Nearly every hunter obsesses about gear, and to some degree gear does make a difference. I’m going to go through what I learned elk hunting on my own as far as the gear that makes the difference and in order of priority. That said, none of this gear matters nearly as much if you don’t get your most important gear (your body and your mind) in shape first through the workouts and homework discussed in the first segment.
Elk hunting is done on your feet. As such, your boots are your most important piece of equipment. Boots that work for elk hunting are not at all like boots made for sitting in a treestand or a duck blind, or even going after upland birds. You need good, strong boots with solid ankle support and a rigid sole. Heavy hiking boots work incredibly well, and I went with a pair from Asolo that are leather uppers, Gore-Tex lined, lightly insulated, and have a rigid sole with good ankle support. These boots are flexible enough to be comfortable for long miles and hours of hiking over rugged, broken terrain but are stiff and strong enough to provide support when carrying heavy loads and when maneuvering over rocks, fallen trees, and other obstacles. Other solid hiking boot manufacturers offer similar boots. Make sure that they are very comfortable on your feet while providing a lot of support and that you wear them long enough and often enough before the trip to break them in.
After your boots, I believe the next most important piece of equipment you can have is a well-designed, well-made pack. That pack should have either an internal or external frame (there are adherents to both designs), and it should be able to carry 70 pounds or more. It must fit you well and it must be properly adjusted. A poorly fitted, poorly adjusted pack is worse than useless; it is a trip killer and you will suffer miserably under it. Think about the fact that you will spend at least half of all waking hours of your trip under that pack, and if you are successful then that pack will be what you must use in order to bring that elk out. It has to fit you properly and it has to be well made.
On my first hunt, I used an ALICE pack that I had for many years. While it worked, it was a very bad idea. Even properly adjusted to fit me, the ALICE is just not a good pack for elk hunting and my shoulders, back, and hips ached for days after I got back home – not to mention the agony I was in for the trip. The ALICE, while it was a great battle pack in the 1960s and 70s and has the right volume and load bearing capacity for this kind of hunting, does not provide the necessary support nor the weight distribution to and through the hips, back, and shoulders to afford any degree of comfort with heavy loads, long miles, and rugged terrain. There are, fortunately, far better options available today.
I retired ALICE and upgraded to an Oregon Pack Works “Orion” pack system. To me, the Orion is the most comfortable, flexible pack system I’ve ever owned or used. There are many other good manufacturers out there that make packs specifically for this type of hunting (KUIU, Mystery Ranch, Eberlestock, Paradox, and others). All of these packs combine the volume and load bearing potential you need with the design-built weight distribution and comfort that you will want. They are not cheap, but the price paid is well worth the return in the mountains and for many years to come as they are all built for long service. Finding the one that is right for you, getting it, and getting used to it long before the hunt will pay dividends throughout your time in the field.
The altitude and physical exertion of elk hunting will drain you of your fluids. Proper hydration is essential, and whatever pack you chose ought to have a hydration-compatible system built into it. Dehydration can and will sneak up on you because the dry air wicks away your perspiration rapidly. Having that hydration valve right at your shoulder will help you combat this and stay in hunting form for much longer.
With the pack, game bags are essential. If you take an elk, it will come out of the field (more likely, off the mountain) in boned out pieces. Good game bags protect the meat, allow it to cool, and make clean up of your pack and gear easier once you get home. Take your time to watch videos about how to bone out meat (if you don’t already know), and how to pack these game bags. Doing so before you get to a very large downed elk will help you get that elk processed and off the mountain more quickly.
I debated whether to move the sleeping and shelter system to the second, or even the first, slot priority for gear, but it never slipped below third. You will spend roughly 30 percent of your trip sleeping. You will need this sleep because you will be physically exhausted and this sleep will need to be good in order for you recharge, to continue the hunt, and to perform to the peak of your abilities. If the weather turns severe, you may spend even more time in your shelter riding out the storm and waiting for the weather to break. Your shelter should be up to the task, if needed, and it should certainly be amenable to the hours that you will spend in it while asleep.
During my first trip, we used a wall tent with a stove as a base camp and a small backpack tent as a spike camp option. The former are wonderful, with a warm stove and room to stand up, but they are also huge and heavy. The latter was merely adequate, providing simple shelter but little more. I have learned that it does not have to be this way.
The ability to have a warm, heated shelter is truly a hunt-changer. When you are cold, tired, and beaten both physically and mentally after long hours and miles in the mountains, there are very few things more comforting than a warm tent and a good meal. Coming back to a cold, cramped tent and huddling over a pack stove is no way to relax from a hard day and prepare for the next. Several companies make tipi and tarp style tents that permit the use of a wood-burning stove. These tents are incredibly lightweight, yet set up to provide ample floor space and head room to allow you to sleep comfortably near a warm stove and stand up to dress inside that same warm tent in the morning. The tents by SeekOutside, Kifaru, Titanium Goat, and others, weigh in at less than 5 pounds (some considerably less than this) while providing ample space for 2-4 people and their gear. Stoves by those same manufacturers as well as Hill People Gear add only another 2 or 3 pounds to the weight but pay that back with much appreciated warmth. I will guarantee you that one of those tent systems and a stove will be in my pack before I go back after elk, and it will likely become a permanent fixture in my pack regardless of where or what I hunt.
Even with the best tent, if you can’t lie down comfortably then you can’t sleep. I rank a good sleeping pad next on my list. The days of having to suffer a hard closed-cell foam pad or a self-inflating pad that either leaks or doesn’t provide much cushion at all are over. For a backcountry hunter that isn’t counting grams, the ThermaRest NeoAir and the Big Agnes AirCore pads are just about the end of the discussion. Either of these pads will provide you with a comfortable place to rest and a needed bit of insulation from rather chilly ground. As for those hunters who are gram counters, I would assume that they are either far tougher than I am or want to be, or have enough experience to know what lightweight pads meet their requirements. For me, the few extra ounces in weight for either of these pads is worth the trade-off on a long hunt.
A proper sleeping bag is as much a personal decision as can be made for gear, and I won’t even begin to get into how to determine which bag is best for you. Mummy bags, semi-mummy bags, semi-rectangular bags, rectangular bags; down or synthetic fill; any of those will work and all have advantages and disadvantages. The point is that you need one, it needs to fit and work for you, it needs to be warm enough to keep you comfortable to the lowest ranges of your sleep tolerance (some people are warmer sleepers than others) when the ambient air temperature can dip to 0 degrees Fahrenheit, and it needs to be packable. Those are the basics, but you need to find the one that works best for you – and that hunt can be as challenging as the one you are contemplating for elk.
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Photos courtesy of Philip Peterson, Joseph Castinado and Zach Mansfield