DIY elk hunt – a comprehensive guide

Out of all the big-game animals in North America, elks are probably the most difficult to hunt because they have such peculiar habits. You need to be an expert at hunting and master as many techniques as possible to get a kill on your own. In addition, the rut period is typically dramatic, with bulls competing for cows and high-pitched screams coming out of the woods. The elk is quite the champion in vocalizing, which gives the hunters the possibility to try a wide range of calls.

What steps should you take for your DIY elk hunt?

DIY elk hunting is the best way to learn how to go after your elk. However, it can take years of practice, a lot of research work, and incredible commitment to be successful. You may want to try a guided hunt beforehand, although that will typically be pricier. You can read more about the benefits and downsides of DIY elk hunt in our piece, covering different types of elk hunting.

Let’s say that you’ve already decided that a DIY elk hunt is proper for you. The steps to take next are:

  • Select the state to hunt
  • Learn the terminology and the rules
  • Pick a unit
  • Scout and prepare

Each step is essential and counts for your success, so you need to pay attention to all details.

Select the state for your DIY elk hunt

You don’t just go ahead and pick a state for a DIY elk hunt, but rather gather all the information and discover which state suits your needs, budget, and preferences the most. It’s a rookie mistake to choose a state and learn more details about the regulations afterward.

Many people select a state due to proximity to their home or friends/relatives living in that state. Recommendations from other hunter friends are also a reason why hunters choose a state or another. After all, it’s great if you have the upper hand with helpful information from the local hunters.

However, most DIY elk hunters don’t know anyone in the state of their choice, which only makes the selection process more difficult. Elks don’t live everywhere in the US, but they sure love Colorado—the main reason why so many hunters go to Colorado for a DIY elk hunt.

Select the state for your DIY elk hunt

Why should you go elk hunting in Colorado?

There are many reasons for which you should consider Colorado for your DIY elk hunt, and the most important would be:

  • It has the largest elk population (more than 280,000 in 2016)
  • It offers OTC (over the counter tags) for eastern hunters
  • The OTC tags are widely available and almost unlimited
  • It has the largest elk harvest as well
  • It offers more than a 23million acres of public land

Why go to other Western states

If Colorado is too far from you or if you want to check out all your options, you should take a look at the other western states with opportunities for DIY elk hunts. Here’s why to check out these western states (Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, and Montana):

  • Four of the western states offer OTC elk tags
  • Elk population is generous in other states as well
  • The western states have fewer elk hunters
  • Non-residential elk tags are more affordable than those in Colorado
  • There’s generous public elk habitat
  • The western states have units with reasonable elk harvests
  • The hunter success is higher than in Colorado for some of these western states
  • The western states offer more public acres per hunter

Once you’ve selected the state, you should prepare a list of questions for the representatives at a hunt unit. You get to gather all the information you need for a successful hunt and make sure to go prepared.

  • What weapons can you use?
  • What are the season dates?
  • Is it possible to hunt in more than one unit?
  • What’s the name/number and boundaries of the hunt unit of your choice?
  • What are licenses and/or tags and/or fees necessary?
  • Are there any restrictions?
  • Where is the public land?
  • Where is the elk habitat?
  • How much will you pay for all tags, licenses, and habitat stamps?
  • How many elks were harvested in the unit?
  • What are the habitats and terrain like?
  • What is the harvest success in the unit?

Many of these questions cover the regulations, costs, and restrictions. Make sure your write down any inquiries you might have about the DIY elk hunt. Information is power!

Get familiar with the rules, regulations, and vocabulary!

It’s essential to learn the rules and regulations before you select the hunting units. It’s expected that the states have brand new terms, mainly if you’ve never hunted in the west. So getting familiar with the terminology is another critical step when preparing for your DIY elk hunt.

Neighboring states and with the same game animals use similar terms, but the regulations, terms, and rules about white-tailed deer in the South are different from those used in the inter-mountain west.

This is one part when choosing the full-guided elk hunt (take a look at our piece on types of elk hunts) would have been the best choice. When you go with the specialized guides from the state, you don’t need to learn new terms or regulations. However, when you go on your own, you need to know as much as you can about the rules and regulations of elk hunting. Each state has the right for and does have its own rules.

Get familiar with the rules, regulations, and vocabulary!

Hunt units, game management units, hunt areas, and hunt districts-learn as much as you can!

Hunt units are also known as Game Management Units (GMUs), hunt areas, respectively, districts. In addition, some states use the terms “Elk Zones” or “Data Analysis Units” (DAUs).

Some states use numbers to differentiate the units, whereas others use names. Regardless of what you think, units with close numbers aren’t neighbors. However, you can have an idea about the location of a unit by its name. For example, “Upper Deschutes” or “Book Cliffs” gives you clues about where the units are in Utah and Oregon.

Montana sets apart because it uses both numbers and names. There are numbered units in Idaho, but they’re typically grouped into “Elk Zones.” So even if you cannot figure out where unit 15 is, you get a clue when you know it’s in “Elk City” Elk Zone.

Needless to say, identifying a unit on the map is just a tiny step to take before you go hunting. There are so many other things to know about. For example, if you want an OTC tag (over-the-counter), you cannot hunt in limited entry units. Also, if you want a shot at a mature bull, it’s not enough to know which units let you take spikes or cow elk. You also must know if your tag enables you to hunt in just one unit or several units. It’s part of the many challenges of a DIY elk hunt.

Hunting license, elk license, elk permits, and elk tags- do you need them all?

Most states require a hunting license when you wish to begin the application process or purchase a tag. Afterward, you get to buy or apply for the elk license, permit or tag. Even if permit, tag, and license seem synonyms, they’re not. It’s because the states have different usage of the terms. For example, Arizona has the phrase “over-the-counter non-permit tag” – confusing, to say the least.

Limited entry, limited licenses, controlled hunts, general seasons, and more

You can apply for Limited Entry Tags, Limited tags, or Controlled hunts. You can also buy General Elk Tags (Over the Counter) in some states. “Left-over” tags are available. Keep in mind that you might also need a habitat stamp/permit to hunt on state lands.

Bull elk/antlerless or spike?

Most of the time, you are allowed to hunt bull elk, antlerless elk, or even both. First, you need to know what does “Spike Bull”/”True Spike bull”/”Antlered Bull” means. The state of your hunt and the tag you get will affect which you are allowed to hunt.

Even if “antlerless elk” is relatively easy to understand, the legal definition still changes from state to state. For example, Idaho allows elks with antlers under 6inches, whereas in Colorado and Utah the term refers to antlers smaller than 5 inches.

Non-resident general tags

If you plan to hunt in Montana or Wyoming, you need to apply for General tags, just like all non-residents. In Oregon, Colorado, Idaho, Washington, and Utah, non-residents can purchase elk tags over the counter. The first-come, first-serve principle applies in some states, so make sure you are aware of the regulation.

What comes after selecting the unit?

After you select the unit, you start learning about the vocabulary and regulations, and you begin to prepare for your hunting experience.

What comes after selecting the unit

Physical fitness

Elk hunting is a strenuous activity, especially when you don’t live in an area with hills and mountains, such as the location for your elk hunt. Our piece on how to prepare your body for elk hunting gives you all the information you need.

Muscular preparation and elk hunting strength training are crucial. Even if altitude can be tiring, carrying your backpack, bow/rifle can make the hunting almost impossible to finish.

Mental fitness

Hunting elk isn’t for everyone, especially if you’re doing it alone. There are many challenges to come across, and DIY elk hunting means that many things can go south all of a sudden. Our piece on preparing for elk hunting also covers the mental preparedness you need for this kind of hunting.

Gear list

It’s all a matter of personal choice which gear to pack for your DIY elk hunt. As usual, we can give recommendations, but it’s you to decide how much equipment to pack.


You need light and comfortable clothing that takes inclement weather, and it’s easy to use. Of course, where you’re hunting is also essential, but elk clothing should be relaxed, technical, and rugged for hunting.


Get a pair of hunting boots that can handle the rocky terrain, are supportive and comfortable. Look for those that are breathable, heavy-duty, and take splashes of water too.

Hunting equipment

We know that we can cover a whole article on gear for DIY elk hunting. Many hunters choose compound bow and broadhead combinations for DIY elk hunts due to accuracy and speed. If you’re going on bow hunting, you need the proper accessories as well. So pack your bow sights and releases and be ready to have plenty of failures. It’s part of elk hunting.

Some hunters prefer rifles for DIY elk hunting, in which case they need to pack the ammunition and scope as well. Optics are also a great piece of equipment for elk hunts. Spotting scope, rangefinder, and compact binoculars almost never miss from an experienced hunter’s backpack.

Hunting backpack

We recommend you get a rugged backpack with an external frame to haul your meat. One that is hydration compatible is excellent. Look for a daypack too. A holster system on the backpack is also a fantastic feature for DIY elk hunting.


You need the proper nutritional supplements for your elk hunt; you need the energy to climb up and down after your game.

Maps, GPS, and location resources

If you’re going alone, you need all the safety tools that you can get. A GPS unit isn’t always practical, so get all the other apps and tools that show your location at any given moment.

Elk calls and decoys

A nice set of elk calls and even an elk decoy increase your chance for success on a DIY elk hunt.

Headlights and flashlights

It would help if you had headlights to find your way and blood trails in the dark. Flashlights are also practical.

Knives and elk processing

We assume you go hunting for a kill, so you need the tools to cut and gut your game. A game processing kit and a set of knives should be in your backpack as well.

First aid kit

No matter where you go or which kind of hunt you do, you need to pack a first aid kit. Make sure it has what you need in case of accidental injury.

Instead of a conclusion

It takes years of practice, commitment, and a generous budget to succeed in DIY elk hunting. You need to do a lot of research, learn the terminology, and control as many elements as possible—anything can happen during a DIY elk hunt. If you think you’re cut for it, we have more tips for you! However, if you feel intimidated by the whole experience, you should still give it a try with a fully-guided elk hunt. After all, only 30% of the hunters manage to get a kill every year!

Instead of a conclusion

Elk hunting is tricky. Here’s how to increase your chances!

If you’re determined enough to go elk hunting, you will learn quickly that not giving up is crucial with the ungulate. You will also learn to hear all the tips from experienced hunters who have already succeeded. Give the following tips a good read and try remembering them next time you go elk hunting.

Dare to hunt new country

When it comes to elk hunting, you cannot afford to be shy or scared. If you stick close to camp or go to a location where elk aren’t in the area, forget about it. Stay mobile and use a good GPS with an SOS system. Should you get lost or find yourself in a pickle, someone will help you.

If elk aren’t in the area, don’t wait in the same spot, hoping they will come. Simply move along and get to the following location. Don’t stop in your search as long as you’re persistent and keep examining your map and moving to new areas. You will, eventually, find elk.

Don’t hesitate to go the extra mile. Many hunters don’t go too far from logging roads or trailheads. When elk are pressured, they look for dense, thick and challenging terrain. Identify it on your map and go there.

Get good glass

When you go elk hunting, you need to gain a vantage point and use your optics to get your game. Taking bulls over the 300-inch mark sounds unreal, but some hunters manage to do it every time they go out there.

Once you discover the optics that work for you, stick to it and use it no matter the weapon or time you go hunting. You also need to examine your maps. Look for areas that hold elk but aren’t very thick.

Trust your optics and avoid bumbling around in the woods, hoping to run into elk. Note several vantage points to get a good view of the surrounding landscape. Continue moving from one vantage point to another until you discover your elk. More often than not, finding elk is the trickiest part of the hunt. Always get the most expensive glass that you can afford. Use a tripod or something similar for stability.

Bugle louder than the herd bull

Some elk hunters recommend not to get any calls at all. If you don’t know how to use it right, you should better leave it at home. There’s also the category of brave elk hunters who know that being rude will get your shot. If you want to draw attention from another bull in the elk woods, you should be rude.

A herd bull likes hearing his voice carry across an alpine meadow a lot. Once you hear the bull, don’t let him finish and bugle right back over him. Most bulls will find it annoying as they don’t want other bulls cutting their fall courtship.

Even if the tactic sounds risky, you should try it—successful hunters use it. Commonly, a mature bull will come in looking for his opponent. However, it will be you ready to draw or settle the crosshairs.

Be aggressive

Experienced elk hunters resume all tips into one important rule “stay aggressive!”. Many hunters become hesitant during crunch time. When the bull is bugling and doesn’t come, you should be the one closing the distance. Don’t just settle for the 300 yards distance and go closer. Go slow and open your eye wise. As long as the bull is still bugling, it means he hasn’t spotted you just yet. Take a wind puffer bottle and examine the thermals and wind direction. Don’t be afraid to get closer to the elk. Fear of getting spotted can make you fail.

When the elk don’t talk, but you can see him, move in, especially if you know the isolated patch of timber he went into. If you use a rifle, you don’t need to get very close. As long as you have a plan, you should be able to get your shot.

Create an ambush

We care to remind you that you should only follow the tips that work for you. Feel free to try as many of them until you discover which are compatible with your hunting style. For instance, many experienced elk hunters don’t like to call. It’s because they want to have a hunt as natural as possible. Giving the elk the impression he’s safe can bring you success.

However, you will need to be patient and careful. You will need to identify and watch your elk for a morning and an evening. You’re in the chips if you’re lucky enough to find elk that aren’t bothered. After the peak breading, most mature bulls will stick with their cows when they’re not pressured. These elk will go again in the feed-to-bed pattern—that’s how you get your shot.

A big bull will look for solitude at the end of October and leave his cows. They will search for a thick, steep, and dense area with food and water. You will find your post-rut bulls in open avalanche shoots near thick timber.

Be ready

One of the most common mistakes among inexperienced hunters is not seeing the shooting opportunity. You should always be mentally prepared and get the best out of your chance. Stay focused and know where the shooting lanes are when you’re calling. Examine the woods if you decide to move in on a bull. Pay attention to sounds that might mislead you. When the moment comes, you have to be ready. Don’t blackout and stay in the game until your elk is down.

Put another round in the bull

If you’re successful and get your shot and the bull is still standing, make sure you get another shot at it. Elk aren’t the most intelligent animals. If you get your shot and know it’s fatal, make extra sure and get another round or arrow in him. Last thing you want when elk hunting is having to track the elk for miles and miles. If the bull is still standing, just put another one in him.

Put another round in the bull

Give it all in

Successful hunting takes time, money, and patience. Don’t do it if you’re not willing to spend time away from your family and be ready to learn which hunting gear is essential. Elk hunting is anything but a vacation and having a good mindset will make you successful. If you see it as a vacation, you only decrease your chances of success.

Tagging our on a public land bull is challenging and you should go prepared. Get ready mentally and physically and always get your shot if given the opportunity.

It will take time until you succeed. Don’t give up!

As long as you stay focused, you will become successful. Don’t put pressure on yourself and keep your eyes on the prize. We recommend you take ten days for an elk hunt. You will spend two days traveling, but you will have the other eight for hunting. The more time you have, the higher the chance for success. Also, you will need to keep one day to get back to your daily activities. A good shower and a lovely meal will put you back on track.


Is it challenging to hunt elk?

Elk hunting comes with many challenges and you shouldn’t expect to be successful from your first hunts. The success rate is intimidating: all elk hunters combined have around a 10% success rate.

Do you need Camo when elk hunting?

Camo can help, but it’s not mandatory when hunting predators and ungulate. It’s not the same with bow hunting, where Camo is a lot more crucial for your success. At the same time, efficient concealment is more critical for predator calling than tree-stand or spot-and-stalk deer hunting.

Are the elk taste good?

If you were lucky enough to get a lean, tender elk steak, you would understand why hunters love elk hunting so much. If you have never tasted free-range elk, elk tastes similar to beef. Many describe it as clean and a tad sweet.

What time of day are elk more active?

Like many other animals, elk are most active during the morning and evening hours. During the rut, middle of the day, hunts have an excellent success rate. However, if you aim for most activity, we recommend shooting early in the morning and dusk.

Do elk see at night?

Humans don’t really need good night vision. Elk, just like other ungulates, see at night a lot better than a day. Research on elk vision is far more concentrated on elk’s ability to perceive color than see in the dark.

Robert Dwayne

Robert Dwayne

To say that I am an outdoors enthusiast is probably an understatement. I am hyper passionate about everything outdoors: hiking, survival, hunting. On this website I am sharing my stories and experiences, and I hope you'll find inspiration to take up your own adventures!