By this point, you should be well on your way to earning your degree from Elk Hunting University! You have already learned how to find the Game Management Units (GMU) you want to hunt, how to apply for your elk license, how to use technology as a tool for elk hunting, and the secrets of scouting; now, its time to start fine-tuning yourself and your equipment.
What is Considered "High Altitude"?
The Outdoor Action Guide to High Altitude: Acclimatization and Illnesses from Princeton University defines high altitude as any elevation from 8,000' to 12,000' above sea level. While most people can go up to 8,000' and only experience minimal effects, some people will notice discomfort and changes in body function with just a slight increase in elevation. Some of the minor side effects include weakness in muscles, increase in response time, reduced energy, and effects to your fine motor skills and dexterity.
In extreme cases, illnesses can occur from being at high altitude. The outdoor action guide identifies three types of altitude sickness, the most common being Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). Symptoms include headache, loss of appetite, nausea, fatigue, dizziness, and difficulty sleeping. If you feel the onset of these symptoms, you should descend to a lower altitude and not ascend until the symptoms are gone.
Two less common, but more serious ailments, are High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) and High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE). HAPE is marked by a buildup of fluid in the lungs, extreme fatigue, difficulty breathing, and congestion. HACE is marked by a change in mental state. Treatment for both of these is to descend and seek medical attention immediately.
Altitude illnesses are typically caused by ascending in elevation too quickly. Each time you ascend to a higher elevation, you’re putting additional strain on your body and you need some time to adapt. Typically it takes about 1 to 3 days for your body to acclimatize to a higher elevation. So, it’s a good idea to schedule a couple of extra days at the beginning of your hunt to get used to the elevation. If you are pinched for time, as we all are these days, ease into your hunt. Take the first few days easy.
The best way to prevent altitude illnesses is through proper acclimatization. A few suggestions include: go up slowly, don’t over-exert yourself for the first 24 hours, only increase altitude by 1,000-feet per day (for every 3,000-feet of elevation gain, take a rest day), and, if you develop symptoms don’t go higher until they subside. We can modify an old climbing mantra by saying, “hunt high, sleep low.” As long as you’re sleeping at lower elevation, you should be able to gain more than 1,000 feet in a day. Although this can make for a lot of hiking!
. . . You start climbing the trail to a ridge top vantage point well before daylight . . . When you crawled out of your nice, warm sleeping bag, you noticed a layer of frost on the inside of the tent and the thermometer was hovering just above freezing . . . After a nice breakfast, you hit the trail. Before you hit tree line, you’re warmed up and starting to sweat . . . But, you keep going because the sun is starting to peek over the ridge to the east.
. . . At your perch, with your binoculars out, you begin to glass a promising drainage—one where you’ve been seeing a nice bull those past two mornings . . . Some clouds roll in out of the north and block the sun . . . Just as quickly, the wind picks up and you’re shivering.
How many times has that happened to you? That’s the beginning of mild hypothermia, which is a lowering of your internal, core temperature. Severe hypothermia involves uncontrollable shivering, slurred speech, and mental confusion. In the most extreme cases, if you can’t warm back up, hypothermia can lead to death.
Self-treatment of hypothermia is difficult, so recognizing and addressing the early symptoms is very important. It is also very important for members of your hunting party to understand treatment techniques for hypothermia. There are good sources of information on the web about hypothermia, its symptoms, and its treatment. Review a few; learn the basic first aid treatments. A good place to start is at the Mayo Clinic. The site covers symptoms, cause, prevention, treatment, and more. Sea Grant Minnesota has a chart of symptoms and treatments that you can print and keep with your first aid kit.
Why Hunt at Altitude?
If being at altitude can be so exerting, why would you want to hunt there? First, most elk hunting in Colorado occurs above 7,000-feet in elevation. While not technically considered high altitude as defined above, you’ll definitely start to notice the effects, especially if you’re coming from a much lower elevation.
Second, if most of the elk hunting occurs above 7,000-feet, the majority of the animals you’re hunting are going to be at higher altitudes. When temperatures begin to warm in the spring and the snows begin to melt, elk follow the snowmelt line and migrate to higher elevations. This is where the fresh vegetation, with its high nutrition content, is sprouting. They’ll continue to follow the snow line all the way above tree line and spend most of the summer and early fall at high altitudes. Only when heavy snows begin to fall do they migrate back to lower altitudes. Elk are big, powerful animals, so it usually takes about 2 feet or more of snow to push them down to their winter range.
Last year, I was hunting above tree line for mule deer. Average elevation for the hunt was 11,000 feet. I kept seeing large pellet-like droppings as I hiked around, but no other signs of elk. My first thought was I’d found a hangout for some Rocky Mountain Sheep. As I scrambled over a rocky ridgeline and crept to an overlook to glass for mule deer, I noticed some movement in the drainage below me. Around a dozen elk were feeding on the green grass next to a small creek running through an avalanche shoot. The small herd included a really nice bull. Not having an elk tag in my pocket, I could only watch the show from afar!
As mentioned at the beginning of this article, altitude has an effect on your body. The first thing you notice is that it’s hard to breathe. Your respiration rate increases, lactic acid builds up quicker, and you tire out more quickly. You don’t have to live at high altitude to hunt there, you just need to prepare by getting your body ready to perform at higher altitudes.
Before you begin any exercise program, though, talk to your doctor and get a physical. Get your heart, lungs, joints, and any previous injuries checked out. Talk to your doctor about hunting at altitude and check on any prescriptions you might be taking and the side effects you can expect. You don’t want any surprises while you’re up there hunting. Likewise, you don’t want a set-back once you start training that will erase your fitness gains and preparation.
So—do you have to run marathons to prepare to hunt at high altitude? No. But you should start a training program so you can enjoy your hunt as much as possible. A brisk 40-minute walk, twice a week, may be enough for some. It’s all about what your goals are, what type of hunt you’re on, and how hard you want to hunt. After about 2 weeks of walking, start carrying your pack and start adding weight. You’ll be amazed how much of a workout you can get in carrying around 40 pounds! Remember to gradually increase the weight and work your way up to what you expect to carry on the hunt.
A friend of mine put his daughter in a 'kid carrier' on his back and took her out for his walks. Not only did they get to spend time together, but her 80 pounds was helping dad get ready for his elk hunt in the fall. Sometimes, it’s all about being creative.
Another good idea is to add strength training to your training regime. A gym membership isn’t required, either. Push-ups, sit-ups, and lunges will add much needed strength, especially if you’re starting from zero. You can also head over to the local stadium, load some weight in your pack, and start hiking the stairs.
Hunting at high altitude is demanding on our bodies and our minds. Something that a lot of hunters don’t think about is their mental conditioning. When that big bull steps out into your shooting lane, are you going to be ready?
Being physically prepared goes a long way to getting you mentally prepared, too. The rigors of the hunt won’t wear you down as much, leaving you to focus on the hunt, not how sore and tired you are. Plus, it will instill confidence that you are going into your hunt as prepared as possible.
Another good mental trick and a way to keep you motivated through your preparations is to visualize your hunt. This summer, pretend you’re getting into position in front of an elk herd as you climb a hill with your backpack loaded down. Picture the bull-of-a-lifetime as you settle the sight pin of your bow or the crosshairs of your rifle on the target. When the moment of truth arrives, you’ll go into auto-pilot and repeat what you did in practice all summer long.
Diet and Nutrition
How many times have you heard “garbage in equals garbage out”? The same applies when you’re preparing for your hunt at high altitude. It especially applies when you’re on your hunt. The rigors of hunting in the high country require some modifications to your diet.
At elevation, your respiration rate increases to make up for the lower air pressure. Coupled with your higher respiration rate, water evaporates from your body more quickly. If you don’t replace the water in your system, you’ll start to feel the effects of dehydration. Even minor dehydration can lead to loss of mental focus and concentration. More severe cases will lead to headache and nausea, and could cost you time on your hunt.
Make sure you’re drinking plenty of fluids throughout the day; at a minimum you’ll need 3 to 4 quarts a day! Avoid alcoholic beverages and other diuretics, such as coffee, as these will deplete your body of fluids and electrolytes (potassium and sodium). Powdered sports drinks are a great way to replace electrolytes in your system. If you’re purifying water with iodine tablets, it’s a great way to cover the odor and the taste, too.
Altitude also causes a depression in your appetite. This leads to a reduction in intake when your body is working hard and needs the nutrients the most.
What do you eat when you’re at altitude? Carbohydrates are the fuel your body burns most readily. They’re most readily absorbed by your body and replenish the lost glycogen stores in your muscles.
I like to mix in some protein and a small amount of fat to keep me going on the longer treks. Although a couple of my friends can’t handle too much protein in their diet when they’re at altitude. They stick to mostly carbohydrates such as oatmeal, crackers, pastas, breads, and instant rice dinners. At most, they’ll add some peanut butter for “stick to your ribs” food.
You’ll want to find what works best for you and what tastes best. If you keep eating, you’ll keep your body fueled and be able to keep hunting. Remember that you’re working harder than you were at lower elevations, so you’ll need to increase your calories, too. For shorter hunts, this isn’t as important. You may trim your waistline a little, but you should be able to keep going. On longer hunts, you’ll start to run low on energy and the hunt gets that much harder.
Before taking any supplements, talk to your doctor. If you’re taking a once-daily multivitamin, it’s a good idea to throw it in your pack. As mentioned earlier, electrolyte replacement is very important. I pack powdered vitamin C and add it to my water. Not only does it add a little bit of flavor, but it gives my body an immunity boost every day.
In Lesson 5 - Pre-scouting you learned about scouting your area prior to the opening of hunting season. Summer is a great time to hit the trails and hike into the high country to check your hunting area. As the snow melts, the elk and deer are already moving to the high country and it’s an excellent time to watch them in their summer herds. You can also keep track of the bulls’ antler growth and learn their patterns.
Let me offer a word of caution, though: This is not the time to be blundering into the exact area you want to hunt. The elk are still quite sensitive to human intrusion and you may scare them out before you even get a chance to hunt them.
An effective way to scout is by glassing the area from a distance, especially if you’re above tree line. Set up in a spot that gives you a good vantage point, and watch likely areas for elk. In the mornings and evenings, elk will be feeding in or near openings. As the day progresses, look for elk along the edge of timber or other cover. Check all likely ‘blobs' because you never know where an elk may spend his day!
This is probably one of my favorite topics. I spend a lot of time checking out the latest and greatest gadgets, widgets, and what-have-you’s that will make a hunt easier or better. Bringing the right gear on a high altitude hunt can make or break your trip.
You can spend a lot of money outfitting yourself for a Western elk hunt, but as long as you have essential gear you can outfit yourself at the local army-navy store, too. Again, it all depends on what type of hunting you’ll be doing.
Following is a gear list to get you started. It is by no means comprehensive, but it’s a good place to start.
- Bow, muzzleloader, or rifle
- Ammunition (or arrows)
- Optics—binoculars, spotting scope, rangefinder
- Maps (include a compass. GPS is a great invention, but you shouldn’t rely solely on the devices.)
- Water bottle or hydration reservoir
- Water purification tools (pump or iodine tablets)
- Cell phone, two-way radio, or satellite phone (and extra batteries)
- Clothes (extra socks, head covering, extra layers)
- Rain/wind gear
- Water (sports drink powders taste great and add electrolytes)
- Food (think high energy foods and snacks)
- Light (flashlight or headlamp)
- First aid kit
- Emergency blanket
- Fire starter
- Field dressing kit (gloves, knives, sharpener, saw, trash bags, game bags)
- Duct tape
- Rope or cord
Don’t overlook clothing as being important gear. Layering is the key, and you can adjust your layers as weather or activity levels dictate. Good rain gear is paramount to hunting in the high country. Not only will it keep you dry, but it can act as a windproof layer if the winds suddenly pick up while you’re high above any cover. And finally, quality footwear is also important. Your feet will take a great deal of punishment from the varied terrain. Do yourself a favor and take care of them with good, comfortable boots.
Before elk season, I typically spend a great deal of time making lists of my gear and going over it to make sure it’s still in working order. When you’re 5 miles back in elk country and the rut is heating up, you don’t want to suddenly realize you forgot something!
Hazards and Safety Concerns
While the high country is a beautiful place and a great place to hunt, it also has its share of hazards. The weather in the high country is highly variable and can change rapidly—sometimes with little warning. A day that starts out clear, sunny, and warm can turn cold, windy, and snowy in a hurry. Even in the early September archery season, the high country can (and does) get snow.
Lightning can be very dangerous at high altitudes, too. Safety should be your first priority when a storm is approaching. Stay off the ridge tops and away from lone trees along tree line when lightning is threatened or occurring. In Colorado, lightning is the number one cause of weather-related accidents.
Another hazard is the chance of a fall. The terrain in the high country can be very steep and rocky. Your footing may be uncertain as you traverse across rock slides or scree fields. Always maintain at least 2 points of contact with the ground and be careful of how your pack or bow or rifle will throw you off-balance.
If you do fall and begin to slide, try to orient your feet down hill and try to grab objects (i.e. rocks, trees) as you slide past. When you stop, assess your injuries before you jump to your feet.
Most high altitude hunts are “off the beaten path”, so to speak. Even if you’re only a couple of miles back, getting first responders in (and you out) may be difficult. You need to be prepared. I strongly believe that every hunter should take a
basic first aid class and then read about and apply the additional techniques you would need for applying first aid techniques in the back country where no immediate medical help is available. There are a variety of classes you can take, both online and in residence, about practicing wilderness first aid. (Check the web or with your local Red Cross chapter for offerings.) The small investment you make in a course or a book can pay “lifesaving” dividends in the backcountry. Accidents happen; knowing first aid, CPR, and maintaining an adequate first aid kit are always good practices.
Cell phone coverage is unreliable at high altitude. Coverage may be inconsistent, and in case of an emergency you need a way to contact others in your hunting party, friends, and family, or, worst case scenario, search and rescue personnel.
There are a lot of products on the market that let you explore the backcountry and still have a means of communicating with the outside world. Satellite phones let you call from almost anywhere. Personal locator beacons, which are becoming more and more popular, let you send out a variety of signals to call for help or let everyone know that everything is okay.
Packing Out Your Elk
Elk are big animals. A bull can go 600-800 pounds on the hoof. While you won’t be carrying all of this weight out, the meat, whether in quarters or deboned, still weighs a considerable amount. If you plan on packing it out yourself, make sure you have a sturdy backpack—external frame or internal frame—that can stand up to the weight.
Any type of pack animal can make this job much easier. Following a string of horses, loaded up with elk meat, will put a smile on almost anyone’s face. I have yet to try it, but llamas are a great way to access some remote areas. While they are not able to carry as much weight as a horse, they can go places that horses can’t.
The high country of Colorado is a great place to hike, camp, and hunt for elk. But a hunting trip to high altitude is not something to take lightly. With the proper physical and mental preparation, the correct gear, and the right preparation, your trip will be safe and enjoyable. And, I hope, successful!