Last week I was on the phone with a gentleman that has been successfully hunting elk for over 40 years. This man’s knowledge for elk was amazing; the only think that was more impressive than his wisdom was his intense passion for hunting elk. I thought the call was going to be short and sweet – after all, I only had a couple of very simple questions – but this man took a keen interest in my trip and we ended up talking for well over an hour. As I began to tell him about my plans he caught me by surprise when he interrupted my narrative and emphatically exclaimed,
“I have no idea why you would do that!”
When an elk hunting veteran says such a thing to a complete beginner, like myself, it is time to listen!
The issue that this tried-and-true veteran questioned is my plan to camp in the backcountry for a week. He had valid reasons for questioning this endeavor – far too many to cover in this one article – but his reasoning was well thought-out and raised some very legitimate issues, and it forced me to reconsider my plans. After a lot of questioning on his part, followed by a lot of internal questioning on my part, I have decided that my plans won’t be changing. I will be camping in the backcountry. Well, at least that is “Plan A”.
Base Camp, Spike Camp, or Bivy?
These terms get thrown around quite often in elk hunting circles, but they tend to carry different meanings to different people. If we can forget the jargon and simplify things, we can quickly see that we have a few basic options when it comes to the logistics of living in elk country over the course of a multi-day hunt.
The first option is to have a “base camp” – this is a semi-permanent camp that is setup at a major trailhead, or just off the road. This may mean camping out of your vehicle, a trailer, or from a large tent. The base camp is your place to return to after hunting, and it is the place you leave from to venture into the wilderness each morning. Compared to the alternatives, a base camp is the easiest and cheapest way to plan the logistics of a DIY hunt, especially for non-resident hunters.
A road-based base camp provides you with the option of having a “luxurious” camping experience. You can setup a capable kitchen, keep large coolers stocked with food and beverages, sleep in the comfort of a spacious tent, trailer, or camper, and if you want to go all out you can even run electricity from a generator. The problem with this type of camp is that it can be difficult to avoid the pressure of other hunters, and it often leads to long hikes in and out of the backcountry to find unpressured elk, or maybe even any elk at all. There are no doubt many great “honey holes” that provide great hunting from a road-based camp, but such spots are usually best-kept secrets of locals, and it can be extremely difficulty for non-resident elk hunters to find such a spot.
Another option is to setup a “backcountry base camp” – that is, a semi-permanent camp that isn’t setup near roads or trails, but it set out in the backcountry – in very close proximity to where you will be hunting. This “backcountry base camp” – which some refer to as a “spike camp”, although “spike camp” actually has a more defined and intentional meaning, but I digress – anyway, this camp is carried into the backcountry on your back or with the assistance of pack animals.
Setting up a backcountry base camp begins to present numerous logistical challenges, and makes nearly everything about the trip more difficult. You are now carrying all of your living supplies into the backcountry on your back. That means that you must have quality gear to survive in the backcountry and it also means that you can’t afford the luxuries of a base camp – after all, you will only have with you what you are willing to carry. A backcountry base camp also presents other logistical challenges, such as making sure you camp in close proximity to water, making sure you have a way to filter such water, and on and on. Absolutely, positively, do NOT attempt to camp in mountainous backcountry if you do not have experience backpacking. If you want to hunt in this manor then you need to begin taking backpacking trips in your home area to learn how to live out of a pack and tent, with limited supplies.
Finally, to generalize, what most people are referring to when they talk about “bivy hunting” is carrying camp with you into the backcountry, but not setting up a semi-permanent camp. Rather, the bivy hunter will carry everything with him each and every day, and the location of a night’s camp will simply be where this individual finds himself at the end of the day. After a quick pitch of camp and a night’s rest, the bivy hunter will then pack up everything again and set out on the next day’s hunt – only to repeat this process over and over during the course of the hunt. Building upon the complexity and difficulty of a backcountry base camp, the bivy camp is even more difficult because carrying camp on your back for days-on-end is physically laborious, and the logistics of finding a suitable camping spot at the end of a day’s hunt can also be a challenge.
Back To My Plan…
I have thought long and hard about my plans for this elk hunt, and although the caution and questioning of an elk hunter with decades of experience forced me to re-evaluate my plans, I am still planning on going with a backcountry base camp for this hunt. Over the course of the next few months I will be diving much deeper into this plan, including the problems and challenges that it presents, as well as all of the gear and precautions that are required to hunt in this manner.