How to Go Elk Hunting

When you’re from the East Coast, going on a West hunt is challenging, outstanding, and intimidating. But, if you’re ready for elk hunting, you’re ever so closer to a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Elk hunting in Western states is a lot about preparation at every step. From packing the proper hunting equipment, wearing the right hunting boots and clothes, to selecting the state, hunting districts, and spots, there are only so many aspects to plan. And, when you’re almost ready, you also need to choose your hunting partner, which is easier said than done.

It’s all about planning

As a hunter, you need to manage many things, and paying attention to the most minute details makes a difference. If you’re organized, you are more prepared to handle the unexpected, which we all know can happen with any hunt. We’re aware that you need structure and plans, so a “plan for the planning” comes right down below.

Select a state

If you live in a state where elk hunting isn’t doable, you need to pick your form for hunting. You have to examine your chances and financial spending for the tag. One advantage when you’re hunting out-of-state is that you can pursue the exact location every year. However, you need to draw the unit annually. If you’re interested in hunting several times every three or four years, look for the states allowing you to do so. For instance, Arizona and New Mexico are great for trophy elk hunting. Hunters outside Colorado are welcome for elk hunting, and there are many over-the-counter (OTC) tags and units to purchase. You will get familiar with the land as you get to hunt the same unit every year. Travel corridors or escape sanctuaries are some of the best hunting spots, and only experienced hunters know how to appreciate them. It can take you days and even weeks to hunt a particular area and find your elk. Hunting in a new location doesn’t come easy.

When you select the state for elk hunting, pay attention to the following elements:

  • The travel distance to the state
  • The price for the tags
  • The frequency you can draw.

Some states provide hunters with a tag that is valid for several seasons. If you don’t have the time for several hunts, it’s not worth paying the extra buck for such tags.

Choose the part of the state/district

Once you have your mindset on a state, you also need to select the district/part of the state where you will go. Use goHunt to pick the units that can be drawn with zero points or those that are OTC. You will find the necessary information on every state’s website. Information about the complexity of the hunt, pictures, and hunters’ reviews are helpful too. Once you select the units, check out the state’s website and look at the maps. Typically, states provide users with elk density maps or maps displaying which unit is over/under the game commission’s goal for elk.

We recommend you not pick a unit over the goal or at the highest density, but instead go in the middle. You don’t want to go to a crowded area because it can ruin your shot for success.

Gather all the information you need

You should focus on three to four OTC units with acceptable harvest statistics and a healthy elk population. Get as much as you can on each of these units. Use all the tools available: aerial maps, Google Earth, Forest Service maps, and any other sources to know as much as possible on each unit. Locate and highlight every trailhead, and seek the drainages that seem more difficult to access or are far from the nearest trailheads.

Contact the local Forest Service

Once you have a complete image of the unit of your choice, contact the local Forest Service, game wardens, and game and fish department. They can provide you with information you cannot find online. Again, be organized and write down all the information they can give you about trailheads, drainages, or road-specific details. Professionals can help you fill in the missing data, but you need to know a lot about the unit and questions. Be prepared with a good set of questions so that you’re efficient. You don’t want to get out there only to realize that the unit is overhunted.

Ideally, you should have a notepad and a map open to note all the specifications for the unit of your choice. Write down the name of the person who helped you; next time you’re calling, make sure to ask for the same person (if he was willing to help, of course). It can take you several calls until you make a clear idea about the four units. At the end of it all, you should be able to pick your unit for elk hunting.

Plan the hunt

If you’re going on a 7-day hunt, you should pack for 10-day trip hunts in various unit areas. It’s a safety measure, as the risk for excess hunters in your spot, road closures, inclement weather to happen is never null. Use Google Earth to pin your camps, plan your trailheads and choose glassing/hiking locations for all your hunts. You need to be prepared and have a Plan B to enjoy it thoroughly for each day of your hunt trip. You learn about hunting because things don’t always go as planned, and you don’t exaggerate by having a backup plan. You can never be too sure when hunting.

Consider the cost of your elk hunt

Finding the best spot for hunting is the most challenging aspect, but it’s only the first part. You need to consider the financial element as well. When you go elk-hunting out of state, $1,500 should be enough. Let’s say you want to go to Colorado for elk hunting; the non-resident license is $700. If you’re traveling from Portland, Maine to Denver, Colorado is around 2,000 miles every way. The hunting rig takes around 15 miles per gallon, the price of gas is $2,50, so the cost for each trip is around $300. Should you go alone, $150 should be enough for food, but it’s cheaper to go with a hunting partner. You always need to decide if you’re going alone or bring a partner/several partners for hunting.

When you go with a partner, you get to split the spending for gas and food. Plus, you split some of the hunting gear as well. So, needless to say, you have to plan what food to pack; hotdogs, canned chili, fruit bars, snacks—these are foods that most hunters like to pack.

Tip: Small hunting towns have inflated prices, so make sure you pack wisely the right foods. Also, stick to 4-5 hunter groups. You want to enjoy the hunting trip, and things can get rough after a couple of days with the same people.

Choose your hunting partners wisely

Never undermine the importance of selecting hunting partners. Your hunting partner needs to be reliable, committed, have experience (it’s even better if he/she is more experienced than you), and make the whole hunting trip a pleasant experience. Small things that annoy you on the first day can escalate and make the entire experience miserable on the 7th day of your trip. You need your partner to be as committed as you to go elk hunting.

It’s not enough that you have good chemistry with a hunter or that he/she is as dedicated as you; they also need to be financially prepared for the hunting trip. Be honest about the spending and give all the information you have beforehand; it’s only fair that way. Even if your partner doesn’t have the money right now, he can put it aside before you go hunting.

Make sure that your hunting partner has a similar physical shape as you since you will hunt together. If you think about bivy hunting, you need to agree who is going bivy or who will hunt from the truck. Always set the things straight before you embark on your elk hunting journey.

Tip: You may plan the camping spots and help your partners pick the hunts. You want to share both benefits and responsibilities and not feel like someone is taking advantage of your work and efforts. You can select the glassing points together because you are partners.

Your possible partner, just like almost every other hunter out there, dreams about hunting elk out West. But that doesn’t mean that he/she can do it together with you. Pay attention when selecting your hunting partner. If you don’t find the same level of commitment and dedication, it’s better that you look elsewhere for a hunting partner. Spending a whole week with someone who isn’t as excited and determined to shoot an elk can affect your experience and ruin it for good. All the effort you put into your elk hunting can go down the drain if you are with the wrong partner up in the mountains.

Now that you know “how” to go elk hunting, when should you go elk hunting?

If you go hunting in western states, you can go elk hunting from the beginning of august until January. Experienced hunters know that elk behavior changes during the hunting season. Seasonal patterns, food and water availability, seasonal patterns, security needs and habitat preferences are factors to consider when looking for elk. Weather and hunting pressure will also affect elk behavior.

Some states, such as Montana, give general elk tags that are valid throughout the state for their months of rifle and archery seasons. There are also states (Colorado is one) where a rifle tag is valid for just five days in the rifle elk seasons. No matter how the hunting pressure or the weather goes, you will have to be committed.

Keep reading if you want to know more about the weather, elk behavior, and hunting pressure during elk season.


Even if some archery elk season opens in late August, most will open in early September. You won’t necessarily be limited to using archery gear, as rifle and muzzleloader might also be available.

The weather is relatively warm, so elks are less active during the day. You can go hunting the green alpine meadows in the morning and evening and try the wallows and water holes at midday. You might get lucky when using calls in such spots.

As the mid of September approaches, the rut begins, so bulls become highly vocal. They get active throughout the day and you will find bulls into bow range with calls. The rut can span until early October.

Hunting pressure is relatively low during archery season. The pressure rises in easy to access areas and some backcountry areas will experience intense pressure during the archery season.

Check out the small meadows hidden in timbered creek drainages when it’s hot and dry. Even if it starts to snow suddenly, don’t stop hunting as elk remains active despite the weather.


Once the archery season is over, the state agencies give elk a break for two weeks or so. It will be the middle of October when rifle season will begin. The rust will end when the rifle season begins.

You can pack some elk calls, even though bulls no longer stay with the group of cows. They go on their own or in small bachelor groups to escape the hunting pressure and recover from the intense rut.

Elk tactics during the archery season differ a lot from those in the rifle season. You will find elk feeding for less than two hours in the morning and late afternoon in public lands.

We recommend you discover a high vantage point before sunrise so that you can survey a vast area. Use the optics to spot elk and select a concealed path that keeps the wind in your face. Another method is to sneak into their daytime bedding areas and still hunt through the dark timber where elk hide. It’s a suitable method if you’re patient.

As for the weather, expect to experience cold and snowy days during October. The chances for snow to push elk now are slim as it takes more than a couple of inches for them to lower elevation.


Public land elk will become really busy and older bulk will avoid as much as possible to be seen during the daytime. As a matter of fact, in areas with high-pressure hunting, elk will only be active at night. Maybe they will feed out in the open for a few minutes in the morning, but that’s not sure. If you cannot get the shot in the morning, plan an ambush in the evening. Should not get the shot until the legal shooting light ends, make sure to be right in the same position the next day. You want the ambush spot to be within shooting range of elk going into the timber in the morning.

Always pay attention to the wind direction and set it all up long before you think elk will show up. Elk hunting in November is very challenging, but you can use some factors to your advantage. For instance, an early cold front bringing a snowstorm will help you find elk a lot easier. Deep snow will make elk move to lower elevations. As a result, they will also feed later in the morning and early in the afternoon.

You can also pursue a herd through the snow. It takes a lot of commitment to hunt elk in November. Only those with mental and physical strength will succeed. You always have a better chance to go places where not many hunters will go.

Late season hunts

There aren’t many states running late-season bull hunts. Even so, expect to get tags only for cow elk during December and January. If you’re one of those hunters determined to fill the freezer with elk meat, the late season is the best time to go cow hunting.

Elk hunting in December and January can be tricky and easy simultaneously, especially when compared to hunting in the fall. Snow will be deep, so you won’t be able to cover long distances when following a herd. Also, if the winter comes late, there will not be enough snow to make elk go into the open river valleys. Regardless of these aspects, once elk get to their winter ranges, they will be a lot easier to track down.

One good thing about late cow hunts is that they can be open for many weeks. Suppose the elk don’t come down low in easy-to-access areas when the season begins. You will have to wait for adequate conditions or hunt higher. During fall archery and rifle season, elk walk in small groups of 6 to 20 animals. However, the herd can include as many as 200 elk during the winter. Don’t go super excited just yet, as this can turn into your worst nightmare. It’s easy to find big hers, but getting into a shooting range can be an impossible task as there are so many ears, eyes, and noses to spot you. As long as you have the patience and observation skills, you will quickly discover that big herds are actually easy to approach and entirely predictable.

Herds will feed slowly in just one direction and bed down out in the open. Examine the terrain, the wind, use the available cover to increase your chances of success. You shouldn’t rush when the wind isn’t what you need or if you don’t have a cover to use. Keep in mind that elk don’t go far, so you need to be patient enough until the opportunity to shoot arrives.

Here’s an informative video from the folks at goHunt on the up-to-date methods to prepare for an elk hunt:

Instead of a conclusion

Hunting is for people who are patient and determined to manage myriads of elements for a successful experience. Once you decide which state to go elk hunting, you need to find the spots for hunting, talk to the local outdoor officials. You also need to write down the spending and choose a hunting partner—it’s more affordable than going alone.

Elk hunting is challenging, and you need to go a long way until you get to take that shot. From carefully planning the hunting to preparing physically and mentally, there are only so many things to take care of. But, even if you don’t succeed the first year, you can increase your chances and go to the same spot the following year. Planning and preparing are keys for successful hunting, simply because so many things can go south at a moment’s notice on any hunt! And once you get the taste of success, you will become addicted to one of the most challenging types of hunting, elk hunting.


How long is elk season?

In western states, elk season begins in August and ends in January. When you go, elk hunting will affect your hunting style and tactics, which can change every week. For example, calling works during the rut and be utterly useless once rifle season begins.

Is there such a thing as the best state for elk hunting?

Many elk hunters, especially beginners, consider Colorado to be the best state to go elk hunting. This state has the highest number of elk- almost 300,000 animals. You can buy either cow-only or sex archery tags over the counter in Colorado. If you’re a rifle hunter, you will be able to purchase bull tags over the counter only for the state’s second and third rifle seasons.

Some states are cheaper than others to hunt elk. Which one is the most affordable?

The most affordable state to hunt elk has been Idaho. Back in 2020, you would pay less than $600 for an archery elk license/tag.

What time are elk most active?

Like many animals, elk are most active during the morning and evening hours. You will notice more elk activity during the rut in the middle of the day. However, early morning and dusk are the best times to get your shoot.

What elevation should you expect to hunt elk?

As they’re powerful and big animals, you will need more than 2 feet of snow to push elk down to the winter range. The average elevation for the elk hunt is 11,000ft.

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!