Exploring Elk Hunting Difficulty and How to Win in the Wild

Let's face it, elk hunting is no walk in the park. It takes more than just a rifle and a few rounds to conquer the backcountry and bag that trophy elk. As a mountain athlete, you've likely faced steep trails, harsh weather, and the reality of unpredictable wildlife. And that's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the challenges of hunting elk.

Why does the difficulty of elk hunting matter? It's simple: the more challenging the hunt, the more you'll grow as an athlete and a hunter. In other words, the greater the difficulty the sweeter the taste of reward.

Navigating the rugged terrain, honing your tracking skills, and pushing your body to its limits will forge a stronger, more resilient version of yourself. Elk hunting also demands adaptability and resourcefulness, as you'll need to make do with the gear you carry and the environment you're in. All these factors combined make elk hunting a uniquely rewarding pursuit, one that will test your mettle and transform you into a true mountain athlete.

In this article, we'll help you face the reality of elk hunting difficulty head-on. We'll topline the physical and mental challenges you're likely to encounter, and the importance of fitness and preparation.

By the end of this piece, you'll not only have a greater understanding of what it takes to be a successful elk hunter but also be equipped with the tools and knowledge to tackle the wilderness and emerge victorious. So gear up and get ready to take on the ultimate hunting challenge.

Why is Elk Hunting Hard?

Elk hunting is hard due to elk size, strength, keen senses, and elusive behavior. Additionally, hunters must overcome the challenges posed by the elk's remote and rugged habitat, unpredictable weather conditions, and limited accessibility to prime hunting locations.

A hunter's physical and mental preparation and adaptability are key to overcoming these obstacles.

The Mighty Elk: Size and Strength

As one of the largest and most powerful game animals in North America, elk can cover vast distances quickly and navigate challenging terrain with ease. Whether you're rifle hunting or bowhunting elk, you'll need to be in top physical shape to match the endurance and strength of these formidable beasts. Developing a solid backcountry fitness routine is the only way to keep up with the elk and increase the chances of a successful harvest.

Outsmarting Elk: Keen Senses

Elk possess exceptional hearing, a sharp sense of smell, and keen eyesight. They're 3/5 on superpower senses, and combined it gives them nearly a 6th sense to tell if something feels just out of sorts.

The truth is though, these heightened sensory abilities allow them to detect potential threats from tremendous distances. This means anyone hunting elk needs to be a master of stealth with a strong understanding of how their scent and sound can carry. This often involves tracking silently and staying downwind, skills that can take years to perfect.

Navigating Elk Territory: Habitat and Behavior

Elk thrive in the rugged and expansive landscapes of the Western United States, which provide ample cover, food sources, and water. To locate and pursue elk effectively, backcountry hunters need to have a complete understanding of elk's daily routines, preferred bedding areas, and seasonal movements.

For instance, they're crepuscular, meaning they're most active at dawn and dusk. They may bed down in thick forests during the day. And the rut specific to location and environment also play a major role in shifting behaviors.

Elk thrive in habitats that offer high-quality forage, such as grasses, forbs, and shrubs. These nutritious food sources provide the energy and nutrients needed for their growth and reproduction. As grazing animals, elk rely heavily on these types of vegetation, which can be found in both meadows and forested areas.

Access to water sources is critical too - elk often frequent creeks, springs, and wallows (muddy depressions created by elk used to cool off or escape insects), especially during hot summer months.

Escape terrain plays a significant role in elk habitat selection. Steep slopes and dense timber provide these animals with the necessary cover and protection from predators. In the face of danger, elk can quickly retreat into these areas, making it more difficult for hunters to locate and approach them.

Lastly, a balance between cover and visibility is crucial for hunter detection. While elk need cover for safety, hunters require visibility to spot and stalk their prey. Habitat with a mix of open meadows and dense tree cover offers an ideal environment for both elk and hunters. Understanding these key elk habitat characteristics can greatly improve a hunter's success in the field and overall backcountry experience. There's far more to understand about their unique behaviors about habitat but, in general, these concepts are major factors in what separates success and failure each season.

The Long Haul: Accessing Prime Hunting Grounds

Many top elk hunting locations are remote and difficult to access, requiring hunters to hike long distances. The vast wilderness and rugged terrain can be physically and mentally exhausting, emphasizing the need for high fitness levels and unwavering determination - with special emphasis on mental toughness to power through.

Weathering the Storm: Unpredictable Conditions

Elk hunting often occurs in regions with volatile weather patterns, including sudden storms, temperature fluctuations, and snowfall. These conditions can further complicate the hunt, requiring proper gear and a flexible mindset to adapt to whatever Mother Nature has in store.

If you're about to set out on your first elk hunt, it's a good idea to set realistic expectations - sure, it's great to dream of packing out a massive bull elk, but with the challenging and unpredictable nature of elk, it's never a guarantee. Many experienced hunters often return empty-handed despite their best efforts. The key here is to embrace the experience and the opportunity to learn from the environment, your fellow hunters, and the elk themselves.

What is the Success Rate of Elk Hunting?

Elk hunting success rates average around 10-20% in most western states. Factors affecting success include hunting skills, physical fitness, terrain, and weather conditions. There is high variance among states - for instance, Wyoming has around 40% success, whereas Washington has less than 10%.

For the statisticians out there, the success rate is calculated as the percentage of hunters who successfully harvest an elk in relation to the total number of hunters who participate. When compared to other big game hunting, elk hunting can be more challenging due to the animals' elusive nature, vast home ranges, and ridiculously difficult terrain.

For instance, deer hunting success rates tend to be higher as deer are more abundant and live in more accessible areas.

Are Elk Harder to Hunt Than Deer?

Elk hunting is not necessarily harder than deer hunting. Difficulty varies based on species, location, and hunting method. For instance, High Country mule deer or Coues deer hunts in Mexico can be as challenging, if not more, than elk hunts due to the rugged terrain and elusive nature of these deer.

There's a general perception floating around that tackling an elk is a Herculean task compared to bagging a deer. This idea is largely fueled by their grand size and the diverse habitats they reside in. But don't be fooled. Despite the intimidating presence of an elk, they don't always present a more challenging hunt than their smaller relatives, the deer. It's high time we bust this myth wide open.
When it comes to hunting, there's a common myth that stalking and taking down an elk is far more difficult a task than hunting deer, thanks in large part to their size and the varied habitats they call home. This couldn't be further from the truth. 

While elk might look the part due to their impressive stature, they're not necessarily tougher to hunt than deer. It's time to debunk this myth.

  • Size: Elk are not deer on steroids. Sure, a mature bull elk is far larger than a whitetail deer, but size doesn't necessarily translate to a tougher hunt. The belief that a bigger game is harder to bring down doesn't hold water in this context. The challenge lies in the strategy and skill of the hunter, not the size of the prey.
  • Habitat: While some may think of elk as strictly mountain dwellers, this is also a myth. In fact,  they're native to grasslands and have migrated to the mountains mostly to escape hunting pressure? From the cornfields of Nebraska to flat public lands and pasture lands throughout the West, you'll find elk in various environments. With a push by the state, elk have returned to Kentucky, where they once thrived. And while the state is hilly, it doesn’t necessarily compete with the mountains of the West, and yet, elk are feeling right back at home there. They've even been spotted in suburban areas like Gardiner, Montana, and Cody, Wyoming. Their adaptability to different terrains is remarkable, much like their deer counterparts.
  • Terrain Challenges: The belief that hunting elk requires more stamina because they dwell in the mountains isn't entirely accurate. Deer hunters can testify to putting in more miles in rugged country for deer than they do for elk. And if you think Elk are trampling more difficult terrain, many deer cover the same ground and carve paths in terrain elk couldn’t cut through.
  • Behaviors: Finding an elk during the rut is far more manageable than locating a mature high-country mule deer at any time of the year. Deer don't announce their presence with loud mating calls like elk do, making them harder to spot. The cacophony during the rut makes tracking elk less challenging, whereas deer hunting relies more on scent control and ambush strategies. In this regard, elk hunting might even be considered easier.

5 Tips for a Successful Elk Hunt

1. Scouting and Preparing for Your Hunt

Do your homework - proper scouting is the foundation of a successful elk hunt. This means getting to know the terrain, vegetation, and water sources like the back of your hand. Use topographical maps, satellite imagery, and online resources to gather intel. Remember, time spent scouting is an investment in your elk hunting success.

Nobody wants to leave a hunt with less weight on their packs - here are a few additional ways to make sure you don't:

  • Start your scouting efforts months before the hunting season begins.
  • Identify potential glassing points, travel corridors, and feeding areas.
  • Make note of key landmarks and terrain features to aid in navigation.
  • Use trail cameras to gather valuable information about elk movement patterns.

2. Selecting the Right Gear for Elk Hunting

The right gear can make or break your elk hunting experience. Invest in quality clothing, optics, and footwear that can withstand the rugged Western landscape. You're not going after white-tailed deer, so don't prep as you would be. When you're outfitted with the best gear, you'll be ready to face whatever the wilderness throws at you.

Essential Elk Hunting Gear

  • Weather-appropriate clothing, including a waterproof outer layer.
  • Comfortable, durable boots with good ankle support.
  • High-quality binoculars and/or spotting scope.
  • Reliable GPS device and/or topographical maps.
  • A rifle or bow with the appropriate ammunition or arrows.

3. The Importance of Physical Fitness

Hunting elk in the West often means navigating steep, rugged terrain at high elevations. Trust us, this is our specialty - you don't want to be gasping for breath when that trophy bull steps into view. Start a consistent workout regimen focusing on cardiovascular endurance, strength training, and flexibility. When the hunt begins, you'll be glad you put in the sweat.

If you're unsure where to start, begin with a MTNTOUGH 14-day free trial. Once inside, you'll be able to work through our backcountry hunter series, which includes programs that cover the entire year, even during hunting season.

  • Begin your training program several months before the hunting season.
  • Include activities such as hiking, trail running, and hill climbing.
  • Incorporate strength training exercises, like squats and lunges, to build leg and core strength.
  • Stretch regularly to maintain flexibility and prevent injury.

4. Essential Elk Hunting Strategies

A successful elk hunt requires the right tactics. Whether you're a spot-and-stalk hunter, a master caller, or an ambush specialist, honing your strategies is key. Learn how to use the terrain and wind direction to your advantage, and practice patience to wait for that perfect shot opportunity. With the right approach, you'll be one step closer to filling your freezer with delicious elk meat.

Spot-and-Stalk Hunting

  • Locate elk from a distance using optics.
  • Plan your stalk, taking advantage of terrain and wind direction.
  • Move silently and patiently, making the most of the natural cover.
  • Close the distance and wait for the perfect shot opportunity

Calling and Decoying

  • Familiarize yourself with elk vocalizations, such as bugles, cow calls, and calf calls.
  • Utilize a combination of cow calls and bugles to pique the interest of a bull elk.
  • Employ decoys to create a realistic and enticing visual for approaching elk.
  • Use the terrain and cover to your advantage, positioning yourself for a clear shot.

5. The Role of Persistence and Adaptability

Elk hunting can test the mettle of even the most seasoned hunters. It's a humbling experience where success is never guaranteed, but a never-give-up attitude and the ability to adapt are essential. So embrace adversity, learn from your experiences, and remain open to new ideas and techniques. Start by practicing any one of the following 7 exercises for building mental toughness.

And if you're headed out with hunters that have a few more seasons under their belts, be an active listener. You'll learn faster this way, conquering the challenges of elk hunting quicker than you thought possible.

Elk Hunting Success Is 99% Prep and Outlook

It's worth noting that improving your success rate is possible with the right preparation and mindset. Investing time in physical conditioning, mastering hunting techniques, and studying elk habits can significantly increase your chances of success.

Tackle your mind and body in one fell swoop with MTNTOUGH's Backcountry Hunter series - remember, you can give it a shot for 14 days at no cost. There's nothing to lose and everything to gain.