Stacking elk hunting odds in your favor


Photo credit: Chris Neville

As an elk hunter, you are probably using some form of e-scouting. In this day and age, even the most non-tech-savvy hunters use some forms of technology. Even so, many hunters are missing out on some of the key benefits. First, so many hunters become one-dimensional and fail to take full advantage of the myriad of technology tools available. Second, a large majority of hunters neglect to master the features and functionality of those tools.

I’m proposing that you begin to approach e-scouting as a complete and comprehensive system. I utilize pre-hunt e-scouting tactics and techniques to evaluate, test and, subsequently, prepare an overall strategic hunt plan. The act of working through the e-scouting and hunt planning process has made me a more efficient, effective and focused hunter. It can do the same thing for you.

Let’s be honest. If you can’t find elk, you can’t kill elk. E-scouting is obviously not the only tool you can employ to improve your odds, but when done well, it can reduce frustration, and indecision and make your hunt more intentional and enjoyable. This directly translates into improving your odds of success. 

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Of course, you can simply focus on the basics or even choose to show up and wing it. Some hunters get lucky each season and beat the odds. A few elk are killed this way every year. I prefer a more consistent and strategic approach by using an odds-multiplying process. The odds are against us as elk hunters, I prefer to approach elk hunting with an odds multiplication strategy. My end goal is to stack as many odds in my favor as possible. There is not one single thing that will dramatically increase your odds of success, but when you combine several concepts, you immediately begin to see a multiplying effect. 

Facing realities and limitations

Archery elk harvest statistics indicate less than a 10% success rate for public land DIY hunters. When that 10% is broken down further, we find there are a significant number of hunters — the top 10% of that 10% — who harvest an elk each and every year. This fact further drops the success rate for the average DIY elk hunter. 

“If you want to be an average 10% elk hunter, keep acting like a 10% elk hunter.”

We examine elk hunting realities and limitations in the early modules of the Treeline Academy E-Scouting Elk Course. Physical, mental, time, technology, gear and experience limitations can all contribute to hunt complications and predictable failure. It makes absolutely no sense to pour your time and effort into a lot of e-scouting work only to realize you are limited by one or more of these factors. Far too many hunts are ruined, cut short and meat is lost due to failure to understand your own or your group's limitations. Before you place a single waypoint on your computer, you need to conduct a thorough and honest self-vetting. It’s incredibly easy to get caught up with “distance creep” when you are sitting in front of your computer e-scouting. I still fall victim to it even today!

“You can’t hunt, what you can’t get to! This is a real hunt killer.”

The good news is there is no need to let limitations ruin your hunt, but they will if you ignore them, don’t account for them and fail to factor them into your e-scouting and hunt planning process. Understanding and working within those limitations and variables is an automatic odds multiplier and is vital to your success. 

Developing a strategic hunt plan

I believe one of the most valuable tools you can take on a hunt is a written strategic hunt plan. A comprehensive hunt plan is my e-scouting end goal. Each year, I spend a great deal of time developing my hunt plans. Hunt planning is a key focal point in the Treeline Academy E-Scouting Elk Course. Again, it makes little sense to mark a bunch of points-of-interest (POIs) and elk-finding features and then fail to organize them into a usable strategic plan.

On a western elk hunt, everyone goes through trials and tribulations. Everyone will have moments when they are tired, discouraged and demoralized. That is just the nature of our obsession and the challenge of elk hunting. When you throw in fatigue, altitude, dehydration, time constraints and success pressure, it can quickly become difficult to operate effectively and even think clearly. A written strategic hunt plan is your grounding resource and can be one of your biggest odds multipliers. A well-designed hunt plan can help you function better, maintain focus and better equip you to overcome the obstacles and challenges that will come with elk hunting. Hunt plans and the process of preparing them is where many next-level elk hunters separate themselves from the rest.

This detailed written action plan works in conjunction with your pre-hunt e-scouting work. Those POIs, markups, elk-finding features, hunt and travel routes, glassing spots, campsites, zones of pressure, access points and notes all combine to form your strategic hunt plan. 

Even with over 30 years of elk hunting, I still develop a very comprehensive hunt plan for all of my hunts. A solid hunt plan should always include multiple separate and distinct core hunt areas. Think of your hunt plan as the overall strategy and the core hunt areas as the specific individual geographic locations where it is possible to conduct your hunt.

Strategic hunt plan benefits:

  • Helps to eliminate in-the-field judgment errors.
  • Gives you confidence. 
  • Reduces mistakes.
  • Keeps you productive.
  • Maintains hunt focus.
  • Becomes a positive reinforcement.
  • Always presents options.
  • Maximizes hunting time and efficiency.
  • Keeps you flexible and mobile.
  • Creates historical knowledge.
  • Reduces the wing-it factor.

What is a core hunt area?

I always recommend that hunt plans contain multiple core hunt areas. Core hunt areas are separate and distinct spots or geographic locations where you could feasibly conduct your entire hunt. Think of core hunt areas as backup hunting spots or options. Changing hunt areas usually requires a significant relocation, base camp move, mountain range change or even a significant change in elevation. 

A solid hunt plan should contain three to five separate core hunt areas. Of course, this type of detailed planning takes time to work through; however, ultimately, it gives you multiple backup options and always pays dividends when you run into issues. 

“It’s not a matter of IF you will run into challenges, it is WHEN!”

This level of preparation gives you incredible confidence going into and during your hunt. You will always have pre-planned options ready to implement. Most of us spend the entire year counting down the days and hours until our next hunt. Do we really want to go into our most anticipated time of the year ill-prepared with only one option?

When you are forced to change core hunt areas while on a hunt, it can be demoralizing, challenging and certainly a drain on your valuable hunting time. The more prepared you are, the easier the process and the more likely you will make a change if the situation warrants it. I have seen far too many elk hunters become way too invested in a spot with virtually no elk. Often, they are stuck because they do not have ready-to-implement backup options. 

Why do you need multiple core hunt areas?

  • General lack of animals or sign.
  • Too much hunter pressure in the area.
  • Access issues, and problems getting to designated access points.
  • Unforeseen open or closed roads.
  • Weather issues.
  • Quality of elk feed.
  • Elevation factors.

Using technology

Today, as elk hunters, we have access to a large variety of technology tools and resources. Some of these tools are better suited for pre-hunt e-scouting work and some are better for use on the hunt itself. Expanding your toolbox and maximizing these hunt platforms can be a tremendous odds multiplier. 

“When it comes to fixing your car are you only going to use a screwdriver?”

When elk hunters become one-dimensional using only a few tools, they are decreasing their odds. Whichever digital platforms or hunt applications you choose to use, it is vital to learn how to fully utilize and incorporate all of the features. A remarkable number of hunters only learn the basics. This lack of initiative limits their potential for success. Mastering multiple tools and technology resources can be another serious odds multiplier. There's also no better time than now to work on your upcoming hunt plan using GOHUNT Maps' web version. You have so many different tools available to you on GOHUNT Maps like their Terrain Analysis tool, full 3D, Elevation Bands, migration layers, and much more. Take the time to work through their mapping platform to set yourself up for success, and then download their mobile hunting mapping app.

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Hunt and travel routes

How to locate and break down the various elk finding features is the major focus of the e-scouting elk course. Once you have all the elk-finding features identified and organized, you can then begin to map out and effectively plan camp options and your travel and hunt routes. This is a pre-hunt step that very few hunters take the time to do. Getting to the right place at the right time can be the difference between success and failure. In the e-scouting elk course, I recommend marking and labeling two types of routes. I go one step further and independently color-code these route types for quick and easy visual identification.

  • Vehicle travel routes: Travel routes are utilized to navigate between access points and base camp locations. Tracing and labeling these vehicle travel routes can prove extremely valuable and will dramatically improve your efficiency as you move around in your core hunt areas. Pre-planning these vehicle routes allows you to better predict travel times, thus maximizing your hunt time. Personally, I prefer to mark all open vehicle routes in red. This makes for quick visual identification that is much easier and more efficient. 
  • Hunt routes: By comparison, I utilize hunt routes to plan out how I will move around within my core hunt area while on the hunt itself. I use both on and off-trail routes to map out how I will move around the various elk-finding features that I have identified. Advanced route planning allows you to move around effectively and efficiently within your core hunt area. Pre-hunt route planning is particularly valuable when you are navigating off-trail. In most cases, it is easier to select and plan the best paths during pre-hunt e-scouting work when you have access to the best quality aerial and topographic map layers. 

Example: Planning routes and estimating travel time to your glassing spots can be the difference between success and failure. Arriving at a glassing spot just 15 minutes after the first light could mean that you just missed the elk moving into the timber.

Estimating travel time

Your ground speed or travel time on-trail and off-trail are not the same. Elevation changes also have a dramatic effect on travel time. Getting to and from those key glassing spots and elk-finding features before prime time is crucial and is a giant odds multiplier. I recommend carefully evaluating and estimating your travel time on hunt routes. Yes, planning out hunt routes and predicting travel time takes time, but it can be a game-changer when it comes to being in the right place at the right time. These pre-planned routes can also quickly become invaluable when it comes to getting back to camp after dark. 

I have adopted a modified version of the Naismith Principle/Rule. I use these calculations to plan and estimate both on and off-trail route travel times. 

Treeline Academy modified Naismith Rule

I modified this principle to calculate over-ground travel time with a hunting pack and weapon. Over time and with more backcountry experience, you will be able to adjust this formula and very accurately predict your personal over-ground travel times. Remember: getting to the right place at the right time can be the difference between success and failure. 

Established on-trail travel time prediction formula

  • 2.5 miles per hour, then add 30 to 40 min for each 1,000 foot of overall elevation gain 
  • Example: (5 miles + 2,000 feet of elevation gain = 3 hours estimated travel time)

Off-trail travel time prediction formula

  • 1 to 1.5 miles per hour, then add 45+ min for each 1,000 foot of overall elevation overall gain 
  • Example: (5 miles = + 2,000 feet of elevation gain = 6.5 hours estimated travel time)

Once you have put in the work to prepare a strategic hunt plan, work the plan! A solid hunt plan is specifically designed to give you options and keep you hunting efficiently. Don’t let yourself get invested in a particular spot or an elaborate camp. Elk are where they want to be and you must be prepared to go where they are.


For readers of GOHUNT, I'm offering up a discount to my Treeline Academy course. If you use the code GOHUNT, you'll get the course for $99.

Learn more about Treeline Acadamy here

Mark Livesay is the founder of Treeline Pursuits and the creator of Treeline Academy (a class that is a complete end-to-end e-scouting solution for elk hunters). It's the most definitive resource ever assembled on the subject. Mark designed this curriculum for both the beginner and the experienced public land, DIY elk hunter. This course is a first of its kind and is powered by more than 30 years of elk hunting experience. The strategies that are presented in this course WILL give you a real advantage when it comes to planning your hunts, developing a strategic hunt plan, and it WILL ultimately improve your odds of finding more elk.

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