It’s Essential for a Successful Out-of-State Hunt
Every spring I wait anxiously to see if I draw that coveted tag I’ve been applying for in the far-away West.
The spring when that letter finally arrived, I tore into it and saw that after six years of applying, I finally drew my tag. Living in South Carolina, the opportunity to hunt the Rocky Mountain West burns in me like a wildfire. But to do this, I often plan years in advance to be prepared for when the opportunity presents.
Planning your first out-of-state hunt can be overwhelming. Whether you are chasing turkeys on the plains of Nebraska, elk in the high Rocky Mountains, or Whitetails in Kentucky, you don’t want your experience to be tainted by poor planning.
A few years ago I wrote an e-book titled, Planning an Out-of-State Hunt; 20 Steps to Success. For this article, I recap the eight most important elements of that book to provide you a feel for what’s involved in planning an out- of-state hunt.
Let’s go ahead and address that. If you are like me, and prefer the Do-It-Yourself approach, pay attention. If you are using an outfitter, much of this does not apply since the outfitter will handle most of the details for you.
Set a Budget
The first thing to consider is your budget. This is true whether you are using an outfitter or planning your hunt DIY. For most folks, the money drives the experience. Before we get into the details of budget, let’s get one thing clear from the onset. Many of these hunts are much more affordable than many people realize. They see the cost of outfitted hunts but never consider the DIY hunt.
For example, when I made the decision to go to Alaska for moose, I spent two years planning and saving for that trip. I built up a load of leave time from my work and spent three weeks in Alaska hunting moose with five other guys. And yes, I did kill a moose, unguided, on public land. I did all of that for $1,265 dollars total. Consider that a seven-day guided moose hunt in Alaska costs around $12,000 today. Good planning enabled me the opportunity to do a hunt I could have otherwise only dreamed of doing.
Likewise, my DIY elk hunts in the West cost me a total of $1,050 on the last trip. And $651 of that was the elk tag! The rest was fuel, food, and lodging. A mule deer trip to Idaho was $1,385. Whitetail hunting in Pennsylvania was $550; a Whitetail trip in Illinois was $900, and my Kentucky Whitetail hunt cost $675. A Texas mule deer trip was $835. The list goes on and on. These examples are intended to encourage you and show you that many of these trips are affordable with proper planning.
Before setting out, and before even applying for your tags, set a budget and be willing to stick to it. Remember that some expenses are fixed, and some are variable. For example, licenses and tags are fixed costs. Travel, food, and accommodations are all variable costs. The variable costs are where you can save money.
Pick Your Crew
Pick your crew carefully. This may seem obvious, but let me tell you, one bad apple can ruin the barrel. Make sure everyone is on the same page and has the same expectations. Having one person who doesn’t carry his or her load, or who complains constantly about the weather, altitude, or camp chores can ruin an otherwise-great experience, so pick them wisely. Likewise, be willing to do your part regardless. If your buddy kills an elk, you have to sacrifice your hunting time to help him get it out. Do it and be excited for him. Don’t complain about missing days of your hunt.
Decide What and Where, and Be Specific
Pick an animal and a hunt location. Be very specific. For example, when applying for tags in Wyoming, you must select a specific game zone. Make sure you have done your research and know where you want to go and what you intend to hunt.
If you are going on a mule deer hunt in Idaho, stick to your plan and do not wavier from it. The only exception is if the entire group is okay with the change. Never let a change in the plan ruin relationships. Having said this, getting multiple tags is fine as long as the group agrees. Get the extra bear tag just in case you happen to see a bear. Buy the wolf tag or coyote permit. Just remember, this hunt is not just about you, but the crew you take with you, too. Be considerate.
“Modern technology allows for a lot of cyber-scouting. This technology has revolutionized how people prepare for their trips. The use of mapping technology and apps has flattened the learning curve for many hunters.”
This is an easy one. Will you fly or drive? There are advantages and disadvantages to both. Flying saves a lot of time, and if your job doesn’t allow for long absences, flying may be your only option. But driving lets you bring more supplies and saves money. This is dependent on your budget and time. Decide this early because it will impact the rest of your planning.
A few times, two of our guys had to fly and the rest of us drove. We picked them up at the airport and went hunting. The drivers brought all of the gear, and the flyers were able to join us for most of the trip. This is often a good compromise if your crew is a close group.
Hotel, Airbnb, VRBO, or camping? I have rented rustic cabins and pulled an RV and camped. Camping (and the RV) is the least expensive and, in my opinion, adds to the experience, but sleeping in a good bed every night has its advantages. Personally, I prefer camping, and this requires me to drive. (See how one choice affects the other?) One friend of mine uses state and county parks as his headquarters. Camping or finding cabins for rent in these parks can often be less expensive than in other areas, and the added benefit of shower houses makes clean-up easier and more refreshing.
Research, Research, Research
Know the laws in the area where you’re going. Many of the western states and some southern states have some strange laws that can be confusing. Knowing unit boundaries is essential. As I already said, many licenses are unit specific. Knowing where you are and where you can hunt can make all the difference in the success or failure of a trip.
Call the state biologist in that area and ask questions. It is amazing how many people overlook this step. A recent phone call to a biologist before heading out for a western turkey hunt put me right where I needed to be for some action.
Modern technology allows for a lot of cyber-scouting. This tech- nology has revolutionized how people prepare for their trips. The use of mapping technology and apps has flattened the learn- ing curve for many hunters.
On my most recent trip to Col- orado, I tagged along with a differ- ent group to hunt different zones than I had hunted previously. To prepare for this, I relied heavi- ly on mapping software to scout the terrain. Personally, I use OnX maps as my go-to choice for map- ping software. This app allows me to use the computer to scout. I can then synchronize the computer to my smartphone and my Garmin GPS.
Using this OnX software, I was able to identify saddles, migration routes, water sources, possible wallow sites, and more. By doing this, I was able to label waypoints and get them on my handheld device. When I arrived, I had waypoints to head toward for scouting before the season opened, plus got my bearings and had somewhere to begin. The hours you spend researching your area by cy- ber-scouting will save hours and miles on your legs when you arrive. Having some locations to begin with makes the hunting better, in my estimation, because you have some knowledge of the land before you arrive.
Practice with your Weapon of Choice
An outfitter friend of mine tells horror stories of guys showing up in camp the night before the start of the hunt with a rifle in one hand and scope in another. Not only has the scope not been mounted, but it has also not been zeroed in and there certainly has not been any practice with it. Why would you spend hundreds of hours planning and thousands of dollars in expenses and not have your weapon dialed in?
Before my last trip out West, I was anticipating long shots. My CVA Cascade in .308 was sighted in at 150 yards, which is my normal zero for hunting here at home. Expecting longer shots, I spent a day at the range adjusting my zero to 250 yards and practicing out to 400 yards. I spent several days shooting the rifle at 400, 500, and 600 yards to get comfortable at those ranges. I knew that if the opportunity presented itself, my rifle was capable, and I was comfortable shooting at those ranges. But it took an investment in ammunition and time at the range to accomplish this confidence.
Get in Shape
In 2017, I made the decision that my New Year’s resolution would be to exercise no more than necessary to sustain life. I said that in jest, but it emphasized how much I detest exercising. I avoid gyms at all costs. I never understood the attraction of people paying to go pick up heavy objects while sitting in the sweat of strangers.
The same goes for treadmills. I am someone who likes achieving things. Walking in place for hours does nothing for me. However, I recognize that some people do not have access to trails and places to hike or walk to get into shape. So, they must rely on these establishments to get themselves ready.
The important thing is that you get into shape. Living at an elevation of just over 400 feet here in South Carolina cannot prepare me for hunting at 9,000 feet and above. But I do what I can to get into shape before heading west. If you are going to be sitting in a stand all day hunting Whitetails in Kansas, the need for intense physical shape is not as crucial, but should be considered.
My personal regimen begins at least six months in advance with two- to three-mile hikes two or three times a week. After a couple of weeks, I will add some miles to the trip, gradually building up to about eight miles. At that point, I start adding weight to my pack. To begin, I load my pack 15 pounds, then move to the items I will carry while hunting, minus the weapon. (That can add seven to eight pounds to the pack). Then, I start over, usually going on three- to five-mile hikes a few times a week, and I build up from there.
Having hunted in the West several times, I know that most days are comprised of between four and six miles per day with an occasional day being farther. There really is no way to prepare for the two days of packing out elk or mule deer. You just have to suffer through the grind. But if you are not prepared to walk long distances, you will struggle mightily.
I am not a trainer and don’t pretend to be one. The point is to find something that works for you and do it. You are spending too much time and money on this trip not to get into shape for the hunt.
The challenge of hunting different states and different animals is one of the most exciting parts of hunting for many. The challenge of going to faraway lands, finding game, and successfully hunting the animals is thrilling. But set realistic expectations for yourself. The odds of killing a six-by-six bull elk on your first—or even third—trip west are minuscule at best. Enjoy the experience, the camaraderie, and the thrill of hunting in different country. But most of all, if it is something you desire to do, don’t put it off. Start planning today.
Traveling with your Gun or Bow – Tips from Plano Cases
One of the toughest parts of traveling out of state to hunt is ensuring your gun or bow arrives safely and on time. While hunters have no control over airline delays and lost luggage, you can take several steps to keep weapons dialed in and undamaged in transit.
Start by choosing a strong, durable hard case that can take a beating and lock out dust and moisture. While lightweight EVA and softshell cases might be easier to tote through the airport, they’re better suited for everyday storage or car travel. Rock-solid construction, quality components, and high-density foam will protect your most important piece of gear and eliminate the effects of careless handling.
Grips and carry straps can be the first thing to break, so search for a model with heavy-duty handles. If a loaded-up case will be too much weight for you to carry through the terminal, choose one with wheels.
When packing up your gear, separate unloaded weapons and ammunition, including all magazines and loading mechanisms. Make sure everything is secured and no pieces are floating loose. Shift some of your hunting clothing to your weapon case and wrap it around any fragile objects such as optics to prevent them from budging. Arrows, mechanical broadheads, and other archery equipment can easily crack or break, so take advantage of molded arrow holders and straps to hold them in place.
Any travel case should be compatible with TSA- approved locks, which are easy to identify by the red diamond symbol. Once all your gear is strategically packed, add your locks to guarantee no unauthorized personnel can access case contents. Locking up your weapons is a great practice not just for flying but for all travel and even home storage.
All ammo, firearms, and other weapons — including parts such as magazines and firing pins — must be placed in checked luggage and not carry-on bags. You must declare each weapon to the agent as you check in. Fees and procedures can vary by airline and airport, so arrive at the airport early anytime you’re traveling with a firearm, bow, or other weapon. And always check all current TSA regulations before heading to the airport.
Even if you do everything right, TSA agents rustling through your case and turbulence shifting cargo around can throw off your previously zeroed-in setup. Once you arrive at your hunting destination, take a few practice shots to ensure you’re still dialed in and ready for the moment of truth.
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Regardless of what you are hunting, there are some items that are necessary for all out- of-state hunts.
First and foremost is an excellent mapping system. HuntWise provides excellent satellite information about your location. This app for your smartphone allows you to identify key locations, track your location, and set waypoints to return to specific locations.
A good backup for the HuntWise app is a good GPS. The Garmin Oregon is my choice for a reliable GPS. The touch screen, zoom feature, and thousands of waypoints make life easy and more comfortable.
Boots. Hunts can be ruined with a bad pair of boots. Getting the appropriate boots for the occasions you’ll meet is essential for comfortable hikes and all-day hunts. Early- season or late-season footwear is crucial for successful hunts. Some of the best out there include: Kenetrek and Lowa boots. A personal favorite is LeChemeau boots. Handmade in France, these are some of the finest boots I’ve ever worn.
Clothing is not just a garment on a hunt; it is gear that is essential for success. Some of the best brands for quality of construction and reliability are my go-to brand, Sitka gear. In recent years, Firstlite clothing is coming on strong. Their base layers are some of the finest out there.
One other item that you cannot go without on any hunt is quality binoculars. While the conversations are legion regarding the best, for my money, Hawke Endurance 10×42 are some of the finest available. Another great choice is Vortex binos.