Gear for Steep and Deep Elk Hunting
by PJ DelHomme
A faint bugle right at dusk is the last thing you want to hear before going home—unless your home happens to be on your back.
Have you ever gone after elk? I mean, really gone after elk? I’m not talking day hikes in and out for a few miles. I mean strap a minimal amount of gear on your back, point a compass to the deepest, darkest hole, and don’t come out until your pack is weighted down with the quarters of your quarry.
It sounds intimidating, but today’s hunting gear is getting smaller and lighter, allowing you to go farther and faster in search of elk.
To get your gear in your pack and still have room to get your animal out, you need a backpack designed to carry loads as heavy as your quads can take. Many packs now are “convertible,” meaning they are compact when loaded with your gear, and then expand to carry both gear and meat out of the woods. A quality pack is not going to come cheap ($500 or more), but it should last for years and come with a bombproof, unconditional guarantee. Make sure you really try on the pack. Load it with gear, cinch it down and try to move as you would in the field. An improper fit in the store will ensure misery in the field.
There are some die-hards out there who get by with just a simple tarp, but these days you can afford a little more luxury. A Gore-tex bivy sack is the lightest way to stay dry. The beauty of a bivy is that it can be set up just about anywhere elk are. Or, single-person tents can provide a little more room.
Bags and Pads
Inside your shelter, sleeping bags and pads will either make or break you the next morning. To save precious space, choose a down sleeping bag rated for the lowest you think the mercury will drop. Down bags are rated by “fill-power.” Generally, the higher the fill-rating, the lighter and smaller the bag will be, but the price tag will be higher. Down loses its ability to keep you dry when wet, so never use it without a tent or bivy sack. A bivy sack will add 10 degrees of warmth. Polarguard is a cheaper alternative to down that is nearly as light as down but not as compressible. To save more precious pack-space, buy an additional compression sack for your bag and reduce it to the size of a volleyball.
If you’ve ever slept the night on bare ground, you know how it sucks the heat right out of you, no matter how warm a sleeping bag you have. A self-inflating pad provides a vital cushion of air between you and the ground. A closed-cell foam pad isn’t as posh, but it won’t pop and leave you deflated.
Go ahead, drink straight from the creek, but I’m not doing it. I’d rather be hunting elk all day than searching for the next place to make a pit stop. To purify water, iodine pills and drops are the old-standby if you can stomach the taste. Be sure to buy new every year, though, as they do go bad. I prefer a coffee-cup sized filter that lets me actually taste the alpine sweetness. Filters can either be ceramic or synthetic. The former can crack if left out in cold weather, while the latter can get expensive to replace depending on how often you use it.
I’ve known hunters who don’t use a flame in the backcountry for anything. I’m not one of them. I much prefer a small, one-burner stove. Fires are great for s’mores, but if I’m bedding down with the herd, the last thing I want is smoke in my clothes. Plus, stoves boil water more efficiently.
This is a very basic gear list to get you started living with the herd.