Cross Cut Mapping Technique
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The importance of studying maps and planning elk hunting routes that maximize your strengths cannot be understated. As I look at the ever growing archive of Google Earth files and saved Caltopo maps, I’ve tried to amalgamate most of our mapped routes into one single categorical label.

My elk hunting buddies and I are reasonably fit, willing to pack an elk out from almost anywhere, consider a hunt’s enjoyment nearly ruined if we encounter other hunters on the mountain, and seek to maximize the utility of our lightweight approach by bivy hunting along 3-5 day loops. We also try to minimize trail miles, and hopefully, target spots that get better as hunting pressure on the surrounding landscape intensifies.

I’ve come up with the term “cross cut mapping”. Now I’m neither a carpenter, nor the son of a carpenter, but my dad was never afraid to tackle anything around the house growing up, so by default, I’m a competent wood worker. A rip cut is when you cut with the grain of the wood. For instance, you take a 4 x 8 sheet of plywood and turn it into 2, 2 x 8 sheets of plywood. A cross cut is when you take a 2 x 6 x 8 piece of lumber and cut it in half to create 2 4 foot pieces of 2 x 6. Simple, and most of you know this.

To describe cross cut mapping, let all access points, trailheads, parking lots, dead end forest service roads, and trails represent the grain of the landscape. To hunt with the grain of the landscape is to batter the ground in the same manner that it’s meant to be walked. Along trails, from primary access points, following the natural seams and contours of the landscape.

A couple years ago, we got a hair-brained idea to consider the Maroon Bells Wilderness area for our next DIY elk hunting adventure. Now, we’ve since tossed that notion aside, but I’ll use some mapping examples to illustrate what I’m talking about. In fact, feel free to go hunt these exact loops and tell me what you see. They’ve got the PAG stamp of approval (inside joke there).

If you’re hunting with the grain of the landscape, you’d just stay on the dashed trail leading up East Creek drainage. There is nothing wrong with that, you might kill an elk, it’ll be easier packing since you’re near the trail, and navigational worries are kept to a minimum, but it doesn’t maximize our skill set and approach to elk hunting. Now look at the red trail we digitized in. See how it initially uses trail to gain elevation but quickly deviates to a side hilling approach to probe likely benches and attacks some really steep terrain to access some hanging basins that are perched way above main trails in the area.

You can click on the map photos to view at full resolution.

Another example of the same thing. Most hunters are going to work the trail up towards American Lake, loop up towards Hayden Peak, and be back to the trailhead by dark. The red trail is great 2-3 day loop hike that hunts through a perfect combination of steep dark timber, open high country, and hanging basins inaccessible from the main trails below. It smartly uses an established trial to gain most of the initial elevation and then spurs off side hill.

I think the cross cut analogy should be making sense by now. At some point, you might have to deviate from the well traveled path in order to find unpressured elk in hard-hunted areas such as OTC Colorado. Hunting against the grain isn’t for everyone, and it can definitely put you in some uncomfortable situations if you’re not careful. In fact, we very nearly over-extended our abilities to pack out an elk in our 2014 hunt, so we’re still learning. That said, hopefully this cross cut mapping mindset will help you see something a little different the next time you look at a topographical map of your hunting area. It’s worked for us and we’ll be putting it to the test again this fall with some new elk hunting spots in Colorado.

Tyvek Bivy
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Always pushing the envelope of what is most effective yet minimalist for our continually evolving Western hunting plans. This was Pete’s doing.

Traded out our usual Tyvek ground cloth for 2 individual bivy sacks. We’ll still use the GoLite Shangri La 2 probably (though a Cuben fiber tarp is intriguing), but the switch from simple ground cloth to containment bivy should accomplish several things.

1) With total containment, it’ll be easier to stay dry when water is deluging out of the sky and forming small rivers on the ground.

2) The Y2K zipper will allow us to unzip the sacks during dry weather to prevent excessive condensation, so I’m not too worried about that.

3) You can’t slide out of a sack, it was a frequent problem with the ground cloth with even the most subtle slope to a sleep site.

There’s essentially a 1-2 ounce penalty for each of us only because of the extra weight of the zipper and the little bit extra amount of Tyvek required to build the sacks.

Push comes to shove and the bivy sacks could be used to spend a cozy night curled up individually in nearby elk beds.

Just one more piece of gear that allows us to better execute our highly mobile and adaptive hunting style out West!

The Importance of Season Dates – Hunting Out West
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At a minimum, my brain is always at least a little preoccupied with mulling over future hunt plans. Mule deer or elk? This state or that state? Apply for a tag this year or just grab another preference point? Go for an early season hunt or try a late season rut hunt? Tackle this new area or go back to where I have gotten results before? Got to remind my hunting buddy to not miss that draw deadline… On and on it goes.

In laying out a long-term hunt planning calendar, I sketched out the next 5 or 6 years of plans. It’s a crowded list and work/family-vacation schedule will dictate many of my hunting plans; however, there are certain things that exert more influence on my decision to say — hunt the 3rd mule deer season in Colorado in 2015 or 2016. One of those most important things is season dates.

Here are 4 things I’m looking at relative to how season dates can create a better situation for success in my future backcountry plans, first starting with an example from back East that I’ve seen play out numerous years in the past.

In North Carolina, it’s uncanny how a group of shooter-sized bachelor bucks can be sticking to a twice-a-day, during the daylight, almost to the minute schedule during the last week of August and through Labor Day weekend of September. It’s also uncanny how that same group of bucks will break up as velvet starts to tighten and become extremely unpredictable just a day or two before the start of archery season comes in. Obviously they have a calendar…sure does seem like it. It’s actually really intelligent management by the state wildlife agency in charge of managing the resource, a week earlier start date to archery season would create conditions where mature bucks are too vulnerable to harvest. It’s not by accident that the NCWRC starts archery season when they do – that being said, in years where archery season shifts a couple days earlier than normal, those are prime conditions to maximize chances at a still-in-his-summer-pattern archery buck.

4 examples out West:

*I don’t know the exact determinant for how season dates are set in Colorado, but it must go something like this…X season will start on the 2nd Saturday of November. Just like Thanksgiving can show up early and late in one year versus the next, so can certain states’ season dates. In 2015, the 3rd season mule deer hunt starts on October 31 and runs 9 days. In 2016, that same season starts on November 5 and runs 9 days. That is a huge difference when colder weather and proximity to the rut are the biggest contributors to a boom versus a bust year’s harvest. Lots of guys holding those PPs waiting for the season dates to roll around more in favor a big swell-necked muley buck.

*Dad is building points for a early muzzleloader tag in the areas where we OTC archery elk hunt. It’s hellacious country and we’ll recruit the help of a packer to get us in and out, but we’ll likely wait for a year where the muzzy season dates are pushed as far back into September as possible to take advantage of the peak of the rut. If the tag and season dates can align, that’s a close to a slam dunk hunt for a big bull elk that I know of.

*Several sportsmen groups pushed for Colorado’s unique early rifle hunt (usually constrained to high elevation, above timberline areas or a few of the state’s wilderness areas to be pushed back a week. Competition with archery hunters and “unfair” susceptibility to harvest by long-range hunters was enough to get those season dates pushed back. Even so, those start dates will fluctuate in coming years between the 5th or 6th of September and mid-teen dates. Similar to the NC situation, early season dates will encourage far more of those big high country mule deer to be still in velvet and still be at or above timberline before dropping into the dark timber until the November rut.

*Those are very specific situations, but here’s an example of how season date structure can positively affect a whole state’s hunt quality in certain years. Wyoming is such a state. Regardless of where the 15th or the 1st or the 10th or the whatever other date falls in terms of Monday versus Thursday versus Sunday…that’s when the season starts. This creates situations where opening day pressure can be severely inflated if the start date coincides with a weekend opener. Conversely, an opening day on Tuesday might really weed out the competition for a season opener.

Use these tips as you plan your long term hunt schedule. Many states publish 5-year plans and I’ve been using those to organize the 7 or 8 trips I want to take in the next 5 to 6 years. Just one more method to the madness!

Don’t Scout…”Hunt” – DIY Hunt Preparation
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“Don’t scout” is likely to be taken out of context and I’ll be labeled a lunatic amongst all Easterner DIYers gone West for big game hunting. The case I’m trying to make is this – for those of us with flexibility to make a scouting trip for a fondly dreamed of Western adventure – don’t. I propose that you should instead “hunt” the unit DURING the actual hunt dates a year or two in advance. I suppose that a goal of finding a Boone & Crockett contender might not be compatible with this suggestion, but for the rest of us (e.g., “I’m happy with any nice mature specimen”), “hunting” the unit prior to your actual drawing the tag makes infinitely more sense.

Here’s why?

Scouting gives you no understanding of hunter density/competition. It will likely give you a grand estimate of how many hikers use the wilderness area you’re planning to hunt during the warmth of late summer, but that’s not what I’m interested in personally. “Hunting” will tell you where the pressure concentrates and how critters react to that pressure.

Scouting tells you exactly where animals are located during the dates when you are there. With each passing day, the probability decreases that animals are still locked in those same patterns. If it’s early season mule deer you’re interested in, one week can make a huge difference as big bucks tend to drop into heavy timber once their velvet comes off in early-mid September. “Hunt” when you’ll hunt.

Scouting tells you where food/water sources are located during the dates when you are there. High country vegetation is extremely ephemeral – going dry quickly in the dry heat of summer, saturating quickly during monsoon season, and getting buried during the first snows of late September and early October. Same thing applies to water. I think by now the point is becoming clear.

The biggest thing I’ve learned about hunting out West is that if one can manage his/her expectations, then the trip WILL be a success – no matter the outcome of actually filling your tag. I can think of no better way to over-inflate expectations of a DIY OTC elk hunt than to visit in late July and stare in awe at the herds of elk congregated in the timberline portions of rugged wilderness units. They ain’t gonna be there in mid-September.

I’m still developing a code of ethics for “hunting” a limited draw unit, but I have tentative plans to make a mid-September jaunt into the Colorado high country to “hunt” for timberline mule deer. The unit also happens to be over-the-counter elk which explains why my hunting buddy Pete will be accompanying me. It will probably take me 3 or 4 more years to draw this coveted tag, but when I do I’ll obviously have a huge advantage over people first encountering the unit, and a lesser but still significant jump on those who have only scouted the unit. A Western hunt doesn’t fit time-wise or money-wise into my 2015 calendar or bank account, but I can certainly carve out a long-weekend scramble and burn some credit card points on airfare to ease my wanderlust for another year.

More “hunt” details to come at a later date.

What They Actually Meant…DIY versus Drop Camp Elk Hunts
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Came across this article posted by Flat Tops Wilderness Guides. I am not totally dissing the article, but I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself when I read through it.

In block quotes, you’ll find the actual article’s text and you’ll find my extremely sarcastic and potentially caustic responses interjected in normal font format. The article is fairly lengthy and as such I’ll only focus the section he (Cliff Gray is the author and a darn good writer I might add) devotes to the DIY method of backpack elk hunting.

In no way should this be read as an ultimatum on DIY backpacking versus drop camp elk hunts, this is MY opinion and based on MY experiences. Form your own…

This discussion assumes the definition of wilderness hunt is camping and hunting 3+ miles from any vehicle access for 7+ days.

After my father’s career as an outfitter was over and before I personally became an outfitter, I spent years backpack hunting past outfitter camps deep (3-8 miles) in road-less areas. I always thought to myself, “suckers!”. Now I realize that those hunters had a huge advantage over me. They woke up refreshed every morning to hit the hunt. They ate well and enjoyed the company of their friends. They knew they had help in case of an emergency. By the time I got up to my destination, I was beat and never really did enjoy myself. It was a personal mission to “kill” elk. I was proving something to myself. It wasn’t what enjoyable elk hunting is about. I do grant that hunting that way did teach me how to deal with extreme amounts of discomfort, taught me a lot about deer and elk, and made me a more durable hunter.

Yep, I still think “suckers!” but I have yet to realize the advantage (especially a huge one) they hold over me. My mission is to hunt elk as efficiently and effectively as possible (longhand for…I want to kill elk!). Creature comforts, restful sleep, fancy vittles, and peace of mind can be accommodated the other 355 days of the year.

Also, contrary to popular belief, success rates per day in the field for backpack hunts are much lower than outfitted hunts in the wilderness. How can I say that? First, I know a huge sample of backpack hunters in my area and all over the West. They just don’t harvest many animals for the amount of time they put in. Like I did, most of these hunters hunt a lot more days in the field than outfitted hunters. Compare the basics of a backpack trip vs a horse/mule drop camp:

Colorado’s archery elk success rates for OTC units range from mid single digits to mid teens…thankfully we aren’t average. Considering most drop camp packages are 5-7 days, the only thing he got right here is that we do hunt a lot more days in the field than outfitted hunters…thank goodness.


Day 1) Pack in 40-50lbs of gear on your back and setup camp

Day 2) Opening day. Hunt very little because you can hardly move due to the soreness. Sleeping in a freezing-cold, ultralight tent, equates to not sleeping at all

Day 3) You’re already tired of eating freeze dried shit pie and ready to go home, but you do get some good hunting in

Day 4-5) You tough it out and spend a couple days hunting hard

Day 6) You destroy your spinal cord by packing out 250lbs of elk or you hobble down empty handed. You sleep at the trailhead, contemplating your unhealthy desire for pain

Day 7) You drive home. Over the following week you down a couple bottles of Tylenol.

40-50 pounds…unfortunately this is the norm of a backpack hunter trying to bring along an outfitted camp on his back. Gotta dress for the occasion. 30 pounds plus me naked… Can’t argue with the sucky sleep situation.

Day 2 – fish oil…repeat ad nauseum…goodbye soreness.

Day 3 – freeze dried is good. Buy quality and buy variety.

Day 6 – best pain I’ve felt.

Outfitted Drop Camp:

Day 1) Unload your truck at the outfitter’s pack station. Watch as each hunter’s pack animal is packed with up to 60lbs of food and 60lbs of gear per person. Jump on a sturdy mountain horse that knows the trails as good as the local elk. Enjoy the scenery on a 1-4 hour ride into camp. Go to bed in a warm, well equipped wall tent.

Day 2) Opening day. A little sore from the ride, wake up to prepare a hearty breakfast and be at a nearby meadow before light.

Day 3-5) You’re eating well and keeping your energy level up. Hiking 2-3 miles a day on fresh legs, you are starting to understand the area and getting into elk on a daily basis.

Day 6) You make the best of an opportunity and manage to kill a bull. You quarter the bull with a partner and call the outfitter on your satellite phone.

Day 7) The outfitter shows up at first light to pack out your bull and help get things ready for your ride out. As the outfitter heads down with the elk and some gear, a wrangler shows up with your riding horses and a couple more mules. A short ride out, gear thrown in the truck, and you’re on your way home.

There’s an optimist (and a good marketer) for you -

Day 1 – ride past other hunter’s camps on your way to “paradise” only to find trash and refuse left by last week’s group of hunters. The better sleep cannot be denied.

Day 2 – you hear a distant bugle and give chase. Unfortunately, the thermals switch and you bump the herd into the next basin.

Days 3-5 – you think you hear a distant bugle, but can’t be sure. You find a decomposing elk that last week’s group shot down by a wallow. Lots of bear sign but you don’t have a tag. Hiking 2-3 miles that day you realize that there are no elk within reasonable distance of camp, but at least you are learning where elk like to live in late August. At least you got to see that nice mulie buck.

Day 6 – you hear a bugle and give chase. This time the scenario nearly results in a shot opportunity, but it doesn’t quite pan out. You leave the herd alone, and contact the outfitter that night to request an additional day in the backcountry.

“We finally got on elk tonight but couldn’t quite get a shot. Any chance you can give us an extra day and pack us out day after tomorrow?”



“Cause we gotta get you out of camp to prepare things for next week’s group [of suckers]. Sorry.”

Day 7 – “a short ride out, gear thrown in the truck, and you’re on the way home”…if only I had done a little more research on the outfitter and the unit…if only I had been more in shape…if only I had been equipped to bivy out a night or two…if only I had backpacked…

Again, just my .02, but I had a good chuckle over this one.

All I Want for Christmas Is…
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…a llama.

Yep, you heard me. I’ve heard Pete talk about llamas several times and always with the preceding phrase attached – “If we only had llamas…”

He also pointed me to a great blog written by traditional bowhunters – Rocky Mountain Specialty Gear – who are of the same ilk as ourselves. Serious D-I-Y public land elk hunters. Unfortunately, we aren’t quite as smart as they are. Why? Llamas.

When you read the following article entitled ‘Blood, Sweat, and Llamas’, you’ll hear mention of a “little devil that pops up on your shoulder saying “Do you really think we should kill an elk all the way back in this hell hole?” ”

I mean this with all sincerity. I have seen that little devil on multiple occasions, and he has whispered the exact same message in my ear. I’ve always replied with a swift “screw you!”. There is no penalty to scoffing at the little devil if you have llamas. Not so without llamas – we’ve suffered the penalty multiple times.

I like llamas. If I lived out West, I would own llamas. Llamas are good.

My 2014 Hunting Recap
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The year began with a lot of “maybe” plans but nothing definite on the tables. My would-turn-out-to-be-bear hunting partner was up in the air on whether or not he would have to bow out due to a new job transition. My would-turn-out-to-be elk hunting partner just wasn’t sure if the year’s activities would allow him the necessary time to make an out West trip to Colorado. There was a lot of uncertainty on my behalf as well.

Before I knew it, things were falling into place and both trips went from maybe to definitely. I spent the months of April and May researching intel and maps for our 8-day Montana spring bear hunt. We filled one of our 2 tags and had an awesome time. The full recap of that hunt can be found back in the May (Part 1) & June (Part 2, Part 3) 2014 archives.

With the bear hunt behind me, I began to look forward to a 10 day hunt in the Colorado high country for archery elk. Countless more hours were spent pouring over maps and planning the ultimate DIY backpack hunt. If you go back and read the account, you’ll see that we almost stretched ourselves too thin. We had the best 2.5 days of elk hunting either of us will likely ever experience and were rewarded with 2 great elk.

With most of my time already spent for the year, I was able to get out ten times deer hunting here in Ohio and filled 2 doe tags – one with archery and one with shotgun.

Nothing quite as exciting as the bear or elk hunt planned for 2015, but I’ve got a couple things up my sleeves. Let’s just say that I don’t plan on neglecting the whitetail quite so much in 2015.

2014 Elk Hunt Gear Reviews
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This post will conclude my comprehensive recap of Pete and I’s DIY archery elk hunt in SW Colorado. Undoubtedly there will be some repetition in this set of gear reviews from previous hunts, but that just means I’m uber-confident in our equipment setup and that I’m in the sweetspot of maximizing efficiency, affordability, and functionality.

I wore my Target C9 pants for most of the hunt. They still receive an A+ on the mountain. I decided to try out the Reddington pants that I picked up for under $20 on Sierra Trading Post this spring. A slightly better color than the C9s and only 8 ounces (1 ounce savings versus the Target pants). Performance though was a C+. They’ll stay slotted as early season bowhunting and canoe fishing pants. Just not enough durability to weather the beating a mountain hunt puts on your equipment. Target C9s remain the undisputed champions of early season backcountry hunting.

Salomon boots are still awesome, but after 30-35 cumulative days of hyper-aggressive wear and tear in the high country, they are showing signs of age. Particularly, the outer leading edge of the fabric on both boots has torn significantly exposing the in-between layers of the boots. They’ve never been super waterproof and now that functionality is pretty much totally shot at this point. That being said, I’ve never had a close call with a rolled ankle and I was blister-free yet again. Considering we spent days packing meat in moist to soaking wet conditions, I can’t ask for more than that. I’ll be investing in another pair of that same exact boots.

You can look back and see my posts regarding choice of top layers. Bottom line – I won’t be changing my mind anytime soon on hunting versus backpacking brand gear. I wore this exact same outfit for 7 days in a row because it works.

Oh, like my 37th plug for the product, PUFFY! Buy you one!

Already shopping for a replacement Badlands 2800 for when (actually, if?!?!) my original wears out. It’s still in tip-top condition and handles heavy meat loads with ease, but I want a back-up before they get scarce on the market. With our lightweight scheme, 2800 cubic inches is over-and-above the needed space for 7 days of time spent on the mountain.

Last product I’ll mention. The Havalon Piranta is a game changer in my opinion. Negates the need to carry a sharpener and is lighter than the most lightweight fixed or folding blade knives. I used 3 blades to do my share of butchering on Pete’s elk. Snapped one and another got so gummed up with tallow fat that I just changed it out of frustration. That being said – it’s a sharp scalpel. Put another way, scalpels are sharp. Put another way, they’re great.

Elk Hunt 2014 – 5 Things I Think I Think
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The list is MUCH longer than only 5 things, but here goes…ode to Peter King’s Monday morning NFL recap on SI.

*Campfired elk steak might be the best meal on earth. Elk steak in the high country means a lot of things have gone your way. It’s a good tasting feeling.

*Even a little rodent digging through your Ziploc full of trash will raise your neck hairs at 3 AM. I’m not going to say we screamed like little girls, but there were a few tense moments in the GoLite while we figured things out.

*I hate lightning. This one needs no explaining…I hate it.

*I hate horses. I love horses. This one does need some explaining. Places where we didn’t expect to see horses, we found all sorts of evidence to the contrary. This is a letdown because it means somebody else has hunted that area recently. On the flip side, if you see horse sign, you know there is a reasonably easy route out of wherever you are at the moment. That’s a good feeling. An even better feeling is waiting on a horse to pack you the rest of the way out of the mountains and finally hearing that clip-clop of hooves on the switchback’s rocks below. You ain’t a horse no more. That’s a great feeling!

*Fish oil = liquid gold. This was my first time taking fish oil and I can honestly say it will be a mainstay for backcountry hunting in the future. It’s calorie rich and it lubricates your joints. Zero joint pain for either Pete or I. For me, this revelation comes from someone currently typing with a hitch in my left elbow. An annoyance that’s ALWAYS present except when I was elk hunting in the mountains and dining on 12-18 fish oil pills daily. Just make sure you match oil intake with some fiber intake…that’s all I’m saying.

Elk Meat
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I snapped a picture of this sign in a Colorado meat market that we visited for the vaunted ‘Smokehouse Club’ – sort of a legendary post-hunt meal.

By my calculations, we did the hunt for just over $1,000 apiece. $620 in licenses, $200 apiece for the hired horsepower, and the remainder being dominated mostly by gasoline. Even if you just take the price of elk burger ($10.99), consider that farmed elk are basically cows with antlers. Let’s not kid ourselves. The legitimate market price for our wild elk is surely something appreciably higher. Undoubtedly, it’s nutritionally healthier too. By my calculations, even a half bull’s worth of just burger would easily cover the 1K price tag of the hunt door-to-door. Considering that we didn’t bring home just burger — my total breakdown for my half of the meat ended up being about 20 pounds burger, 15 pounds stew/kabob meat, 60 pounds of steaks, 20 pounds of roast, and 10 pounds of other miscellaneous cuts such as flank and brisket and filet — elk hunting is actually profitable, by a long shot!!!

At least that’s what I’ll tell my wife.

Infolinks 2013