Planning and Preparing for a DIY, OTC Archery Elk Hunt in Colorado

By Adam Parr –

So you’ve decided you want to hunt elk in Colorado? Cool. So now what? Do you have the gear you need, is your physical shape up to par, and do you know when and where you will hunt? An archery elk hunt is what dreams are made of and growing up as a midwest whitetail hunter, I myself dreamt of the day I would finally be on a mountain chasing screaming bulls with a bow in hand. As a beginner during the 2016 season, I understand now that planning an out of state elk trip isn’t easy but I’ve been able to learn a thing or two over the past few years while living in elk country to aid in preparing for your first trip.

The Colorado archery season will be here before you know it and although September seems like a far cry off in the distance, the time to start planning is now. There are a number things to consider when planning an elk trip for the first time, from selecting an area to the gear that you will need to purchase. As the saying goes, “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail” and it couldn’t be more applicable for a first timer in the mountains. With all things considered, use this guide to prepare yourself so you will have a much more enjoyable (and hopefully successful) archery elk hunt later this Fall.

Many of the below categories have crossover between them so use this as a general baseline and tweak it to meet your individual needs.

Style Of Hunting

The first thing you have to identify is the hunting style you prefer. This can be based on a number of different variables which can include: physical capabilities, time restrictions, the amount of money you have at your disposal (buying gear, travel expenses, drop camps, etc), and the experience or expectations you are looking for. All of these play a factor so let’s break them down one by one.

Physical Capabilities – Elk country is very unforgiving, especially for a flat lander who is not acclimated to high elevation and dry air. Be honest here: Are you the type of guy who is built for a backpack hunt 5-10 miles deep into the rugged backcountry, or are you better suited to be hunting from camp next to a road? Elk are killed in both scenarios but again, it comes down to what you are capable of which will ultimately lead into where to hunt.

Time Restrictions – We all have limited time and live in different areas of the country. Colorado may not be the biggest land mass in the U.S. but it’s pretty damn big, especially if you are driving from out of state. If you have only have five days to hunt versus 10 days, the guy who only has five days might want to stick to the part of the state that is closer to where he lives. For example, if you are driving from the midwest to Colorado, maybe you would be better off staying on the eastern side of the Rockies as this can save a day of travel on both sides of the trip instead of heading further West.

Budget – Money is a big factor for many first time hunters and there are a number of costs that go into a hunt such as tags/licenses, travel expenses, and gear. If you have some extra dough laying around, you might locate a guide to pack you into the backcountry via horseback or mule. If you’re looking to save costs, maybe a tent camp near a road or a backpack hunt is the right fit for you.

Experience and Expectations – Everyone is after a different experience when heading to the mountains for the first time in pursuit of elk. Some people may want a chance at a nice bull, while others may find that any legal bull or cow will suffice. Some may want to wake up every morning to scenic views of high mountain peaks that are secluded from civilization, while others would be fine with hunting in the rolling foothills closer to town.

HR 621
Views of the Colorado high country are spectacular in September.

Where To Hunt Elk

Much like starting a project, once you begin and get past the first few steps, everything else seems to fall into place. The same holds true for determining where to hunt. This can be the biggest hurdle to overcome due to the availability of Over The Counter (OTC) hunting units in Colorado, but once your hunting area is nailed down, you can then begin to plan the rest of the trip.

Step 1: Identify OTC units. Step 2: Look at the statistics. Step 3: Begin digital scouting.

Colorado Either Sex Archery OTC Units – The beauty part about OTC archery hunting in Colorado is that you can hunt any over the counter units, which are found in abundance across much of the state. With this in mind, reference this map to see which units are available for OTC archery hunting. 

Colorado Harvest Statistics – After I have determined all of the available units to hunt, I look at the previous years harvest statistics. This will help nail down potential units to hunt based on previous year success as well as hunting pressure. 

Google Earth Digital Scouting – With some potential units in mind, I then move to Google Earth where I can start picking apart the details of hunting areas by looking for habitat and road access. I also like to download the CPW Elk Species Map which will show elk concentration in the form of Summer and reproduction areas. 

Google Earth Elk Scouting
Locating elk Summer ranges and rutting areas via Google Earth will point you in the right direction for digital scouting.

When To Hunt Elk

Again, the answer to this question comes down to a mix of personal preference and weighing the tradeoffs. If you’re looking to chase rutting bulls that are screaming their heads off, you will want to hunt the third week of September. If you are looking hunt over waterholes and meadows as more of an ambush scenario, opening weekend in late August or first week of September will be your best bet.

A couple other things to consider for planning purposes is pressure from other archery hunters and a muzzleloading season that falls during the middle of September. From my experience, I’ve seen an influx of hunters during the first and last week. The middle weeks seem to be less popular as far as hunting pressure but you do have the muzzleloader guys to compete with. Of course, the weather plays a big factor but since that is out of your control, I wouldn’t let that affect your plans too much.

Important Gear

As a whitetail hunter, you have most of the gear needed to tackle your first elk hunt but it’s important to have the RIGHT gear in an unforgiving environment. The mountains are different and depending on your hunting style, the gear needed will vary.

Here are the three most important items for DIY archery elk hunters:

Boots – I hate to break it to you but your rubber swamp kickers and department store specials aren’t going to cut it in the mountains. Take my word on this; do not skimp on boot selection. You can pinch pennies in certain areas but good boots are a necessity, as your feet are literally everything on a hunt. If your feet are blistered and beat up, you’re a sitting duck so be prepared to spend $200-$400 on boots that are worthwhile. For the guys who are looking for a crossover boot that is great for elk hunting and well suited for whitetail, check out the Cabela’s Meindl 400 Gram Boots. I have worn these for the past few seasons and for the price, you really can’t beat them.

Back Pack – This is another item that is worth spending the extra penny on. A DIY elk hunt in the mountains requires you to bring a bunch of gear into the backcountry and hopefully, many pounds of meat on the way out. With this in mind, I recommend a quality frame pack. The pack I’ll be hunting with in 2017 is the Mystery Ranch Metcalf. 

Clothing – As a whitetail hunter, you can get by with your existing clothes but I would recommend purchasing a few good pairs of merino wool socks and base layers. Early season archery hunt temperatures top out in the 70’s during the day and start in the 30-40’s in the morning. Last year I wore lightweight hiking pants and merino wool long sleeve shirts to keep me cool and dry during strenuous day hikes through rugged country. For chilly temperatures during the evening and early morning hunts, I threw on a lightweight down vest to keep my body warm. In many instances, you can’t walk back to the truck in 10 minutes when the weather turns south so choose your gear wisely. My mountain hunting clothing of choice is Sitka Gear. 

Here’s a Tip: Don’t wait until August to start purchasing gear. Buying these necessities over the coming months will help allocate your budget and will help you save up for these larger purchases. Also, many companies sell out of products by mid-Summer and shipping lead times are sometimes a month or more for product delivery, so take my word on this; don’t wait until the last minute.

DIY Colorado Elk Hunting
The weather changes quickly in the mountains. Make sure you have gear that will keep you comfortable in variable conditions.

Getting In Shape

As a flat lander going from sea level to 8,000+ feet in elevation, the air is thin and the terrain is rough so it’s important to make physical fitness part of your weekly routine in the months leading up to the trip. I won’t elaborate into a ton of detail here because I’m not a fitness guru by any means, but I can tell you that the more physically fit you are, the more enjoyable your hunt will be. If you show up to the trailhead out of shape, be prepared to be miserable.

I see a lot of guys pounding leg workouts in preparation for a western elk hunt and it’s definitely needed, but make sure it’s not the only area you are focusing on. From last years experiences as a rookie on the mountain, I wish I would have put more of an emphasis on working out my abs and building up my ankles and feet. In this terrain, you are loaded down with a heavy pack and you will be traversing unforgiving ground so having good balance is key, which all stems from having a strong core. My ankles and feet also paid the price last year because I wasn’t prepared.

I recommend loading up your pack 1-3 times per week and hitting the trails for a few hours on each hike. This will help break in your new boots, build up your feet, strengthen your ankles, and boost your stamina all at the same time. Try to walk on side hills to get your ankles and feet used to being at different angles. At the very least, make sure you are getting in cardio and stretching on a routine basis. On a mountain hunt, you will be constantly stepping over downed trees, climbing through thick cover, and lunging in awkward positions so don’t neglect stretching. 

Colorado Shed Hunting
Shed hunting is a great way to stay in shape and build up your legs during the off-season in preparation for your Fall hunts.

Helpful Colorado Hunting Resources

CDOW Big Game Brochure – It’s imperative to have a good understanding of rules and regulations pertaining to hunting elk in Colorado. Make sure to read through the big game handbook thoroughly. 

Colorado Hunting Atlas – This atlas is packed with tons of useful information. To learn all about how to use the Colorado hunting atlas map to scout for a hunt, watch this VIDEO.

RMEF Gear Packing List – Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation has put together helpful packing lists based on the style and duration of your hunt. 

onXmaps GPS – This mapping tool is a life saver for me. I started using this app about a year ago and if you are hunting public land, you should be using it too. It shows private and public land boundaries, topography, trail/road access, and allows you to mark waypoints on your phone, computer, or handheld GPS. 

Don’t Wait Any Longer

There are multiple moving parts of planning a DIY elk hunt in Colorado. Many of you will probably be hunting with a partner so determine what gear you can share and which items you will need to purchase separately. Don’t be afraid to contact the local wildlife biologists in the areas you are potentially going to be hunting. They will be able to point you in some directions and can offer insight on animal numbers or areas to start checking into.

Just remember, planning and preparation are all part of the process and whether or not you kill an elk this Fall, I can guarantee you will create memories that will last a lifetime. So as I sit here (in the middle of April) planning my upcoming 2017 elk hunt, a common question will not escape my head. So until the aspens turn yellow and bugles fill the air, I’ll be asking; “Is It September Yet!?

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