DIY Elk Hunt: Aggressive Bowhunting Tactics and Gear Tips

Sleep near elk, dream of elk, and wake up to nearby bugles.

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Sleep near elk, dream of elk, and wake up to nearby bugles.Outdoor Life Online Editors

It certainly can be hard to think about chasing September's bugling bulls when the calendar reads early July and temps are soaring into the sweltering 90s, but turning up the heat just may be the key to success for an upcoming elk bowhunt.

To my mind, elk are best hunted with a refined system of controlled aggression—first locating, then literally living with the animals—to ensure you're into elk from the time you drift off to sleep at night until you're awakened by a raucous chorus of predawn bugles, the sweetest music you'll hear all year long. For the DIY elk hunter, this means employing one of two options. The first is base camping out of your vehicle and packing along a light, waterproof bivy sack (paired with an equally light, compact sleeping bag), along with enough spartan rations that will let you spend a comfortable night or two on the mountain when required.

**Sleep With the Elk, if You Can **
The second approach is my personal favorite: an even more-mobile, hunt-out-of-your backpack system that lets you set up an efficient "base camp" in close proximity to a concentration of elk, moving as necessary to keep you in the game. I like this option because my daypack is much lighter (primarily barebones survival and field-dressing gear), allowing me to move faster and remain more silent (and nimble) when closing in on a bugling bull. And in elk hunting, when things look like they could finally come together, every precious second counts.

Both of these options allow you to neutralize, even eliminate, one of the biggest obstacles faced by DIY, public-land bowhunters: Those long, energy-robbing treks to and from base camp, especially if that base camp is three, four, or more miles from the nearest elk rutting party. And make no mistake, I’m not simply pointing to those who arrive in elk country out of shape. No one should consider a DIY elk bowhunt without having undertaken several months of dedicated pre-hunt conditioning, but the elk mountains are unforgiving. Serious, vertical terrain can and will take its toll no matter your fitness level, so conserving precious energy just makes sense.

I’ve had plenty of time recently to consider my own elk system because this fall, I’m sharing my annual DIY elk hunt with three new-to-elk-hunting friends. All have been working to get in great physical shape, which is good to hear, so our conversations to date have centered on the other primary component to a great hunt: Smart, lightweight gear choices. You don’t need a physics degree to grasp the obvious: All things being equal, lighter gear will enable you to hunt longer and harder, and move faster when you need to. Here are a few key areas we’ve discussed.

Two Approaches to Tents
Recent years have seen vast improvements in tent construction, resulting in truly ultralight (i.e. elk-hunter-friendly) designs. These days my preference is for one-man models that weigh under 3 pounds; two models I've used extensively are the Kilo Carbon 2P from Easton Outfitters (2 pounds, 13 ounces) and the MSR Hubba NX Solo, which MSR redesigned in 2014 to be 6 ounces lighter; it weighs in at 2 pounds, 14 ounces. Both of these svelte tents are light years evolved from the much heavier, specialized backpacking models I once toted.

Don’t have the $350 or $400 to drop on a premium one-man ultralight? If you don’t mind sharing a tent, you and a buddy could share a more-spacious, heavier 2-3-person model, which won’t seem nearly as cumbersome if one person carries and tent and the other the fly. And while on the subject, I’d recommend avoiding single-wall tents and their penchant for regularly soaking the tent contents with condensation, a very unwelcome occurrence if you prefer down sleeping bags.

Light as a Feather
Speaking of sleeping bags, I'm now a devoted down-insulation advocate after many years of believing water-repelling synthetic fill was the only way to go. Maybe it was reading all those time-honored horror stories of unwary woodsmen who had accidentally soaked their previously fluffy down bags, rendering them useless, that I looked hard for insulation that would weather a raging mountain storm. Literally. Fact is, synthetic-fill bags just can't compete with premium down bags when it comes to compactness and lightweightness, two things a roving elk hunter values above all.

Also responsible for my changing views are today's waterproof, ultralight nylon dry bags that ensure absolute bag dryness while riding in your pack (you could fall in a lake somewhere and still sleep dry that night). For the past few years, I've used a 20-degree-rated Spiral down bag from Montbell that has served me quite well and weighs a paltry 2 pounds. All this, and I haven't yet dipped a toe in the waters of the latest craze, costly (but intriguing) waterproof down bags that shed water not because of their outer fabric, but because they're stuffed with specially treated waterproof (hydrophobic) down fibers.

**The Key to Harder Hunting? A Good Pad **
As someone who tips the scales about 210 (and that's in prime late-August elk shape), I know one key to a good night's sleep rests in my choice of sleeping pad. Gravity and hard ground being what they are, I once thought toting a thick, heavy, inflatable pad was my only path to comfort. Thankfully I was wrong. Several years ago a buddy clued me into a progressive gear company by the name of Klymit, and that dude has been getting the "good" Christmas card ever since. Klymit's Inertia XL pad measures 78x25x1.5 inches, using its unique, tube-like "body map" construction that puts more loft where you need it most, while simultaneously reducing bulk and weight. The Inertia XL packs down to about the size of a softball, weighs just 17 ounces, and inflates with just a few puffs of air. Each time I unroll it, a smile breaks across my face. True story.

Carry A Dual-Duty Pack
As a DIY pack-in hunter, your choice of pack is critical. Why? It's got to be seriously versatile. It must be a gear-hauling monster, able to tote food and gear that will last you 4 or 5 days. It has to be comfortable enough, after unloading base camp gear, to carry with you all day and every day, for your hunt's duration. For this, it helps to have a model able to batten down tight when you're carrying much less—water reservoir, daily survival, and field-dressing gear. Finally, it should also have the strength and structural integrity (hunt gods willing) to tote a 100-pound elk quarter.

Years ago my solution to these varied needs was to carry two packs: A load-hauling monster onto which was strapped a separate daypack. Heavy and cumbersome. These days a single, well-built (and much lighter) expedition-sized larger pack can easily handle all three jobs. Elite models in this class that jump immediately to mind include Sitka's Bivy 45, Tenzing's TZ 5000, the Badlands Summit, and the Mystery Ranch Metcalf.

Lighten the Load
One piece of gear has crept into my arsenal recently—in just the last few years—and now I won't hunt elk without them. A pair of Easton Trekking Poles has made packing in and out of remote base camps (complete with 60-70-pound loads) not only faster and easier, but much less painful. And that would be my opinion even if I didn't possess a surgically repaired right knee (torn meniscus while chasing Colorado elk, circa 2011). I don't use my poles while hunting, but I know my knees and back will appreciate the support if I manage to score in my new Colorado honeyhole this fall. If you haven't tried a pair, this should be the year. Personally, I wish I'd bought a pair much sooner…as in, just before that 2011 hunt.