So you want to go west? A newbies guide for newbies.

HuntTalk Freak

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Not sure if that's a good title or not but it's what I got for now. Fresh off of my second trip out west and first elk hunt that was both a major failure and learning success, I am here to share my experience and thoughts with those wanting to be their own Jerimiah Johnson, Hugh Glass, Horatio Alger or Randy Newberg. Keep in mind I realize we are all chasing different dreams and come from different backgrounds so I'm trying to be cognizant of that fact while hopefully offering some insight that veteran western hunters often overlook. This post will most likely be edited and updated as time goes on as things pop up in my mind and others help contribute. Yes, I also realize that this type of info has been done ad nauseam but I've also seen information gaps between the hunting aspect and the travel/destination parts.

I'll start off by addressing altitude sickness, it's real and it's no joke! My first trip was fine with two days huffing and puffing a bit but no headaches, I ate well, slept well, etc. This could be because I was in pretty good shape, staying in a condo at night and was on my honeymoon hunting for mule deer. No pressure.
This last trip was completely different. The altitude hit me hard and I while I didn't ignore it, instead I tried to push through it. Big mistake. So while I hydrated really well I did not eat much the whole seven days. I also did not sleep very much yet I continued to hike, cut wood, etc. After doing a six mile loop on opening day my body and mind were done. Thoughts of packing up and leaving briefly entered my mind but this was a trip five years in planning. So I tucked tail and drove into the nearest town and slept in a hotel for the night. That made a world of difference and while I still wasn't myself I headed back to camp at lunch time.

Solo vs having a parter/group.
Honestly I did not want to make my first elk hunt a solo trip but none of my buddies could/would go and I had made up my mind that this was the year. I know myself enough to know that I have a bad tendency to push myself to hard when alone. Having someone around would have helped with morale, safety, camp chores, spotting game, and just about everything else. Had I a partner the trip most likely would have went way different. I hunt here at home almost 100% of the time but I have a cabin with creature comforts and know the land/animals. When that sun goes down in the moutains and all you have are your thoughts, if you're having a rough time those thoughts could turn negative real quick. So think about that before you go but don't not go if you have to go solo, just be aware of yourself and mindset.

E-scouting/learning ecology
Learn to e-scout! In order to do that you need to understand the animal(s) you're hunting so learn their needs and habbits. This process does take time but your gear doesn't find the animals your knowledge does. Even though I have yet to bring any meat home with me I am proud of the fact that I have traveled hundreds of miles to unknown country and have found animals both times. I suggest watching all of Randy Newbergs e-scouting videos on youtube and if you have the money sign up for the e-scouting class at Treeline Academy if you're after elk. Read as much as you can.
Have multiple hunt areas and backup plans.
Lastly I also suggest taking some classes on reading topo maps. I'm getting better at it but still have a tendency to e-scout places that are too steep.

Gear
I won't go into gear too much as it's very subject and budget dependent. I will say test everything as much as you can before you go. Is that sleeping bag really warm at its temp rating? Are your boots broken in? Does that rain jacket leak? Will those base layer bottoms really fit under your pants? Shoot your rifle/bow a lot! Shoot in field conditions if you can, if not do a lot of dry firing at home. Practice off your pack, tripod, bipod, etc.
Being a flatlander it's been hard finding good boots. I ended up with a pair of Danners that work ok as long as I tape my heels up really good. However on this trip I wore liteweight hikers more than my hunting boots and my feet thanked me for it. I even wore trail runners as I searched for hours for my lost bull. So not everyone needs a stiff hunting boot but you'll have to experiment and decide that for yourself.

More to come later.

Threads on my last two hunts.
2019 mule deer
2022 Elk
 
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TOGIE

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When that sun goes down in the moutains and all you have are your thoughts, if you're having a rough time those thoughts could turn negative real quick. So think about that before you go but don't not go if you have to go solo, just be aware of yourself and mindset.

this for me has been one of the most often overlooked difficulties about solo hunting. probably because few want to admit it.

especially when you're struggling to find game. and especially when you show up and the plan you had goes to hell, for the multitude of reasons plans go to hell. the "this is a waste of my time and a bad use of time away from spouse/children/parents" thought slowly turns into a roaring depressing thought that will send you packing.
 
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Keep on

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Good points. Every failure is a learning experience and as long as you learn from them and don't repeat them you are getting better every trip. It takes years to learn a new job that you are working constantly, can't expect to learn everything about western hunting in a couple trips.
I'm doing my first solo MT hunt this year. It's a chance to cover some new ground and gain new experiences, if it leads to game in the cooler at the end that's just a bonus. It took me years to get here, but I enjoy the experience as much as success anymore.
You'll improve with every trip, keep at it.
 

JohnBud

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Sorry to hear that you had such a rough time. I also just got home from from my first elk hunt. My second hunt out west. Like you, I went solo because I could not find a hunting partner. My planned primary hunt area turned out to be a disaster. My plan B area was not much better. Plan C was an elk paradise. I live at an elevation of 870 feet, set up camp at 8600 feet and hunted up to 9300 feet with no adverse reactions but I have been working hard to be physically ready. I'm 62 and I had a blast in Colorado. Learned a lot, found solitude without loneliness but did not kill an elk. But I'm gonna go back and do it again as often as I can draw a tag. The aspens were beautiful and the stars were unbelievable. I say this not to minimize your struggles but I want other "newbies" to know that great adventure is out there. Hunt hard, keep expectations realistic and have fun. if I can do it, you can too!
 

Redman

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For me the worst part of solo hunting out West is the 20+ hr drive. I tend to push myself and have to force myself to stop and take a power nap. Hunting I am always trying to figure out what the game is doing. Once I get an animal on the ground I push myself to get it all taken care of. That about got me in trouble once when I shot a mule deer buck late in the evening. I was in such a hurry I didn't pay attention to the weather and it started raining and snowing. I was soaked and shivering uncontrollably every thing was wet and would be useless to try and start a fire. I hung the meat in a tree and headed 3 miles back to camp going a long a scetchey ridge. Made it back to camp stripped down and got in my sleeping bag. I could hardly function enough to get the fire going in my stove. I got real lucky. Sometimes having someone with you that can keep your head in the game helps, but at the end of the day we need to keep our wits about us and be safe.
 

millerkiller77

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For me the worst part of solo hunting out West is the 20+ hr drive. I tend to push myself and have to force myself to stop and take a power nap. Hunting I am always trying to figure out what the game is doing. Once I get an animal on the ground I push myself to get it all taken care of. That about got me in trouble once when I shot a mule deer buck late in the evening. I was in such a hurry I didn't pay attention to the weather and it started raining and snowing. I was soaked and shivering uncontrollably every thing was wet and would be useless to try and start a fire. I hung the meat in a tree and headed 3 miles back to camp going a long a scetchey ridge. Made it back to camp stripped down and got in my sleeping bag. I could hardly function enough to get the fire going in my stove. I got real lucky. Sometimes having someone with you that can keep your head in the game helps, but at the end of the day we need to keep our wits about us and be safe.
You're fortunate to be able to write about that experience, it sounds like the beginning of a missing hunter thread.
A decent night's sleep, hot shower in the morning and a hearty breakfast before I drive the last few hours is my go to for destinations over 14hrs. I've tried the drive straight through and immediately set up camp plan, it just doesn't work for me. Start out feeling like shit and it compounds from there.
 

Hunt&FishCO

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I would add - your elk/mule deer hunt ain’t going to be like a TV show. It’s a challenging environment, the hills don’t crawl with 300” bulls, and the mental/physical challenges are always underestimated.

There’s a reason most success rates are <35%, that’s because a select few have put in the work, paid a guide, or have acce$$ to private. Sure, you might get lucky - but that’s not a strategy.

Going with people might help - but it also hinders.

I was “lucky” getting my elk a little over a week ago. 4 days, 64.5 miles, 14,000’ of elevation gain/loss, average elevation 10,000’; western hunting comes in a variety of flavors- just make sure you know the challenge you’re truly taking on.
 

Khunter

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Understand how that solo time can be tough for some. Human nature perhaps. My mind just does not “go there” and I enjoy the time alone or am simply busy trying to get dinner and to sleep in time to have enough hours of rest by morning. Hunts are always a puzzle to sort out and solve leading to an animal of your preference, if possible, which is the fun part of the whole effort.

Amidst what could be deemed abject failure to find game at a given point of a hunt, I am not questioning why I am there or if it is worth the time away from family, or feeling guilty for being away which to me seems just a form of simply letting excuses for quitting take hold when they should not…months before a hunt we have all already sorted out the value proposition of hunting vs being home that week or three so why revisit just because of boredom, tough hunt etc. I am instead questioning where to try next, or why the animals are not “where they should be” and how to get there or where I need to be searching for the animals. I guess if I considered a hunt without a kill some sort of “failure” (I don’t) I might let the pressure mount as the hunt proceeds, which for me would kinda ruin the whole experience. So I mostly do not go there.

For newbies I would suggest a focus on the experience and not the tag punching as a way to keep going on a long solo hunt.

Will say having a way to communicate, even if it is with inreach, is nice and often enough I might bounce ideas on strategy off of my friends or family. Or simply keep the communication flowing at home.

Closest I have come to what the OP and previous second poster mention may have been 2 dreadfully slow weeks of AZ bison hunting last year when there were almost zero bison within the public lands we could hunt. Myself and a guy I was with were the only ones to even see a bison. That was a grueling nonstop exercise in futility, but managed to keep pointing forward till last light on the last day when 8 of the 10 tag holders had flat out given up and started departing by a week into it.
 
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fowladdict

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Closest I have come to what the OP and previous poater mention may have been 2 dreadfully slow weeks of AZ bison hunting last year. That was a grueling nonstop exercise in futility, but managed to keep pointing forward till last light on the last day when 8 ofthe 10 tag holders had flat out given up and strted departing by a week into it.
Is there a thread for this?
 

HuntTalk Freak

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Camping vs lodging
Understand how that solo time can be tough for some. Human nature perhaps. My mind just does not “go there” and I enjoy the time alone or am simply busy trying to get dinner and to sleep in time to have enough hours of rest by morning. Hunts are always a puzzle to sort out and solve leading to an animal of your preference, if possible, which is the fun part of the whole effort.

Amidst what could be deemed abject failure to find game at a given point of a hunt, I am not questioning why I am there or if it is worth the time away from family, or feeling guilty for being away which to me seems just a form of simply letting excuses for quitting take hold when they should not…months before a hunt we have all already sorted out the value proposition of hunting vs being home that week or three so why revisit just because of boredom, tough hunt etc. I am instead questioning where to try next, or why the animals are not “where they should be” and how to get there or where I need to be searching for the animals. I guess if I considered a hunt without a kill some sort of “failure” (I don’t) I might let the pressure mount as the hunt proceeds, which for me would kinda ruin the whole experience. So I mostly do not go there.

For newbies I would suggest a focus on the experience and not the tag punching as a way to keep going on a long solo hunt.

Will say having a way to communicate, even if it is with inreach, is nice and often enough I might bounce ideas on strategy off of my friends or family. Or simply keep the communication flowing at home.

Closest I have come to what the OP and previous second poster mention may have been 2 dreadfully slow weeks of AZ bison hunting last year when there were almost zero bison within the public lands we could hunt. Myself and a guy I was with were the only ones to even see a bison. That was a grueling nonstop exercise in futility, but managed to keep pointing forward till last light on the last day when 8 of the 10 tag holders had flat out given up and started departing by a week into it.
You have obviously been doing this for a while based on the fact you’ve hunted bison and ram. Everything gets easier the more you do it. You have gained knowledge that a new guy would have no concept of.
 

TOGIE

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Understand how that solo time can be tough for some. Human nature perhaps. My mind just does not “go there” and I enjoy the time alone or am simply busy trying to get dinner and to sleep in time to have enough hours of rest by morning. Hunts are always a puzzle to sort out and solve leading to an animal of your preference, if possible, which is the fun part of the whole effort.

Amidst what could be deemed abject failure to find game at a given point of a hunt, I am not questioning why I am there or if it is worth the time away from family, or feeling guilty for being away which to me seems just a form of simply letting excuses for quitting take hold when they should not…months before a hunt we have all already sorted out the value proposition of hunting vs being home that week or three so why revisit just because of boredom, tough hunt etc. I am instead questioning where to try next, or why the animals are not “where they should be” and how to get there or where I need to be searching for the animals. I guess if I considered a hunt without a kill some sort of “failure” (I don’t) I might let the pressure mount as the hunt proceeds, which for me would kinda ruin the whole experience. So I mostly do not go there.

For newbies I would suggest a focus on the experience and not the tag punching as a way to keep going on a long solo hunt.

Will say having a way to communicate, even if it is with inreach, is nice and often enough I might bounce ideas on strategy off of my friends or family. Or simply keep the communication flowing at home.

Closest I have come to what the OP and previous second poster mention may have been 2 dreadfully slow weeks of AZ bison hunting last year when there were almost zero bison within the public lands we could hunt. Myself and a guy I was with were the only ones to even see a bison. That was a grueling nonstop exercise in futility, but managed to keep pointing forward till last light on the last day when 8 of the 10 tag holders had flat out given up and started departing by a week into it.

i think you make great points here.

i've only sent myself packing once. i think how one handles certain adversities in solo hunting comes straight down to a baseline type of personality that is genetically inherent to an individual. that said, it can be worked on and overcome by anyone. most especially with experience and a development in attitudes around hunting.

when solo irrationality can easily and quickly take hold, and i don't really mean irrationality towards making stupid decisions, almost the exact opposite; it turns into an irrationality towards being overly conservative, at least for me. and overly conservative irrationality will lead to being sheepish when you find too many people where you wanted to hunt or a lack of game, because the answer is to hike a little farther, or steeper, or pack up and move spots.

i think you're spot on about the guilt about being away becoming an excuse.

i'm like a 100% different person with a partner; i become very aggressive and confident, never wanting to be back at camp, happy to shoot something at last light and spend 3-4 hours taking care of it and heading back, often to the dismay of my hunting partners who aren't interested in being so aggressive. so, at the same time, many times i don't want to hunt with a partner sometimes for those reasons. but then we whipsaw back to the solo difficulties and it's my challenge i'm working on overcoming, keeping in mind that this is my 6th fall as a hunter who started hunting when 26/27 years old. enormous amounts of stuff to learn. i grew up in the outdoors, have been a backpacking guide, and a solo backpacker. but holy chit something changes when you have a tag in your pocket and a gun over your shoulder while solo that has knocked me on my ass. i'm excited to keep figuring it out though.
 

HuntTalk Freak

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I’m going to add in camping vs lodging and put woodsmanship/bushcraft or whatever you want to call it into that category.

I’d wager that most of us coming from the south or east don’t camp much while hunting. While I camped in the past I don’t truly camp during whitetail season here anymore. Over the years I’ve built up my camp and now have a prefabricated storage shed that’s been converted into a insulated cabin with electric, heating, A/C, etc as previously mentioned. That said I still do try to camp in the winter and spring as I enjoy it. We have made spring break a family camping tradition and I even camp in the back yard some when the weather gets really bad by Texas standards.

If you don’t camp much or never really at all a western hunt is truly not the time to start in my opinion. This falls back on the gear testing portion as well. If you do camp try to camp under similar conditions you’d be hunting in; for some of us in the south this can be a difficult task. The temps I camped in during 1st rifle Colorado I won’t experience here in TX until maybe late December or January, but I knew that and was somewhat prepared. Camping in snow or rain for multiple days adds a whole other level of difficulty.
Buying the gear that will get you through this isn’t cheap and is often a lifetime purchase. Considering we are a camping family and I am also a solo camper these upfront costs made sense.
That first CO hunt it sure was nice knowing I could drive up to the condo and light that gas fireplace, take a hot shower and climb into a warm bed. That is also money I’ll never get back if I listen to the whispers of my Jewish heritage.

Then on to woodsmanship/bushcraft, etc. learn how to build a fire using different methods and under different conditions. On my camping trips at home I usually use a fire rod and wax covered twine to start my fires. I also use homemade and store bought fire starters. I will also make feather sticks and shavings, even used old birds and rats nest. Learn how to do all that and how to identify dead from green wood. At my camp in CO whoever was there before me hatched down several living trees and cut into a few more. I’m not sure if they were trying to fix the broken meat pole or cut fire wood. There was fresh cut wood both at the meat pole and by the fire ring.
There were several dead standing trees within arms reach or eyesight of the living trees that were cut. I pushed one over by hand and carried back to camp to process. It burned well and I cooked my fish over it and left more than half for the next camper.

From there I will say learn/practice your camp cooking. Sounds simple right? Well if you don’t camp much then you surely don’t cook over a fire/camp stove much. I’d say camp cooking is easier to practice than actual camping. If you have a fire pit in the back yard you can practice over flame and coal. All you need is a small patio to practice using your propane or white gas stove. My wife got me a new twig stove for my birthday and I’m cooking our whole dinner on it tomorrow after well over 24hrs of rain. I’m predicting smoked salmon vs pan fried. Lol
But you could entirely keep a cold camp and eat cold food. There are plenty of guys that do that. Like everything mentioned before this it’s personally and situationally dependent.

Have a compass and a basic understanding of where you are, where you’ll be and where you need to go if trouble arises.
 

Chama Grande

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this for me has been one of the most often overlooked difficulties about solo hunting. probably because few want to admit it.

especially when you're struggling to find game. and especially when you show up and the plan you had goes to hell, for the multitude of reasons plans go to hell. the "this is a waste of my time and a bad use of time away from spouse/children/parents" thought slowly turns into a roaring depressing thought that will send you packing.

Oh man, been there. I was doing a solo elk hunt, my first, and I had just put too much emphasis on filling the tag. By day 3 I was walking out of this canyon just drowning in my own negativity. I was cursing myself for going down there, cursing my friends for bailing, wondering what I was even after in the first place, or why I was doing any of it. It got real existential for a bit. I found some bulls as I was leaving, but it was too late, the negativity already had too big of a hold of me and I ended up headed home. It was a great lesson though. I've since changed strategy from just filling the tag to enjoying the act of hunting. I've been more successful since then too.

I shared more of that story here on HT because I had assumed I wasn't the only one but I got roasted for it lol. Ya'll need to take ownership of your crappy mental health days, we all got em and it's ok
 

HuntTalk Freak

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Oh man, been there. I was doing a solo elk hunt, my first, and I had just put too much emphasis on filling the tag. By day 3 I was walking out of this canyon just drowning in my own negativity. I was cursing myself for going down there, cursing my friends for bailing, wondering what I was even after in the first place, or why I was doing any of it. It got real existential for a bit. I found some bulls as I was leaving, but it was too late, the negativity already had too big of a hold of me and I ended up headed home. It was a great lesson though. I've since changed strategy from just filling the tag to enjoying the act of hunting. I've been more successful since then too.

I shared more of that story here on HT because I had assumed I wasn't the only one but I got roasted for it lol. Ya'll need to take ownership of your crappy mental health days, we all got em and it's ok
I’ve gone back to just enjoying the act of hunting and too, seen lots of deer this season but haven’t killed one yet which is very unusual for me, I think my elk hunt has had something to do with it.

As far as the roasting, there are a few here that believe they are gods gift to hunting and the outdoors, but I bet they have had bad times themselves. By and large the membership here is the salt of the earth though.
 

WildWill

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I've since changed strategy from just filling the tag to enjoying the act of hunting. I've been more successful since then too.

I've also found more success since adopting this attitude. Funny how when you stop making filling tags your priority you start filling tags.


Great thread! I went on my first western hunt in 2015 a otc Colorado archery elk hunt. Haven't missed a year since! Interesting to hear someone else's perspective. A couple thoughts I had on some of your points. First it's odd how different people react to altitude. On a 2020 elk hunt in Colorado there were 4 of us camped at 11,000+ feet and all were affected differently all from Oklahoma. One guy the most in shape and who regularly visits high elevation areas for work felt nothing, I was in good shape and only really felt it with heavy excursion or uphilling, the third in the worst shape and smokes had issues, slept poorly, and had headaches, the fourth is a firefighter in as good a shape as any of us had so many issues he left on day 3. Second having hunting buddies tag along can be a double edged sword. On one side it's nice having someone there to help with chores, pack out, break up the tedium, etc. On the other side I tend to be more effective and focused when alone and don't feel obligated to tailor my time around another's wants and needs I'm usually more successful alone. I'll add your once a year ( if that) western trip is not the time to learn that somebody isn't a compatible hunting partner trust me. I've found 2 guys (ones my nephew) who can come no matter what and one who can come on most but no longer hunts actively next to me and must drive himself. The right hunting partner is priceless but your far better off alone then with a crappy pard. I'll add I didn't kill my first elk till 2020 on my 5th elk hunt I'm now 2 for 6 on elk hunts. Persistence pays off keep after it.
 

Chama Grande

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Albuqueño
I'll add your once a year ( if that) western trip is not the time to learn that somebody isn't a compatible hunting partner trust me
Too true. I don't know if I can hunt with my main hunting partner anymore, my 'enjoy the moment' stuff doesn't fly with him. He reads wayyyyyy too much David Goggins to enjoy anything :ROFLMAO:
 

Alabama

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A decent night's sleep, hot shower in the morning and a hearty breakfast before I drive the last few hours is my go to for destinations over 14hrs. I've tried the drive straight through and immediately set up camp plan, it just doesn't work for me. Start out feeling like shit and it compounds from there.
I agree 100% on this. My drives have been from 21-28 hours. I used to power through and try to start hunting asap. I'd always start the hunt out on little sleep and even less energy. One year I drove 15-16 hours and couldn't keep my eyes open any longer, so I stopped at a hotel for the night. Great sleep followed by a good breakfast was a game changer for me. The 1st day at elevation was a breeze and I didn't feel like shit for start of my hunt. I'll never go back to driving straight through. It's safer for you and everyone on the road also.
 
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