When I was a kid, I hunted without much beyond my rifle and ammo: just a knife on my belt and matches in my pocket. Since then I’ve learned there are a few more tools big-game hunters—and elk hunters in particular—should never leave home without. Here are ten of the most important.
Situation: A fluffy 18-inch blanket of snow covered the ground, and strings of late-season elk tracks meandered thoughtfully through scrub oak and ponderosa pine, leading my friend and I to an inevitable encounter of the elkish kind. Hours later we topped a ridge and spotted the herd. Over one hundred animals browsed and drowsed on a little bench below. From our perch, we dispatched two and descended the ridge to address the meat. We were working a couple hundred yards apart and I was already busy skinning and quartering when my friend showed up with a sheepish look on his face. “Do you have an extra knife?” he asked. “I lost mine in the snow.” Fortunately, I did.
Lesson: Always carry at least two knives. If possible, place one on your person and a second lightweight one in your pack.
Situation: Years ago I spent several pitch-dark hours descending a high-mountain timbered slope from hell without a flashlight or headlamp. A shoulder-high tangled morass of deadfall and boulders mixed with random boggy seeps made footing all but impossible, and I nearly suffered broken bones on multiple strides. I finally made it to the bottom (and freedom), but that night I vowed to never be caught in the backcountry without a light again.
Lesson: Always carry one headlamp on your person, and another in your pack—possibly next to your two knives.
Situation: Mother Nature can ruin the best elk hunting game plan. But with fire, you can stay warm, cook food, boil water, and work through any manner of bad luck, no matter what Mother Nature throws your way. A dry area, kindling, and a supply of wood is just one part of the equation. A strong spark is the other.
Lesson: Always carry two or more lighters in elk country. A backup weatherproof lighter in your pocket is a great go-to source for heat, and if that fails, a BIC lighter (along with tinder, a lightweight fire-starting brick, or a sliver of pitch pine) can make or break a night in the woods. A hunter with a knife, a light, and a fire can survive almost any night away from the comforts of home.
Situation: It might go without saying, but I have in fact had clients follow me into elk country without a weapon. Leaving ammo behind is even more common. Bring at least 20 rounds, and if you’re camping deep in the wilderness, more is better. Elk country is rugged and footing is unpredictable, and you may fall with your rifle. During one weeklong backcountry hunt, I fell hard enough to knock my scope off zero—twice. By the time I zeroed my scope a second time, the 30+ rounds I brought were almost gone.
Lesson: Luckily, I killed an animal with one of my few remaining cartridges. Had I carried just a few rounds, I’d have had to hike a long way to the trailhead and my truck for more, costing me precious hunting time.
Situation: I mentored a good friend along her hunting path years ago. She was a minimalist with extraordinary abilities, and killed several elk and deer with her bow while wearing flip-flops for footwear. To that end, she never wanted optics until I loaned her a Zeiss binocular for a late-season rifle hunt. She was evermore sold on the advantages offered by good optics.
Lesson: Distant hillsides, dark timber, and thick brush all become far more legible when viewed through optics. Invest in a quality pair and make it a permanent part of your go-to elk hunting gear.
Read Next: The Best Hunting Riflescopes, Binoculars, and Spotting Scopes](https://www.outdoorlife.com/best-new-optics-hunting-shooting/)
Situation: If there’s one small tool that has influenced my elk hunting success more than any other, it’s a simple, compact, cow elk call. I use it to locate distant elk, call in lonely bulls, or stop running elk for a shot.
Lesson: Bugles sound awesome, but if you want to draw in the big boys, you need to sound like one of the ladies. Get a diaphragm call, practice until you sound like a cow, and never go hunting without it.
Situation: I am blessed with a solid sense of direction, but still I always carry a compass, and if I’m hunting unfamiliar country, a topographical map as well. Thankfully, I’ve really only needed that compass one time—but if I left it at home, we (myself and the two hunters I was guiding in Montana’s Bitterroot Mountains) would have been in significant trouble.
Lesson: A lightweight compass doesn’t take up much space in your pack, nor does a USGS topo map of the area you’re hunting. If you prefer technology, MyTopo.com makes awesome custom maps you can tailor to your hunting area, so consider starting there. There are also some great two-way GPS walkie talkies available that let you see your hunting buds, and they can see you.
Situation: I can’t count how many times I could’ve used an extra strap on my pack, a tether for a shed I found off a trail, or a strung ridge for a makeshift shelter.
Lesson: There are few things as handy on an elk hunt as 550 (military grade) parachute cord. Use it to stretch tarps, rig a temporary rifle or bino sling, or hang elk quarters under a shady tree. You won’t even notice 50 feet of the best hunting braid around rolled up in your pack.
Situation: Dehydration is a killer, even on cold weather elk hunts. Water is usually readily available in good elk country, though manure, bugs, and other undesirables often taint it.
Lesson: My favorite canteen is made of stainless steel so I can boil water for purification in a pinch. Just remove the lid, fill it with water, and place it among the flames. You can make coffee, tea, or hot chocolate in a pinch. I love it. Some of my favorites are made by Klean Kanteen.
Read Next: Best Hunting Rifles in the West
Situation: Deep in the backcountry, there are only so many things you can do to protect your gear, store meat, and be able to deal with any number of situations that require a lightweight, weatherproof solution.
Lesson: The cheapest (and most versatile) tool in my pack is a pair of contractor-grade trash bags. I can use either for rain gear, pack covers, meat bags, ground cloths, pack liners, ponchos, kindling storage, submerging meat quarters in cold mountain creeks, and a million and one other purposes. Match and roll up two bags and tether them tight together with a rubber band. You’ll soon realize you can’t hunt without them.