Hunting elk with a bow and arrow is rarely, if ever, easy. The pursuit is demanding — mentally, physically, and emotionally. Because of the inherent challenge of the hunt, an elk hunter must make sure that they don’t further handicap themselves by being caught unprepared or ill-equipped by their gear.
Depending on the time of year, area of the country, and style of the hunt, the overall gear needs for an elk hunt can and will change. But if I were to distill a list down to the essentials — overlooking the common needs such as food, water, etc. — here are the 8 items you need for a successful elk hunt.
And, as a preface to the list, let me say this: I am not as concerned with saying what specific brands/products I use, as I am explaining why I use a certain type (or brand) of item. I want you to see the “why” behind the “what” of the items I’m recommending here.
Merino Wool Apparel
Merino wool clothing and accessories are invaluable for the physical demands and weather conditions of elk hunting. Whether it’s the heat of the early season, or the cold of the late season, merino wool is the answer for next-to-skin, first, and often second layers of clothing.
I wear merino wool socks, which help keep my feet dry and ready to hike mile after mile. I also wear merino wool boxers and base layers, which help transport moisture away from my skin and naturally resist holding odors that are sure to be generated while pursuing elk.
I have tested numerous merino garments from a variety of manufacturers and have settled upon using First Lite wool. They offer high-quality merino wool in nearly every article of clothing an archery elk hunter could need and in a wide variety of camouflage patterns. Regardless of the brand, merino wool is the essential apparel for elk hunting.
Boots for the Backcountry
Think about elk country for a minute. Imagine the open, grassy meadows. The fresh dew. The rising sun. The bull — standing and bugling to greet the morning.
Now, wake up! That might be the picture you have of elk hunting, but it is often far from reality.
What’s more realistic is chasing elk through thick timber, where massive trees have been blown-down and create a giant game of pick-up-sticks in the forest. You’re crawling over, under, up, and down. You’re stomping through creek bottoms, climbing up slopes that might require assistance from all four of your limbs, and you’re feet are taking a beating.
Thus, you need good footwear. In fact, I believe that inferior footwear can ruin an elk hunt quicker than any other improper gear choice. So choose your boots wisely.
Personally, I wear the Lowa Tibets, which are specifically designed for navigating off-trail terrain and are built to support the load of being under a weighted pack.
The One Right Pack
You might begin a day’s elk hunt by carrying some water, snacks, calls, and other necessities, but when you are fortunate enough to connect your broadhead-tipped arrow with an elk’s vitals, you’ll need to carry a whole lot more. Hunters will often have two packs — one worn for their essential gear while hunting throughout the day and another for hauling the heavy loads of fresh game meat back to the vehicle.
Not only is that approach inefficient, sometimes it is impractical. What if you kill an elk, but your hauling pack is 1, 2, or 5 miles away back at camp or the truck? Do you have enough time to leave the elk and make an extra round-trip just to get your hauling pack? (Not to mention the massive waste of energy involved in that round-trip.)
A lightweight daypack might be comfortable for your light load of essential gear, but it won’t haul an elk. Conversely, most rigid pack frames might be great for hauling elk quarters, but they are impractical to wear while hiking, hunting, and shooting.
Thankfully, if you do some careful analysis and informed shopping, you can find a few packs that do both jobs and do them well. Personally, I use the Exo Mountain Gear 3500, which can haul a week’s worth of gear into the backcountry, compress down to a small day pack, and can be used as a very effective hauling frame that will support loads over 100lbs.
A Versatile Headlamp
A powerful, efficient, versatile headlamp is one of the most over-looked gear choices that a hunter can make. I use my headlamp for everything from hiking in the pre-dawn hours, to illuminating my camp for after-hours chores, to finding items in the middle of the night.
When evaluating headlamps, look specifically for a model that provides a high maximum output, while also offering the flexibility of a low-output mode. I highly recommend models that feature a red light mode, which will provide ambient light to complete up-close tasks in the dark, all the while preserving your night vision. My personal choice is the Black Diamond Spot.
The modern technology revolution has given hunters more choices than ever when it comes to navigation. Gone are the days of relying solely on a magnetic compass and a paper map — although I still use and recommend both items. In addition, though, elk hunters would be wise to take advantage of digital mapping resources that include satellite imagery, property boundaries, altitude information, and more.
Whether you use a dedicated handheld GPS unit, or want to rely on your smartphone’s built-in GPS functionality, you can supercharge either device with add-on resources from Hunting GPS Maps. These resources are critical during the hunt, as well as for “virtual scouting” in preparing to embark upon an elk hunt.
Whatever navigation tools you choose, it is vital that you practice using them before your hunt begins. Get familiar with the features, functions, and capabilities before you’re miles-deep into No Man’s Land.
A Variety of Elk Calls
Just as there are multiple types and dozens of brands of broadheads on the market; the choices in elk calls are overwhelming as well. Most hunters place the majority of their focus selecting and learning an elk bugle (male vocalization), but I think that cow calls are actually more important.
The key to selecting the right cow call is: selecting a variety of cow calls. You see, one call might work on one elk (for whatever reason), but another elk might respond better to another call (for whatever reason). I’ve literally had bulls ignore my calls and presence completely, but then immediately fire up with a response when I made the same vocalization on a different call. My lanyard of a half-dozen cow calls never leaves my neck when I’m in the elk woods. And I’ll frequently rotate between the different options.
When it comes to bugles, I highly recommend the offerings from Duel Game Calls. They are incredibly learn, easy to use in the field, and have incredibly realistic tonal qualities (thanks to the dual chambers).
An Always-Sharp Knife
You might think that processing a very large game animal, such as a bull elk, requires a very large knife, but you’d be surprised at just how effective the small, yet scary-sharp, Havalon knife is when harvesting meat off of an elk.
The thick hide of an elk will wear on just about any knife blade, but with the Havalon you can get a “new knife” with a quick change of the replaceable blades. Instead of worrying about packing a traditional knife that has to be ultra-sharp to begin with, and then having to resharpen that knife while processing an elk (which you’ll most assuredly have to do), the Havalon provides the convenience of a new surgically sharp cutting edge at any time.
Quality Game Bags
Killing an elk is one thing; getting it back to cooler or freezer is another. It isn’t uncommon for 24 hours or more to elapse from the time an elk is shot to the time that it is on ice. To properly care for that meat in that timespan, good game bags are critical.
Select a game bag that is durable, breathable, but not so loose that flys can lay eggs through the fabric. I’ve become a huge fan of synthetic game bags, which provide superior protection and are washable and reusable season after season. Some of the best game bags on the market come from Caribou Gear and TAG.
Nearly every elk hunter will carry more than these 8 essential items. But by focusing on making wise gear decisions on each of these items, you will be setting yourself up to properly hunt, kill, and process an elk. Good luck!