Of the most common big game species to hunt in the lower 48, excluding hogs and bears, the most popular are, in descending order, whitetails, mule deer, elk and pronghorn antelope. Of the four, elk require the most complicated logistics because of the difficulty of hunting mountain terrain, unfamiliar hunting strategies, and simply transporting them out of the woods. Then too, an elk hunt may mean a long drive from home if you don't live in the west, an expensive nonresident license, and, if you choose to hire an outfitter -- an expensive hunt. Over the years, I've heard many folks lamenting the fact that they couldn't afford an elk hunt. The perception of an expensive hunt is due to assumptions that aren't necessarily true. Notice the word "expensive" here, used many times.
If you're on a strict budget, and you're dreaming of an elk hunt, here's a way to make that hunt for less than $1,000, including the $600 nonresident license that's average in most states. This plan really works, if you'll abide by the conditions.
First, you need to choose a state. Colorado is top choice for two reasons. Unlike many other western states, you can buy a nonresident elk tag across the counter for many units, and Colorado's fee is the lowest of the major elk states, at $600 or a bit less. Like other western states, Colorado has millions of acres of public land, so access isn't a problem. Understand that Colorado isn't mandatory to make that less-than $1,000 hunt, but it fits into the formula nicely. Colorado also has, by far, the most elk and the most elk hunters.
Let's examine all of the factors that add to the cost of the hunt. Remember, to make this work, you need to make some sacrifices in the way of personal comfort.
TRAVEL. To meet the budget, at least three of you need to drive comfortably in a vehicle where one person can sleep, one drives, and the other stays awake to chat with the driver, since a non-stop trip of 1500 miles or more is usually required. A suburban or pickup with a full-sized back seat works well. Four wheel drive is not an option -- it's mandatory on many mountain roads. The budget requires no motel stops. You can take short breaks in rest areas. The budget also doesn't account for food on the road or during the hunt. Explanation to follow.
TRAVEL COSTS. Each person divides the cost of fuel equally, even the owner of the vehicle. Of course, you can argue that wear and tear on the vehicle is an added expense. The solution is to use another hunter's vehicle on the next hunt. Rather than each individual paying a gas bill, and another paying another, and trying to keep track of who paid what, do this instead. Designate one person as the banker. At the beginning of the trip, everyone gives $100 to the banker. He or she pays the fuel bill at each stop. When the fund is exhausted, each individual again gives an equal amount to the banker. And so on.
EXAMPLE OF AN ACTUAL TRIP COST. Lets say you live in Boston and are driving to Craig, Colorado,a popular elk hunting destination. Total miles is 2100. Say you get 16 miles per gallon, which amounts to around 130 gals. At an average of $2.40 per gallon, the fuel cost for cross country travel is $312, one way; round trip is $624. Add another 500 miles for travel during the hunt, to and from local towns for supplies, etc. That adds up to around $100. That plus the $624 is $724, divided by three is around $241each.
FOOD. There are no food costs. Look at it this way. Wherever you are on the planet, you must eat. Therefore, your meals during the hunt and the meals you didn't have at home cancel each other out. When I'm camping and hunting, I bring pre-cooked food from home. I freeze it, and put it out to thaw the morning I go hunting. When I come in from the hunt, I'm usually whipped. When you're elk hunting in mountain terrain, that's the norm. All I do is heat the food and enjoy a meal with little fuss and bother. Examples of pre-cooked foods that freeze well are stews, chili, soups, lasagna, baked chicken, etc. For canned goods such as veggies, peaches, fruit cocktail, etc., each of us rummage around the pantry and find items that are close to being out of date or slightly outdated. Chances are good that stuff will be tossed anyway if allowed to sit on the shelf too long at home, so it's good to use it up. Items such as bread, bacon, eggs, coffee, etc can be purchased locally when you arrive. Again, these costs should not be part of the expenses allotted to the hunt. Some items, such as paper plates, plastic utensils, cups, bowls, etc., which are necessary for the hunt, should be charged. Figure a cost of $10 each.
ACCESSORIES. The elk hunt may require you to buy items that you don't normally use on your deer hunt back home. Mountain hunting with little access and the difficulty of transporting a heavy elk out of the woods requires specialized gear. Examples are elk calls, game bags, a hoist, a wheeled cart, propane heater and propane, and other items. Figure a total cost of $600, or $200 each.
ACCOMMODATIONS. To make this budget work, you MUST camp on public land. That means a tent or RV that you tow, or a camp unit that fits in the bed of your truck. I've owned the latter and don't care for it for several reasons. Space is limited and it's uncomfortable for three people. You can jack it up and pull the truck away, but again, there's a space limitation and the thing rocks and rolls on the jacks every time someone moves. If you leave it on the truck, and drive around with it, you'll be dealing with low branches over forest roads, and if stuff inside isn't fastened down well, you'll have a mess on your hands. I prefer a travel trailer that you park in one spot. You unhitch it and you're ready to go hunting. There should be no camp costs, unless you're at a designated campsite where a fee is charged. But typically when hunting seasons roll around, campsites are officially closed, though you can still use the restrooms. There are millions of acres of US Forest Service and BLM lands where you can camp wherever you please for free unless signs specifically prohibit camping in certain areas. In that case, you're on your own for sanitary reasons, since your RV or camper should be winterized with no water.
To be sure, this is "roughing it" a bit, but most folks who camp and hunt see it as pure fun and mountain adventure. The total costs I've outlined here add up to a bit over $1,000, but I used Boston as home, which is farther from the Rockies than other eastern, southern, or midwest locations. The costs are variable, depending on distance, mileage per gallon, and the number of hunters in the vehicle. I used three. Add one more, and the individual cost is reduced significantly.
What is not included here is processing your animal and taxidermy. You can process the meat yourself by transporting boned meat home in coolers, and taxidermy is a personal choice that obviously significantly increases your individual hunt cost. You can also add liquid refreshments and personal gifts as extras.
This budget concept has worked for many people, me included. Yes, some sacrifice and minor discomfort may be involved, but an elk hunt, to many of us, is worth it.