DIY Western Elk Hunt for $1,000 Budget in 2022


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This post is based on a chapter from my DIY Elk Hunting Guide and is updated every year to reflect changes in license fees and fuel costs.

The most common reasons people give for not going on a DIY elk hunt to the West comes down to three reasons:

  1. No time
  2. Not enough information
  3. No money

I’m not going to pretend I can help you manage your time better and I’m not going to tell you should spend money if your kids aren’t taken care of, but I wrote the Elk Hunting Guide specifically for people that would like to hunt elk, but don’t have enough knowledge or experience with the vast areas and habitats of the West.

The guide provides information and some encouragement as I try to convince you that you can hunt elk on public land with general tags and have an amazing experience.

Many people I talk to from the East (including my family and friends) haven’t gone on an elk hunt because they think tags are too hard to get and guides are too expensive. I put that in the category of not having enough information, because it is only partially true. Plus, you don’t need a guide.

Yes, the limited entry tags are hard to draw and the cost for non-residents ranges from about $600 to well over $1,000, but six western states have Over-the-Counter (OTC) tags that range from about $497 in Washington to $1,062 in Montana. Of course, residents can hunt for much less and don’t have to drive as far if hunting in their home state.

The title of this post is “DIY Western Elk Hunt for $1000 Budget”, so this is about a DIY public land elk hunt, so forget about hiring a guide and forget about hunting on private land unless you know people with private land.

If you are a DIY kind of person, I assume you want to hunt elk for many years and not just to kill one elk to stick a head on the wall. If so, all you need is time to take 7 – 10 days off and enough money to buy a tag and get out here to the best elk habitat.

For those that can’t find $1,000, I will tell you how I solved my “no money” problems after I discuss the budget.

So, what will it cost for a DIY public land elk hunt in the West? Let’s make a budget.

DIY Elk Hunt Budget

First, let’s assume if money is tight you are going to drive. Driving costs depend on how far you have to go, the gas mileage your vehicle gets, the price of fuel and how many people are sharing the cost. In the U.S., about the worst case, most expensive scenario for driving from the East to the West would be from Portland Maine to Portland Oregon (3,188 miles and 47 hours).

But you don’t have to drive all the way from Maine to the West Coast to find elk. The distance from Portland Maine to Red Lodge Montana is 2,397 miles and 35 hours, which is a long but much more reasonable drive.

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Below is a list of Eastern and Mid-western cities that are about 1,600 – 1,800 miles from elk hunting areas that can be driven in about 24 – 26 hours:

Drive Times to Selected Elk Hunting Areas

  • Atlanta, GA to Buffalo, WY (1,717 mi, 25 hrs)
  • Austin, TX to Butte, MT (1,695 mi, 25 hrs)
  • Birmingham, AL to Sheridan, WY (1,632 mi, 24 hrs)
  • Cedar Rapids, IA to Pendleton, OR (1,706 mi, 24 hrs)
  • Charlotte, NC to Leadville, CO (1,660 mi, 25 hrs)
  • Columbia, SC to Glenwood Springs, CO (1,750 mi, 26 hrs)
  • Columbus, OH to Richfield, UT (1,723 mi, 25 hrs)
  • Davenport, IA to McCall, ID (1,635 mi, 24 hrs)
  • Jackson, MS to Ferron, UT (1,531 mi, <24 hrs)
  • Kansas City to Vancouver, WA (1,799 mi, >26 hrs)
  • Knoxville, TN to Vernal, UT (1,659 mi, 25 hrs)
  • Little Rock, AR to Helena, MT (1,679 mi, 25 hrs)
  • Orlando, FL to Monte Vista, CO (1,804 mi, >26 hrs)
  • Pittsburg, PA to Craig, CO (1,620 mi, 24 hrs)
  • Richmond, VA to Breckenridge, CO (1,748 mi, 26 hrs)
  • Tulsa, OK to Kalispell, MT (1,683 mi, 24 hrs)
  • St. Louis, MO to Boise, ID (1,624 mi, <24 hrs)
  • Syracuse, NY to Denver, CO (1,669 mi, 24 hrs)
  • Washington DC to Laramie, WY (1,694 mi, 25 hrs)

Unless you live north and east of Syracuse, N.Y. or south of Orlando, Fl. you can drive to elk country in about 1,600 – 1,800 miles and within a 24 – 26 hour drive.

For the example budget, I will use 1,600 miles which doubles to 3,200 miles since you also have to drive back home and I add an extra 20% (640 miles) for scouting or whatever for a total of 3,840 miles.

The average pickup truck now (Jan, 2022) gets 22 miles per gallon on the highway, so 3,840 miles divided by 22 miles per gallon equals 174.5 gallons. The Current Average gas price (Jan 2022) is $3.09 (more than last year, but still well below the $3.649 average price in 2014), for a total fuel cost of $534. Obviously, if you have a more fuel efficient vehicle, or don’t have to drive as far, it will cost even less.

Table 1 shows an example of a hunting budget. The fuel cost and the non-resident elk tags are the most expensive items. If you are closer to elk country than about 1,600 miles, the biggest expense will the be the non-resident hunting license and elk tag.

In 2022, the cost of hunting license and elk tag ranges from $497 in Washington to $1,062 in Montana and the average cost for the seven western states is $748 (includes all licenses, tags, conservation stamps and application fees).

Table 1. 2022 DIY Elk Hunting Budget

diy elk hunt budget 2022

(Elk tag, Hunting Licenses and Fees accurate as of Jan 2022, but be aware that fees may go up later in the year).

In the table, I use the average cost for hunting elk including all tags, licenses and habitat stamps etc. Colorado since it is the closest place to hunt elk for most people in the Eastern and Central U.S and the cost to hunt in Colorado is very close to the average cost for the seven best elk hunting states. In Colorado, the elk license and habitat stamp now costs $672 for bull elk or any elk tags.

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You notice I included $100 for two boxes of ammo. Buy good ammo or load your own. I joke about using 39 bullets for practice and keeping one bullet for your hunt, but you do what you think is best. Saving two bullets would probably be wise. Those hunting with archery equipment and muzzleloaders can budget that same $100 appropriately.

The only other items on the budget list are $45

for dry ice and $100 for game processing supplies and miscellaneous expenses. You may not need that much dry ice, but nobody is going to let elk meat spoil to save a few bucks. You can always buy more dry ice at larger towns and cities as you drive home.

I only include $100 for game processing and miscellaneous, which is very cheap because you are going to do everything yourself.

Don’t know how? If my grandmother were still alive I would send her with you. But she’s not, so you need to learn how.

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In the table below, I show the breakdown for total cost to hunt elk with General (or OTC) tags in seven Western States you can hunt most if not every year.

Non-residents have to draw in Montana and Wyoming. But even non-residents can hunt every year in Colorado, Idaho, Oregon, Utah and Washington.

The total cost for non-residents elk tag, licenses and fees ranges from $1,062 in Montana to $497 in Washington.

Cost for General Elk Hunting License 2022

State Hunting License Elk Tag/ Permit Other Fees Total Cost Montana included $1,052 $10 $1,062 Idaho $185 $652 $10 $847 Oregon $172 $588 na $760 Wyoming $ 15 $692 na $707 Colorado included $688 $10 $699 Utah $ 72 $593 na $665 Wash. included $497 na $497

(I believe costs are accurate as of Jan 2021, but fees may increase later this year – fees are rounded – many states also include a fishing license, so you old guys can fish if you need to take a day off).

It’s Not Brain Surgery

Butchering an animal is like surgery, but it’s not like brain surgery. The patient has already died. Your first time will be slow and your butchering will not look professional, but that’s O.K. because you’re going to turn most of the meat into ground meat and sausage anyway, which you are also going to make yourself (see our elk polish kielbasa recipe).

You should care more about quickly cooling the meat and keeping it clean than how professional the butchering and packaging looks. The people you share the meat with won’t know the difference of how it looks, but will be impressed that you did it yourself. They may notice the difference in how the meat tastes, because if you cool the meat quickly, it will not taste gamey. There are dozens of good videos available online on how to field dress and butcher deer and elk.

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What? No Food Costs in the Budget?

No. When I travel, I don’t count food costs, because I was going to eat anyway. Buying convenience foods is a big money waster. If you are on a tight budget, just buy good bread and good sandwich meat or peanut butter and skip the fast food and the chips and drinks at the gas station.

For the price of a single burger, fries and drink, you could eat lunch all week long. Buy groceries and cook or make sandwiches when you get to camp and drink water. Don’t like that? Then stay home and eat and drink what ever you want.

What? No Hotel Room in the Budget?

No. If you are still young, driving across country with a buddy through the night is an adventure. You don’t need a hotel room. If you are too old to miss out on sleep, you probably have money for a hotel. Think of all the crazy things you do that causes you to loose sleep on a regular basis. Two guys, each driving 10 hours per day and resting four hours can cover 1,200 – 1,400 miles in a day. Three guys are better to make sure the driver stays awake.

I’m not young anymore, but have personally driven solo for 13 hours (860 miles) straight, stopping only for bathroom breaks and fuel. I wouldn’t and couldn’t do that every week, but once in a while is no big deal, especially for a hunting trip of a lifetime. But after you do it once, it won’t be a trip of a lifetime, because you will keep coming back.

Share the Ride and Reduce the Costs

Everyone needs tags and licenses, everyone needs ammo and if everyone gets an elk, everyone will need dry ice and supplies, but the cost of fuel doesn’t change to much measurably by taking an additional person. Extra weight will add up, but the added fuel costs will be relatively small. (If the additional weight for a person and gear costs ½ mile per gallon fuel mileage, the additional cost would be about $9 per person).

The bottom part of the budget in Table 1 shows the total cost for 1 – 4 people all sharing the same ride and fuel costs. Since fuel is shared, the price per person goes down with each additional hunter. In this example budget, four guys can travel to hunt 1,600 miles from home for just over $1,000 each.

Any half-motivated, sober person in this country can raise $1,000. That amount of money could be raised by saving just $3 per day for a year. Most people waste that much everyday without a second thought.

So, who doesn’t want to hunting elk in the West? I can’t imagine any DIY hunter that can still walk a little that wouldn’t want to hunt elk in the West while the hunting is still good. I hope this helps you decide to plan a DIY hunt.

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>