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Lesson 6
Lesson 6

Setting Up An Elk Camp

Where do I camp? What do we bring?

By Mark Strachan

One of the things I look forward to every year is Elk camp. It's the time I get to spend with my friends in Colorado’s vast and beautiful outdoors. It's also the time I use to reflect on the important things in life while pursuing one of the greatest animals on our continent, the Rocky Mountain elk. We all spend many hours every year in planning, preparation and scouting to make the most of this time in the field. Over the years we discovered what made our time in the field even more enjoyable. Camp! In this article, I will cover some aspects of camping in Colorado that will make your hunt more enjoyable too. I'll address topics like where do I camp? What do we bring? How to make delicious, quick and easy meals! I believe in keeping things simple, and simple is always better when it comes to maximizing your time in the great outdoors.

The first topic to cover is the old question, where do I camp in Colorado? Our first choice is always public land. Colorado has an incredible amount of public land throughout the state. In the previous lessons in EHU, you have already learned the process of digital scouting and have made your decision as to where you are going to hunt. Now you can use the same digital scouting methods to find possible campsites. The resolution of online satellite photos is quite astounding. We always look for places that allow us to walk out of camp and into the field to hunt. This is not always possible but has a lot of benefits. Make sure to mark down as many different camp options as you can. If you have the time, visiting the area and marking campsites on your map is a great idea. Look for spots that have good access and level areas for tents. Keep in mind that if you are camping in a forest, that beetle-killed trees' roots weaken quickly, increasing the risk that they will fall during wind and snow storms.

During elk season there will also be some competition for the best campsites. Many of us will get there a day or two ahead of time to secure our favorite spot. It's also important to research the type of public land you are camping on. ForestsBLM and State Trust Lands have varying rules and regulations in regards to hunting, camping, wood collection and fires. Once you have identified the type of land you are camping on, you will need to visit that particular agency's website to find out which rules or regulations pertaining to your area.

Another option is to identify local improved campgrounds. These may be run by state or private parties. Finding a camp in your area is typically very easy. I recommend the Colorado Atlas Gazetteer. This map book is fantastic for identifying public land, terrain and features like campgrounds. These campgrounds have their good and bad aspects. On the plus side, most of them can be reserved, so there is no wondering if you have a spot to camp. The downside is that they are often crowded, and may not be near your hunting area. This means driving to and from your hunting area on a daily basis.  

Now that you have established where you are going to camp, it’s time to think about what you are going to need. The list can be simple, or extensive. The amount of gear you take is often limited by your method of travel. Camping in the Colorado high country during the fall and winter means being prepared for anything. During the hunting seasons, you will see everything from 70 degrees and sunshine to below-zero temperatures with blowing snow. In Colorado, these kinds of variations in weather can even happen in the same day. You will need to be prepared! With this in mind, the first things to think about are shelter and heat.

There are many types of tents on the market, but the most common type in elk camp is the canvas wall tent. Canvas wall tents are durable, sturdy and much warmer than nylon tents. This is not to say that nylon tents will not work, but you will be more comfortable and have more room for your gear in a canvas wall tent. If you are traveling from out of state, or are just new to camping, there are a few places that rent tents and stoves. At our camp we choose to run multiple tents. We use one tent for cooking, eating and storing of gear, and another tent for our sleeping quarters. In the sleeping tents, we use catalytic style heaters attached to 20-pound propane tanks. These efficient little heaters are fantastic for keeping the chill off the inside the tents. Two benefits to catalytic heaters are that they take up less space than a wood burning stove and they do not produce carbon monoxide like other styles of propane heaters. One of the best things about this form of heat is not getting out of bed to stoke a fire in the middle of the night! For planning purposes, you will burn about two to four pounds of propane per night with catalytic heaters.

In the cook tent, we use a wood-burning stove for heat, and for drying out clothes if necessary. Here is a tip. We use the wax fire logs that come in a paper wrapper. Combine that with a wood log or two, and it will give you four plus hours of easy starting heat. Be sure to use name brand logs. The off-brand logs put off a tremendous amount of soot that will clog up your spark arrester. For planning purposes, we bring two of these instant fire logs per day in the field. Even though we typically only use one per day, the other logs are what we bring for the “what if” factor of camping in the high country.

The “what if” factor of camping in Colorado high country are the scenarios you have to keep in mind that you cannot control. The weather in the mountains can be highly unpredictable. Some years we hunt in t-shirts, and others we throw on every piece of arctic gear we own. This may mean packing more, but the year that the “what if” happens, you will be happy to have the gear you need not only to survive but continue with your hunt. I have seen many camps get broken down and their hunting ended early because of not being prepared. Things to keep in mind in the “what if” file are things such as axes, chain saws, extra fuel, extra wood, extra clothes, extra food, rope and tarps. See an example list of an established camp. While we do take a few non- essential items to our camp, we enjoy the additional comforts. It will be your decision as to what to bring and what not to bring.

When it comes to crawling into a nice warm place to sleep, there is nothing nicer than a good quality sleeping bag, and a cot to lie on. While there are those who wish to rough it, this is one of the things I will not leave at home. You work hard hunting during the day, so why not make it comfortable at night? My personal choice of sleeping bags is a negative 20 degree bag that is flannel lined. These bags will keep you warm on the coldest nights. You can find these at most major sporting good stores for around a hundred dollars. I also choose to bring several packing blankets to go between the bag and the cot. This gives you a bit more padding and added protection from the cold. One thing not to overlook is a small tarp to cover over the top of your bedroll. Often times you will get condensation in large tents that can lead to wet spots on your bag.

For the last part of this article, I want to share with you a way to prepare food for your next camping trip. Many years ago, I joined a camp with some friends of mine, and their idea of dinner at camp was dehydrated food that you poured hot water into. While some of this stuff is ok, there are much better ways to enjoy a tasty hot meal without the hassle of actually cooking in camp. In our camp, we use a boil-a-bag method. The weeks prior to hunting I will cook meals at home. Foods such as pasta, potato, meats, and even rice will re-heat very nicely. Our camp favorites are rigatoni with Italian sausage and marinara, or what I call hunters hash. Hunters hash is a combination of diced potato, bell pepper, onion and ground beef. You can take these types of dishes and put several portions per hunter in a vacuum sealed bag, and freeze them for camp. The best way we have found to re-heat these bags is with a turkey fryer. These are inexpensive and will boil water fast. Once you have the water boiling you add your sealed bag of food, and in twenty to thirty minutes you have a piping-hot bag of great camp food and no pots or pans to clean! We burn our paper plates and throw away the empty food bag. Great food, less trash, and virtually no clean up. Doesn’t get any easier than that!

Hopefully, these tips, links and equipment lists will help you enjoy more of your overall elk hunting experience in Colorado. I know my first experiences would have been greatly improved if I had them starting out, and it is my hope that this article will do that for you. Good luck, hunt safe and have a great camp!