Elk Hunting Without a Guide


Hunting elk without a guide was a big scary idea for me the first time I envisioned it, but it ended up being one of the most memorable hunts I ever had. One of the reasons was that it was all so real, so raw, and it challenged every part of my being to the limit. I did it the hard way, just went for it. You can save yourself a little stress if you plan better than I did. Here’s what I learned that may help those of you who want to take their hunting to the next level.

Getting a tag

So here’s something many people don't know. Washington, Oregon, Utah, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and Arizona have over the counter elk tags that you can simply walk in and buy. Yes, this is true and the cost is quite a bit less than throwing down 6,000 bucks for a guided trip. A typical out of state tag will run you anywhere from about $300 for a cow tag to a little over $800 for a bull tag depending on the state. Then you have to consider the travel fees, where to hunt and where to stay. Still, it will save you a lot of dough and it’s always a great adventure when you head into unknown territory.

Finding a spot

This is the hardest part for most people because unfortunately, most hunters are pretty hush-hush about where their secret spots are. But, you can find a place to hunt and your odds are pretty good that you’ll get into the elk with a little persistence. The single most important thing you can do is to start researching early. Each of the states I listed has its own elk management plan that is available on the state website. Montana, for instance had a site dedicated to hunting elk and offers tons of great information on everything you need to know about hunting elk in that state. It has statistics on all 35 elk management units and can tell you the best areas to hunt.

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Besides the internet, consulting friends and acquaintances is another great resource. I think everyone knows someone who lives in one of these states. Even if they don’t hunt, odds are pretty good that they know someone who does. Ask a lot of questions and you are usually pleasantly surprised at what you find out. I have ended up meeting people that actually gave me permission to hunt on their private land. Usually they don’t even ask for a fee. You’d be surprised at how many nice people there are out there.


Maps are the best way to get an overall picture of the terrain you plan to hunt. National Forest Service maps, BLM maps, and U.S. Geological Survey topographic maps all work well. There are also apps and other excellent map resources online. Study them well so you know what you’re getting yourself into.

Key things to remember about elk hunting

As epic as it is to be in big elk country, there are some sobering facts to consider. First of all, elk hunting is quite a bit more difficult than deer hunting (unless you hunt in the Sierras) and it requires that the hunter be in top shape. Elk are usually found in very steep, thick areas and rugged terrain. Plan on hiking uphill a lot and if you’re not able to hike at least five miles per day through bad terrain, you might want to reconsider.

It’s tough going, difficult, and the odds are less than the odds of killing a deer. Killing a big bull is even more difficult. The rewards, on the other hand are incredibly satisfying and you will see the most beautiful country you’ve ever seen. The good news is that you can kill cow elk as well. Any elk killed will provide hundreds of pounds of meat. I wouldn’t go elk hunting without a quad or a horse. Packing out that much meat is nearly impossible for most people. Hunting elk on your own is not for the meek but I can tell you that it is one of the most rewarding experiences you’ll ever have. The more prepared you are beforehand, the better the experience you will have. Either way, plan on a heck of an adventure.

The drop camp option

If you’re an experienced hunter but you’re not quite sure about going it alone, consider the drop camp. A drop camp is just that; you get transported out to a ready made camp where you are left on your own. You do your own hunting and your own chores. This is a nice option for someone who can’t afford the big bucks for a guided hunt but appreciates a ready made camp and transportation to and from. If you get lucky enough to kill an elk, you have a way to pack out your game. I really like this option and it’s a great way to get your feet wet. Many hunters head out solo and get so discouraged that they never come back again. The drop camp gives you a balance between a guided and non-guided hunt.

Whatever you decide, there is one thing for sure. Elk hunting is an epic adventure and one that will hook you for life. Proper planning is everything and it’s not uncommon to plan for half a year. You will get out what you put it and I can tell you it will all be worth it.