What You Need To Know About “Elk Shape”

You’re finally taking the plunge to head out west for your first backcountry elk hunt. If you’ve been doing your homework, the topic of fitness has probably come up a time or two. Some experienced hunters claim you don’t need to worry at all, while others are training like they’re headed to the Olympics. So which is it?

Last year, the elk hunting trip I went on resulted in packing out two bulls in six days. If I had not trained the way I did throughout the summer, those six days would’ve been physically miserable. What has worked for me may not work for you. With two Montana DIY elk hunts under my belt, I feel I have enough experience to share with you what has worked, what hasn’t, and what you need to focus on the most.

First off, a little background on my general fitness level. I’m 30 years old, 6’2″ tall, and weigh 215 pounds. I live an active lifestyle, hit the gym on average three times per week, and really enjoy drinking heavy microbrews on the weekends. In order for me to get in some sort of elk hunting shape, I really start focusing on a few different things starting after the 4th of July. If you haven’t started some sort of fitness routine yet, you need to now!

General Thoughts

  • If you’re spending the money to go on an out of state elk hunt, you owe it to yourself to be physically prepared.
  • If you have an elk hunting partner, don’t let your fitness level be the reason they miss out on an opportunity.
  • Elk are spectacular animals, you owe it to the life you’re taking to be at your peak performance as hunter.
  • As much as your boots, your bow, or your knife is a tool, so is your body. Think of your body as a tool for the hunt and prepare it for everything.
  • Regarding lifting weights: Under no circumstances should your arms be bigger than your legs.

What To Focus On The Most

Legs. Legs. Legs. Get your legs in shape. If you lift weights at the gym then typical workouts like squats and lunges are your best friend. Definitely focus on high reps over heavy weight. If you can do both, thats great. I don’t squat much more than my own body weight, but I focus on getting in 30-40 reps.

What elevation do you live at compared to where you will be hunting? The air is thinner in the mountains so you’ll need to focus on cardio as well. I know a lot of guys talk about knee and ankle pain from running. The solution to that is an elliptical machine, rowing machine, or hitting the stair stepper (my personal choice).

Finally, if nothing else, hike with weight in your backpack. Start light and work your way up. I’ll start at 20 pounds and an easy mile and a half hike. See how sore you are the next day and adjust accordingly. Ideally, I like to be able to hike four to five miles with 60-70 pounds in my backpack followed by minimal soreness the following day. It takes me about two months to get to that point.

What Works Best

After knowing what it physically takes to hunt the backcountry for five days and pack out a couple elk, I am confident in my summer fitness routine. I like to start backpack hiking in mid to late June about once a week, while also maintaining a few days a week in the gym. Most of the time this means I am throwing on my backpack while I mow the lawn or go to check trail cameras on my whitetail properties here in Michigan. Once the calendar turns to August, I’m hiking 2-4 miles twice a week with my backpack, typically in some sort of hilly terrain. Hiking downhill is equally, if not more, important than hiking up hills.

Starting in July, I’ll watch the weather forecast for cooler days that will be good for running outside. I plan my hikes/workouts accordingly because I can’t do squats one day and follow it with a run the next day… I’m no Cameron Hanes. Running and spending time on the stair stepper is where I get my cardio training. By the end of August I am trying to run four miles in under 30 minutes 1-2 times per week.

If you couldn’t tell, my legs are either extremely sore or in recovery during August through September. When you start hiking with heavier loads, you’ll start to feel it in your hips and shoulders. That all goes away, until you hike five miles down a mountain with a 100 pound pack full of elk meat… twice! Below are the two days we packed our bulls out. Both bulls required two trips, and each trip had anywhere from 80-100+ pounds of weight in our backpacks. These two days don’t include the miles of hiking in and hunting.

What Doesn’t Work

This might sound cliche, but doing nothing or waiting too long to start training isn’t a good idea. I’ve heard stories from guides who have had clients give up after two days because they are so sore and fatigued they can’t tough it out any longer – don’t be that guy.

Focusing on arm or chest strength over leg strength isn’t wise either. Big biceps don’t kill big game. Whether it’s extra muscle or extra fat, it all adds up and you’ll end up carrying that unnecessary weight on weaker legs during your hunt.

Final Thoughts

There are ways to do it easier, but if you want an experience unlike anything else, I highly recommend hiking in with camp on your back and setting up for a 4-5 day hunt. You won’t regret it. You will also be further away from the day hunters or weekend warriors. Getting three or more miles away from a trailhead will most likely lead you to the least pressured elk in the area. Start now, use the summer months to train, and shoot strait!

Here are the two videos from our 2016 elk hunt and 2014 elk hunt. I think it’s Chris’s turn to run the camera! Fast forward to 4:20 in the first video for the kill shot.

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