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Choosing Between DIY Elk Hunting vs Guided Elk Hunts

Choosing Between DIY Elk Hunting vs Guided Elk Hunts

Elk hunting is great no matter how you do it. That's me below. The first time I ever went elk hunting. It was in southern Colorado. I was in awe the entire time. I couldn't believe I was finally, finally elk hunting.


How to choose an elk hunt is not easy. There's a ton of options. The real question is: do I try to do it on my own or do I go through an outfitter? I’ve been on a few guided elk hunts and I’ve been on several DIY elk hunts. Here are a few brutal truths I learned from years of elk hunting.

 More Research=Better Elk Hunting 

Whether you launch out with a DIY elk hunt or hire a guide, I can promise you that the more homework you do, the better the entire experience is going to be. Think of it this way: research saves money. Plain and simple.Jason Cruise elk hunting

Traveling to hunt elk brings on immediate details that must be answered. Answer questions like:

Where do I want to elk hunt and why?

How can I find out if there’s a decent elk herd in that unit?

Where will I stay? Will the location have water and power?

Where can I get a map of the unit? Is the map waterproof or do I need to laminate it? 

How will I get a tag? Is it over-the-counter or lottery?

If I go with a guided elk hunt what's the deposit?

Is there a refund for cancellation? 

Is it better if I get a cow-only tag?

Is the terrain intensely rugged or relatively flat?

Terrain will determine the gear you bring with you, including boots, and packs. So it’s best to know that on the front end.

All of these questions mean one thing . . .

Start Early

Every time I’ve been on an elk hunt, the work begins about 14 months out at a minimum. In many states, you can’t even apply for an elk tag without “preference points” and the only way you’re getting preference points is if you have applied in the past.

I remember one unit where I wanted to elk hunt required 1 preference point to even apply, but the only way to get a point was to apply! And the first year, you had a 90% chance of being turned down. So to hunt that unit was a minimum 2-year wait. See what I mean?

Moreover, in many elk hunting regions that consistently produce solid elk herds, cabins and camps are booked over a year out because hunters return year after year, which means you have to get reservations more than a year in advance.

I’m not trying to paint a dismal picture. You can certainly go on a DIY Elk Hunt and have fun. I’ve done it many times. You just have to start the process with plenty of lead time.

Put A Simple Budget Together

diy elk hunting preparation

Expenses add up quickly; we all know that. When you go on an elk hunt, you’re most likely going to need new boots unless you hunt elk often. I’ll never forget a friend of mine showing up to an elk hunt with his whitetail hunting boots that were heavy and insulated. Wow did his poor soul suffer all week? Blisters limited his hunt.

An elk hunt is a Rocky Mountain hiking experience where you also carry a rifle. Boots must be well suited for rugged climbing and hot, swollen feet.

Even things like backpacks threw me a curve. I had a super backpack for day or overnight hiking, but I then realized, “What’s going to happen if I kill an elk 3 miles into the timber? My pack isn’t suited for meatpacking." I had to purchase a packing frame pack to haul out the meat. Not expensive, but certainly an unforeseen expense.

Don’t Be Shy

Make phone calls. Ask questions. Call gun stores in the area. Connect with hunters on Instagram or Facebook. More importantly, make more phone calls! I was stunned at how much information I could grab from people who lived in the units I hunted. I even called the local game wardens. You’d be surprised at how helpful they were … and how much knowledge they were willing to share about the unit.

Take A Buddy, Offset Your Tags

I know that elk hunting and the thought of killing a big elk is a dream come true. However, elk hunting is a rough sport because it happens in the mountains far away from other people who can help should something go wrong.

Having a buddy is safe, but it’s also the best way to get meat! I would often take a buddy and we’d offset our tags where one of us would get a bull tag and the other would get a cow tag. Your chances of killing an elk on a DIY elk hunt go up dramatically on that hunt because you won’t often see bulls and cows together during post-rut rifle season anyway.

Experience Trumps Killing Elk

Will Primos is someone I consider a good friend and mentor, but let me tell you, watching Primo's elk hunting segments is not going to work out in your favor other than in tips and strategies. His body of work in the world of elk hunting works against the other 99% of us on a DIY elk hunt. Why? Because he’s taking down elk all the time. And the footage that Primos consistently puts out is second to none in the world of elk hunting. I consider Will to be one of the greatest elk hunters and elk killers in our modern age, and he will be the first to tell you he’s blessed to have great opportunities to go elk hunting. So, don’t stack up what you see on the video to what you’re going to experience because it won’t happen--most likely.

Let me pass along some eternal wisdom a friend of mine gave me years ago just before my first trip to elk country. He said, “Hope that you see elk at some point during the hunt. And if you do see an elk, take the first legal elk you can take because you may not see another one.”

The chances of you killing a nice 6x6 on any elk hunt is almost non-existent. Say that to yourself over and over again…it’ll ease the pain on the ride home from the hunt.

Having said that, elk hunting is nothing short of amazing. I find myself simply in awe every time I venture into the backcountry.

The psalmist said, “The Heavens declare the glory of God and the skies proclaim the works of His hands.” [Psalm 19:1] When you are elk hunting, the glory of God is so close it’s almost palatable.

The rock formations. Being able to see for miles as you stand on top of a ridge. Watching aspens dance in the wind. Hearing that same wind howl unfiltered through the absence of traffic and cityscapes. There’s simply nothing like it from what I’ve experienced in my hunting journey to date.

If you go elk hunting, whether DIY elk hunting or through guided elk hunts, make the experience the trophy. Seriously. Make the journey the trophy. From the moment you start packing, to the flight or drive out there, to the songs you listen to on the radio, the conversations you have about life sitting with a good buddy in the timber as you eat a protein bar. Take time to take pictures at every turn.

Make all of it your trophy. Do that, and there’s no tag filled in the world that can top a holistic approach to being in God’s country on an elk hunt.

About the Author

Jason Cruise

Jason Cruise is a published author and the host of Mossberg’s Rugged American Hunter series.
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