There are a lot of reasons why people like to head outdoors every fall for elk hunting. For some people it’s about reconnecting with nature, for others it’s about spending time with friends and family, and for others it’s about challenging yourself. In general, hunting is about getting away from the day-to-day norms of life and immersing yourself in the natural world. Backpack hunting is not only a great way to be successful this fall, but it’s an amazing way to challenge yourself—surrounded with all the solitude the Rocky Mountains have to offer.
I’m not going to sugar coat it for you—backpack hunting is one of the toughest types of hunting. It takes dedication, training, and time, but the personal accomplishment and rewards from this endeavor are so great it will make you a "lifer" to the sport. In this article, I will cover all what you will need to consider when venturing in to Colorado’s back country, including training, where to go, what to use, and how to spend your time hunting.
As my old hockey coach always told me, “you play how you practice”. This meant that if you only give 75% in practice you’re only going to give 75% when you play. Backpacking is the same way; if you choose to not train or prepare yourself for this high elevation hunting, your body will not perform the way it needs to. The mountains are rough, and a week in Colorado wilderness will bring even the strongest-willed person to reconsider hunting this way. If you stick with it and keep a positive mental attitude, however, you can bet the rewards are worth the price you pay.
I strongly suggest to anyone wanting to start backpack hunting to train all year long. I realize that for most people this is not possible, especially with hunting season just around the corner. That being said, by no means do you need to run marathons to make it to the top of the mountain, yet this endeavor is not something to take lightly. Your workout routine should consist of mainly cardio with some weight training mixed in. If you were to do just one type of exercise, I would suggest cardio, cardio, cardio. The "legs feed the wolf", and if you want to conquer even the steepest terrain: Get your butt out there and start jogging!
My workout routine consists of mainly cardio in the morning followed by weights in the evening. I am giving you a vague description of my workout so you can customize yours. You can use this as just a foundation to work from. You will notice that I never work the same muscle group two days in a row—this allows your muscles time to rest and repair themselves.
Saturday and Sunday—Rest!
Where To Go
Colorado has a lot to offer for backpacking with millions of acres of public land and, according to coloradowilderness.com, 3,389,935 acres of wilderness areas! The land can vary dramatically from the arid regions of the southwest to the wet pine forests of the north—all of which can hold elk. Wherever you choose to hunt this fall it is important to review the area thoroughly with maps and aerial photos. I recommend the Colorado Hunting Atlas
. Use this in conjunction with Google Earth
, a free and easy-to-use program that will give you a good aerial view of the terrain you plan to hunt.
When picking a spot to hunt I look for areas that are at least 4 miles from the trail head and at least a mile off of the trail itself. This is deep enough into the mountains to get you away from the day-hikers and the people who car-camp at the trail head. I prefer to go to remote areas that the average person doesn't want to travel to. Remember, this is backpacking and the whole point is to get away from the crowds!
All of this will give you a fairly good idea of what you can expect, but nothing compares to actually being out there and seeing the lay of the land with your eyes. This is where scouting can be a very useful tool; to not only checkout the land but try out your equipment before the season opens. There have been times when I have gone to an area that I was going to scout for the fall and started driving on the road that I thought would get me to the trailhead, only to get a mile down the road and find out that it has been so poorly maintained that a 4-wheeler couldn't even make it down! This added 6 miles of hiking onto the 4 miles I was already planning to hike to get to camp. The point I am trying to make is—don't go to a new area the day the season opens. A lot can go wrong; by doing some scouting and research your hunt will go a lot smoother.
What To Use
There are no excuses for not buying the most durable/lightest-weight gear you can afford. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that it's a lot easier to hike 6 miles with a 30 lb. pack versus a 60 lb. pack. Your pack should be at least 3,500 cubic inches to allow for all of your gear.
A good pack weight for a 5-day hunt is about 35 lbs., or 42 lbs. for a 7-day hunt. Please remember this is just the weight of my pack and my gear, your pack may weigh more or less than mine.
Over the years, I have customized my pack and equipment to fit my needs in the back country, with a few sacrifices to comfort to lighten the overall load. I encourage you to treat this as just a base to start from; you may find that you want to add or remove some things to customize your needs. Whatever you choose to add or remove, remember this is "roughing it" at its core—bring the minimum amount of equipment you need and keep your pack light so you can stay mobile. (I will cover why it’s important to stay mobile in the section How to Hunt While Backpacking.)
5-day Backpacking Equipment List
The body needs about 2,000 calories per day to function. This does not account for the calories you will be burning while doing activities—like hiking or backpacking. According to Livestrong, hiking burns "approximately 435 calories per hour for an average, 160-pound person". Hiking is going to drain your body and in order to repair your muscles you’re going to need some valuable nutrients. As a general rule of thumb, most backpackers allow for 2 lbs. of food per day, but remember that anywhere you can cut weight can help the overall experience.
My meal plan consists of a breakfast of oatmeal mixed with some dried fruit. Then I snack on trail mix, power bars, and a variety of other munchies throughout the day. For dinner I like to have a hot meal, and favor the freeze-dried Mountain House meals. They have quite a few varieties and I haven't had a bad one yet!
That being said, you have a few options when it comes to preparing a hot meal. Freeze-dried meals are light weight, compact fuel that require just a little boiling water to rehydrate. There are a variety of companies that now produce them, offering a wide range of meal options from chicken primavera to ice cream. You can eat them right out of the package once they have been rehydrated and require no pots and pans for preparation aside from the small cup you use to boil water.
Meals, ready to eat (MRE) are quick, easy hot meals that come with a self-heating pack that activates with a little water. They are heavier than freeze-dried meals but require no stove to heat water. Some people shy away from these because they taste a little bland, so I would suggest trying both options before you head into the mountains and see which system you like better.
How To Hunt While Backpacking
The greatest asset you have while backpacking is the flexibility to camp where you want and carry your camp on your back every day. This allows you to move around quickly and stay with a herd of elk as they move through the mountains. While everyone else spends time hiking back and forth from their base camp, you can set up camp anywhere you like. This allows you to not only sleep longer but wake up in the morning ready to hunt or cook breakfast.
While everyone else is walking for two hours, you could be making oatmeal and a hot cup of coffee!
When it comes to hunting techniques while backpacking, there is a lot to consider when presented with a variety of unique situations. You may be chasing bugles, spotting and stalking, or setting up on a wallow. Whatever the situation, the best advice I can give anyone is to be opportunistic. Have a plan ready when you wake up every morning but don't be afraid to deviate from your plan if an opportunity presents itself. Carry all of your gear with you while you hunt, including your tent. By doing this you have the opportunity to go where you want when a situation presents itself. You don't have to worry about making it back to base camp too late because you have camp right there on your back!
No matter where you are this fall, remember that it's important to come home safely.
- Always let someone know where you are planning to hunt and when you plan to return.
- Getting lost in the mountains can be easier than you think, so always carry two forms of navigation. Don't rely on your GPS to always work—a compass never runs out of batteries.
- Take proper precautions when camping and hiking in bear country.
- If you can, carry a "spot" beacon in case of emergencies.
- Have a survival kit, know what's in it and how to use it.
Elk hunting is tough, and by adding the element of backpacking into the mix it can make the physical and mental challenges almost overwhelming—don't get beaten down by the challenges. It may be tough, but as I wrote before, the price you pay is well worth the rewards.
(The mention of products, services, and websites in this article does not constitute expressed or implied endorsement by Colorado Parks and Wildlife.)