  If you have stairwells in the building where you work, take them from now on and forget the elevator even exists.  Make sure that you add in stretching and core building exercises as well.  There are a lot of really great exercise videos and workouts online and many are geared toward backcountry hunters and elk hunters.  Find one or two that work for you and get on them now.  Doing so could very easily mean the difference between a hard, enjoyable, and successful hunt and one that is a painful, miserable, unsuccessful experience.

On my first trip, the elk were still up high.  That meant that the elk were hanging out in dark timber, or were right at to just above treeline between 9,000 and 12,000 feet.  If you are coming from the east or from flat country, let me assure you that the altitude alone makes things completely different.  There is just not much oxygen up there.  Getting in shape now will make dealing with that better later.  Also, dealing with the altitude takes acclimatization.  The severe altitude changes and overall elevation can cause health problems.  Research them, know what to look for, make sure you allow time for your body to adjust to the altitude, and if you notice any warning signs please pay attention to them.  One hunt isn’t worth your health or your life.

Do your homework

As with every other major endeavor in life, it pays to do your homework.  Elk hunting is no exception, and if you’re serious about doing it on your own for the first time, it is absolutely essential.  I found the best place to start to be the “Elk Hunting University” webpages put out by Colorado Parks and Wildlife. 

EHUThe “Elk Hunting University” is an online educational program provided by CPW’s “Hunter Outreach Program” with support from CPW field officers, Colorado-certified “Huntmasters”, and various other partners across Colorado.  There are four chapters to the University, ranging from an introduction and how to go about qualifying for and purchasing licenses all the way through tutorials on processing meat from field to table.  There are sections on setting up a camp, moving through elk country, and shot placement pointers.  There is even an excellent section on a “Wapiti Workout” as a primer for getting ready.  (Yes, I know I keep harping on the physical preparation, but take it from someone who thought that they were in pretty good shape before they got to the mountains – you don’t want to be as sore and tired as I was.)  The Elk Hunting University is an excellent place to begin your homework and it will outline quite a few questions for you as you prepare.  It’s a start, and then finding your own answers to those questions will be the next step in the journey toward a successful DIY backcountry elk hunt

After working through the Elk Hunting University, I would suggest turning next to the season draw and kill reports for the state you plan to hunt.  I hunted Colorado and this information is easily accessible online.  Most other elk states have similar information available on the Internet as well.  If you are not hunting for racks of a certain size, then you should be able to quickly determine what units offer you the best chance at success.  Most elk states require a draw for non-resident hunters and points will determine the success rate of drawing a tag.  Generally, the more points required the greater the likelihood of success and the greater likelihood of that unit being a “trophy unit”, at least during a certain season.  Those units and seasons often require years of point accumulation before a successful draw and take dedication that is often rewarded with a hunt and a trophy of a lifetime.  However, many other units require few points or no points at all to draw, and in some states leftover tags or over-the-counter tags for elk can be had easily for certain units and seasons.  If you want a good first elk hunt with a high likelihood of seeing great territory and elk, and you are happy filling your tag with any legal elk (I firmly believe that any elk taken on public land on a DIY hunt is plenty “trophy” enough), then you can draw or buy a tag for a good unit and season with no difficulty.  Studying those draw and kill reports will make that selection much easier.

mapsOnce you have decided upon a unit and a season, the next step should be to acquire the topographic maps for that area.  Google Earth can provide great options for viewing the terrain on your computer, but there is no replacement for a good map in front of you on the table and especially once you get into the field.  Elk hold in the timber, will feed in clearings, and need water.  When you can find those areas on your maps, especially in close proximity to one another, you likely are looking at areas that could be frequented by elk.  I say could be because until you are there and the elk are there, it’s only a “could” and not a definite.  Still, and just as it is with other game species, finding the likely bedding areas in proximity to feeding areas and water are great ways to start.   If you can add in aerial photos of the areas, all the better as you determine vegetation and terrain and isolate those bedding, feeding, and watering areas.

The final bit of homework I suggest begins before the hunt and continues throughout your trip.  Talk to and listen to the locals.  Just like you know the patterns and favored areas of the game on your home turf, those folks know the elk where they live.  I found many hunters from Colorado eager to help in the preparation and planning for my hunt, and to be completely honest, if it had not been for a change of hunting area based upon the advise of a couple of locals while out there, I likely would have come home empty handed.  When my hunting partner and I mentioned what we were looking for (elk) and how we planned to do it (on foot, with packs), the answers were quickly: “Well, if you’re crazy enough to want to do it like that, then yeah, there are a bunch of elk right over there” and “over there” was explained in detail.  Ask honest smart questions, listen closely to the answers, and be polite and courteous in your conversations.  Like most hunters, the locals around where you plan to hunt elk are good, hard-working people who appreciate other hunters that have a sense of humor, humility, and aren’t afraid to do things the right way.

You may have noticed that this first article did not mention backcountry gear at all.  That is for the second article.  However, if I am to be truthful, I think that gear selection (aside from just a few items – and likely not what you’re thinking) is highly overrated for most hunting and specifically elk hunting.  Of course, if my wife reads this, I’ll have some questions to answer, but it’s the truth.  Getting in shape and doing your homework will pay dividends far beyond anything you can buy to carry with you.  Concentrate on getting those parts well in hand, and I’ll be back in the next two Journals with notes on gear.

Stay tuned to the backcountry blog for upcoming parts 2 and 3 of Sean Clarkson's DIY Elk Hunting.

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