You want to hunt elk, but you can’t find a partner. What can you do?
I got an email last week from a guy that lives in the Midwest and wants to hunt elk out west but can’t find a partner. He’s leery of packing in miles-deep and living solo in the backcountry for a week. He wants to know if he could effectively hunt from a base camp, and if so, how should he going about doing that and what should he bring on each day’s hunt.
And he’s not alone. I have received questions like this on many occasions. I’m far from an expert, but I have thought about this topic quite a bit in the past. And now that I’ve lived through a couple of tough elk hunts, I do have some “real world” perspective to strengthen my opinions.
If you’re considering hunting solo, here’s what I’d tell you…
It is tough to kill an elk. It is even tougher when you’re inexperienced and unfamiliar with the area that you’re heading into. It is tougher yet if you’re alone.
If you’re traveling from the midwest and hunting solo, be prepared to come home empty handed. I am not saying that your hunt will be a failure, but what I am saying is that you should have proper expectations, so that if you don’t kill an elk you don’t see your hunt as a failure.
Fact is, you’re doing something incredibly difficult. Something that takes a lot of planning, money, commitment, and guts. If you make the trip happen, that’s success. Experiencing elk country, that’s an amazing reward. Coming home with elk would be an unbelievable bonus.
Where to Camp & Hunt
Backpacking in 2–3 miles is possible. Living in the backcountry solo is possible. BUT, it shouldn’t be attempted without experience. You don’t have to have experience hunting elk, but you should have experience backpacking alone. Feel what it is like to be alone for days at a time and see if you can do it. Don’t find out on a big trip out west; try a solo trip closer to home.
A roadside basecamp is a very viable option for a solo hunt. It has a lot of benefits and a couple of notable downsides: 1) There will be more “competition” from other hunters, and 2) You waste a lot of hunting time and energy if you’re hiking 2–3 miles in/out each morning/evening. But these downsides can be accounted for…
If I were going solo and was leaning towards a roadside basecamp, then I would be very particular with my scouting (in my opinion, Hunting GPS Maps are a must) and the spots that I chose to hunt. I would forget the idea of “going deep” and putting miles between myself and other hunters. Instead, I would focus on putting distance between myself and other hunters simply by tackling difficult terrain that others overlook. I would look for a good hunting area that requires crossing a creek or small river. I would look for a brutal initial climb (probably without a trail) that drops into good elk country. I would look for any sort of natural barrier that is relatively close to the road, but is substantial enough to keep most people from thinking about crossing it.
I wrote an article for Field & Stream with my friend, Steve Speck, and we addressed this very topic…
“Find river crossings, deep canyons, or other natural barriers that will keep most hunters out, and hunt there. Use a map or GPS that shows property boundaries, and search for good public elk habitat that borders private land. By hunting these fringe areas, you can catch elk seeking refuge on less pressured ground.”
Pick out several of these ares in the unit that you’ll be hunting. If you spend 2–3 days in one spot and aren’t having luck, move one. It’s easy to pack up and reestablish a roadside camp. In fact, if I were going solo, I would try to “establish” as little of a permanent camp as possible – even using my vehicle as camp, if possible.
Packing-Out An Elk
Wether you backpack in or hunt from a trailhead/roadside basecamp, I wouldn’t recommend killing an elk more than 2–3 miles from your vehicle. Packing an elk out solo is an unbelievable feat of strength, endurance, and determination. If alone, you should expect at least 3 trips to pack a bull out. Two is physically possible for some(albeit extremely tough), but I wouldn’t consider it safe for a solo trip. It’s easier to get hurt packing an elk out than it is to get hurt while trying to kill one.
Say you kill a bull 3 miles from the truck. It’ll take you probably 4 hours to process the meat – especially if it is your first time. It could easily be dark by the time you’re finished. So you pack one load out to the truck that first day/night.
The next day you hike back in the 3 miles and come out with load two. Then you head back in for the final load and come back out.
That’s 15 miles. Nine of which was with a very heavy pack. Don’t forget this isn’t walking through the park – this is mountainous terrain with elevation loss/gain, bad footing, etc. If that sounds easy, it is because you haven’t done it. And in that scenario, every mile further you shoot the elk is actually 5 more miles of hiking when you consider the multiple trips in and out.
Oh, and if you find success, it’ll probably be days into your hunt when you’re already starting to get beat down and exhausted.
Wether you’re hunting solo or with a partner…from a roadside basecamp or a backcountry bivy…some gear requirements don’t change. Great boots, versatile clothing layers, and a good pack — those are the big three that are always required. Then you have the obvious items like a knife, headlamp, first aid kit, water bladder and filter, etc.
But there are a few specific items that I’d be sure to take if I were hunting solo and heading out for a 12–14hr day, but not anticipating spending the night…
- Communication: SPOT, DeLorme inReach, etc.
- Emergency Shelter: The “Escape” or “Emergency” Bivy from SOL (Survive Outdoors Longer)
- Food & Stove: Even if I were planning on eating dinner back at the basecamp, I’d carry it with me, as well as a method to heat water.
- Navigation: Map, compass, GPS, and extra batteries. Bring ‘em all.
I don’t think there’s much that I’d at to my standard elk hunting gear list, but you can obviously leave some of what is on my list back at camp.