Last fall I was headed over the pass for a quick trip to Denver between Colorado's second and third rifle seasons. I stopped at a rest stop and noticed a fellow with six days' stubble on his sunburned face, leaning against a truck with Midwestern plates. "Been huntin'?" I said.
"Yup," he replied with a grin. "It sure is different out here."
"How so?" I asked.
"Everything," he said. "You know, back home you can hunt in 30 acres of timber back behind the barn. Out here, you're only getting started when you've walked half a day up an 11,000-foot mountain. The mountains are so big, the animals are tough, and it's really challenging hunting. It was much harder than I thought. But I had a great time. I'll be back again."
I smiled. "We'll see you next year," I said.
His response was no surprise to me. My wife and I own an outfitting business in some of the toughest country in Colorado, and no matter how much we try to prepare our clients for a demanding expedition, someone is always surprised and unprepared. If you're planning a trip out West and haven't done a Western hunt before, read on, because I'm speaking from experience.
Physical conditioning is the most important thing to prepare yourself for a Western hunt. If you think you can spend half an hour a day on a treadmill and be in shape for a high-elevation hunt, you're wrong. It's amazing what climbing up a 35-degree slope at 10,000 feet above sea level will tell you about your physical fitness. The only true way to get in shape for a Western hunt is to really stress yourself physically. By this, I mean get your heart rate pumping a sustained 90-120 beats a minute for 20-30 minutes 5-6 times per week. At least a couple of times a week, go until the sweat is streaming down your face and you're gasping for breath and your heart is really pumping. Of course, consult with your doctor, go slow at first, and then build up your program, but if you're not really pushing yourself at low elevation, you'll really be hurting at high elevation.
Last fall, one of our clients, "Wes", ignored our advice to get physically fit and to get acclimated before his hunt. On opening morning, he joined the group on a semi-demanding two-hour hike to a point where we had spotted five bull elk the night before. While his brother-in-law ended up dropping a nice 5x5 with one shot in the neck, Wes contracted a brutal case of altitude sickness. My guide, Ian, practically had to carry Wes off the mountain. The next morning, his resting pulse was still 110, and Wes had to abort his hunt. The rest of the group tagged out on nice bulls, while Wes spent a considerable amount of time and money for only a single morning of hunting. At the least, try to give yourself as much time as possible at high elevation before your hunt. Altitude sickness is a tricky thing, and acclimation to high elevations can take as long as six weeks. If you step off a plane and head right to the hills to go hunting, you may be throwing your body completely out of whack. Realistically, hardly anyone can afford to acclimate for four weeks prior to a hunt, but give yourself two or three days or, better yet, a week, if you can.
Secondly, it's a good idea to "gear up." When elk hunting, it's best to operate on the principle that you'll be moving, hiking, sweating, and sitting in a variety of conditions, from balmy 70-degree days with full sunshine to blizzard conditions at ten below zero. That means layers. If you're wearing one heavy coat while hiking uphill at 10,000 feet, you'll either be sweating or freezing. We recommend spending the money on good camouflage water-repellent gear with good insulation and plenty of layers. Stay away from cotton, because it traps moisture against your body. Gear up with polypropylene underlayers, wool shirts, and water-repellent, quiet outer layers.
Boots are one of my favorite topics here. I bring at least two good stout pairs of waterproof leather hunting boots into camp, the taller the better. If you've ever worn ankle-high fabric-paneled hiking shoes in fourteen inches of new snow, you'll understand why. I don't care how waterproof they say they are, any boots with fabric panels in them seem to leak after a while. Spend the big bucks on the best leather boots and hunt in comfort-but be sure to break them in well prior to your hunt. Along the same lines, bring the best sleeping bag you can afford. I remember checking on some of my drop camp hunters during third season a couple of years ago, and one of the hunters was practically on his knees begging me to bring up another sleeping bag. When I saw his thin sack, I laughed out loud. He was using a sleeping bag more suitable for a kids' slumber party than a November elk hunt when the temperatures dipped to five below zero. His tentmates were getting worried that he was going to try to snuggle up with them in their sleeping bags.
Every hunter should have a backpack or fanny pack carrying the necessities not only for a day's hunt, but for a night out in the cold should he get lost. You'd be amazed at how many guys take off from camp with five shells and a candy bar in their pockets. That just don't cut it, as my dad would say. Here's a list of gear that every hunter should carry with him every time he leaves camp:
If it sounds like quite a load, it is. Please allow me to explain the importance of these items. You should NEVER leave camp without your backpack of gear. I've seen guys who thought they were going out for a half-hour hunt come dragging back in eight hours later with their tongues hanging out, having forgotten their backpacks.
A good pair of binoculars can save you many miles of walking, and can help you spot game at near and far distances. I use the most expensive binoculars on the market-Swarovski-and I can't keep them in my own hands. My hunters are always grabbing them from me.
Your survival kit can literally save your life if you end up having to spend a night outside in inclement weather. You may think 2 quarts of water is a lot, until you drink the last drop and wish you had more. It's much easier to become dehydrated at high elevation, and it's usually not safe to drink from streams and rivers because of high bacteria counts. If you contract giardia--an intestinal parasite--you'll wish you had a simple case of Montezuma's revenge instead. You can develop a ravenous appetite when you're burning thousands of calories in the cold, so bring enough for a good lunch and enough left over for emergency rations if you have to spend a night outside.
A meat saw may seem like an extravagance until you see a dead elk up close. It's roughly the size of a small horse, and cutting through the brisket, pelvis, neck, and knees with a small hunting knife is next to impossible. Last fall one of my guests, an outfitter from Maine, pulled out a petite small game knife to start field-dressing his bull. I laughed and handed him a "real knife" with a heavy 4-inch drop-point blade. I carry not one, but two, big stout drop-point knives, and a Leatherman tool as well. It's not uncommon to break a knife blade when field-dressing an elk.
I carry two miniature flashlights and extra batteries because one can always burn out a bulb or break, and a camera and film to record the scene of the trophy. The hunting jacket we already covered, and you'll need the rope to tie an elk's leg off to a tree so you can start field-dressing or for hanging quarters in the trees. Twenty rounds of ammunition may sound ridiculous, but sorry to say, I've seen many guys burn through that many rounds when they're trying to finish off a wounded bull at 400 yards. Many times I have seen elk take two or three solid hits in the vitals from magnum calibers, only to see them keep on trucking.
For some reason, your lips will get very chapped at high elevations, and if you don't have any on you and I run into you in the high country, the price is twenty bucks a tube, and you'll pay it. The same goes for sunscreen-the sun is much more intense at high elevation.
For rifles, we recommend calibers starting at .308 and .30-06 on the light end. Yes, you may be in love with your .270 or .25-06, and yes, you may know three guys that killed elk with one, no problem. But do they ever tell you about the ones that got away? We find those piles of bones every year. The new .300 Short Winchester Magnum is an ideal elk round. The .300 Winchester Magnum, .338 Magnum, and other such potent calibers are highly recommended. We recommend scopes that can cover a wide range of conditions-a good 3x9 or 3x10.5 is a great combination. Every year we hear incredible stories of guys dropping elk at 700 yards and beyond, but we regard that as either sloppy, unethical hunting or the guy simply couldn't judge the range. We advise our clients to know their rifles out to 350 yards and to never shoot beyond that range. Honestly, many hunters have difficulty hitting consistently at 250 yards, so we recommend stalking in close and making a clean kill. Spend a lot of time at the range before coming out, and shoot offhand, prone, and kneeling as well as on the bench rest. Spend money on a good scope--I remember guiding a millionaire who wasn't sure he wanted to make the investment in a good elk rifle. Instead he borrowed an inadequate rifle from a neighbor. Sure enough, as he pulled down on a nice bull in a snowstorm, 100 yards away, the scope was fogged up. That was his only chance at a bull.
Lastly, plan to have fun. Do as much scouting as you can in advance. If you want to load up the kids in the minivan to take a vacation out West, book a rafting trip for them while you go scouting. It will help immensely to familiarize yourself with the country prior to your hunt. If you'll be hunting from horseback, go to the local riding stable at least a couple times in the weeks prior to your hunt to get your muscles used to it. Try to line up a meat processor, a motel, a taxidermist, and a grocery store in advance, so you know where you're going when you get there. Bring a camera and lots of film, and be sure to have a great time!