By Sean Clarkson
Now, we are finally getting into the gear that unfortunately too many hunters spend too much time contemplating long before the ones that we already discussed. It’s not that these next few items aren’t important; they are. It’s simply that in order of priority for a successful hunt, they rank behind the ones we discussed because they will be used less, will impact your hunt to a lesser degree, and are probably items that you already have, which will at least suffice for a while. The boots, pack, and shelter and sleeping system aren’t nearly as “sexy” as optics, clothing, firearms, and knives, but they will change your hunt – for better or worse – far more than those four glamor gear categories.
After boots, pack, and a sleeping system, good optics are the next most important thing on your gear list. This includes binoculars, rangefinders, and for rifle hunters a riflescope. To me, binoculars are the most important of all. I’d rather have a great set of binoculars, no rangefinder, and an iron-sighted rifle (or my bow), than no binos and the best rangefinder or scope money could buy. You will spend a lot of time behind your binoculars, scanning ridgelines and openings, dissecting dark timber, and picking apart drainages. Getting the best quality binoculars you can afford will make this time more productive – because you will see more and more clearly – and more enjoyably – because you will have less eye strain and headaches. Hours glassing means miles not hiked, and in the end, if you can find them with your eyes then you can get to them with your feet more efficiently.
If choosing between magnification and quality of glass, always go with the quality over magnification. Lesser quality, but higher magnification, means that you will see less of what you’re looking at (even though it will be bigger/closer), you will increase eye strain, you will have more headaches, and you will use the binoculars less. I carried a pair of Minox 6.5x binoculars and found them better in the field than my hunting partners 8x because the quality of the glass was that much better, allowing for sharper resolution and greater definition of detail. Your binoculars will be used for many hours on your trip, and good quality binoculars will make this time enjoyable and productive.
A solid laser rangefinder is obviously an advantage when trying to determine whether that elk is in range or where exactly to hold for the range prior to a shot. They are also incredibly handy in figuring out how far away those elk are and how far from you/close to them other points of interest might be. For example, if the elk are 1200 yards away and moving toward a clump of pines that are 800 yards away, then you know that if you get to those pines, the elk will be no more than 400 yards from you and closing. The rangefinder can save you minutes or more in planning a stalk or approach, and in the end, those minutes can be critical.
Finally, for rifle hunters, your scope must be up to the challenge. Again, magnification is not nearly as critical as resolution. I used a 6x fixed power scope and did quite well. Elk are large animals, but they are most active at dawn and dusk and otherwise found in dark timber. You need a scope that is rugged enough to handle the mountains and hard hunting, but one that is bright enough and clear enough to salvage those precious early and late minutes of daylight. That said, if you have a choice between upgrading your riflescope and upgrading your binoculars, put the money in the binoculars; they will be used far more and will better put you into a position to use the scope.
When we’re discussing clothing for a backcountry hunt, and especially for elk, let’s start with one process of elimination. If you own any cotton hunting clothing at all, including underwear and socks, throw them away. Purge any and all cotton you have before you go any further, because cotton kills when it gets wet and cold and it doesn’t insulate worth a cuss even when it’s dry and warm. Cotton has its place, and I do love my jeans and t-shirts, but that place is as far from elk country as you can keep it.
Now, with that said, I’m about to get a bit further into the land of heresy. Don’t fret about camouflage. Yes, elk can see shapes and movement and distinguish shades of contrast just like deer can. Yes, camo can help to some degree. It’s just not that important. Your movement (or lack thereof) is far more important, as is your ability to hunt the wind, to stay silent when you have to do so, and to put your self in positions to succeed (or, more accurately, to keep yourself from getting caught in positions of failure). If you can find good quality clothing that you need for this type of hunting and it’s in a solid, neutral color (greys, tans, browns, black), then get it. It will work just as well and probably cost less than the camo stuff that is an alternative. That said, if you find what you like and what works for you in camo, then by all means have it. Just don’t think that one pattern or another, or no pattern at all, is going to make or break your hunt.
My recommendations for clothing start at the base layers. Merino wool is wonderful stuff and if you can have it for your underwear, base layers, and socks, you’ll do no better. Up from that base layer, I remain a fan of wool for sweaters and mid-insulation, but down has it’s place here because it is so light and packable and so incredibly warm for the little weight you will carry. Fleece can also work, but be careful getting it wet. For outer layers, make sure you have something that can block the wind because it will blow, and occasionally howl, through elk mountains. Waterproof or water resistant is a good plus as well, but if you are in wool for the most part, it loses a bit of the necessity.
Pack to dress warmly and in layers, and make sure that those layers all have reasons for being there (i.e., no duplication). You may only need one set of clothes for the hunt, if they are really high quality, so put the time and money into getting the best you can for one entire set instead of worrying about having a second or third piece of something and sacrificing quality. You’re going to smell bad after this hunt anyway.
Well, we are finally to the last priority of your gear list and the one that I’m sure that most hunters spend the most time fretting about, discussing, and second guessing: your weapons and your knives. I won’t get into recommendations about archery tackle because there are folks far more knowledgeable than me out there that have done so.
This will be short and sweet. Whatever you have is probably good enough.
Your knives - and you should have two, maybe three, with you for this hunt - need to be sharp, they need to be easily resharpened in the field (elk hide and sinew is tough stuff), and they need to be reasonably light. That’s it. You can fret about steels or designs or brands, but in the end if they cover those three bases, they’ll work. Elk have been and continue to be dressed and butchered with every kind of steel from just about every maker and in a myriad of designs. The dressing has even been done quite effectively with sharp rocks. Your knives, if they are sharp, field resharpenable, and light, will be fine.
The same, essentially, goes for your weapon. With a rifle, if you are competent and PRACTICE REGULARLY out to about 400 yards then you’ll be fine. Any cartridge based on the .308 or .30-06 case, or larger, from .25 caliber up and firing a good, well constructed, reasonably heavy bullet will work. Your ability to practice regularly, put yourself in position to make the shot, range the shot accurately, and then put the bullet where it needs to go will matter far more than your choice of cartridge or rifle.
Well, there you have it. Those pointers are what I learned going for elk on my own as a first elk hunt. Take the advice for what it is. You can continue to daydream about elk and about a hunt for them, or you can simply say to yourself “I’m going” and go do it. It’s not impossible. I did it, so can you, and I hope the few pointers I learned and shared here will help you along your way.
See you on the mountain, and I hope you’ll be headed back down with a heavy pack and a big grin on your face.
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Photo Courtesy of Chase Hundley