DIY Western Elk Hunt for $1,000 Budget in 2017

bull elk aspen conifer habitat

Photo taken with our Moultrie Game Camera

This post is based on a chapter from my DIY Elk Hunting Guide.

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 experience with or knowledge of 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 amazing experiences.

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

Yes, the limited entry tags are hard to draw and the cost for non-residents ranges from about $600 to $1,000, but six western states have Over-the-Counter (OTC) tags that range from about $485 in Utah to $835 in Montana.

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.

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 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 elk country.

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 hunt 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.

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:

  • 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 gets 23 miles per gallon on the highway, so 3,840 miles divided by 23 miles per gallon equals 167 gallons. The Current Average gas price (Jan 2017) is $2.365, the most expensive since June 2016, but still down from $3.649 in 2014), for a total fuel cost of $395. Obviously, if you have a more fuel efficient vehicle, 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 2017, the cost of hunting license and elk tag ranges from $458 in Utah to $851 in Montana.

Table 1. DIY Elk Hunting Budget

DIY elk hunting budget

In the table, I use the cost for hunting elk in Colorado since it is the closest place to hunt elk for most people in the Eastern and Central U.S and because the cost is very close to the average cost for the seven best elk hunting states. In Colorado, the elk license and habitat stamp costs $639 for bull elk or any elk tags.

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. Keep two bullets to hunt with if it makes you feel better. 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 don’t let meat spoil to save a few bucks. You can always buy more dry ice at larger 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.

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 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.

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 measurably by taking an additional 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, three guys can 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 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.

The next section is for any adult that doesn’t have $1,000.


So How do we get past the No Money problem?

Who doesn’t want to hunt elk in the West? Or go fishing in Alaska or walk barefoot on a beach during the winter when the snow is blowing sideways back home? (Or maybe you need money for something more important).

But many people never take that trip because they say they don’t have enough money. When I was young and dumb, I used to complain about never having enough money, but wasted money every single day on things like fast food and beer.

One night while eating pizza and drinking beer, some of my buddies decided that we weren’t doing the things that were important to us. We hunted and fished our local areas, but we also had bigger dreams of hunting and camping in the West. The years were beginning to roll by and we still had no solid plan for hunting out West.

We were still young and didn’t yet have commitments to families, so we could have easily made the time. We told ourselves we didn’t have enough money, but in truth, we just didn’t know enough. If we knew more, we would have found the money.

So how did we do it? What changed? We changed our priorities and we made a plan.

What are Your Priorities?

A few years ago, I had a neighbor that seemed to think it was wise to spend $7 every morning at Starbucks on his way to work. He also spent $9 every working day for a fast food lunch.

If we ignore all his other spending choices, that adds up to $4,250 every year. I made my own breakfast and coffee and packed lunch everyday and made my 2nd trip to Africa later that year and my neighbor had the nerve to call me a lucky bastard. He just didn’t have enough information. He didn’t know what I know.

My neighbor also had a big boat and camper that he used only about once a year. I have a new neighbor now because the bank repossessed his house. My grandfather would have said he confused the “high cost of living” with the cost of “high living”.

Years ago, that’s what my friends and I finally concluded. We wasted money on beer and tobacco (some chewed, some smoked) and we were always going out to eat and to the movies and we always had new toys.

One friend had a new sports car to impress girls not worth impressing and another had a big fancy truck we couldn’t get into with muddy boots, which rendered it useless. We all agreed that we wanted to take great trips, yet we showed our true priorities in the way we spent our money.

Some of us started by eating out less often and we drank less beer. Instead of meeting at a restaurant or bar, we grilled burgers at home and watched the game on T.V. Instead of drinking six beers, we drank one or two. One friend even traded in the sports car for an old truck and saved almost $1,000 on the insurance that year alone.

What did we get for our Sacrifice?

So what did we get for our sacrifice and suffering? Between 1982 and 1992, we made five trips to Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, Utah & Texas. By the later years, we did have other commitments and money and time was even harder to come by. We always had to scrimp and save and even though we shared vehicles, gas and expenses, it took about two years to save enough money for the next trip. It was all worth the sacrifice and I would do it again in a heart beat.

It is important to note that not all of our original crew made those trips. Some of the guys were not willing to make the necessary sacrifices so when the time came to put down our money and go, they weren’t able. And because our real priorities were different, over the years we went our separate ways.

Like 76% of Americans, I used to live paycheck to paycheck. I know what it’s like to have to hide from the landlord because the car insurance was due. But truth be known, I still had beer money when I told the land lord I didn’t have rent money.

My parents lived frugally and never wasted money, but I don’t ever remember getting any serious money advice, so I had to learn the hard way. Maybe that was their plan.

In case you have never had a serious, tough love, conversation about money, I will do my best.

Start by stop doing “Stupid Stuff”.

Stupid Stuff that Wastes Your Money:

  • Credit Card Interest
  • ATM fees
  • Late fees
  • Bounced check/Overdraft charges
  • Speeding tickets

First, if you can’t pay cash for something, you can’t really afford it. Money management experts will tell you to cut up your credit cards. Don’t be silly; just be an adult about it. Get a credit card that offers free air miles or cash back, but pay the full balance every single month.

I haven’t paid a single penny in credit card interest in over 20 years. I never carry cash anymore except for a $20 bill or two for emergencies, so I didn’t think I have gone to an ATM in over 10 years.

If you need a loan, go get a loan. Paying the high credit card interest rates is stupid. So is paying ATM fees and late fees for utilities and other bills. The ultimate stupidity is bouncing a check. Overdraft charges in the U.S. average $27 for each bounced check. Don’t write checks when you know you don’t have the money.

Are you so unorganized that you have to speed to work because your boss told you not to come back if you are ever late again? What do you think happens when you habitually speed? If you are lucky and don’t kill somebody, you will pay fines and/or court costs and your insurance will go up. You may even have to go to traffic school. Who volunteers for that? Sure you might meet some nice guy or girl at traffic school, but you already know your priorities are messed up.

Stop doing stupid stuff!

After I cut out the stupid stuff, I wasn’t as broke as I thought.  That leads me to the next step, which is to stop buying stupid stuff.

I have never made a lot of money, so I learned my budget allowed me to eat fast food or I could eat steak and lobster at home for the same price. Better yet, I eat simple, but good food at home most of the time and put money in the bank for special trips and toys. Since then, I have lived very frugally, but that simple change has allowed me to have money to do what was really important.

Stupid Things We Waste Money On:

  • Tobacco
  • Expensive Coffee
  • Alcohol
  • Eating out in general
  • New cars

Smoking or chewing tobacco is just plain double-dumb. Smoking robs people of tens of thousands of dollars over their lifetime and it will guarantee you have a slow miserable death. If you don’t care about yourself, think about the people around you. Plus, you can forget about elk hunting at altitude if you smoke.

Drinking alcohol is not all bad because we are advised to have a drink or two everyday for a variety of health reasons. But anything over two drinks per day does start to be stupid for both money and health reasons.

A study of drinking habits shows that 30% of people in the U.S. don’t drink at all. The next 30% combined claim to drink only about one drink every 9 days. The next 10% (top 70%) has one drink every 3.2 days. The next 10% has about one drink per day. This means 80% of the people in this country have less than one drink per day.

The next 10% group has 2.2 drinks per day, so if you drink more than that, you drink more than 90% of the population. The top 10% of drinkers have 10.6 drinks per day. I’ve always heard the about 10% of the population were alcoholics (excuse me, the new politically correct term is “Alcohol Use Disorder” – AUD). For those 18 years old and older, 9.4% of men and 4.7% of women have AUD, so that must be the top 10%. Anyone in that group probably needs help.

As for not eating out so much, sure it takes a little organization to buy groceries ahead of time and to get up 30 minutes early each morning to make your own breakfast and coffee and to pack lunch. But seriously, you can save at least $3,000 a year just by doing that.

It’s your choice, but if you make the choice to eat out and to drink beer every week, the only guarantee is by the end of the week, the food will be gone, the beer will be gone and the money will be gone. If you make the more difficult choice of buying groceries, packing lunch and drinking less, by the end of the week, the food will be gone and the beer will be gone, but you will still have a little money left over.

Need is a Funny Word

I always say “need” is a funny word. Do you “need” a new car? Or do you need dependable transportation. Do you want that new car for yourself? Or do you think it will impress someone else? I already said you can’t afford the car if you can’t pay cash for it, so if you really have other priorities, think real hard before buying a car, especially if you are borrowing money and paying interest.

I still have a 1987 Toyota pickup that I paid $6,200 cash in 1992. It doesn’t impress the neighbors, but it never fails to take me hunting or fishing and get back home. I just put new tires on it, so I plan to keep it for a while longer.

My wife drives a a nice car (not new) we paid cash for, but she drove an old Buick for 12 years while we saved money. When the Buick finally died, we had the cash for whatever she “needed”.

So, what are your priorities? How many great trips will you take in the next 10 years? Will you have stories to tell about hunting and fishing or will you still be wishing you did?

Let me know about some of the hunting and fishing trips you’ve taken. Maybe it will be inspiration to others that need some encouragement to change their priorities.

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Comments

  1. Thanks for the interesting post. I can tell you put a lot of time in to writing and researching. I am headed back to Montana to hunt with my Dad. I was born and grew up in Montana but now I live in Hawaii. I used the Montana native hunting program. I had to show that I passed hunter’s safety in Montana and send copies of my birth certificate and my Dad’s driver’s license. I got my deer and elk tags for about $60 each which actually afforded me to go hunt with him this year. My plane tickets cost me $275 using my mileage plan and I paid about $200 to rent a SUV for 10 days. I already own a cabin right in the center of elk country so I am all set for well under $1000.

    The problem with all of this is that a person could quite easily spend over $1000 and not even see an elk in two weeks of hunting. So many rules, regulations, and so much lack of access makes it very hard to create the situation whereby a hunter can successfully fill that $800+ tag. My Dad hunts every single year all of his life and many seasons, he ends up empty handed. All he has to do is walk out his door. It would truly be disheartening to spend over $1000 and come home cold, hungry, broke, and empty handed. But hey, at least you have the memory of being cold, broke, tired, and hungry. Right?

    Anyway, I must admit, I was hoping you were going to write how to find antlered elk and deer on the DIY hunt and where to access the public lands and how to prepare for the moment you actually are lucky enough to catch a glimpse of an animal that meets the criteria required; so that a person may actually legally, take a shot at it. Much appreciated.

    Dave

    • Thanks for the comments Dave.

      Yes is expensive to hunt out of state. You are lucky to be able to “Come Home to Montana” to have the opportunity to hunt with your Dad. I wish there were also a way that out of state friends and family could come hunt with me for a reduced rate. Something like each resident tag holder could sponsor one or two non-residents at reduced rates.

      And yes, it is a fact that you could hunt and never see elk, but you always see something. I always see more elk (and other wildlife) in the field than I do from the couch and I see more elk when I get off the road and hump it. In fact, I saw two bulls (twin fork spike and 5X5) at 60 yards yesterday morning. The sightings were about an hour apart, on public land about 500 yards from the road. I also saw something that was as much fun to me as seeing the elk. I took a break and sat down in the middle of a least chipmunk’s path. At first, he fussed at me and ran around behind the tree, but later he just jumped over me on his way back and forth collecting food and caching it.

      It would be disheartening to come home broke, but everyone that hunts has come home cold, hungry and had to eat tag soup, but I don’t call that empty handed. Some of my best memories are hunts where I did not harvest anything after 9 – 14 hard days in the field. I have more good memories of “unsuccessful” hunts because they usually last longer. Last year, I harvested a mule deer buck and a cow elk, but have little to remember because I only hunted about 30 total hours. I think the perfect hunt would be a long hard hunt where you finally get a chance the last hour of the last day. Do you really want the hunt to be over the first day?

      This post is based on a chapter in my DIY Elk Hunting Guide. The guide is 330 pages and does cover the questions from your last paragraph including; Where to Hunt (Part II), Preparation for the Hunt (Part III) and Finding Elk and Hunting Strategies (Section IV) (Download sample PDF and look at the Table of Contents)

      I wrote the guide for people not familiar with the West who want to do a DIY fair-chase elk hunt on public land, but need more information & help with planning, selecting a state, hunting strategies, training, logistics and backcountry safety.

      Your last sentence about how to “prepare for the moment you actually are lucky enough to catch a glimpse of an animal that meets the criteria required; so that a person may actually legally, take a shot at it” is so true. It can all happen very fast and not only do you have to decide if the animal is legal, you also have to decide if the shot is ethical or not based on distance, wind and the angle the animal presents or other animals that are nearby.

      All part of the fun…
      Good luck on you hunt with your Dad this year.

  2. Michael Beers says:

    Just the experience and time of hunting with my beloved Dad, would have been worth the thousand dollars. The time spent in camp, should be counted. The success of anyone in the party should be counted. The opportunity to be part of the West for any length of time, should be counted.
    I have never gone out of state for an elk hunt, but I have been deer hunting in Wyoming on two separate occasions. Neither time did I fill my tag, but the memories are priceless.
    I too am getting old, (60) this year, so I talked my kids, brother, and two buddies into putting in for Wyoming buck tags for 2016. I really hope we draw those tags. There will be seven of us and I am footing the entire bill. My point is, the experience will be unbelievable, whether we are successful or not. I like PB and J sandwiches.

    • Well said Michael. Hunting should be about the experience and not just a tag to be filled. I have found no better place than the West for those experiences.
      I hope you draw your tags and I know you (all seven of you) will never forget the experience.

  3. Excellent article. I am from Minnesota and have been organizing DIY elk trips with friends the past 10 years to Colorado, Wyoming and Idaho. I track the expenses every year, and it has always been under $1000 per guy, including tags. We drive straight thru with 4 guys per truck pulling trailers full of UTVs/ATVs, so the $800 gas per truck gets split 4 ways. We pre-make frozen meals in gallon zip-locs (chili, stew, etc) and buy about $200 worth of groceries at Wally. After a few days of hunting, we can enjoy backstraps over the camp fire.

    And regarding your life style choices, I make good money as an IT professional, but still live by the guidelines mentioned (pack my own lunch, no smoking, limited alcohol, no wasteful habits like Starbucks) and consider eating out as a treat rather than a lifestyle. I generally buy nice used cars and toys on Craigslist (and can often sell them for more than I paid).

    You are so right about the people I run into that complain they don’t have any money, but are extremely wasteful with what they make. Maybe I will run into you “out on the mountain” sometime. Happy hunting, and God Bless!

    • Thanks Jeff. There you have it, Jeff has 10 years of DIY elk hunting on a $1,000 budget. Think of all the stories you have to tell for such a small sacrifice. Good luck to you and your buddies this year. Have any good hunting photos you would like to share?

  4. Corey mincey says:

    Hey Mr. Chronicles: Myself and three other guys are planning a trip out to hunt public land for the first time. My cousin has been there once before with a guy that lives in Utah when he was TDY at Hill AFB. We live in Eastman Georgia and are planning on flying out and maybe meeting up with this guy again. I hope we can get OTC tags in Utah for the Uinta mountain units. We are avid hunters so just the experience for me would be amazing. Thanks for the great post on diy elk hunting. Where can I find the full post to read the entire version? Thanks

    • Hi Corey. Sounds like you guys have a plan. You didn’t mention if you are hunting archery or the rifle season. If Archery, you can buy your general elk season tags when you get here (OTC), if rifle hunting, buy your General Season Tags as soon as you are sure you are hunting this season. They are limited and usually sell out by Sept.

      The Uinta Mountains is a large area which has several units and includes Spike only and Any Bull units (see map in this post). You have to choose between Spike and Any Bull Units, but you can hunt in any and all Spike or Any Bull units. For example, with an Any Bull tag, you can hunt the North-Slope, South Slope or Kamas Units in the Unitas. With a Spike tag, you can hunt the Wasatch unit, which is Wasatch Mountains in the west and Uinta Mountains in the East.

      Check out this post, where I rank the Utah General Season Elk units.

      I think you are referring to MY DIY Elk Hunting Guide. I wrote the guide specifically for hunters like you. People that want to do a DIY public land elk hunt, but are not sure how/where to start. The guide is basically the conversation I would have with my friends and relatives that live in the South when they ask about coming out west to elk hunt. It also shows you where to quickly find all the info from the state you decide to hunt.

      You guys have a head start if you have a contact in Utah and I know with that attitude, you will have a great time.
      I wish you luck, but I will count on your skills and effort.

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