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Prepare and you can elk hunt every year for less than $1,500

Prepare and you can hunt elk every year

Photo credit: Scott Christensen

Originally from the East Coast, for me, the notion of getting out West to hunt the majestic wapiti was always an overwhelming, complicated and expensive dream. However, I am here to tell you that heading out to the Rockies to chase bull elk can easily become an annual event if you have the drive and about $1,500 to allocate to this once-in-a-lifetime experience. Whether you live in Maine, Florida, Texas or anywhere in-between, this article will explain how doable and affordable it is to get out West. Hunting in western states starts with preparation and ends with preparation and involves choosing what state to hunt, hunting districts, spots, financial planning and selecting a good hunting partner. 

Preparation, preparation, preparation

The first step to get out West hunting every year is to pick a state. Selecting the right state involves analyzing the opportunity and financial costs for the tag. In my experience, if you are coming from out-of-state, the greatest advantage is to be able to hunt the same location year after year. To do this, you have to be able to draw the unit annually. A state like Arizona or New Mexico may be known for great trophy elk hunting; however, if your goal is to hunt more than once every three or four years, then you should look elsewhere. A state like Colorado is very nonresident friendly due to the immense amount of over-the-counter (OTC) tags and units available. This allows a hunter to learn the land and be able to compound his experience since he has the opportunity to hunt the same unit annually. Some of the greatest hunting spots are travel corridors or escape sanctuaries that get overlooked; it takes time and experience on the ground to figure this out. It takes days, if not weeks, to be able to hunt a specific area and be able to cross off spots and find elk, so keep your chin up when hunting a new area. 

The decision to hunt a specific state should involve the cost of the tags, the travel distance to the state and the frequency you can draw. Some states offer a tag that is good for multiple seasons; however, if you only have enough time off for one hunt, this may not be an advantage for you.

After you select a state, next, choose what part of the state or what hunting district you will be going into. A great way to do this is by using goHUNT to select units that are either OTC or units that can be drawn with zero points. This same information is available on the individual state's website; however, using goHUNT can save you hours of pouring through data. It also has information on the difficulty of the hunt, pictures and other users’ comments about the unit. After you evaluate all of the units that you can hunt annually, I would suggest going to state’s website and looking for their maps. Most states have elk density maps or maps that show if a unit is under or over the game commission’s objective for elk. I like to pick a unit that is not at the highest density or over objective, but is somewhere in-between. In my experience, doing this has increased my chances of finding elk while reducing the frequency of running into other sportsmen when afield.

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Once you settle on three to four OTC units with decent harvest statistics and a healthy elk population, it’s time to find out more information on each one. The most time consuming part of your research involves using Google Earth, aerial maps, Forest Service maps or any other obtainable information in order to familiarize yourself with the geography and public land. Typically, I locate and mark all trailheads, then find drainages that look like they are multiple miles from the nearest trailheads or seemingly hard to reach.

Once you have a fairly good virtual understanding of the unit, it’s a good idea to call the local Forest Service, game and fish department and game wardens to ask them what they can tell you about your unit. Be sure to write down specific questions that you may have about drainages, trailheads and road information in order to make the best use of your time on the phone. From experience, when talking with area officials, I learned that one of the things that frustrates them the most is when they talk to people who do not know anything about the unit and are looking for hunting spots to be handed out. Being confident and asking the right questions can help you cross off spots that are over hunted or that don’t hold game before you get there. This is a great way to ensure you don’t waste your legs and your precious hunting time finding out the hard way. When on the phone, be sure to use a notepad and have a map open to write important details down and follow along. Make sure to pay attention to who you talk to and, if you call back, ask for the same person or a different person depending on how the first conversation went. After you’ve done your own research and have made a few calls, you should have a good idea of if the unit seems right for you. If it doesn't, then start the process over again. However, if it sounds like a good unit, then commit and plan the next part. 

Once your hunting unit is selected, you need to plan out your hunting days. Typically, for a seven day hunting scenario, I plan on 15 to 20 possible day hunts in different areas all over the unit. This should account for changing plans based upon an excess of other hunters in your spot, you boogering up an area, road closures, weather issues or any other unforeseen circumstances. I use Google Earth or OnX to pin my camps, plan my trailheads and pick glassing or hiking destinations for all of these hunts. If you plan to bivy hunt, then planning routes in and around and out should definitely be on your radar. The goal is to be over-prepared and always have a backup plan for every day in order to get the most out of your hunt. I always expect for my plans to not work out as projected and have a backup plan in hand ready for when it is needed. That way I am always over-prepared.

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Financial planning

Elk camp

Photo credit: Jake Horton

After finding your perfect spot it is time to talk finances. No matter your budget, I believe that elk hunting can be done annually for less than $1,500, especially with a hunting partner or two. For example, let’s say you are a resident in Maine who wants to go hunting out West; a Colorado nonresident license will cost about $700. A trip from Portland, Maine to Denver, Colorado is approximately 2,000 miles each way. If your hunting rig gets approximately 15 miles per gallon and the average price of gas is $2.50, then it will cost about $333 each way. If you were going solo that only leaves you about $150 for food, which could be doable; however, if you add a hunting buddy or two, then your costs go way down. As a part of your financial preparation, decide how many hunting buddies you would need to make your budget work. Each person that you get to hunt with you will be responsible for splitting gas and food costs during the entire trip. Before leaving, or at the last available grocery store, plan on shopping together and splitting the costs for food. In order to be cost effective, you need to plan and bring good coolers for your food. The goal should be to buy food that everyone likes, but that will last, such as canned chili, hotdogs, Manwich, etc. I know that eating this food might not be ideal, but you are there to hunt, not eat five course meals. 

Tip: Don’t plan on buying your food or going out to eat once you are hunting because typically these smaller hunting towns have inflated prices, which will hurt your budget. I would also not suggest hunting with more than four or five people in a camp. More people affects your hunt and, unless you are a super tight-knit group, after seven to ten days you will most likely get sick of people, which is why selecting the correct hunting partners is so crucial. 

Selecting hunting partners

Jake's 2019 elk hunt

Though selecting your hunting partner may sound like an easy task, it should not be taken lightly. I like to consider selecting a hunting partner very much like a friendly interview. You are about to share expenses and seven to 10 days in a camping situation with these individuals. Small things that bother you on day one will drive you crazy by the end of your hunting trip. I select my hunting partners by asking or knowing their commitment level, financial situation and hunting style and drive. You want someone who is just as excited or more excited than you to get out West.

After you see that your prospective partners can commit in advance, then make sure they will be financially able to go. Tell them the projected costs upfront and make sure they are able to swing it. It’s best to get this out of the way months before the trip so there are no last-minute changes and they can prepare financially. Finally, find someone in similar physical shape as you that plans on hunting in a style that meshes with yours. If you plan on bivy hunting, then they need to decide if they are going to bivy or if you are going by yourself and they will hunt from the truck. If you plan on hunting as partners, then make sure that they are on the same page.

Tip: Typically, I plan our camping spots, but let my partners select their hunts with some guidance. The last thing you want is to feel as though someone is freeloading off of you when it’s your first year in the area, too. Picking hunts and glassing points, etc., is part of the adventure, too, and is very rewarding for each hunter.

When thinking of who you would like to go with, it’s important to remember that almost every person who hunts has dreams of elk hunting out West; however, not everyone is going to be the right person for your hunt. If something seems off or your possible partner seems uncommitted, then find a new partner. A week is a long time to spend with the wrong hunting partner and can really ruin your trip. The wrong hunting partner can make a once-in-a-lifetime experience the last time you ever want that experience.

In conculsion

Elk harvest

After you have located a state that works for you, identified multiple spots to hunt within a hunting district, talked to local outdoors officials, planned your finances and selected your hunting partners, you are ready to head out West. If you commit to this process and follow through with it, you will have a successful hunt whether you harvest an elk the first year in an area or not. Every year you can hunt a spot that makes you that much more of an expert in that area and increases your chances of success in that area. Make the commitment today to start preparing for your 2020 elk hunt! If you start the preparation during this winter season, by September, you should be ready for a great chance at elk hunting. Just remember: once you go chasing those majestic wapiti, it will become an addiction to hunt them year after year.

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28 Comments

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Rory S. - posted 1 week ago on 02-02-2020 10:15:53 pm

This is long but I hope it will help those who are new to DIY Western hunting. I've also watched a lot of Randy Newberg on DIY: I've been to Colorado about four times. I like to go in September, so to be less likely to encounter snow. I know, I've just been lucky. I camp in a road-serviced campground - 8 to 10 miles up the mountain - on the edge of designated wilderness where I can walk in 2-3 miles and run into elk. I stocked up on - lots of em - Mountain House meals when they were still $4.97. I bought my Pocket Rocket for cooking years ago. I have a Katadyn Hiker ($50) + a LifeStraw ($22) for water purification and for drinking straight out of the streams. I back that up by carrying H20 purification in the event my Katadyn fails or is contaminated (has never happened). I use miniature candy bars, I break down microwavable mac/cheese and oatmeal, use dried fruit, raisins, single-serving peanut butter, etc., on the trail but will supplement with a couple of ham sandwiches out of camp on the first day. My wife now fixes - then freezes - BBQ and other easy to warm servings in very small tupperware containers. Those will keep frozen in an iced cooler in camp for several days while altitude acclimating, etc., or stay safe a day or so in cooler weather. You guys are right - I don't waste my time and money on expensive camo clothing. Instead, I waited for a King's Camo sale and bought some nice pieces. I also wait for sales on any-brand nylon long sleeve camo "tech" Ts ($15-$20), Columbia 6pocket muted color nylon pants ($22-$29), three different thicknesses of perspiration wicking long underwear ($25-$45 per top/per bottom), solid earth-tone color lightweight /packable nylon vest or jacket ($29-$39), nylon/cotton blend muted color gator (for sitting/glassing) lightweight wool, nylon, spandex blend socks ($12-$29 p/pair - sometimes can pick up a 2-3 pak bundle for $29) any name brand lightweight H20 proof hiker boot ($89-$139), a lightweight full-face balaclava ($12-$29), sock cap, wide-brimmed boonie/rain hat, and gloves of your choice (they are very affordable). I also carry a lightweight, H20 proof storm parka with a decent hood and closures. I carry a lightweight backpack tent ($135), a packable mummy sleeping bag ($90), the typical first aid stuff, a plastic tarp, etc., a SPOT emergency beacon (I can check-in / provide my gps location on Google Earth or similar satellite and map service to my wife and up to 5 other people any time I want. It goes to their phones or computers via text and/or email addresses.) It puts my wife to ease - and keeps my self-confidence propped up since it will also summon rescue. I upgraded to a handheld GPS with downloaded maps - I haven't yet bought an IPHONE / SMARTPHONE I spray H20 proof on my gloves and outer clothing each season. My biggest problem, being 63, a solo hunter, and mounting orthopedic issues...is how to get the elk out on my back. THAT will be this year's major obstacle. 3miles in + 3 miles out = 6 miles x 4 trips = 24 miles. I'm exploring putting an outfitter / wrangler on standby for pack-out but that may be expensive. I do this solo hunt for about $1,500. The big kicker is, my wife and I are retired, so my wife accompanies me to Colorado, we rent a condo, and she stays in the condo and quilts while I'm hunting. You can rent a nice condo, etc., in September for about $90-$100 p/night for 14 nights - less if you rent it for a longer period. That $ is in addition to the $1500 spent on the hunt, tag and gasoline. They would rather rent for less than to have the property sit vacant. Most of these are also in ski areas so no snow = off seaon for rentals. You can also do this if you want to day hunt and return "home" each night. That is not very realistic unless you find lodging very close to your hunt area. If you do - you will probably have lots of company on the trail. A final word to the wise: Get past the first drainage if you can. A DOW biologist told me that the first year I went on an OTC October Rifle elk hunt. I hunted USFS non-wilderness, with a campground and hiking trails running throughout. I failed to heed his advice, though I did walk in about a mile. I sat all day in that "first drainage", saw an illegal (small) bull elk, a moose...21 hunters and one hiker + his dog. Thereafter, I switched to wilderness. Good Luck! RCS / IL

Garrett S. - posted 2 weeks ago on 01-28-2020 11:33:13 am
goHUNT INSIDER

For those asking what do I ask a biologist or game warden:

https://www.gohunt.com/read/skills/developing-the-ideal-plan-for-contact...

Matt W. - posted 2 weeks ago on 01-28-2020 08:03:26 am

One thing I’d say to any first timer is get out and use the gear you have at home as often as you can. Knowing what it’s like spending a few days in nature when the weather sucks, will help you under stand what your willing to endure and what you may need to make it more enjoyable.

Nick J. - posted 2 weeks ago on 01-27-2020 06:00:59 am
goHUNT INSIDER

Brent. An avenue to try if contact the area you want to hunt RMEF chair. They would know folks who hunt the areas you want, and who would spend some in depth time with you on info.

Brett M. - posted 2 weeks ago on 01-27-2020 05:49:03 am
goHUNT INSIDER

For someone that has never been out west and is planning a trip, what are some of the questions that you would recommend asking the game wardens and area officials. Definitely don't want to be that guy that is annoying them.

Nick J. - posted 3 weeks ago on 01-26-2020 01:48:56 pm
goHUNT INSIDER

Guys. You can hunt elk without Sitka. You can hunt elk with kenetrek. Without Hoyt, Swarovski, etc. Dudes overthink gear, and that becomes a barrier to entry. Not every elk in the west is above 11,000ft, not every forest is wilderness area. I applaud you dudes from back east for coming out and enjoying YOUR PUBLIC LAND, dont overthink it. IF you can hunt a whitetail in the Northeast in the fall, your tough enough to handle the conditions here, your gear will be fine. My tips: buy as much gas and groceries as you can at the smaller, local places. They really appreciate the buisness. Second. Check in, daily if you can(inreach, cell phone, sat phone). The west has some of the finest search and rescue people in the world, and they will come get you, but its better if they dont have to. Enjoy it guys, and welcome to elk hunting!!!

Mark A. - posted 3 weeks ago on 01-24-2020 11:28:11 pm
Lake Villa IL
goHUNT INSIDER

Dan is spot on the gear argument. I have an enclosed trailer to sleep in on my way out also. Last year 4 of our group spent two extra days in a hotel because I-80 was closed.

Dan M. - posted 3 weeks ago on 01-24-2020 04:56:11 pm

The $1500 budget for a western elk hunt is probably doable.....for younger guys. I've been doing the DIY since 94. That roughing it gets old quick to save a buck.
And that $1500 isn't going to cover the gear a first year guy might not have but should. I'm by no means trying to start an argument......but to the guy that's never done it, don't get disillusioned. Unless someone has has a ton of gear or at least some experience.....you could have a hunt from hell like my first DIY was. Over the years I've aquired quite an equipment inventory and a whole lot of experience. When planning your first DIY, do as much research on the equipment you might need or want. The experience you have could make or break if you choose to go back every year and I do.

Charles H. - posted 3 weeks ago on 01-24-2020 09:54:18 am
goHUNT INSIDER

Went to Utah last August OTC Elk hunters choice tag cost me $393. Drove 1900 miles from NY in two days solo, already had the gear. Cost me about $1200 total, processed the elk myself once I got home. Price included tag, gas, food, ice and one night in a cheap hotel to shower after 8 days of stinking myself out.

Adam S. - posted 3 weeks ago on 01-24-2020 09:26:00 am
goHUNT INSIDER

Not an elk hunt but I've hunted Mule deer several years in the west for less than $1000 per person driving from Ohio. This is with 4 people splitting the gas bill. We tent camp so your gas mileage won't suffer pulling a trailer. No fast food or garbage gas station snacks. Track your expenses and make a game of what you can do to decrease them. My wife knows I'm saving every penny I can on the hunt and doesn't complain that I go every year.

john k. - posted 3 weeks ago on 01-24-2020 08:27:12 am
goHUNT INSIDER

I've been doing it this way for the last 15 yrs coming from Pennsylvania. Drive is 2000 miles each way. $ 1500 is accurate assuming you have gear , a buddy and a truck. Not very successful but it's fun

Gary H. - posted 3 weeks ago on 01-24-2020 08:21:01 am
goHUNT INSIDER

2400 without the mount from Georgia for 2 people. We butchered the elk ourselves. SO no cost to speak of there.

Jacob H. - posted 3 weeks ago on 01-24-2020 08:18:58 am
goHUNT INSIDER

Appreciate all the feedback on the article. The overall objective of the article was to get people thinking about the costs associated with a DIY hunt in a bare minimum way. Of course if you fly, rent a car, eat out, bring your family, kill an elk, get it butchered, and get it mounted these prices will diffidently go up. However by choosing a state with cheaper licenses or getting a cow tag instead of a bull tag, you can diffidently go elk hunting for $1,500 if you can get the time off of work. Please reach out if you have any questions!

Gary H. - posted 3 weeks ago on 01-24-2020 07:56:54 am
goHUNT INSIDER

I own all of my gear. 3200 was for just what I said it was. And from Georgia with two people I promise you wont do it cheaper than that....

rick b. - posted 3 weeks ago on 01-24-2020 07:49:42 am
maine
goHUNT INSIDER

and you count food costs bc you’re not going to spend the same amount to eat travelling and on a hunt as you do at home. you’re just not.

John S. - posted 3 weeks ago on 01-24-2020 07:49:32 am

Nothing new? I drove over 20 times from Virginia to Colorado to Elk hunt and never spent any more than this? Had a little help first time from my brother on law, who was living in Denver at the time!! Had some great hunts, killed couple nice ones and others, got big 5X5 mounted. Hiked into Grizzly Canyon many times before wiseing up and started renting horses from Sombrero Ranch? Horses can be a pain in the butt, but are tremendous help getting stuff in and out? Got too old to get far from road and couldn't hunt as hard, but still enjoyed taking others out? Getting too old now to hardly hunt at all, but great memories!!

rick b. - posted 3 weeks ago on 01-24-2020 07:48:14 am
maine
goHUNT INSIDER

i think your $3200 is more realistic. I have to ship meat home from a butcher bc i fly from maine. that’s expensive. But money well spent. I just think $1500 applies to people hunting fast and light who own tons of gear already and who live one days drive away

Gary H. - posted 3 weeks ago on 01-24-2020 07:36:55 am
goHUNT INSIDER

My trip last year to Colorado cost me and my wife 3200$. That included the Licenses, gas, food, and cost of the elk mount.

Thousands cheaper than just the cost of 1 hunter going on a quality guided elk hunt.

Lance V. - posted 3 weeks ago on 01-24-2020 07:05:43 am
Coeur D Alene, ID
goHUNT INSIDER

One additional cost I didn’t see accounted for on this $1500 hunt is the cost of the GoHunt membership. Need to add that in there. How could that have been forgotten???

Pete R. - posted 3 weeks ago on 01-24-2020 06:58:58 am
goHUNT INSIDER

$1,500 is very doable. Luckily I live in a state that is only a 12-24 hour drive to good elk hunting. I currently do 1 archery and 1 rifle hunt per year in different states and can easily do each on that budget. It may involve borrowing gear and camp supplies in the beginning but if you just buy 1 or 2 larger necessities per year, it doesn't take long to have your own well stocked camp.

Lance V. - posted 3 weeks ago on 01-24-2020 03:51:38 am
Coeur D Alene, ID
goHUNT INSIDER

I don’t count food costs as part of the trip costs. You have to eat even if you weren’t going to go on a hunt right? So the same cost would be incurred even if you were at home on the couch.
Tags, gas, lodging.
Gear needs to be depreciated over a 10 year + group of hunts or the numbers get out of hand pretty quick. Best not to even look at that portion.

Mark A. - posted 3 weeks ago on 01-23-2020 11:59:27 pm
Lake Villa IL
goHUNT INSIDER

You are right. With that distance and limited time it doesn't work. It is double my drive distance.

rick b. - posted 3 weeks ago on 01-23-2020 11:50:10 pm
maine
goHUNT INSIDER

yeah driving is key. but i live in maine!! 3 days to get to where i want to hunt. 3 days back. i only get 7 days on my week on week off dad schedule. when he’s in college i’ll drive out and do 2-3 hunts in one trip. for now i have to fly and rent a 4x4 and i’m limited to hunts that fit my schedule. if you live one days drive from elk then these numbers work. they don’t work if you have an airplane ticket and a truck rental

Mark A. - posted 3 weeks ago on 01-23-2020 11:07:21 pm
Lake Villa IL
goHUNT INSIDER

I've bought full price cow tags in Wyoming the past two years and with fuel cost coming from Illinois I think these numbers are spot on. Go do it. Just not my unit. Lol

dan k. - posted 3 weeks ago on 01-23-2020 10:54:53 pm
goHUNT INSIDER

$1500 is very doable as long as you drive it yourself and camp out on public,,,last year i actually did a 5 species,4 state multi-tag d i y hunt by myself for 5 weeks and combining them into 1 trip averaged out to approx $759 per hunt x5,,,including the n r tag fees,,that was 3 deer hunts and 2 elk hunts,,being as thrifty as i could. man that wore me out.

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Bradlee S. - posted 3 weeks ago on 01-23-2020 07:15:02 pm
Eugene oregon
goHUNT INSIDER

I'm glad I live in the west

rick b. - posted 3 weeks ago on 01-23-2020 07:01:21 pm
maine
goHUNT INSIDER

but yeah if you don’t have infants or toddlers to take care of and a wife who wants assistance with that you can do it for sure I wish I had realized that in my 20s

rick b. - posted 3 weeks ago on 01-23-2020 06:59:47 pm
maine
goHUNT INSIDER

not really. $2k. ish. maybe. if you have someone reliable to help with camp and split fuel and truck rental. i live in maine. airfare and renting a 4x4 truck puts a dent in those numbers i’m afraid. if you have a crew of guys or even one hunting buddy going with you to split truck rental and gas that helps a lot. my montana solo hunts are costing $2500-$2700 bc Deer Elk Combo and doe tag is $459-500 more than just buying a CO elk tag