On the first day of hunter’s safety seven years ago, the instructor asked what my goal was with hunting. I told him I wanted to bow hunt elk. It just fell out of my mouth and honestly surprised me. The following seasons humbled me to my core, and that goal started to feel more and more out of reach as I experienced just how hard and unforgiving hunting can be. My best advice for setting yourself up for a successful hunt and the advice I have followed season after season to lead to my first successful elk hunt this year is as follows.
Hone your weapon: The most important aspect of ethical hunting is ensuring your weapon is accurate, being proficient with it, knowing your range limits, and sticking to them. You can have less-than-ideal gear and preparedness in other areas and still be successful, but not this one. Go to the range, shoot at various distances, from different positions, and ideally in different weather conditions. Understand that your effective range will change once you have an animal in your sights and your adrenaline kicks in. A good rule of thumb is to have 2/3rds of your effective range be your maximum range in the field. Ensure you know how to fix or assess your weapon if something goes wrong in the field. Invest the majority of your preparation time here.
Get physically ready: Hunting days are long, grueling, and can be relentless. Don’t let this be a surprise to your body. Get in a preseason routine to ensure that hunting season isn’t the first time you carry a loaded pack – I put weight in my POP-UP or PINTLER to mimic a pack out. Take some hikes with your boots on to harden your feet and strengthen your legs, and tend to any injuries. You will undoubtedly get into canyons you didn’t expect, need to punch it to ridgelines farther than you imagined, and need to be able to get yourself safely out. Because you will have to pack out heavy loads if you’re successful, your physical fitness should determine whether or not you can ethically harvest an animal in your location. Work in the preseason, so this is less of a limiting factor for how mobile you are in the mountains, and so you can prevent injuries to ensure a lifetime of healthy hunting.
Prepare your gear: If you take care of your gear, your gear will take care of you. Get organized, make lists, and ensure you have what you need safely and effectively be in the field. Test out the layering system you’re going to wear. Clean, treat and mend your gear from last year to ensure it’s all in working order. Test pack your backpack and make sure it’s a good all-day weight. Find that sweet spot of prepared but not overloaded, and don’t carry anything you don’t know how to use.
Get mentally ready: Hunting is as much a mental test of fortitude as it is physical. Get mentally prepared for the highs and lows. A lot can happen in the field, whether that’s the high of a successful hunt or the low of wounding and losing an animal. Prepare to have a good attitude no matter the circumstances so you can stay focused on the hunt and support the people you go with. Keeping your head in the game and being able to reset and stay in the hunt is key to success. No matter what, keep a positive mindset.
Scout: Nothing helps you find animals in the field like actually doing it. Take some time to prepare a quiver of areas with good access and habitat. You can start by e-scouting but try and test your theories before sandbagging yourself in the dark and wasting a precious hunting day during the season. Scouting is a great way to get used to waking up early and testing your backpack, boots, layering, and gear system. A lot can happen when the season opens with congestion from other hunters, closed roads, etc., so have a short list of areas where you know you have a good chance of finding an animal in your back pocket. Use this time to practice getting in a hunter’s mindset of noticing every detail – tracks, sign, wind patterns – these calibrations will make you more effective during the season.
Throughout the seasons, I’ve learned how important it is to dial in my kit and how important it is to prepare for a hunt leading into a season to give yourself the best chance possible to accomplish your goal.