So, You Want to be an Elk Hunter? Part III | Great Days Outdoors

How to Plan Your Own Western Elk Hunt Experience

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the last of a 3-part series on planning a western elk hunt. Alan Carter graduated from the University of Montana with a degree in resource conservation and has spent the last 25 years hunting elk throughout the Rocky Mountains. He is a licensed big game guide and owner of Two Bear Outfitters and BVA Pacbags in Hamilton, Montana)

In this article we will focus on the DIY western elk hunt.  If you have not read the first two articles it would be wise to go back and read through them. Here’s Part I and Part II.

“There is a place in every man’s heart that wants to just go after an elk on his own terms in his own way.”

You are at the stage where you have committed to do an elk hunt, have picked a date, lined out all your friends and family, and selected a state to hunt.  You have decided you want to do it yourself and save some serious money over going with an outfitter.  There is a place in every man’s heart that wants to just go after an elk on his own terms, in his own way.  The DIY western elk hunt is for that man.  It is now time to start to really pin down your action plan.

Where to Hunt?

While you know what state you have settled on, it is time to get an area and focus in on the approach that’s best for you.  One option that is worth investigating is a simple trespass fee to hunt private property.  There are ranches all over the west that will let you hunt them with a daily fee, or weekly.

If this is the route you go you must ensure they have elk, you will have exclusive rights for that week, and how much hunting pressure the ranch has received.  Some huge ranches may have several people paying trespass fees to hunt at the same time. 


You will have to compare hunting pressure to available acreage, remember, elk require and inhabit huge spaces, so western elk ranch property is best looked at in sections.  One section is 640 acres or one square mile.  A decent elk ranch should include many sections of available hunting ground, or exclusive rights for smaller ranches.  Do not be afraid to ask the ranch for references of people that have hunted there before.

The majority of hunters are going to go on public land.  Typically BLM, USFS, or state forest.   Elk hunting areas are designated by game departments by unit, however, most locals are going to name drainages, peaks, or roads as hunting areas and that is important to remember.  Elk hunting units are huge, and by using game departments success numbers compared with available public land you can quickly narrow down a unit. 

Once you have picked a hunting unit to investigate it is wise to determine whether or not there is public land available.  A unit with great success numbers may by predominately private land or some public land with limited access.  You can get maps online or directly from USFS local office.  USGS maps are named by quadrangle, so you will need to know the name of the map.  A call to the local USFS regional office will be helpful at this time. 

As I stated earlier most locals go by creek drainage, mountain peak, or USFS road, so being able to say you want to hunt around “Elk Top Mountain” will allow the government representative to select that proper quadrangle map.  These maps will show public/private boundaries, USFS roads, springs, creeks, and mountain peaks.  Maps in many different varieties can be found online as well and even downloaded into your GPS.

Once you have determined that the area has plenty of public land to hunt, you will also need to discover how much hunting pressure it receives, and how many elk inhabit the area.  It is wise to be careful here as a unit may receive a lot of pressure because it has a lot of elk and vice versa.  It is now time to get on the game departments website and find the local biologist and the local game warden and give them a call.


You will find that while these folks are busy, they will return your phone calls and give you very valuable information.  You will be able to determine access, available lodging, hunting pressure, elk herd data, and terrain information from these two calls.  The biologist and the warden will both probably speak of this drainage or that peak as mentioned before, so be ready to clarify and write down what they are saying.  Knowing the drainages and creek bottoms is very useful and specific information that you can use to enhance your hunt plan.

Now that you have all this done it is time to have a look at some of these creeks and peaks via google earth.  Google earth is a tool that I use frequently, and will allow you to virtually see the area you are considering.  You can see creek bottoms, terrain cover, possible feeding areas, possible bedding areas, hiking trails and roads. 

When I am evaluating a new area I like to find a long ridge with lots of dark timber and several ridges coming off it.  These smaller ridges will form what I call micro-drainages off the main ridge and are excellent elk habitat.  You will also find water and wallows in these little micro drainages and the main ridge serves as a transition zone between bedding and feeding areas. 

Transition zones are an excellent place to ambush a bull after a night of feeding.  When reviewing google make sure there are feeding areas, bedding cover, and water in the area you are reviewing, and remember elk can cover great distances between feeding and bedding, many times several miles.

Where to Stay?

Once you have determined exactly where you are going to hunt the net big question to address is lodging.  You are going to need sleep, food, and cover from the elements.  If you decide to stay in a motel in town, consider the drive time to and from your area.  Extensive drive times mean less available sleep and possible being late to your area for the right time. 

Many folks choose to camp in the area they are hunting.  Make sure to review road access and available spots.  If using a camper to haul into the mountains note that you will be going up logging roads, some are excellent, and others are not.  Also consider things like chains for you vehicle in the event of snow.  Mountain logging roads can be extremely dangerous when hard packed ice and snow are covering them.

If tent camping you will want a heat source in the tent as mountain temperature can fluctuate greatly even in the early season.  A chain saw is worth bringing for downed trees in road, camp fire wood, poles for hanging meat and many other uses.  Consider also your food storage, bear proof coolers or rope to hang food in to keep bears at bay is advised. 

Most people bring lanterns as well, but also bring a couple headlamps and extra batteries.  There is very little residual light in the mountains and when it gets dark you will need a light source on your person.  Also bring a first aid kit and prepare for the worst, there are no hospitals on the mountain.  At least one member of your party should be certified in first aid, if not, take a class.  A hundred bucks and a couple evenings in class could save somebody’s life.

Packing It In

There is another style of hunting that I think is extremely effective, and that is the back pack camp.  The best way to approach this is to have a base camp along the road and venture out for 2-3 days at a time staying on the mountain.  The back pack hunter is able to go into more remote areas, away from other hunters, and stay right with an elk herd. 

I like the base camp model better for back pack hunting because staying in the timber for a week or more requires a much heavier pack, better logistics, and can be physically and mentally exhausting.  Additionally, if you back pack deep into the mountains for an extended stay and the elk are not there, you just wasted a couple days of your hunt.  Going back to your base camp after three days allows you to solve any issues you may have with equipment, get refreshed, gives your hunting area a break from your presence, and provides exploration of other areas.  It’s also nice to get a much needed break from the MRE’s or freeze dried food you have been eating for the last three days.

Another style of hunting that I think is extremely effective is the backpack camp. The best way to approach this is to have a base camp along the road and venture out for two or three days at a time staying on the mountain. The backpack hunter is able to go into more remote areas, away from other hunters and stay right with an elk herd.

I like the base camp model better for backcountry hunting because staying in the timber for a week or more requires a much heavier pack, better logistics and can be physically and mentally exhausting. Additionally, if you pack deep into the mountains for an extended stay and the elk are not there, you just wasted a couple days of your hunt.

Going back to your base camp after three days allows you to solve any issues you may have with equipment, get refreshed and give your hunting area a break from your presence while providing exploration of other areas.  It’s also nice to get a much needed break from the MRE’s or freeze dried food you have been eating for the last three days.

Back pack hunting is certainly not for the faint of heart.  You will be on the mountain with very little gear, and carrying in all of it on your back.  You will be staying in some rough conditions as well and subjected to weather, predators, and complete darkness at night.  I can tell you I have done many bivy hunts for elk, and I think it is one of the true joys in life.  If you enjoy being close to nature, and are physically fit enough to do it, it is a highly effective hunting method. 

Keep It Light and Useful


Your gear must be lightweight as well.  I prefer packing in a couple tarps as opposed to a one man lightweight tent.  Tarps can serve multiple purposes and are economical and light weight.  You will certainly need a barrier from the ground such as a small lightweight pad to keep warm.  I always bivy near water sources as well, you will need it for drinking and cooking.  There is nothing worse than having to haul water first thing in the morning up the mountain. 

I once did a hunt with a buddy and we made the mistake of bivying up high with no immediate water.  Every morning we got up we hiked down the mountain to a creek and filled our jugs.  After one day of this I took my compression sac for my sleeping bag and lined it with a trash bag I brought from the house.  I toted down to the creek first thing in the morning and hauled it up the slope.  We made our coffee and oatmeal and laughed at how we beat the water problem.  After a couple bites of oatmeal and a slug of coffee I realized something was wrong.  I glanced at my buddy who was glaring back at me. 

“This taste horrible!” he croaked. 

Turns out my lovely bride buys flower scented trash bags.  I can affirm lilac flavored oatmeal is disgusting.

The objective of the back pack camp hunting model is to remain mobile.  Be prepared to break camp and throw it on your back after a day of hunting.  If the herd is on the move, stay with them. No matter how great the area looks, no matter how much it seems elk should be there, if there is no fresh sign, the elk are not there and it is time to move.  Always remember to leave no trace, cat hole waste, and pick up all your trash.  Our national forest lands belong to everybody, and nobody wants to pack into the mountains and see the remnants of somebody else’s camp.  Additionally, if you leave obvious signs of your camp, others may be tipped off that the location is a good one.  If you pack it in, pack it out.

On a back pack hunt it is imperative that you have minimum gear and effective useful gear.  If you have never done a bivy hunt I strongly suggest you do a couple weekend trial runs prior to your hunt.  Pack all the items you think you need and when you are back home, eliminate the ones you didn’t use excluding of course your first aid kit and rain gear.  It is also a good idea to compartmentalize your survival gear.  Keep matches and fire starter in your pack and on your person, as well as a knife. If you get separated from your pack you will be glad you have the basics to make it through the night. 

Unfortunately the only real way to get good at bivy hunting is through trial and error.  I once did a hunt with a buddy who absolutely had to have coffee.  He bought a bag of coffee and a Jet Boil French press system for fresh coffee every morning.  The first morning in he pulled out his bag of coffee and said: “Beans?  Coffee beans!  I thought this was ground!”  I had tears in my eyes laughing from him huddled over a rock like a buzzard, cursing away, trying to grind the beans with another rock.  The key to back pack hunting is extreme attention to detail with your gear.

My first bivy hunt occurred in 1993.  In those days we were well ahead of the game as few people had the notion of packing a camp on their backs.  However, gear then was not what it is today, and we were limited by living on a college kid’s budget.  So I hauled an army bag stuffed with useless gear up a rat hole into the back country.  I drank two 2L Pepsi bottles of water by the time we set up camp.  I was young and exhausted, but I was there.  The next morning I heard my first official bugle in response to my call.  Before this I questioned whether elk really existed at all.  Two days later I called in my first bull, and my buddy missed it four times. I still remember watching those first two arrows go underneath the bull’s chest, and the last two sailing harmlessly over his back. When the bull finally figured out something was wrong, he bolted and my buddy started crying.  All the stress and work is worth just a few seconds of a thundering bull at close range.  I walked out of those mountains beat up, defeated, and with Giardia, but I wouldn’t trade that memory for anything, and I doubt my buddy would either.

Packing It Out


Whether doing a back pack hunt or a base camp hunt, the real problem for DIY elk hunters is getting the meat and horns off the mountain.  A bull will produce 250-300 lbs. of meat plus the cape and antlers.  When you are six miles from the truck, this is an issue.  You may try to pre-arrange with somebody to pack it off the mountain on stock, but remember anybody providing commercial services on public land is required to be a licensed permit holder. 

More likely is you are going to pack it out on your back.  A good eternal frame back pack will be necessary for hauling meat.  Some folks try to combine meat packing packs with day packs or day packs, in my opinion what you end up with is an average pack at both functions.  We make a custom meat packing bag just for meat that can roll up into your normal bivy pack.  You can see at 

One other consideration about meat is to worry about keeping it cool.  Chances are you may take a day or two getting your meat packed out.  We skin everything out, place it in mesh game bags, and set it on logs across a creek.  I have seen 85 degree days with ice still on the creek on a north slope.  We have keep meat for 3-4 days across a creek with zero spoilage until we got it out.

For Bowhunters

Finally, if you are planning a DIY archery hunt you simply must learn to call effectively.  Trying to sit a stand for elk is a nearly impossible task.  Elk move around and cover great distances and during archery seasons they are often very vocal.  By learning to call you will increase your chances exponentially. 

“During archery seasons, they are often very vocal. By learning to call, you will increase your chances exponentially.”

It may seem like an impossible task but there are many places with instructional videos to get you at least to learn the basics so you can interact with elk.  I recommend Roe Hunting Resources,  Chris Roe is a Certified Wildlife Biologist and has many years of field study and experience.  His instructional videos are to the point and will help you immensely getting started or if you want to add some techniques to your existing elk vocabulary.

No matter what style of hunting you ultimately select for your adventure a process of planning will greatly enhance your time in the elk woods.    It is important to consider all aspects of your hunt, all pros and cons, whether going DIY or with an outfitter.  The more information you can obtain the better you can understand what you are getting into.  Always remember, elk hunting is tough and being in shape is critical for most hunts.  Most important, get out and enjoy some of the most beautiful country God every made, the Rocky Mountain west. 

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