Elk hunting gear: What you actually need and when to buy it


If you search elk hunting gear on Google you’ll find hundreds of gear lists that cost thousands of dollars. That generally leads to more questions: Do I REALLY need to buy all that stuff just to go elk hunting? Will the gear I have already work? And even if you can afford it, what should I get first? Read on to get some very specific answers.

As we transition into the gear part of the Hunt Elk in 2020 series I want to make sure we set expectations right. Let’s face it: the primary way to make money in the hunting industry is selling gear. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it can lead to the belief that you can’t hunt elk without the latest and greatest. That’s completely wrong.

In this first post, I’ll go over what you need (and what you don’t), if the gear you have already will work, and when you need to buy gear (which is more important than you think!). I’ll be keeping this fairly high level so head over to the ultimate gear checklist or the gear I use if you’re looking for line by line suggestions. Let’s get to it.

What elk hunting gear do you really need?

To help answer that question I’ve split gear into three categories: Mandatory, Nice to have, and Rarely needed. The titles are pretty self explanatory but I put a short explanation for each group since, as always, it depends on your personal situation:

  • Mandatory (You can’t go without it)
    • Good fitting mountain boots
      • These can make or break a hunt. Don’t skimp here.
    • Complete bow setup (or rifle)
      • Bow, arrows, broadheads, sight, release, quiver, foam target, tool, etc
    • Backpack designed to carry heavy loads
      • You’ll need this to get elk meat out of the mountains, even if you’re car camping
    • Tent or shelter
      • Pretty self explanatory. This is one of the heaviest items you’ll carry
    • Sleeping bag
      • I’d recommend at least 20 degree (10 or 15 is great) EN rating
    • Sleeping pad
      • Just make sure it’s got a solid R value of at least 2-3
    • Synthetic or wool clothing
      • Cotton kills! This doesn’t have to be in camo and you probably don’t need waterproof gear (read on)…
      • Pants, shirt, jackets, underwear, hat, etc
    • Water purification + storage
      • Purifier + bottles/bladders
    • Waterproof maps & Compass
      • Above all, you need to know how to use them!
      • GPS, apps, etc are nice but not necessary
    • Kill kit
      • Meat protection is key. A $4 scalpel handle or pillow cases will work fine if you want to save money
      • Knife, game bags, string/cord (optional)
    • Survival gear
      • Matches, fire starters, water purification pills
    • Food
      • You can easily buy all your food at a grocery store instead of expensive backpacking meals or bars to save money (more later)
    • Rangefinder
      • The vast majority of archery misses are due to incorrect range. Get one and use it
    • Wind checker
      • The best $5 you’ll ever spend in elk hunting
    • Headlamp or lighting
      • If you’re only hiking in daylight, you’re not near the elk
    • Tags, licenses, and hunter safety card
      • Or bail money? Joking…
    • Basic elk call
      • Make sure you can at least cow call
  • Nice to have (You don’t have to have it to go, but it’s nice)
    • Emergency PLB or Satellite communicator
      • Highly, highly encouraged but you can choose to risk it. Learn more in this post
    • Binoculars
      • Really, you’d be fine without them, especially in thick timber. That said a 8x or 10×42 is really nice
    • Bugle tube
      • They’re nice because they make for louder, more realistic bugles but cupping your mouth will work just fine at closer range
    • Backpacking gear
      • If you’re not backpacking, you don’t need this stuff
      • Tent, sleeping pad, sleeping bag, pillow, stove/pot, utensils, etc
    • Bow stabilizer
      • Optional depending on how heavy your bow is already and how far you want to shoot
    • Camo gear
      • Camo helps in my opinion, but you can do just fine if you have dull colored clothing (just make sure to avoid blue)
    • Waterproof gear
      • If you’re hunting in September you can make do by using a tarp or your tent fly to take shelter in passing storms
      • Jacket, pants, pack cover, etc
    • GPS or phone app
      • Great for safety + redundancy, eScouting, etc but you can do fine without it. If you do, download offline maps in the Google Earth or Maps apps for free
  • Rarely needed (avoid unless you know
    • Day pack
      • Don’t make the mistake I did: day packs stink! They can’t pack elk out on the first trip and you have to buy another meat hauling pack. Invest in a high quality, lightweight external frame pack instead since it can do everything
    • Chargers, battery bank, or portable solar panels
      • Unless you’re filming a movie or plan on being away from the car for a full week+, you’re fine. Just make sure to keep your phone in your sleeping bag at night since cold air kills lithium batteries.
    • Extra shoes/crocs for backpacking
      • Heavy, bulky, and completely unnecessary … Why would you spend that much time around camp and not hunting anyway?
    • Extra clothes
      • Every beginner is tempted to take multiple changes of clothes with them. You really just need one pair of everything, although backups at the car are nice.
    • Hatchet and/or bone saw
      • You can butcher an elk with just a knife (youtube: gutless method) if you’re fine carrying the skull. That saves you from carrying some HEAVY equipment. If you want to skull plate your bull just pick up a hacksaw on first trip to the car.
    • Personal defense gear
      • Guys have been backpacking, hunting, and fishing for years without this stuff… but it’s up to you. I personally carry a gun but I went without it for years.
      • Bear canister, gun, etc
    • Gaiters
      • Unless you’re wading through the snow they’re not really needed. They’re heavy and will make your feet sweat
    • Spotting scope, tripod, phone adapter
      • Unless you’re trophy hunting a spotting scope is dead weight. Elk are large and easy to spot with binoculars (even the naked eye). A tripod can help steady binos but you can use a specialized ultralight version.
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Will the gear I have already work?

Elk hunting gear is generally the same as other hunting gear… just a bit more specialized. If you already backpack or hunt then chances are that most of your current gear will work. It would take forever for me to list everything that does work, so here’s a list of the gear that won’t work for elk hunting. Everything else on the ultimate gear checklist should be fine if you already own it:

  • Will NOT work for elk hunting (you’ll need to replace)
    • Game bags
      • Elk are huge. Unless they’re made for moose, your current game bags aren’t gonna work, even if you decide to bone out.
    • Bow sights without a 3rd axis
      • A high percentage of elk shots are up or down hill. You definitely need a 3rd axis adjustment if you don’t have one now. Generally you’ll also want rangefinders with angle compensation but you can get away without it if you train.
  • Probably will NOT work for elk hunting (think hard about replacing)
    • Boots
      • You’ll want a stiffer boot for heavy loads and steep, off camber slopes. If you have a strong foot, you’ll be fine, but that’s the exception not the rule.
    • Deer arrows
      • If you’re shooting a relatively lightweight arrow (under 7 grains per pound of draw weight) you’ll likely be better off with a heavier, skinnier arrow
    • Deer broadheads
      • Ultimately this is a personal decision, but mechanicals or wide cut (> 1 ¼”) fixed blades with flatter blade angles aren’t a good choice, even if they work great for deer.

That’s it! Almost everything else will work just fine. My general advice would be to save your money instead of buying new bows, clothes, camo patterns, tents, etc and spend it on what matters: more time out hunting. A $400 flight to spend 10 days hunting on 5 days of vacation is far more valuable than a pack that’s a few pounds lighter.

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When to buy elk hunting gear

Ok, now is when you’re rolling your eyes at me. Do I really need to plan when to buy stuff? Trust me, I learned this the hard way. I went to buy an elk pack a month before the season and the wait time was… 3 months. Turns out that most everyone buys elk hunting gear in the summer, which often means things are out of stock.

It’s always best to plan ahead, but if you procrastinate like me (or just want to have time to save up), here’s a timeline of when to buy critical elk hunting gear:

  • 4-6 months ahead (aka April or earlier)
    • Bow
      • Bows can take several weeks to several months to build and you definitely don’t want to get used to a new one in August. This is especially important for lefties… I once ordered a bow in February and got it August 7th. Not ideal.
  • 3+ months ahead (aka May 31 at the very latest)
    • Packs
      • These always go out of stock in the summer. Don’t wait.
    • Boots
      • This is more about having enough time to break them in and/or buy another pair if they don’t work for your feet. Untested boots = disaster.
    • Clothing
      • If you’re buying camo, many companies start to run out of sizes at the beginning of the summer. They order set amounts per season, so there won’t be more coming soon.
  • 2 months ahead (aka June 31 at very latest)
    • Arrows
      • These usually don’t run out but I’d strongly recommend building them early since you’ll need to completely re-tune your bow, which can take some time if you’re new to it.
    • Food
      • Even earlier is better for small companies like Heather’s Choice and Off Grid Food Co. Mainstream brands start to sell out in July/August since the majority of the market (aka non-hunters) go backpacking then.
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Summary: Elk hunting gear you actually need

To sum it up, you don’t need to buy all the gear you see on most gear lists. The gear you already have is probably fine. If you are buying gear, make sure to order ahead on certain items as they tend to run out of stock!

Above all, remember that while good gear can enhance your hunt, that means there has to be a hunt in the first place. Always prioritize more time hunting over the latest and greatest stuff. The experience and knowledge you gain will make you far more successful in the long run.

Stay tuned for more posts on how to get the best bang for your buck before we dive back into elk behavior!

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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 >>