DIY elk hunt – a comprehensive guide

Out of all the big-game animals in North America, elks are probably the most difficult to hunt because they have such peculiar habits. You need to be an expert at hunting and master as many techniques as possible to get a kill on your own. In addition, the rut period is typically dramatic, with bulls competing for cows and high-pitched screams coming out of the woods. The elk is quite the champion in vocalizing, which gives the hunters the possibility to try a wide range of calls.

What steps should you take for your DIY elk hunt?

DIY elk hunting is the best way to learn how to go after your elk. However, it can take years of practice, a lot of research work, and incredible commitment to be successful. You may want to try a guided hunt beforehand, although that will typically be pricier. You can read more about the benefits and downsides of DIY elk hunt in our piece, covering different types of elk hunting.

Let’s say that you’ve already decided that a DIY elk hunt is proper for you. The steps to take next are:

  • Select the state to hunt
  • Learn the terminology and the rules
  • Pick a unit
  • Scout and prepare

Each step is essential and counts for your success, so you need to pay attention to all details.

Select the state for your DIY elk hunt

You don’t just go ahead and pick a state for a DIY elk hunt, but rather gather all the information and discover which state suits your needs, budget, and preferences the most. It’s a rookie mistake to choose a state and learn more details about the regulations afterward.

Many people select a state due to proximity to their home or friends/relatives living in that state. Recommendations from other hunter friends are also a reason why hunters choose a state or another. After all, it’s great if you have the upper hand with helpful information from the local hunters.

However, most DIY elk hunters don’t know anyone in the state of their choice, which only makes the selection process more difficult. Elks don’t live everywhere in the US, but they sure love Colorado—the main reason why so many hunters go to Colorado for a DIY elk hunt.

Why should you go elk hunting in Colorado?

There are many reasons for which you should consider Colorado for your DIY elk hunt, and the most important would be:

  • It has the largest elk population (more than 280,000 in 2016)
  • It offers OTC (over the counter tags) for eastern hunters
  • The OTC tags are widely available and almost unlimited
  • It has the largest elk harvest as well
  • It offers more than a 23million acres of public land

Why go to other Western states

If Colorado is too far from you or if you want to check out all your options, you should take a look at the other western states with opportunities for DIY elk hunts. Here’s why to check out these western states (Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, and Montana):

  • Four of the western states offer OTC elk tags
  • Elk population is generous in other states as well
  • The western states have fewer elk hunters
  • Non-residential elk tags are more affordable than those in Colorado
  • There’s generous public elk habitat
  • The western states have units with reasonable elk harvests
  • The hunter success is higher than in Colorado for some of these western states
  • The western states offer more public acres per hunter

Once you’ve selected the state, you should prepare a list of questions for the representatives at a hunt unit. You get to gather all the information you need for a successful hunt and make sure to go prepared.

  • What weapons can you use?
  • What are the season dates?
  • Is it possible to hunt in more than one unit?
  • What’s the name/number and boundaries of the hunt unit of your choice?
  • What are licenses and/or tags and/or fees necessary?
  • Are there any restrictions?
  • Where is the public land?
  • Where is the elk habitat?
  • How much will you pay for all tags, licenses, and habitat stamps?
  • How many elks were harvested in the unit?
  • What are the habitats and terrain like?
  • What is the harvest success in the unit?

Many of these questions cover the regulations, costs, and restrictions. Make sure your write down any inquiries you might have about the DIY elk hunt. Information is power!

Get familiar with the rules, regulations, and vocabulary!

It’s essential to learn the rules and regulations before you select the hunting units. It’s expected that the states have brand new terms, mainly if you’ve never hunted in the west. So getting familiar with the terminology is another critical step when preparing for your DIY elk hunt.

Neighboring states and with the same game animals use similar terms, but the regulations, terms, and rules about white-tailed deer in the South are different from those used in the inter-mountain west.

This is one part when choosing the full-guided elk hunt (take a look at our piece on types of elk hunts) would have been the best choice. When you go with the specialized guides from the state, you don’t need to learn new terms or regulations. However, when you go on your own, you need to know as much as you can about the rules and regulations of elk hunting. Each state has the right for and does have its own rules.

Hunt units, game management units, hunt areas, and hunt districts-learn as much as you can!

Hunt units are also known as Game Management Units (GMUs), hunt areas, respectively, districts. In addition, some states use the terms “Elk Zones” or “Data Analysis Units” (DAUs).

Some states use numbers to differentiate the units, whereas others use names. Regardless of what you think, units with close numbers aren’t neighbors. However, you can have an idea about the location of a unit by its name. For example, “Upper Deschutes” or “Book Cliffs” gives you clues about where the units are in Utah and Oregon.

Montana sets apart because it uses both numbers and names. There are numbered units in Idaho, but they’re typically grouped into “Elk Zones.” So even if you cannot figure out where unit 15 is, you get a clue when you know it’s in “Elk City” Elk Zone.

Needless to say, identifying a unit on the map is just a tiny step to take before you go hunting. There are so many other things to know about. For example, if you want an OTC tag (over-the-counter), you cannot hunt in limited entry units. Also, if you want a shot at a mature bull, it’s not enough to know which units let you take spikes or cow elk. You also must know if your tag enables you to hunt in just one unit or several units. It’s part of the many challenges of a DIY elk hunt.

Hunting license, elk license, elk permits, and elk tags- do you need them all?

Most states require a hunting license when you wish to begin the application process or purchase a tag. Afterward, you get to buy or apply for the elk license, permit or tag. Even if permit, tag, and license seem synonyms, they’re not. It’s because the states have different usage of the terms. For example, Arizona has the phrase “over-the-counter non-permit tag” – confusing, to say the least.

Limited entry, limited licenses, controlled hunts, general seasons, and more

You can apply for Limited Entry Tags, Limited tags, or Controlled hunts. You can also buy General Elk Tags (Over the Counter) in some states. “Left-over” tags are available. Keep in mind that you might also need a habitat stamp/permit to hunt on state lands.

Bull elk/antlerless or spike?

Most of the time, you are allowed to hunt bull elk, antlerless elk, or even both. First, you need to know what does “Spike Bull”/”True Spike bull”/”Antlered Bull” means. The state of your hunt and the tag you get will affect which you are allowed to hunt.

Even if “antlerless elk” is relatively easy to understand, the legal definition still changes from state to state. For example, Idaho allows elks with antlers under 6inches, whereas in Colorado and Utah the term refers to antlers smaller than 5 inches.

Non-resident general tags

If you plan to hunt in Montana or Wyoming, you need to apply for General tags, just like all non-residents. In Oregon, Colorado, Idaho, Washington, and Utah, non-residents can purchase elk tags over the counter. The first-come, first-serve principle applies in some states, so make sure you are aware of the regulation.

What comes after selecting the unit?

After you select the unit, you start learning about the vocabulary and regulations, and you begin to prepare for your hunting experience.

Physical fitness

Elk hunting is a strenuous activity, especially when you don’t live in an area with hills and mountains, such as the location for your elk hunt. Our piece on how to prepare your body for elk hunting gives you all the information you need.

Muscular preparation and elk hunting strength training are crucial. Even if altitude can be tiring, carrying your backpack, bow/rifle can make the hunting almost impossible to finish.

Mental fitness

Hunting elk isn’t for everyone, especially if you’re doing it alone. There are many challenges to come across, and DIY elk hunting means that many things can go south all of a sudden. Our piece on preparing for elk hunting also covers the mental preparedness you need for this kind of hunting.

Gear list

It’s all a matter of personal choice which gear to pack for your DIY elk hunt. As usual, we can give recommendations, but it’s you to decide how much equipment to pack.


You need light and comfortable clothing that takes inclement weather, and it’s easy to use. Of course, where you’re hunting is also essential, but elk clothing should be relaxed, technical, and rugged for hunting.


Get a pair of hunting boots that can handle the rocky terrain, are supportive and comfortable. Look for those that are breathable, heavy-duty, and take splashes of water too.

Hunting equipment

We know that we can cover a whole article on gear for DIY elk hunting. Many hunters choose compound bow and broadhead combinations for DIY elk hunts due to accuracy and speed. If you’re going on bow hunting, you need the proper accessories as well. So pack your bow sights and releases and be ready to have plenty of failures. It’s part of elk hunting.

Some hunters prefer rifles for DIY elk hunting, in which case they need to pack the ammunition and scope as well. Optics are also a great piece of equipment for elk hunts. Spotting scope, rangefinder, and compact binoculars almost never miss from an experienced hunter’s backpack.

Hunting backpack

We recommend you get a rugged backpack with an external frame to haul your meat. One that is hydration compatible is excellent. Look for a daypack too. A holster system on the backpack is also a fantastic feature for DIY elk hunting.


You need the proper nutritional supplements for your elk hunt; you need the energy to climb up and down after your game.

Maps, GPS, and location resources

If you’re going alone, you need all the safety tools that you can get. A GPS unit isn’t always practical, so get all the other apps and tools that show your location at any given moment.

Elk calls and decoys

A nice set of elk calls and even an elk decoy increase your chance for success on a DIY elk hunt.

Headlights and flashlights

It would help if you had headlights to find your way and blood trails in the dark. Flashlights are also practical.

Knives and elk processing

We assume you go hunting for a kill, so you need the tools to cut and gut your game. A game processing kit and a set of knives should be in your backpack as well.

First aid kit

No matter where you go or which kind of hunt you do, you need to pack a first aid kit. Make sure it has what you need in case of accidental injury.

Instead of a conclusion

It takes years of practice, commitment, and a generous budget to succeed in DIY elk hunting. You need to do a lot of research, learn the terminology, and control as many elements as possible—anything can happen during a DIY elk hunt. If you think you’re cut for it, we have more tips for you! However, if you feel intimidated by the whole experience, you should still give it a try with a fully-guided elk hunt. After all, only 30% of the hunters manage to get a kill every year!