This list is intended for hunters who are planning an elk hunt with us and are wondering what kind of equipment to bring and how to prepare for the hunt. Based on my years of experience, the following list is what I believe you will need:
I recommend modern, high-speed compound bows. Draw weights between 60 and 70 pounds are adequate for elk hunting. There are lots of good bows on the market and it really doesn’t seem like any one make is much better than another. There are as many opinions as there are stars in the sky. The point is, all makers are producing good bows. The key is keeping up to date with bows. If your bow is over three years old, it’s a dinosaur. They are improving that much each year.
Mathews continues to be the most popular bow we see hunters bring. Bowtech and Hoyt make good bows as well. Shoot different ones, until you get that warm and fuzzy feeling when you shoot a particular bow. You’re onto something when that happens. If you have confidence in the bow, you will shoot it better.
To prepare for bow hunting elk, practice shooting off your knees, uphill/downhill, around obstacles, and any other unorthodox positions you can come up with. It matters little how well you shoot from the perfect standing position. Try jogging around your house or wherever you can, until you are breathing heavier and then dropping to your knees and shooting. This type of shooting is what to expect on an elk hunt. Even if you are not breathing hard from exertion, your heart will be pounding from adrenaline, so practice accordingly.
Practice shooting at 40 to 60 yards. Stay away from the close shots. If you practice exclusively at the longer distances for a while, your accuracy will improve. After shooting at 60 yards for a week, walk up to 20 or 30 yards and it’s a slam dunk.
If you can, practice exclusively with the broadheads you intend to hunt with. Field points are too forgiving and let you get away with terrible form, yet still fly accurately. Set your bow up to shoot broadheads and practice with broadheads. You’re practicing for hunting, not the Olympics. I know they are hard on targets, that’s just the way it is.
Shoot at a larger spot than what comes on traditional targets. Shoot at a silhouette target if possible, but a 12-inch spot is what you are trying to hit in real life on an elk hunt. Practice putting arrows into the 12-inch spot from 60 yards. Estimating the middle of the spot is no different than estimating the center of your kill spot when the moment comes. It’s a Pass/Fail kind of thing, just like hunting.
Another unorthodox practice strategy is to shoot arrow after arrow up until the week before the hunt. Instill your memory reflexes during that time. The week before the hunt just walk out and shoot one arrow per session. It’s time to work on making one shot count when you need it. At the moment anyone shoots at an animal with a bow, it matters little how tight of a group you can get out of a 3 or 5 arrow volley. You only get one shot more than 95% of the time. Practice making one shot count, both mentally and physically.
It’s hard to gear up and walk outside and just shoot one arrow when practicing. But ultimately, that’s what you’re practicing for. It puts emphasis on the one shot, whether it was good or bad. If the arrow was a little off, almost no one can walk away without following with a second arrow. But if you will walk away, it increase your ability to make one shot count. If the arrow buries in the heart of the target, that was your goal and you walk away knowing you placed a kill shot. Let confidence breed confidence.
The fixed, multiple pin sight is used and preferred by most elk hunters. It requires no physical adjustment at any time. Dinking with trying to change a single-pin sight as a bull approaches, is not good. Been there, done that.
I personally use a Spot Hogg SDP. It has more pins than I need but it lets me practice at longer distances than I can shoot consistently and has been a good sight. I like the vertical wire. Just look out for sights with ANY loops of fiber optics that are exposed. Some sights gain more light on their pins by exposing lots of fiber optics. Brush on an elk hunt will rip them off and stomp them into the ground. Make sure everything is tucked and tight.
Plan on normal first shots at bulls being between 10 and 40 yards. However, as anyone who hunts elk for very long knows, too many times the bull of your dreams is standing in a meadow, broad sided, 60 yards away, and it’s now or never. Trying to Kentucky-windage a 60-yard shot with a 40-yard pin is not good. Setting up a typical 5-pin sight at 20, 30, 40, 50 and 60 yards will cover all your bases.
If you’ve practiced for it, you should be able to make that shot. It’s a higher percentage shot than trying to shoot in the thick stuff at 25 yards. The limbs wreak havoc on our hunters’ arrows more than anything. If you know the distance and angle, it’s doable.
Carbon arrows are used almost exclusively these days for elk hunting. There are lots of good arrow makers on the market with each boasting some claim to fame. I have used Gold Tip 5575’s for a while and like them as good as any. I’ve never worried too much about spending the big bucks on arrows with a guaranteed straightness of .001 inch. The .003 inch Gold Tips are straight, shoot great and they don’t cost as much.
Vanes are superior to feathers in elk hunting. Feathers are too fragile. Rain, brush, and everything in between will shred feathers. Most hunters are using the shorter 2-inch vanes these days. I use three 2-inch blazers with absolutely no offset. I get good broadhead flight without any offset, so I don’t use it. There is less air drag with a straight fletch and it doesn’t drag in the Whisker Biscuit. It works for me and I have confidence in it. Find what works for you.
Arrow weights around 400 grains are average. Much lighter and penetration is hindered. Much heavier and you better know your shooting distance as trajectory becomes an issue.
I realize that opinions on broadheads vary tremendously and are highly controversial, not to mention personal. There is no way around it. But, I see so many hunters bring projectiles not designed for large and tough game such as a mature bull elk. Many hunters are usually bringing whatever projectiles they have used comfortably in the past, usually hunting whitetails. What works great on deer, does not necessarily work great on elk. An elk is at least 3-times larger than a deer and 5-times tougher to kill.
The key to a broadhead’s success on an elk is a healthy combination of cutting area and penetration. Deer-sized game requires lots of cutting area, with little regard to penetration, in order to maximize the energy of the broadhead. Getting an exit hole on a whitetail is usually no problem. Getting an exit hole on a bull elk is a problem. Penetration is now as important as cutting area. Most broadheads on the market are designed for effective penetration on deer-sized game. Hence the problem.
An exit hole will almost always provide a better blood trail than an entrance hole alone. Especially if shooting downhill. Too little cutting area on an arrow and the projectile blows through the animal too easily and doesn’t expend enough energy in the animal.
I prefer elk hunters use some type of cut-to-the-tip, 100 to 125-grain, 2-blade (with or without bleeder blades) broadhead. It is my opinion, chisel-tip and 3-blade heads do not penetrate as well as a 2-blade head. Even 2-blade heads with bleeder blades seem to out-penetrate everything else.
One thing to consider, the steepness of the cutting angle affects the penetration capability of a head greatly. A long, tapered head will out-penetrate a short, steep-angled head of the same cutting area. Even cut-to-the-tip 3-blade heads seem to “punch” holes more than cut them. Serrations are not necessary on a razor-sharp head. A “clean” cut will bleed more than a “torn” cut. Also, no type of expandable head, even with a cutting tip, should be considered for elk hunting. Do NOT bring expandable heads of any kind.
Nearly all options and angles that are possible to shoot an elk, with an arrow, require an entrance wound through some part of the rib cage. Elk ribs are large. Hit one dead-center with an arrow and you’ll soon discover how good your broadhead really penetrates. The tough, 2-blade heads (even with bleeders) are the best design for slipping between ribs and expending as little energy as possible just getting into the elk. Depending on the angle of the shot through the ribs, the only part of the anatomy that will prevent any arrow from a complete pass-through is hitting the backside shoulder bones. No broadhead can help us here.
The broadheads listed below are the types of heads I recommend. Because there are so many makers and types of heads that classify as cut-to-the-tip, it is impossible to list all of them that could work. It’s the design more than the manufacturer. If your bow does not shoot consistently with any of the recommended heads, there is something wrong with either your bow setup or your shooting form.
Field points let you get away with terrible form/setup and still correct themselves and group well. Even some smaller broadheads will fly OK. Most often, shooting good groups with cut-to-the-tip heads is a matter of setting your bow up for them and practicing with nothing else. You’ll be amazed how much you’ll improve!
My favorite broadhead has been the Steelforce 2-blade for many years. However, there is a new Sheriff in town. The German-Kinetics Silver Flame is the next generation of broadheads. It’s pricey! But the best on the market. Do your research!
German-Kinetics Silver Flame, 2 blade
Steelforce Premium, Non-Serrated, 2 or 4 blade
Muzzy Phantom, 4 blade
Magnus Stinger, Non-Serrated, 2 or 4 blade
Wasp Sharpshooter, 4 blade
Simmons Landshark, 4 blade
Prong rests are notorious for touching vanes off the release and messing up arrow flight. In addition, arrows are very susceptible to falling off the prongs during an adrenalin-induced draw of the bow.
Try one of the new drop-away rests or a Whisker Biscuit. The drop away eliminates vane clearance and also lets you shoot either an aggressive offset or a helical fletching. Both can help stabilize erratic broadhead flight.
Whisker Biscuits are becoming more common in the elk woods for their ability to hold a nocked arrow securely. They perform well in the field and other than just the idea that my vanes are passing through the bristles, I can’t find a fault with them. They are my rest of choice for an elk hunt especially.
Mechanical releases are highly recommended over fingers. There is no questioning the increased accuracy of the release over fingers. Since shot placement is everything on an elk, any advantage in accuracy should be utilized to minimize the chances of wounding a bull and losing it. There are tons of releases on the market. Just get one you are comfortable shooting.
Bow quivers are by far the most popular and are recommended. Get a lightweight, quiet model that holds from four to six arrows. Practice shooting with your quiver on your bow. Taking it off to shoot is not a good habit to develop. It will screw you to the wall if you elk hunt very much.
A bow sling is vital for carrying your bow all day between setups. I use the Ultimate Bow Sling, which isn’t made anymore. But several makers are marketing good slings. Find one you can get your bow in and out easily.
The 10x40mm glass is probably the best overall binocular for most elk hunting. The 10-power magnification is adequate and the 40mm objective, is bright enough in low-light conditions, yet the weight is reasonable. You can possibly get away with compacts for archery season if the binoculars are of high quality.
Look for multicoated lenses exclusively. Beware of glasses that say “coated lenses” That means one coat. Also if you are looking at roof-prism binoculars, make sure they have “phase-corrected” prisms. If not, you are looking at an inferior glass.
Upper tier models from Swarovski, Leica, Zeiss and other reputable companies are all good. Do your research and find one you like.
I currently use the Leica Geovid 10x42mm range-finding binocular. It is the best thing I’ve bought. I cannot tell you how convenient it is to have the rangefinder in the binocular. It is expensive, but if I added up what I have spent on the binocular-upgrade ride over the last 25 years, I would have already had a pair. Spend the money one time, the first time, and you have a worthwhile investment that will last your lifetime.
Probably the biggest advancement in hunting over the last 30 years, is the evolution of the laser rangefinder. It should be a vital piece of equipment to all hunters. From bow hunting to rifle hunting, they are essential for accuracy in range estimation.
There are top optics companies making compact, yet powerful rangefinders. Leica and Swarovski are two of the best. I had used Leica rangefinders for years prior to getting my Geovids.
The newer models have angle corrections built in when it gives you a distance reading. But from what I have seen so far, most are limited to 60 yards or so. They’ll get better.
I have long relied on lightweight, loose-fitting, long-sleeve, camo cotton shirts during warm days. They are inexpensive, yet functional. The long-sleeves provide concealment and protection from the elements. Cotton is a terrible insulator, but it provides excellent breathability and evaporative cooling, which helps on hot, dry days.
I’ve tried the lightweight synthetics designed for hot weather and have mixed feelings. If it’s really hot and dry, the synthetics seem to make it worse, especially if there is no breeze. The cotton is better in the extreme heat in my opinion. And when you rip a $10 cotton t-shirt it doesn’t feel nearly as bad as ripping a $50 designer camo synthetic shirt.
If the weather is cool or wet, synthetic tops are the base layer of choice. Patagonia Capilene 3 is the best synthetic, base-layer shirt I’ve found.
For elk hunting, look for lighter camo patterns with gray as the dominant color. Most camo on the market is too dark. The Open Country-type patterns are good.
There are lots of good makers of hunting and outdoor pants. Sitka Gear makes the Accent pants which may be the best on the market. I personally wear lightweight synthetic pants by Patagonia. They are tough, breathable, wind-resistant, quiet and most importantly, they’re comfortable. I get them in grey and don’t worry about the lack of camo. It blends well with the upper body camo. Besides, elk see movement 100 times more than they see a stationary object.
The final layer of my hunting clothes is packable rain gear. Just make sure you get rain gear with some type of quiet outer finish. All rain gear, even “quiet” rain gear, makes noise. Some is just quieter than others.
I bought a pair of Sitka Gear’s Stormfront Lite Rain Gear this past year, but have yet to get caught out in a frog strangler to really test them. But my initial thoughts are positive. It’s light, compact, made of stretchable Gore Tex, fits well and recently passed some magazine’s gear test with flying colors. So what’s wrong with it? It’s a little noisy. Kind of crinkles when you wear it dry. More so than Sitka’s previous model the Nimbus. The good news is it quieter when it’s wet.
A quality, form-fitting, wool sock will cushion and protect your feet from the constant abrasion they will endure during the many hours of the elk-hunting season. Some people prefer synthetic socks but I like wool best. Summer or winter. It will offer good protection for your feet and contrary to what most people think, wool does not feel any hotter than any other material in warm weather.
Cotton socks quickly lose their shape, and then offer very little protection or insulation for your feet. Avoid cotton socks and most of your foot problems will disappear.
Depending on your boot fit, a single, medium-weight or heavy-weight sock is best. Avoid liners. If you use a good sock, you don’t need liners. I use the Patagonia Heavyweight Mountaineering wool sock and love them. If you need a medium-weight sock, look at the PhD line by Smart Wool. They form fit your foot and don’t slip.
Good boots are an important part of your feet being able to survive the torture of days upon days of elk hunting. Rely on Gore Tex or Dry Plus breathable, waterproof linings. Even if it doesn’t rain, heavy dews can soak through ordinary boots. Insulation is not necessary on our hunts.
Stiff, Vibram-type soles are best. Make sure you can’t flex or bend the sole easily. Side hills and rocks will tear you up if your boots have too soft of soles.
Choose anywhere from 6-inch to 8-inch heights. Lower boots typically offer less ankle support but are lighter. Higher boots offer the most support, but are heavier. I like a 6-inch, all-leather, backpacking boot by Asolo. It’s light but has good support and a stiff sole and is the most comfortable boot I have ever slipped my feet into. Another top boot maker is Kenetrec. Look at the Hardscrabble and Hardscrabble Lite.
A lightweight cap coupled with a synthetic balaclava usually covers most weather situations.
Even during warm weather, lightweight or fingerless gloves provide concealment for your hands and protection from grabbing brush. Bring a pair of waterproof, lightweight gloves too. I like to wear lightweight leather fingerless gloves in warm to cool weather. Protection and dexterity.
When expecting cold weather, I like to rely on the air-activated hand warmers in my mid-weight gloves. I retain better dexterity and my fingers stay toasty.
Some type of lightweight pack is required to carry the clothing, gear and food of a mobile elk hunter. Pick a pack with padded shoulder straps, a sternum strap, and a padded hip belt. A good suspension system is the most important feature to look for. Compression straps that keep the load tight to your back are another important feature.
The Hornhunter Mainbeam XL is the cat’s meow of hunting packs for hunters who need a pack that can comfortably carry 25 to 50 pounds. It has an internal frame. The Hornhunter Mainbeam pack is best for hunters who don’t plan on carrying more than 25 pounds of weight. It is a smaller version of the XL without the internal frame. As a result, it is a much lighter pack and will fulfill 95% of guided hunters’ expectations.
Staying hydrated is a constant struggle on these hunts. You cannot rely on consistently finding drinking water during the day, so plan on carrying what you will need for the day. You will need a minimum of 2 quarts per day.
The hydration bags such as those by Camelbak are ideal. They collapse as you use the water therefore they never slosh and the space they require diminishes as you use the water. Besides, they keep water accessible to you at all times and you will find you drink more than if you have to dig a water bottle out of your pack. This is important, because you need to drink a lot of water as dehydration seriously affects your physical performance, especially at high altitude.
Needed only on Alan Ranch hunts. A 30 to 40 degree bag is recommended for the archery season.
Put together an emergency kit consisting of an emergency space blanket, fire starter, and butane lighters. If you are forced into a situation where you have to spend an unplanned night in the woods, you will be equipped to do it.
Bring a small flashlight with enough batteries to last the week. The AAA battery LED headlight models such as those by Petzal are great.
A small digital camera will record invaluable memories of your trip. Assuming you’re successful, your guide will have a camera to take photos of your bull. However, cameras fail and two sets of photos are always better than one. So bring a camera.