Lessons learned the hard way
By Garrett Golding
The temperature began to plummet as we parked at the trailhead. By the time we settled at the base of a small fir tree, the north wind was casting waves of snow over the meadow that lay before us. The setting could not have been more perfect, like a painting of what a Colorado elk hunt should look like. I fought back visions of a mature bull stomping out of the tree line ahead of us. And then that’s exactly what happened.
How did we get here? My father and I were two whitetail and waterfowl hunters from Texas with a longtime dream to chase elk in the mountains. After months of preparation, we found ourselves on the cusp of filling a tag.
If you are considering going on your first western hunt, you will find a lot of the same advice in various magazines and websites: Get in great physical shape, don’t skimp on your boots and backpack, bring quality optics and practice your shooting. While those are all legitimate points, there were some additional lessons we learned by doing it ourselves:
Have the right mindset. If you want to go on a true DIY public land western hunt, think carefully about your goals. Obviously, you will want to fill your tag, but do not approach that as your expectation or requirement for having a good time. Look at the total experience: the research and physical training in the months leading up to it, the time you get to spend in an amazing environment and the challenges this style of hunting creates, which not only can make you a better hunter but even a better person. If you approach the trip this way, you will gain a lot more in the end.
Know your limits in the mountains. We quickly adopted the “3-2-1 Rule,” meaning we could cover three miles an hour on a developed trail, two miles an hour with a stiff elevation gain, and one mile when we had to go off-trail. It also became readily apparent how much bigger everything is than even 3D maps can prepare you for. There were also roads and trails on the map that didn’t actually exist, as well as small cliffs and rock outcroppings that weren’t on the map but threw us a curveball when we ran into them. Bottom line: it takes longer than you think to get anywhere in the mountains.
Train for your hunt. There are a huge selection of training plans for mountain hunting out there today, but many are designed for the backpack hunter carrying 30-40lbs on their back all day. If you are hunting from a basecamp or your vehicle every day, your training program should reflect that. Also, be careful to avoid overuse injuries that will set you back. Every week of conditioning counts.
Spend a night at altitude. There are no shortcuts for flatlanders to quickly adjust to 10,000 feet. Great aerobic capacity and hydration are huge boosts, but you will still be in a battle for oxygen the first couple of days in the mountains. One way to smooth the transition is to sleep overnight at or near the altitude you'll hunt at before you set out. Plan your drive so you arrive at the trailhead in the evening or can stay at a hotel nearby. The passive hours of acclimatization will help tremendously when you get on the mountain, allowing you to make the most of your time.
Invest in quality base layers. It is intimidating to look at the price tags on all the high-performance mountain hunting clothing out there, especially if you are already budgeting for tags, travel costs and other new gear. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you need every one of these pieces. Instead, to get the most bang for your buck, look at quality merino wool or synthetic base layers. These will do the most to keep you dry and comfortable under the hunting or even backpacking clothing you already own.
Back to the snowy meadow and that bull. He stopped broadside at 300 yards right as a sudden gust of wind swept between us and him. In the five seconds he stood there before vanishing back into the trees, I did not take the shot. I had never fired my rifle in those conditions before.
This goes to show that the oft-repeated advice you see out there should not be overlooked. I emptied boxes of ammo practicing for this hunt but failed to hit the range on a breezy day. Doing so may have given me the ability and confidence to take a shot that afternoon.
But that did not ruin our trip. We saw amazing sights, pushed ourselves to the limit and learned a ton. We talked the entire 12-hour drive home what we would do differently next time, since we decided immediately there would be a next time.
If you are waffling on taking on your first big western hunt, don’t think any longer. Just go. It’s not impossible or unaffordable. It’s as fun as it looks if you have the right attitude. And every day you are home after your trip, you will be thinking of being in the mountains again next fall.