By Randy Newberg
I hear it year-after-year.
“Goin’ elk hunting?”
“Nope, didn’t draw. You?”
“Nah, didn’t draw either. Going to save some money and maybe go next year.”
Come on. There are plenty of tags, public land and elk to go around. And by setting aside less than a Benjamin each month, you can hit the road for elk every fall—even at the last minute.
Where? Colorado has unlimited over-the-counter (OTC) bull elk tags for the second and third rifle seasons. As I write this in early May, Idaho also has a bunch of elk tags remaining. Chances are very good that those tags will be available right up to opening day. OTC tags may not be in your dream unit, but think of it as practice.
Consider how many elk seasons you have missed waiting to draw the miracle tag. Many hunters roll the dice with the lottery-type odds of the hallowed elk states of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah or Nevada. After years and years of applying, they might finally draw that cherished tag. These patient hunters now have their tag, but in reality, they are elk novices. So many seasons have passed where knowledge could have been garnered from other elk hunts in areas that are just as much fun to hunt. Do you really want to put a dozen years into drawing a high-demand tag and then show up with little or no elk hunting experience under your belt? And don’t forget time afield with family and friends that can never be replaced. After all, the experience and memories of great hunting camps is a big reason we hunt.
The tag is going to be your biggest cost, followed by travel expenses. But don’t fret, there are ways to trim both. As for tags, consider hunting a cow. Cow tags are cheaper and cows are more abundant and provide the finest meat, in my opinion. Colorado tags for bulls or either-sex elk total $564 when you add in the $10 Habitat Stamp. If you want a cow, the price is $200 less. Idaho charges $155 for a license and $417 for the either-sex elk tag—total of $572. If you plan in advance, the $555 New Mexico bull tag or the $345 cow tag is reasonable and within the budget. Wyoming cow tags are $302 and can be found in hefty supply. For $48 each, you might even pick up a doe antelope or doe mule deer tag. That adds fun and more meat in the freezer.
In some respects, the tag is the easy part. Just pick one, pay up and you’re done. But with travel expenses, there’s real opportunity to go over-budget on some luxuries like restaurant food and motel rooms. But you’re going elk hunting, not to Club-Med. To keep the trip under $1,000, try these short-cuts. They may be hard to fathom at first, but bear with me.
Toss the idea that you need any additional equipment. If you hunt deer, you have what you need. I know what you’re thinking, “I don’t own a rifle that can take down an elk”. Wrong! If you have a deer rifle and one box of ‘quality’ ammo, you’re in.
Toss the idea that you need any additional equipment. If you hunt deer, you have what you need. I know what you’re thinking. I don’t own a rifle that can take down an elk. Wrong! If you have a deer rifle and one box of quality ammo, you’re in. You don’t need some .30-plus caliber magnum chiseled to 5-pounds, topped with an electronic range-finding scope and sporting a deafening muzzle brake. I’ve hunted elk with the most rudimentary of gear and shot many bulls with rifles some would question as being adequate for even deer. Elk are just as dead with a .2 or some other standard deer caliber.
Same goes for bows. If you have a bow with a 60-pound draw weight that can deliver 60 foot-pounds of energy—and you can hit with it—you can cleanly kill an elk.
Ammo cost is small, but essential. Given the importance of high-quality ammo, I make sure to budget at least one box of premium bullets. You may already be shooting such for your other hunts. If one box is not enough, I kindly suggest you spend a whole lot more time at the range.
You have a gun and some bullets or a bow and some arrows. Now you need two good hunting buddies, with ‘good’ being paramount. Since travel will be your second biggest cost, divvying up that cost in thirds helps everyone, as long as everyone understands up front that costs will be split evenly, just like camp chores. Make sure you have already hunted together. The last thing you want is a great elk hunt soured by one lazy guy or the guy who thinks everyone likes to drink late and sleep in or the guy who is physically unfit for the demands of a lean and mean elk camp. A sense of humor doesn’t hurt either.
Tags, guns or bows, gear and buddies. With those basics, let’s get to cutting expenses. I’m a CPA by trade, so naturally I’m a dollar and cents sort of guy. Necessities like food and gas will eat up a good chunk of the budget. I assume most out-of-state elk hunters will travel an average of 1,200 miles each way. A good elk rig might only get 15 mpg. That’s 160 gallons for the round trip. At $3 per gallon, the total cost is $480 or $160 per hunter. Also keep in mind, the rig might suffer some abuse, both from three guys sleeping in it and from some mean backroads. Having the driver pay a little less for gas might go a long way in taking their rig again next year.
Forget about motels. That will suck a lot of cash and waste precious time. Some of the best memories of my life have been made around the fire at elk camp.
Forget about motels. That will suck a lot of cash and waste precious time. Take turns driving and resting. It is a road trip, right? One guy sleeps, while two stay awake. You can make amazing time with this system. If it gets too tiring, pull over at a rest stop and catch some sleep.
An easy way to gain back all that weight you lost in preparing for your out-of-state elk hunt is eating out on the road. Let’s be honest, are you really going to order that bowl of oatmeal or that chicken-fried steak with sausage gravy? If you can’t bring it from home, it’s off the list. I haven’t budgeted anything for food. Why? You’re going to eat, regardless if it’s in elk camp or at home. Eating on the road or heavy snacking at gas stations wastes $150 per hunter. This is an elk hunt, not a feast.
For breakfast on the road, find a scenic overlook, prop up the stove on the tailgate, boil some water for oatmeal, with raisins and brown sugar. Make coffee and relax while you watch the sun come up. Lunch can be sandwiches, trail mix and treats from home. It keeps your tank and your wallet full.
At my elk camp, dinner is always an assortment of pre-cooked meals, which saves us time and money. My wife is kind enough to cook up elk lasagna, spaghetti and meatballs, chicken and dumplings, etc. We divide them up into single-hunter portions, vacuum seal them and freeze. When we’re ready to eat, we drop the sealed bag in a pot of boiling water for 10 minutes. The more prep you can do at home, the easier it makes camp life, leaving you more time to chase elk.
We drink water in my elk camp. There’s no real reason for anything else except coffee. Bring plenty of water from home. It is amazing how hard it can be to find potable water while traveling fast. If you have a filtration system, pack it. Just make sure you have a water source near camp. Water is best for the body and best for the budget.
Since I assume you will already have an idea on where you want to hunt ahead of time, pick a spot to camp off a Forest Service or BLM road. Most times, pull-offs on forest roads will have a small clearing to pitch your tent and cost you nothing. Campgrounds will typically have pit toilets, picnic tables and nominal fees. Do you want to be closer to elk or convenience? On public land, they often don’t go hand-in-hand.
To get your meat out of the field, a half-dozen pillow cases from Goodwill will serve as game bags and a solid external-frame pack is all you need for retrieval.
If you’re serious about shooting an elk on this hunt, you need to think about getting the meat out of the field, into the truck and into your home freezer. The costly way to go is have a packer haul it out, take it to a processor and then have them ship it to you. That’s not in the budget. A half-dozen pillow cases from Goodwill will serve as game bags and a solid external-frame pack, which they might also have at the second-hand store, is all you need for retrieval.
Getting the elk home requires dry ice. Preserving the fruits of your labor takes $50 in dry ice, enough to split among four 80- to 120-quart coolers of boned elk meat that has cooled while hanging in game bags.
Who is going to process this elk? You. Don’t know how? Learn. It seems daunting, but dive in. You’ll save hundreds of dollars. I process my own game whenever possible. It takes time, but I know I end up with my own meat, in the cuts I want, cleaned free of hair and dirt to my standards. Freezer paper, tape and cling wrap needed for this task is under $30.
When all is said and done, you will have more than 300 pounds of the leanest, organic, free-range protein on the planet with the cost per pound equaling about three dollars. Good luck getting that at the supermarket.
After all this, we’ve not spent much. If the household requires reimbursement for food you take to elk camp, fair enough. Have some special needs requiring costs I have overlooked? On the safe side, add $50 per hunter for incidentals. It still adds up to just under a grand.
The reality is that you should be hunting elk every year. Just the cost-savings from eating elk you killed versus buying meat in the store should be reason enough. Add in time afield, moments shared with friends and family and you’ll have a fresh set of low-cost memories for every off-season.