Rifle Elk Equipment

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:

Rifle

Plan on using a quality, scoped, big-game rifle. Bolt actions are by far the most common action type in western elk country. All major rifle manufacturers offer good bolt action rifles. The .30-06 Springfield and 7mm Magnums should be the minimum cartridges to consider for elk hunting. I won’t even go into makes of rifles. There are tons to choose from.

Suggested Elk Cartridges Suggested Bullet Weights
7mm Magnums 160 grains
.30-06 Springfield 180 grains
.300 Magnums 180 grains
.338 Magnums 225 grains

Bullets

Almost any bullet from any reasonable cartridge will completely penetrate and kill an elk if shot broadside, perfectly behind the shoulder. You cannot always count on making that type of shot. If you hit a bull in the shoulder blade, you need to have a bullet that is big and tough enough to go on through and finish what it started. I actually prefer my hunters to shoot bulls through the back part of the shoulder, because if you can break one or preferably both shoulders, you also took out some important vitals and the bull is not going far.

Conventional boat-tail or ballistic-style bullets are designed for thin-skinned game and are notorious for having the jacket separate from the core if they encounter any heavy bone at all, thus killing penetration. Sometimes they just completely disintegrate. Even the new bonded-core bullets on the market seem to have their limitations. My experience with these new bullets is that they indeed do not separate but still tend to lose massive amounts of weight if they encounter bone, especially at the higher velocities.

Winchester makes the XP3, which is a descendant of the Fail Safe, that is not only tough, but has a high ballistic coefficient as well. Barnes has introduced polymer-tipped X-bullets, called the MRX and Tipped-TSX, that are also excellent. Hornady has recently released the GMX which is a gilding-metal clone of the copper Barnes Tipped-TSX. Trophy Bonded came out with a Tipped Bear Claw that is an extremely tough, aerodynamic elk bullet. The Swift A-Frames are extremely tough thanks to a strategically-located partition, bonded cores and thick jackets. Up to 300 yards, these bullets perform as well or possibly even better than any others. However, the lack of a polymer tip makes the ballistic coefficients much lower, thus not having as impressive of down-range ballistics as their polymer-tipped counterparts.

The bullet market will continue to evolve and as more manufacturers develop better large-game bullets, more bullets will be added to the list. Until then, these bullets are the absolute best elk bullets on the planet. At least in our professional opinion.

Recommended Bullets
Winchester XP3
Barnes MRX
Barnes Tipped-TSX
Trophy Bonded Tipped Bear Claw
Hornady GMX
Swift A-Frame

Scopes

A pure necessity for an elk rifle. Mid to high-power variables offer the best versatility and will cover most situations encountered while elk hunting. The 3×9 power variable is adequate, although the 4×12 (and even higher) power scopes are gaining in popularity. I have never been a big fan of the 50mm or larger objectives. A quality 40mm objective offers plenty of light-gathering ability. Just turn the power down slightly if shooting in low-light conditions. The 50mm scopes are heavier, bulkier, more expensive and, in my opinion, overkill for the slight twilight advantage. Purchase a quality scope such as a Leupold VX III , Burris Signature, or Zeiss Conquest and don’t look back.

Sight-In

In the absence of a ballistic-compensation reticle, your scope should be zeroed at 300 yards for rifle hunting elk in the west. Do not sight in for any other distance unless your scope is equipped with a multi-range reticle.

To accomplish a 300-yard zero, your bullet should be 3.5 to 4.5 inches high at 100 yards depending upon the cartridge and bullet weight. Your bullet will be between 8 and 12 inches low on a 400 yard shot. Aim at the upper shoulder and pull the trigger. That’s a much easier shot than trying to figure out what 2 or 3 feet over the desired point-of-impact looks like. On the other end of the spectrum, your bullet will be 4-5 inches high in the 100-200 yard range. Just hold low on the shoulder on the closer shots.

Approximate Rifle Ballistics (inches)

100 yds 200 yds 300 yds 400 yds 500 yds Applicable Cartridges and Bullet Weights
+3.5 +4 0 -8 -18   7mm Ultra Mag/STW (160 gr.) & .300 Ultra/Wby Mag (180 gr.)
+4 +4.5 0 -10 -22   7mm Rem/Short Mag (160 gr.) & .300 Win/Short Mag (180 gr.)
+4.5 +5 0 -12 -26   .30-06 (180 gr.) or .338 Win Mag (225 gr.)

The numbers presented above are approximates and used only for illustration purposes. Many variables exist that will result in deviations from these figures. Shoot your rifle and load at all distances to determine your actual ballistics.

Practice Suggestions

Once you’ve got your rifle sighted in, put away the sand bags and bench rest and practice shooting out of positions you can expect on the hunt. Shoot out of a prone position over your pack and off of shooting sticks. These are realistic expectations.

Practice for the hunt. Fill up milk jugs with water and spread them out up to 400 yards away and when you can consistently hit them from hunting positions, you’re ready. If you can’t shoot those distances at your local shooting range, just use smaller plastic bottles at closer ranges.

Binoculars

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.

Rangefinder

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.

Shirts

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.

Pants

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.

For cooler weather, merely add a thin, synthetic or wool, tight-fitting long johns as your base layer. I use 150-weight Icebreaker bottoms for 90% of the winter hunts. Use much heavier weight and you’ll cook hiking the mountains.

Rain Gear

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.

Socks

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 PhD line by Smart Wool. They form fit your foot and don’t slip. Choose medium weight or heavyweight depending on your fit. You want your boots tight, but not too tight.

Boots

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 used to like a 6-inch, all-leather, backpacking boot by Asolo. But something changed on with the most recent pairs several of us have bought. We all hate them now. A boot that used to be so comfortable I wore them everyday. Now, I can’t wait to get my feet out of them. Asolo! You screwed up a good thing! I have ordered boots from another top boot maker, Kenetrec. I am going to try the Hardscrabble boot. I’ll let you know……….till then, you’re on your own here.

Hat

A lightweight cap coupled with a synthetic balaclava usually covers most weather situations.

Gloves

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.

Daypack

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.

Water Container

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.

Sleeping Bag

Needed only on private land hunts. A 30 to 40 degree bag is recommended for the archery season.

Emergency Kit

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.

Flashlight

Bring a small flashlight with enough batteries to last the week. The AAA battery LED headlight models such as those by Petzal are great.

Camera

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.

 

   
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