You most likely will be hunting high country, steep terrain for elk.
You will probably have to carry a pack both for your gear for the day and to pack out your harvest from a remote area.
Weather conditions in Colorado may change on a daily basis.
Elk are large animals, requiring quality shooting skills, ballistics, field dressing tools, and dedication on the part of the hunter.
The following ideas and suggestions are just that—ideas and suggestions. Let’s take a look at some topics that may help you design your personal guns, gear, and stuff list.
Where better to start than your "Emergency Survival Kit"—the gear that will keep you alive in the event of adverse circumstances. Survival in Colorado mountains means preparation to protect yourself against hypothermia. Hypothermia is the opposite of having a fever. Your core body temperature drops below its normal range. The first symptom is uncontrolled shivering. Not the kind that you can shake off by doing a dozen pushups. Hypothermia sufferers require an outside heat source to recover. The second symptom is lack of rational thought and/or hallucinations. At this stage, treatment is required from a person knowledgeable about hypothermia treatments.
The Survival Kit
The survival kit should be small enough to fit in the bottom of your pack or a small pouch on your belt. When it comes to survival, I believe in redundancy; do both. Each survival kit should contain three types of equipment: Fire starting, shelter, and signal. For example, mine contain:
Flint and steel attached to a small magnesium block. I consider this, along with a film canister of Vaseline-saturated cotton balls, to be my most reliable fire starter.
Large strike-anywhere kitchen matches.
A high-altitude lighter.
Commercial tinder and small candles. These items can be helpful in building durability into the fire during inclement weather.
Several chemical hand warmers to provide immediate external heat to combat hypothermia.
Your clothes are your #1 shelter. (Details later.)
Large black or orange trash bags, both commercial grade and regular. Use these to make a poncho, lean to, and water still, and for many other uses.
Light weight ($1, cheap!) emergency poncho. I’ve used these many times and found them very practical.
"Space" sleeping bag. Not all space blanket and bags are created equal—I suggest you try them out before you rely on one to save your life.
Signal and Miscellaneous
Small glass mirror
Knowing Where You Are
Quite a bit has already been written in Elk Hunting University (EHU) on maps, compasses, and GPS. A topo map, a compass, and at least one spare of each—and knowledge to use them—are absolute essentials to hunting in the mountains of Colorado. GPS units are great tools. (I use the Garmin Rhino® series that can track the location of your hunting partners and has a built-in radio.) However, I would not rely on a GPS to get me back to camp. Some of the things that can affect GPS performance are the forest canopy, steep valleys or canyons, depleted batteries, cold temperatures, being dropped on a hard surface, failure to register the campsite, improper registration of the campsite, and failure of the GPS satellites due to alien attack. (Just checking to see if you’re paying attention!)
In Colorado, where the temperature can range between 0° and 85° on the same day, layering is a must. Wool and anything that begins with "poly" are preferred for inner layers. No cotton. Cotton is a "killer" because it dries very slowly and does not insulate well when it’s wet.
Outerwear should be waterproof, windproof, and breathable. It’s hard to beat Gortex®, but there are products available that are almost as good.
It’s imperative that you are able to keep your head warm. Hoods, stocking caps, balaclavas, and scarves are good items to wear or carry.
Get a pair of Gortex mittens big enough to fit over a pair of light-weight gloves. Two pairs of gloves; light enough to shoot with.
Video: Hunter Safety Tips
Scent blockers do help, but unless your hunting clothing budget is much bigger than mine, I would not pay a lot extra to get them. No matter how much scent blocking clothing you have on you’re not going to be successful if you don’t hunt into the wind.
Colorado law requires that you wear at least 500 square inches of solid daylight fluorescent orange, including a head covering, and it must be visible from all directions. Camo orange does not qualify. I suggest a fleece vest, a ball cap, and a stocking cap for the pack. Blaze hooded-garments work very well also. If your daypack is not blaze orange, don’t forget an extra orange vest to cover it.
Pac boots do an excellent job of keeping your feet warm and dry but they are heavy and clumsy. I suggest them only if most of your hunt will be spent standing or sitting. I have two pairs of hunting boots. Both are cordova with leather heal and toe caps. They have Gortex Scentlok® liners. (It pays not to leave your scent everywhere you walk!) One pair has 200 grams of Thermalite® insulation and the other pair is un-insulated. They are big enough to allow for an underlayer sock and a thick boot sock. Both weigh in at under three pounds a pair and provide good foot and ankle support. I also carry chemical foot warmers in my pack for extra protection if I will be sitting or standing for extended periods. I have always been comfortable with this setup and the prices are midrange as boots go.
Laws and Ethical Limits
Before selecting a firearm for hunting elk, we should first look at the laws on legal method of take for big game:
Center fire rifles, 24 caliber (6mm) or larger and produce an impact energy of 1000 ft/lbs at 100yds. Barrel must be at least 16" and total length at least 26".
Muzzle loaders for elk hunting must be 50 caliber or larger and only open sights are allowed.
Electronic ignitions are not legal for muzzle loading season in Colorado.
Shotguns must be 20 gauge or larger with 18" or longer barrel and minimum 26" total length.
Handguns, 24 caliber (6mm) or larger and produce an impact energy of 550 ft/lbs at 50 yards as rated by the manufacturer. Four inches is minimum length for handgun barrels.
For a complete list of legal hunting methods, see the Big Game Brochure.
Small Calibers, Big Calibers, and Hunting Ethics
Let me acknowledge that small caliber rifles (243, 25/06, et. al.) have taken their share of game. That being said, good hunting ethics dictate that, unless you’re ready to pass on any frontal or quartering to you shot, you will eliminate these calibers from your list. Small, light bullets make small holes that close quickly with little blood loss. At the longer ranges they are unlikely to make two holes after hitting a rib, and penetration at any range is likely to be shallow after hitting one of the big shoulder bones. For most elk hunters, I consider the 270, 7mms, etc. to be the minimum.
The only limits I see on large calibers is your tolerance for weight, recoil, and ammunition cost. At the top is the 50 caliber BMG, weighing 25 pounds with 130 ft/lbs of recoil energy. Ammo is $4-5 per shot. That’s an expensive trip to the range!
Long-range Hunting (Big Parks, Sage, and Oak Brush)
Often this is spot-and-stalk hunting. Animals are located by glassing large, semi-open tracts of land, at which point the stalk begins to close the gap to your sure one-shot, one-kill range.
The big, flat-shooting magnums are certainly capable of making good, clean kills at some very long ranges. The down side of these boomers is that their heavy recoil adversely affects accuracy for almost all of us. I would guess that less than 10% of all elk hunters could pass my "no-flinch test" with one of the 300 or 338 magnums. I’m going to demonstrate that most of us stand a better chance of filling our tag with something that doesn’t end with "magnum".
Very few of us can consistently shoot 1 MOA (minute of angle) from the bench. (That’s a 1" group at 100 yards.) Some of us can shoot 2 MOA and most can do 3 MOA from the bench. Now, considering that your shot in the field will most likely be from a shooting stick, up- or down-hill, and in adverse temperature and weather conditions—you can double your bench rest MOA. That means, the above average 2 MOA bench shooter, is shooting 8" groups at 200 yards. That’s the outer edge of what should be a killing shot.
There is a large choice of calibers that you will enjoy shooting and are effective on elk well beyond that 200-yard range. In the list that follows, those that have a recoil energy below 22 ft/lbs would fall into that category.
For the hunter that shoots sub-MOA groups and is not affected by heavy recoil, the magnum calibers may offer some advantages. (A word about the new "short magnums": They offer a small velocity increase in the lighter bullet weights, but not so much in bullets commonly used for elk. They also offer the advantage of a shorter rifle in the actions specifically designed for them. Disadvantages are the cost and availability of ammunition. They also might not have the staying power of the more tried-and-true cartridges like the 30/06, Vintage 1906.)As you begin to work with your rifle, remember to look at the ballistic charts and fully understand the capability of your firearm and ammunition at various ranges and bullet weights. The charts are too extensive for this article but all ammunition manufacturers provide ballistic charts on line.
Speed of handling is not so important in long range-hunting. Bolt actions are the most popular and are probably deserving of their popularity. I have an affinity for single-shots, so actions like the Ruger #1 falling block, and break actions like Thompson Centers and H&R New England appeal to me. Slide actions like the Remington and levers like Browning's are also effective for elk.
Telescopic sights are the norm. Buy the best you can afford; this is an item where you get what you pay for. Fixed powers of 4 or less will work. A variable power, 2 - 7 or 3 – 9, offer the flexibility of moving from the parks to heavier cover. Higher power scopes add weight and reduce field of vision with little added benefit.
Short Range (Heavy Timber, Still Hunting, Small Parks, Crossing Trails)
This is the type of hunting that, on public land, can produce elk any time after noon on opening day. Animals are spotted at close range (under 100 yards). Long barrels and actions are at a disadvantage when moving or shooting in these circumstances.
Most of the big magnums require long barrels (26”+) to attain their high velocities and are not available in the shorter barrel length. Any of the calibers in the long range list that are available in shorter barrel lengths are suitable for still hunting.
There are many slower velocity cartridges that are suitable for short range hunting; a short list follows. The bottom four carry their killing energy out to some very long ranges but the bullet path looks like a rainbow.
Bullet Wt. (Grams)
Firearm Wt. (lbs.)
32 Win Special
45/70 Lever Action
45/70 Ruger #1
This is where the single shots shine. Four-six inches off the action is a big head-start to a short, fast rifle. Bolt actions built for shorter cartridges, like the 7mm-08 and the 308, are not bad either.
Open/iron sights, like a buckhorn, and apertures (peep sights and ghost rings) are effective in this style hunting because of quick target acquisition in the thick brush and timber. Low power scopes and "Red Dot"-type sights also do well.
Elk hunting with a hand gun is challenging and fun. Remember to review the rules for legal method of take at the top of this section. Currently, the smallest ammunition allowed is the 41 magnum.
I see that Corbon has a new loading for 357 that appears to meet the standards, but, until they write “550 ft/lbs of energy at 50yds” on the box or get an official clearance from CPW, they are not yet considered legal for big game in Colorado. Hunting with rifle-type cartridges with a Thompson Encore® or Contender® handgun is also fun and effective. The same considerations we talked about with rifles apply here; effective killing ranges will be much shorter because of loss of velocity from the shorter barrel and less accuracy with a shorter sight radius.
A person who is lawfully engaged in a hunting activity may also carry concealed in the field without a concealed carry permit during any hunting season in Colorado. Just remember that handguns that do not meet the legal take requirements may not be used for any big game hunting, including final dispatch.
You are legally allowed to protect your life by any means available. If that becomes necessary, you must notify a CPW officer who will conduct an investigation.
If I could only have just one: I hunt with several firearms as my mood and conditions dictate, but if I could only have just one it would be a Ruger#1® in 30/06 with a 2 to 7 Leopold® VXlll. You could hunt everything from rabbits to Alaskan brown bear with this setup.
Confidence and comfort: Choose a firearm (caliber and action) that fits, is comfortable to shoot, and that you have confidence in. Going to the range should be something you enjoy and look forward to—not something you dread.
Sighting in: Please take some time to properly sight-in your rifle. And practice. Practice from many possible shooting positions. It will make you a better hunter.
Don’t decide to do your sighting in a day or two before the season, at the place where you and everybody else will be hunting.
Shooting stix: Worth the extra load and bother. They’ll increase your effective range over off-hand considerably. More legs mean better stability. While that’s true, a walking stick with a padded "V" at the top has worked well for me.
Cutlery—Necessary: 1) Two 3 ½-4" curved bladed knives for field dressing. These can be either fixed blade or folding. One should have a serrated blade. (Gut hook is optional.) 2) One small diamond sharpening steel.
1) Small bone saw
2) Caping knife
3) Straight bladed 6–7" boning knife
4) Sharpening stones and steels
Glass—binoculars: Buy the best you can afford. Bigger is not necessarily better. Low powers have the advantage of less weight and shake and better clarity for the money. High power offers a little more detail. Most of the time I carry 8X20 Zeiss’®. I also own 12X50 Nikon’s® that I seldom carry. They are heavy and I can’t hold them steady without sitting down or finding a rest.
Glass—spotting scopes: A quality spotting scope can be useful to the trophy hunter who wants to score a big bull before shooting or before starting a long stalk.
Range finders: They are essential for the archery hunter, useful for the long range hunter, and not needed for short range hunting. Some models can calculate the effective range for targets that are above or below you.
Calls—bugle calls: These calls sound cool! They’re useful for the trophy hunter; the better you blow them the more likely you are to bring in the "King of the Mountain". They’re also good for attracting other hunters! They’re not so good for attracting smaller bulls that are not yet ready to take on the King of the Mountain.
Calls—mouth calls: They are effective for both bugling (with a grunt tube) and cow and calf calls. That they are hands free for cow and calf calls is a nice bonus. They do require a lot of practice.
Calls— squeeze calls: They are effective cow and calf calls and easy to use.
Calls—reed calls: My favorite. These calls can mimic a wide range of cow and calf sounds. I’ve found them effective for bringing, stopping, turning, and returning both cows and bulls.
Packs—day/fanny packs: I have and like both. They should be just big enough to carry gear, food, water, extra clothing, and all the clothing you will be taking off during the day. They should have straps, or places to add straps, on the bottom for extra clothing, etc. Accommodations for a hydration system are a nice feature. A
fanny pack must have shoulder straps in addition to the waist strap.
Packs—full size packs: For overnight hunts or summer scouting trips I use a 3000 cu. in. internal frame pack. Light and comfortable for short trips. For the extended hunting trip I have a 5000+ cu. in. external frame freighter pack. It is the same pack described below under game retrieval.
Packs—game retrieval: A game retrieval pack should have an external frame with a removable pack and a fold-out carry shelf. A single-compartment pack would be ideal for hauling boned out meat, but my two-compartment pack works well, also. For hauling quarters, hides, and heads the pack can be removed and the fold out shelf is used.
Here's a handy checklist to use in planning and packing for your Colorado elk hunt!
Pen (to void tag)
Sleeping Bag Liner
Blaze Orange Vest
Blaze Orange Hat
Game Retrieval Pack
(The mention of products, services, and websites in this article does not constitute expressed or implied endorsement by Colorado Parks and Wildlife.)