This past October I was fortunate enough to go on my first elk hunt and western hunt for that matter. I had been out west multiple times for some hiking/camping trips but a hunting trip was on my bucket list. Being a Midwestern guy that usually chases whitetail an elk hunt was a challenge I didn’t want to pass up. If you are thinking about going on your first hunt let me tell you one thing…JUST MAKE IT HAPPEN!!! I promise you, you won’t regret it!
For this article I wanted to share how I went about the whole planning process. From deciding where to go, scouting, training and preparation. A lot of time and effort is put in before you ever step foot on the ground. I learned a lot on this first trip and hopefully this information for planning your western hunting trips will help you out. While this article will only cover the preparation for the hunt, I did write another article on the gear I used. Check it out here.
Goal For The Hunt
Which state, what type of animal, OTC or draw, which unit, backcountry vs frontcountry, guided vs DIY, time of year, and the list goes on and on. It’s easy to get bogged down in the beginning with all the opportunities and information out there. Let me suggest a tip. Take some time and figure out a goal for the hunt. Once you figure this out it becomes a lot easier to make a decision because when you have to decide between A and B, you’ll go with whichever option gets you to your goal.
For example, we (uncle, cousin, and I) wanted to go on an OTC DIY rifle elk hunt in the backcountry. Once we decided on that it helped us rule out states that didn’t offer OTC tags and units that didn’t have a vast amount of public land to venture out on.
Also, we just wanted to get our hands on some elk meat so we decided to get cow tags instead of a bull tag. Not the case for Idaho but in some states a cow tag is cheaper and two we thought there are more cows/calves than there are bulls which would increase our chances of success.
As luck would have it, the only elk we had within range was a spike which none of us had a tag for. The elk gods I’m sure were laughing at our expense.
Once we decided on the state and unit it was time to dive deep into scouting. This is one of the most important parts of the hunt. Make sure you take the time and put in the effort as this will drastically improve your chance of success. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the time to get boots on the ground so we had to rely solely on E-scouting.
These were the tools I used.
1. OnX Maps: You have probably heard of them before and for good reason. It is an awesome platform and I cannot recommend it enough. This was the most important tool I used for E-scouting and also the hunt itself. Being able to see the unit, public land vs private, previous burn areas, set way points, topography, etc was the key to being able to make a trip like this happen.
2. Google Earth: This is a great tool to use when you want to get an actual view of the land. Being able to zoom in and see in detail the specific areas you are thinking about hunting helps you narrow it down to certain spots.
Once I had the tools, I started pinpointing specific areas of interest. Here are the topics I focused on.
- Terrain Features: This can include topography, rivers/creeks, north or south facing slopes, etc. This is important when you are trying to find habitat suitable for elk but also places that might get less hunting pressure due to difficulty of access.
- Distance from Roads: OnX has a great map layer called “Roadless Area”. This is very handy in helping understand the lay of the land. As the saying goes the farther you go in, the less pressure you will find. From a hunting pressure standpoint I 100% agree but don’t let this persuade you from checking out other ares not so far off the road. Maybe you can find a spot near a road that has a terrain feature like a creek that makes access hard. Being able to pinpoint areas like this with multiple “key factors” will increase your chance of seeing more animals. ATV trails is also something you may want to stay away from. For example the area we hunted was split by a creek. One side was open to ATVs and the other was only open to dirt bikes and horses. We stayed on the non-ATV side and only saw 2 other groups of hunters the whole week.
- Burn Areas: The last topic I focused on was previous burn areas. Why burn areas are so good is because the new growth that take the place of the burned trees and vegetation is very palatable and within easy reach of the elk, deer, bear, etc. Also, with the burned trees not having foliage it makes it easier for you to spot game. From what I have read and seen a burn area approx. 3 to 5 years or older is one worth checking out.
An example of what you would be looking for is a burn area a couple miles from a road that is bordered by a creek on 2 sides and can only be accessed from 1 or 2 directions. This would be something you want to drop a way point on and check out once your in the area as a potential place to hunt.
Don’t worry if you can’t find areas that have every aspect. Put a way point on areas that have a couple and then weed out the weaker areas. This will give you 3 to 5 spots you can check out so you always will have a place to hunt.
Another aspect of E-scouting are forums or Facebook groups. These can be a very useful tool but there is a correct way to go about them. I wanted to share a couple tips that work for me in getting helpful information.
- Do Your Homework: Put in the effort to search the forum’s previous posts regarding your questions. You will find that more often than not there is a lot of info and answers to questions already out there.
- Get Involved Before Asking Questions: Become a member, set up a profile, answer other people’s questions, and meet people on the forum before you start asking everyone for their secret spot. It makes a difference because very few people will give good information to someone who just signed up yesterday and doesn’t have a profile picture uploaded.
- Be Specific With Your Questions: I have found that if I ask 2 or 3 specific questions I have a lot better luck getting a response with good information. Don’t ask “What can you tell me about X unit”. Instead, show them that you have put in the work and ask “I have done some research and found 2 spots that look promising. If someone could PM me and brainstorm with me it would be appreciated”.
I used these techniques for the elk hunt and was able to work with a couple guys who pointed me in the right direction. One of them actually gave me his number and we chatted on the phone regarding a couple areas. It was a tremendous help as we were able to find elk on only the 2nd day of the hunt.
Before diving into what I did for training I wanted to give some background about myself. I’m 29 years old, 165lbs and 5’9”. Growing up I played a lot of sports (soccer, baseball, football, basketball) and was lucky enough to play soccer in college. I’ve always considered myself to be in pretty good shape as I have made fitness a part of my life.
Because of this I felt I had a good foundation and just needed to build upon it. For this elk hunt I knew we would do a lot of hiking with a weighted pack and on top of that it would be a decent amount of change in elevation. Mainly, I wanted to focus on my legs and back.
The reason I told you this is everyone is on a different level when it comes to fitness. Take time and honestly evaluate where you stand and then formulate a plan of execution.
Here is a breakdown of the training.
- Weights: My goal was to get in the gym 2 to 4 days a week. (Side note… Before I did any weights I stretched and warmed up. Do not start lifting weights right out of the gate!) I spent approx. an hr each time and really tried to get my heart pumping. For me, I liked to stack my exercises on top of each other. What I mean by this is I would pick 3 to 4 exercises (squats, dead lift, leg extension, bent over row) and do all 4 without taking a break. Grab a quick swig of water and hop right back into the circuit. I did this 3 to 5 times and would do 10 to 20 reps of each exercise. I liked this system because I was building muscle but also working on my cardio/stamina at the same time.
- Yoga/Stretching: Flexibility I think is really overlooked when people think about training for any event. Even spending 10 to 15 mins before or after a workout can make a world of difference. I would join my wife at her yoga class 1 or 2 times a month. Another aspect that I like about yoga is it puts in you uncomfortable positions for an extended period of time. This is helpful because you may need to be bent over behind a shrub hiding from an elk while on the hunt. You need to be able to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations. Also, being flexible you are more likely to prevent injuries.
- Hiking: Somewhat of a no brainer here due to the type of hunt I was training for. Fortunately, my wife and I enjoy hiking so this was an easy task to accomplish. I’d say just about every weekend we would get a 3 to 5 mile hike in. 85% of the time I did this with a weighted pack. I used weights that I had at my house and stuffed them into my pack with pillows and blankets. Usually I would do 20 to 30lbs and 50 to 60lbs occasionally. If we didn’t have time to get out for a hike I would either walk around my house or use the StairMaster at the gym with a weighted pack. Go to the gym early in the morning if you want to avert the weird stares from people wondering why you’re using the StairMaster with a pack on your back!
- Running: For additional cardio I would run before or after work. 1 to 3 miles if I couldn’t get to the gym or out for a hike due to time restraints. When I run I like to switch up speeds. I’ll pick a house or stop sign and tell myself I’m going to pick up the pace until I reach that point. Once I hit that marker I’ll slow down and do it over again and again until I’m back at my house.
Unfortunately, I did suffer a lower back injury while I was training about 4 months before my trip. Believe it or not it didn’t happen while I was training. I hate to admit it but my wife and I were playing horse in the driveway. I ran up to pick the basketball off the ground and right when I went to stand up I felt a twinge in my lower back. Immediately, I felt my lower back muscles tighten up and pain set in. The next day I could barely bend over to tie my shoes.
The pain finally decreased after 2 or 3 weeks. During this time as far as exercising I did what my body would tolerate. Mainly it was just stretching. Once the pain decreased I slowly started back into my normal routine. I had a couple more flare-ups before the trip but continually worked through them. Stretching my back every morning really helped me. Also, not quitting and following through with my exercises no matter if that meant only lifting 5lbs. If you have an injury by all means give it a couple days to start healing but keep moving, keep it loose. Even if that means you just go for a walk.
Thankfully I was pain free for the trip and have been since.
To wrap up with the training section I will say this. Especially, if you are an Eastern or Midwest hunter any type of mountainous hunt is going to kick your butt. How bad the butt whooping is, is up to you. You just can’t replicate the elevation and type of hiking on the east side of the Mississippi. What you can do is put in the work and push yourself during training to minimize the negative effects of hiking all day once you are on the hunt.
Of course, I was sore and tired at the end of each day while on the hunt. Because I had put in the work ahead of time it was much easier to get up the next day and the next and the next to keep going. Every morning we would climb approx. 800ft in elevation to get into a glassing position. That’s just to start the day. Prepare your body ahead of time in the gym and at home and you will be fine but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy.
Time At The Gun Range
For Eastern and Midwestern guys like myself I feel that getting in plenty of range time is just as important as training and scouting. You don’t want to put in all this time, money, and effort into the hunt just to fail at the moment of truth because you don’t feel comfortable with longer shots.
For me, I can count on one hand the amount of times I had shot a rifle before my trip. Heck, I don’t even own a rifle. My wife’s uncle let me borrow his .270. Because of this I knew I needed to get in plenty of practice. Fortunately, there is a gun range about a 30-min drive from my house and at least 2x a month I was there sending shots down range. This got me familiar with the specific gun and also allowed me to practice and become comfortable making longer shots.
A hurdle I did run into was finding a gun range with a lane farther than 100 yards. Now, to some of you that might sound crazy but in Ohio where I hunt very rarely are you going to be shooting at animals over 50 yards. Because of this my effective range for the hunt was anything within 200 yards. Keep this in mind when you are practicing as you will be shooting much farther distances out west than you normally would.
I am not advocating taking a shot outside of your comfort zone but telling you to test yourself in practice so your ready for the hunt. Honestly, I wish I would have made more of an effort to shoot over 100 yards so I could extend my comfort zone.
Being able to efficiently kill an animal is something I strive for as I’m sure you do as well so make sure you put in the time behind the trigger to ensure your trip is a success.
Wrapping It Up
Before I wrap it up I do want to give a couple small tips I found helpful on the trip.
- Just Enjoy It: Sounds simple enough but when your legs are tired and you don’t want to hike over that next ridge…just keep going. If you get caught in a rain storm, hiking for 2.5hrs in the dark back to camp, and have to build a fire the next day to dry out all your clothes like we did…keep a smile on your face. Trust me you don’t want to but do it anyway. As soon as you get back home your going to wish you were back out there. Take a moment and enjoy the views, hang out around a campfire, or watch a sunrise.
- Take Notes: I brought along a 5 x 6 notepad. At the end of each day before I’d turn out my headlamp I’d write out a recap of the day. What we saw, how far we hiked, or what gear I should have brought or left at home. Not only will this help you prepare for your next hunt but also it’s a great way to reminisce on a great trip. I have gone back through my notes a couple times already and it brings a smile to my face each time.
- Bring A Slingshot: Where we hunted we came across a lot of grouse. Many states offer a small game license with the purchase of your annual hunting license. Unfortunately, we didn’t bring one but I wish we did because we could have easily taken a couple for dinner every day.
I’ve been bitten by the bug. I’m currently planning an antelope hunt in the Fall of 2020. Not only is it fun chasing after animals that you don’t see every day but the landscapes out there are absolutely beautiful. This type of hunting combines everything I love…hiking, camping, hunting, wildlife, wild places, and a new type of challenge I had yet to be faced with. In the end it is up to us to make sure these public lands and wild animals are here for future generations.
If you do not support an organization I highly recommend you check out Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. I have been a member for the past couple years and have volunteered at a introduction to hunting event and attended a couple pint nights. Great people with one passion…to protect our public lands and wild places. BHA is over 30,000 strong and is continuing to grow. With your help we can fight to keep these places in our hands for generations to come.
Again, if you want to read about the gear I used for this trip check it out here. Have any additional questions or would like to add a tip of your own? Please leave a comment below.
Best of luck on your next trip and if I can be of any help just let me know.
Have a good one!