Andy's 2015 DIY Colorado Elk Hunt

By Andy Backus

Last year I called a 5x5 bull into archery range for my friend and hunting partner Matt deep in a beautiful remote valley in central Colorado and Matt made an excellent heart shot as the bull was turning to leave. This year we were back in the same valley and our friend Scott was with us, but this time we were hunting during the first week of the rifle elk season.

The three of us absolutely love archery elk hunting during the rut, but the LRH group mule deer hunt had me in Wyoming during September so a DIY Colorado archery elk hunt was not in the cards this year. Instead, the three of us each used our single Colorado preference point to draw a first season rifle tag for October 10th through the 14th.


Matt and his 2014 archery bull

Over our years of DIY elk hunting together we have come to find that we value remoteness and isolation over almost all other factors, including game sightings and shot opportunities. We just really love feeling like we have our little slice of Rocky Mountain heaven to ourselves and if we work hard enough to find the elk we will get at least one good opportunity.

During our archery hunt last year Matt and I saw only one other human during our ten day hunt and he was a hiker skylined miles away climbing one of the 14,000 peaks in the area. This year we did not see a single person on our entire trip. This solitude is one of the reasons we chose the first rifle season this year.

In Colorado, the second and third rifle seasons offer over-the-counter tags in many areas, including the one we were hunting. All first season hunts require a tag to be drawn. Because of the extra planning required to draw a tag and because the tags are limited, there are usually fewer hunters in a given area during first season.

We hunt in a designated “Wilderness” area where no motorized vehicles are allowed so we don't have to worry about seeing a bunch of ATV's running around. Most if not all Colorado Wilderness areas are very rugged and at very high elevation. Our hunting area starts at 10,000 feet and we hunt as high as 12,500. The climbs are steep and rough and the air is thin. Our annual DIY elk hunt is by far the most physically and mentally challenging thing I do each year. It is not for the faint of heart. The physical and mental challenge of hunting a Wilderness area discourages many hunters.


My altimeter watch showing this year's bull was killed at 11,620'

Our area has one very unique feature that is hard to find, even in Wilderness areas, which contributes to its solitude. Most every valley in the Rocky Mountains has at least one hiking trail that is officially maintained by the Forest Service or another agency, allowing relatively easy access by foot or horseback. The area we hunt does not. It has a rough, gnarly trail that splits off into dead-end game trails and dead-fall choked misery. Take a wrong turn and you may end up in a nasty boulder field or willow choked swamp.

There is no way to get a horse or mule into this valley as chainsaws are not allowed in Wilderness areas and trying to hand-saw the trail wide enough and clear the dead-fall for a horse would be nuts. I don't believe anyone hikes this valley for pleasure and only a handful of hearty hunters venture in during the season.

Unfortunately we have found that, along with low numbers of hunters, the elk numbers in this valley are also quite low and deer are practically nonexistent. On our archery hunt last year Matt and I hunted extremely hard for days without seeing or hearing an elk until we finally got a bugle response late in the hunt.

I was able to call a 5x5 satellite bull into range and Matt arrowed his first bull. Had we not killed that bull I don't think we would have been back this year, but the combination of beauty, solitude and our success last year caused us to want to give this valley another chance.

After committing to hunt this valley again, my planning then focused on how we would hunt it during rifle season rather than archery season and what gear we would need. We learned last year that the best way for us to hunt the valley was to set up a comfortable base camp near our vehicle at the end of a forest service road and bivy into the valley from there. During first rifle season in mid-October in the mountains the weather can be almost anything from hot and dry to blizzard conditions and everything in between. We needed to be prepared for anything.

Andy's 2015 DIY Colorado Elk Hunt

We would be driving about eighteen hours from our home in Wisconsin through the night and hauling all of our gear with us. Scott and Matt own 2500 and 3500 series crew cab pickups with caps which would have been perfect for the three of us, but neither truck is reliable enough for a cross country trip like this, so my Nissan X-Terra would have to do. My X-Terra works really well for two guys and all our gear including a hitch-haul on the back, but three guys plus gear was going to be a stretch. We would need a trailer.

I have run my X-Terra up some of the gnarliest jeep trails the Rockies have to offer and it really is an excellent off-road machine. The forest service road to this year's hunting area isn't especially rough, but I was slightly concerned about clearance for the trailer axle if we happened to get a bunch of snow or really bad mud.

I decided I wanted to add a high clearance, off-road trailer to my DIY elk hunting gear. I wanted something that was rough-and-tumble and built like a tank where I wouldn't have to worry about dragging it up and down boulder strewn jeep trails in the future even when filled with a fair amount of weight.


I ended up buying a rusty, old, beat-up army jeep trailer off Craigslist for $200. It wasn't the prettiest thing, but it is built like a tank with the high ground clearance I was after and I liked its compact size for maneuvering on tight jeep trails. I ground off as much of the rust as I could with a wire brush wheel on an angle grinder and used a rust converting primer before a couple coats of Rustoleum flat black spray paint. A local tire shop helped source new rims and tires as the existing ones were in pretty bad shape. It took a little trial and error to find the right wheels but eventually we did.

My father-in-law offered some nice wide one inch thick pine boards he had milled from logs harvested on his deer hunting land and I used those to build up the trailer sides. I added a sheet of marine grade plywood for a roof and stained all the wood using two coats of semi-transparent deck stain.

The last detail I wanted to incorporate into my elk hunting trailer was a rack on top to lash gear and elk antlers. I ended up buying black posts and angles used to make chain-link fence gates to create the rectangular part of the rack and then used galvanized threaded pipe and flanges (spray painted black) to mount it on top of the trailer.

The trailer turned out exactly as I had hoped and meant that we could bring out as much gear as we needed and could bring home an elk or two if we were so fortunate. Now it was time to plan our camping gear.

Most, if not all, wilderness areas are located within National Forests, as ours is. Rules vary from one National Forest to another, but in our area and many others, you can camp basically anywhere you want. When possible, it is best to camp where others have obviously already camped rather than creating a new spot, in order to lessen the impact on the pristine forest.

Our base camp would be set up at the end of a ten mile long Forest Service dirt road just outside the wilderness boundary. There is a particular camping spot at the end of the road that we really like and the hope was that the spot would be vacant again this year.

Base camp is much more about comfort than bivy camp. We want to be able to dry off and warm up, cook a nice hot meal, and relax when we get back after a long day (or several days) in the wilderness. We also like to sleep up off the ground on comfortable cots to best recharge our batteries.

With that said, I have learned over the years to keep our gear as simple and easy to use and set up as possible so that all of our time and energy can be spent hunting rather than working on setting up camp. A DIY hunt in a Wilderness area of the Rocky Mountains is so physically challenging that we just cannot afford to waste any time or energy – period.

The largest and most important piece of gear for base camp is our wall tent. Our wall tent can handle any weather including snow and high winds and it allows us to use a wood burning stove to warm up, dry our clothes and boots and cook hot meals. I am very partial to Cabela's Alaknak wall tents. I own their 12'x20' model and a good friend owns their 12'x12' model and lets me use it whenever I want.

The Alaknak tent is made out of heavy-duty nylon tent material rather than canvas which makes it incredibly lightweight and much easier to pack up and haul cross-country than a traditional canvas tent. It also dries out much quicker and is less likely to get mildewy if not completely dried when folded up. Canvas is more durable than nylon, but I only use my tent once or twice per year and after several years it still looks brand new. I don't foresee any issues with longevity as a DIY hunter.


Before buying my first wood stove years ago I did a lot of research and decided on a Riley brand stove. I now own two of them in different sizes and I absolutely love them. Riley stoves are manufactured in Townsend, Montana and one of the most unique things about them is that they are made of galvanized steel which will never rust.

They are lighter weight than most steel stoves yet they are extremely durable and are designed in such a way that the bottoms will not burn through. The craftsmanship and attention to detail is outstanding. All of the chimney pieces plus a spark arrester fit inside the body of the stove for transport. The spark arrester mounts just above the stove and stops sparks from exiting the chimney which is especially important with a nylon tent like the Alaknak. Without the spark arrester there would be a risk of sparks melting small holes in the tent roof.

Here is a list of some of the other main pieces of base camp gear that I have come to rely on along with links to find them online if you are interested:

Cots - I like a traditional cot which packs down nice and small for travel. It is vital that the frame is open under the cot for storage. Oversized cots are popular but be careful not to get carried away, as cots take up a lot of room in the tent.

Sleeping bag – For base camp a lightweight, packable bag is not necessary. Synthetic bags are heavier and bulkier than down but way less expensive. In September I use a bag rated to 20 degrees. From early October on I prefer a zero degree rated sleeping bag - .

Sleeping pad – Should be comfortable and also provide insulation. Self-inflating pads pack down smaller for transport but there is always a risk of a leak. Foam pads are generally more comfortable. I use both types depending on how much room I have for hauling.

Folding table – We set it up in the center of our tent and use our two large coolers as benches.

Packable roll-up aluminum table – We set our propane camp stove and pots and pans on this table next to the wood stove. It takes up very little room when packed up. I really love this table.

Bag chairs – We each bring one for sitting around the campfire and sometime for sitting inside the tent.

Propane Camp stove – We could do all our cooking on the wood stove, but sometimes it is nice to quickly heat something up without having to start a fire. The two burners come in handy when making breakfast – eggs in one pan and sausage or hash browns in the other.


Hanging water purifier – We fill one large water jug with stream water and use that to fill the purifier. Hang it from a tree branch and walk away as gravity does the work of filtering the water into a second jug. This is a huge energy saver compared to pumping water through a filter by hand.

Coolers – We bring two 120 quart Extreme coolers. One cooler holds our food and ice and the other is filled with miscellaneous gear on the way out. A deboned bull elk plus ice fits in one cooler.

Lanterns – Two Coleman Two-Mantle propane lanterns. They light quickly and easily and give off tons of light and a little heat inside the tent. Get the hard plastic carrying case. It's worth the extra money.

Chain saw and Maul ax - We cut down standing, dead timber and split firewood with the ax for the wood stove and for the campfire ring. The ax is also used to pound in tent stakes.

Tarp – We like to string a large tarp from the entrance of the tent out over the campfire ring to a tall tree so we can have a fire in the evening even if it's raining. Some of our gear stays outside and it is nice to have it protected from rain. If it's hot the tarp provides welcome shade.

Andy's 2015 DIY Colorado Elk Hunt

Base camp is about comfort and being able to recharge our batteries, while bivy camp is all about being lightweight and minimalist. From base camp our plan was to hike about four miles up into the valley and set up our bivy camp and then hunt from there, returning to base camp as needed to resupply with food. Four miles may not sound too bad, but in this rugged valley it feels like double that so we would need to pack ultralight.


Bivy Camp

Here is a list of some of my favorite lightweight bivy camping gear:

Sitka Flash 32 Pack – The size of this pack is a nice compromise of being large enough to haul all my bivy gear and large enough to haul a third of a boned out elk yet small enough to use as a day hunting pack each day. I really like the material this pack is made of which is very durable yet fairly light weight and very quiet.

Two-man Northface Tadpole tent – I use this tent alone and it give me enough room to have my gear inside with me out of the weather. Matt and Scott shared a three-man tent.

ENO Rain Tarp - An ultralight tarp that I often carry with me even when day hunting.

Big Agnes down sleeping bag – I like Big Agnes's system bags which forego down insulation on the bottom of the bag, and instead have a sleeve that my insulated pad slides in. The bag is sized with more room than a mummy bag for the same weight because of the missing down. I roll around a lot when sleeping and so I really appreciate the extra shoulder and foot space. I also like how the sleeve keeps my pad in place while I move around. I used the Lost Ranger 15 degree bag and lent Scott my Storm King 0 degree bag because I didn't want to carry the extra weight of the warmer bag. My feet got cold most nights and I wished I had the warmer bag.

Big Agnes Q-Core insulated inflatable sleeping pad – Has a unique quilted design rather than long tubes, which is more stable and comfortable.

Steri-pen water purifier – The Steri-pen does it in one minute with virtually no effort compared to a pump type water filter. Pumping water does not sound like a big deal, but when hunting in the mountains it feels like quite a chore. Water is readily available in this valley and very clean. In sketchier water situations a pump filter may be better.

Thermarest Z Seat – An ultralight fold-up foam butt pad that weighs almost nothing and takes up almost no room in my pack. It makes a huge difference for me in staying warm and comfortable around camp and also while glassing.

Primus Eta Lite Stove System – One stove for the three of us to boil water for Mountain House meals. The stove and fuel canister store inside the pot. Very efficient burning. Fast boil times even at high elevation.


CLICK HERE - to read about the rifle, clothing, boots and hunting gear Andy used on this hunt.

A few days before our planned departure I began staging all of our gear in my garage and checking and rechecking the gear list I had been creating over the past months. With everything laid out I began to feel a little nervous about whether it would all fit in my vehicle and trailer. I ended up concluding that I would need to borrow my dad's Yakima RocketBox roof top box. I loaded everything up the day before we were to leave and was pleased that it all fit. We left town around 5:00 pm on Tuesday and took turns driving through the night so that we arrived at our base camp spot at mid-day on Wednesday.

There is nothing like the feeling of opening the car door and stepping out into that sweet mountain air. It is one of my favorite moments each year. The three of us immediately began setting up base camp. Great hunting partners are priceless and Matt and Scott are that to me. We work like a well-oiled machine with very little communication needed. Everybody just knows what to do to get the job done.

Camp was set up quickly and the next order of business was collecting firewood for the campfire and for the wood stove. We removed the plywood top from my elk hunting trailer and drove the Forest Service road looking for the right stand of dead timber. It did not take long before we had a full load of logs which we brought back to base camp, cut up, and split.


Opening day was Saturday so we had a couple of days to acclimate and scout. We dined on steak and potatoes cooked over the open fire that first night and made plans for the next days. We decided we would start the next day by checking our rifles' zeros near camp and then hike into the adjacent valley where the maintained trail would make access relatively easy.

After a hot breakfast and a bit of shooting we headed into the adjacent valley with our day packs, binoculars and fly rods. We had a nice hike into the valley and did a little trout fishing along the way. At one point we stumbled upon a group of moose including a very nice bull a few hundred yards away. As we watched, the big bull worked his way down to the stream, coming to within 75 yards of us. We glassed from an excellent vantage point the last couple hours of the day but did not see any elk.

On Friday morning we loaded up our bivy gear and hunting gear and headed into our valley well before first light. The air was crisp and there was a crust of ice on the puddles outside our tent when we departed. For about 90 minutes we hiked in the dark gaining elevation quickly.

Our loaded packs pulled on our shoulders as we labored up the faint trail following a fast moving stream. The trail leveled off and we broke out of the timber into a flat marshy area just as the first rays of morning light began to glow above the ridge to our East. We silently worked our way along the valley floor until the lighting was right and we found a good spot to stop and glass the mountainside. I threw out a few locator bugles but did not hear any response. We glassed for awhile until we got too cold and decided to keep moving.

Andy's 2015 DIY Colorado Elk Hunt

It was wonderful to be back in the valley where Matt had killed his bull the year before. It is just so beautiful. My mind had wandered to it many times over the past twelve months since the last time I was there. We stopped again to glass the opposite slopes and while we sat silently scanning for elk, a young bull moose appeared out of the willows very close to us across the stream. We watched him for a few minutes before he disappeared into the timber and then we kept moving.


I was in excellent physical shape for this hunt. I stay in shape all year long and ramp up my workouts beginning in spring. This year I also spent three weeks in the Wyoming mountains in August teaching our LRH shooting classes with Non-Typical Outfitters. My Dad and I took advantage of those weeks in the mountains by hiking a circuit including some very steep climbs to paint the class's steel targets many mornings before breakfast. I had also hunted mule deer in September in those same Wyoming mountains so I was in as good of shape as ever for this elk hunt. With that said, I was beginning to really labor as we continued deeper into this valley.

We were following the stream that flows along the valley floor so our elevation gain was fairly gradual, yet the three of us were dead tired when we finally decided we had gone far enough and would make our bivy camp. We all dropped like a ton of bricks in our tracks and lay there basking in the warm sun, eventually falling asleep.

When I awoke from one of the best naps I have ever had I realized we were laying in a nice blueberry patch and I snacked on a few handfuls of the sweet treats. The temperature had risen quite a bit now that the sun was out and it was down right warm.

Our bivy camp was at over 11,000 feet which is more than 10,000 feet higher than my home in Wisconsin, and the elevation was really taking its toll on me. It was difficult to get myself moving to set up camp, but after eating half a sandwich I eventually did. I find that at high altitude my appetite is quite small. I eat much less than I normally would. I sometimes have to force myself to take in some calories just to keep my energy level up.

Our bodies told us that we should just hang out in camp for the rest of the afternoon. We had a decent view of the opposite mountainside and we could glass a fair amount of country right from camp, but we were there to find elk and the next morning was the opener so we sucked it up and climbed the adjacent mountainside to glass across to the other side from higher up. We also wanted to check out the grassy bowl up there in which I had seen a herd of elk bedding two summers before while scouting and glassing from miles away.

The climb was tough, but we took it slow and steady. We eventually reached a huge rock outcropping and climbed up on top of it. It was a fantastic vantage point to glass from. While Scott and I glassed, Matt snuck up farther into the bowl to see what he could find. We met back up in time to scramble down to camp as the last light faded. We did not see anything, but spirits were high for the next morning's opener.

The night was quite crisp with temperatures right around freezing. The first night bivying my feet got cold in my 20 degree sleeping bag which made for less than ideal sleep. We awoke well before first light and ate a quick breakfast of hot oatmeal before gearing up and beginning to hike up the valley in the dark. We silently worked our way towards a large beaver pond where we sat and glassed for awhile. I let out a few locator bugles but got no response. We were in the shadow of the East ridge and it was quite cold glassing.

We spotted a sow black bear with two cubs on a distant hillside no doubt munching on berries. When we began shivering too much to hold our binoculars steady we decided to head up the opposite mountainside towards the spot Matt had killed his archery bull the year before. First we had to traverse a large boulder-field with boulders the size of Volkswagens and then we slowly climbed the steep slope through the timber at the edge of the boulders. We had to stop often to catch our breath and rest our screaming thighs.


We eventually made it up to where Matt had shot his bull but it looked very different from the year before. It was dry and crunchy now and there was no fresh sign at all. We climbed higher and found a good glassing spot to glass across the valley. We glassed for a couple hours as the morning sun began to light up the opposite ridge.

At around 10:00 Matt announced that he was looking at a bull skylined at the very top of the mountain across from us and above the bowl we had climbed to the evening before. He was standing next to a large patch of snow and must have come up and over from the other side.

We eventually saw that he was with a small herd of nine or ten cows. He was far enough away that it was difficult to tell what kind of bull he was with our ten power binoculars. I wished I had brought my spotting scope and tripod now, however I definitely did not miss them the day before when my pack felt plenty heavy on our way to our bivy camp.

We watched as the herd worked its way down along the slopes that surrounded the bowl and eventually bedded down in some scrubby vegetation where we lost sight of them. We were excited that we had put a bull and his herd to bed and we made plans to drop down to the valley floor and then climb up the other side and wait for them to come out of their beds in the afternoon. The climb down was steep and quite difficult but our spirits were high so it wasn't too bad.

When we reached our bivy camp, we decided to have lunch and take a short rest before heading up. We were all pretty tired and needed to recharge before attempting the steep climb. We ended up falling asleep and slept a bit longer than we had planned, but we assumed the elk weren't going anywhere so we were not too worried.

We pushed ourselves on the way up because we were feeling bad about leaving later than planned. Eventually we made it up to the bottom of the bowl and slowly worked our way to a group of trees where we could hide and keep an eye on the scrubby brush the elk had bedded in from about 100 yards away. The wind was in our favor and we were excited to think that it was only a matter of time before the elk would get up out of their beds.

The hours ticked by slowly with no elk and as the light began to fade I decided to let out a few cow calls. We waited until just before dark and never saw or heard any elk. To say we were disappointed is an understatement. The climb down to camp in the dark was challenging including a couple stream crossings and some steep sections where we had to almost slide down. It had been a good day but it had not ended the way we hoped.

On Sunday morning Matt volunteered to climb the opposite mountainside again and see if he could glass up the herd while Scott and I would head up to the bowl and hopefully hunt them. We agreed on some hand signals and headed our separate ways. When we reached the large rock outcropping we glassed across to find Matt. He was watching for us and gave us the signal that the elk were up there again.

Our hearts began to race as Scott and I discussed our plan! We decided to work our way towards the trees we had hidden in the day before, but before we reached them we spotted the herd out feeding on the hillside above the bowl. We could see that the bull was definitely a shooter! We changed our route and headed towards the scrubby vegetation on the hillside where they had bedded the day before planning to set up for an ambush.

As we worked our way over there, being careful to stay low enough not to be spotted, I felt the wind on the back of my neck and knew this plan would not work so we headed back to where we had just come from. We worked our way to the same trees we had hidden in the day before and set up to wait for the elk to wander over to the bedding area.

Andy's 2015 DIY Colorado Elk Hunt

The pack out in the dark was one of tougher things I have ever done in my life. We stopped often to give our screaming shoulders and backs a rest. Each time we started back on the trail there were a few minutes where I would think, “This isn't so bad”. But within a few more minutes I would be back to thinking about how much pain I was in.

At about the halfway point I was really struggling and I decided I needed to do something to get my mind off my aches and pains. I began to carefully replay the entire hunt in my mind trying to remember every detail with this future article in mind. I can't tell you how much that positive thinking and distraction helped me.

We finally reached the end of the trail around 10:00 pm after several sessions of losing the trail and casting around in the dark trying to pick it back up. Our base camp with soft cots, a warm wood stove and all the food we could eat was a site for sore eyes.

We began the next morning with one of the most satisfying meals I've ever eaten - eggs, potatoes and extremely fresh elk tenderloin fried in a cast iron skillet on our wood stove. Then we drove an hour and a half to town to buy some ice and make a few phone calls, but we hurried back to camp so we could get back into the valley after more elk.


It doesn't get any better than this!

We made it back to bivy camp just before dark after stopping several times to glass along the way. The next morning Scott and Matt headed up the other side of the mountain and I climbed up above camp to the large boulder to glass their side. Mid-morning I spotted a group of cows near where the bull had been spotted the day before and watched them disappear into some brush.

It took me awhile to get the other guys' attention and give them hand signals to meet me down at bivy camp. After lunch we headed diagonally up the other side after the elk. We assumed the bull was with the cows I had spotted, although I had never laid eyes on him.

The climb was long and hard (as they always seem to be). We had to cross a huge boulder field and then climb some exceptionally steep terrain to get up to the the level where the cows had bedded. As we got set up to wait them out, the wind began to switch and was now blowing in their direction.

We were behind a spine and hoped that would send our scent up and over them, but after a while, cows and calves began to slowly bust out of the brush. The guys would have had shots at some of the cows, but we were just too tired to think about packing a cow out of this valley. The bull never appeared so we concluded that he had not been with them after all. We spent the rest of the afternoon glassing from our extremely high perch, but did not turn anything else up.

After the steepest climb down of the trip, we made it back to bivy camp in time to debate over dinner again whether we would stay the night or pack out to base camp in the dark again so that we could try the adjacent valley the next day, which was our last hunt day. I was really beat at this point and argued strongly for staying the night, but I was overruled and we again made the long, dark trek back to base camp.


Nobody ever said elk hunting was easy...

The last day was a beautiful sunny day and we had a nice time in the other valley. We hiked all the way to some high-mountain lakes and caught a bunch of trout. We did not turn up any elk in the other valley and made it back to base camp well after dark.

Our hunt was over and we were dead tired. We wished we had seen more elk and taken at least one more bull, but we were proud of the effort we put in and we had a wonderful time. My hunt was one of the most satisfying of my life. On the drive home our discussion turned to where we would go for our 2016 DIY archery elk hunt. It is hard to argue against going back to the place where we have killed a nice bull each of the last two years and, as of now, we plan to go back for a third try.

Andy Backus is a husband and father of two little girls. He grew up hunting whitetail deer in Wisconsin with gun and bow and over the years has been fortunate to hunt and explore most of the Western US states and Alaska. He plays soccer to stay in shape and also enjoys most other sports and outdoor activities. Andy is the Field Editor for Long Range Hunting Online Magazine and also manages the Long Range Hunting Store.