Breaking Down the Cost
An article I recently read about budgeting for an elk hunt had the total price at over $6,000 for the entire trip. That was for a do it yourself (DIY) trip. The author of this article had his guided hunt at $14,000... these numbers are unrealistic. So unrealistic that I am compelled to share with you what it cost me, an average hunter with an average job, to do a DIY out of state elk hunt.
I chose to do my trip in Montana for two reasons. First, my buddy Chris lives in Bozeman, MT so lodging and a set of wheels weren't going to be an expense. Second, I had already spent a week in the mountains chasing elk with Chris two years prior. I didn't buy a tag that year because I didn't want to spend the money on a non-resident tag when I had never been elk hunting before. It's a $915 tag. I knew there was going to be a lot to learn during my first trip so I opted to be Chris's elk hunting partner, videographer, meat hauler, or whatever else you want to call it. Chris and I used to live in the same city, so this was also a trip to reunite with an old friend. Video of that trip here.
That year, I scheduled 12 days off of work, bought a tag, and flew to MT to elk hunt. Chris picked me up from the airport, we organized our gear, and came up with a game plan. The plan was to hike into our spot on public land, set up camp, and hunt for 5 days. If we hadn't killed an elk by the 5th day, we planned on hiking out, grabbing dinner and posting up in a hotel for a night to recharge. Then we would hike back in to a different location and hunt for 3 more days. Luckily, on the 2nd day, a bull decided to feed his way into an open meadow which we had been day napping at the edge of. A 40 yard shot and a 150 yard blood trail changed our plans real quick.
Flight and Tag
I traveled to MT by myself so I felt it made more sense to fly than try to drive 20 hours each way by myself. The cost of my flight was $550. Add $50 for a checked backpack and a checked bow case. Total: $600
As I previously stated, a non-resident elk tag for MT is $915. Non-resident’s are no longer guaranteed a tag in Montana bout the success rate when applying for a general elk tag is somewhere around 80%.
We need to talk about hunting gear for a minute. I am not going to include the expense of a bow, arrows, broad heads, hunting clothes, boots, knives, headlamps, etc. If you’re going on a DIY elk hunt, I am going to assume that you already hunt in which case you should already have all of this gear.
There was some gear I did need. Specifically a backpack, water filter, and jetboil. Each of these I received as a gift for Christmas or my birthday. If you forgot to ask Santa for a backpack this Christmas, that's on you. A good backpack will honestly cost you $300-$400. The water filter and jetboil each come in under $100. I am not going to include these in the total cost of my trip as they weren't an expense for me.
I did have to purchase a sleeping bag ($100), sleeping pad ($25), hydration bladder ($40), inflatable pillow ($60), bear spray ($60), and jetboil fuel ($12) Total: $297
I debated on including food as an expense. Whether you're home or hunting out of town, you're going to buy groceries. Food while your elk hunting is a little different though. My diet consisted of a breakfast bagel with peanut butter and bacon; trail mix, jerky, and 3 energy bars for lunch; and a dehydrated meal for dinner. Breakfast and lunch cost about $60. Dehydrated meals go for roughly $8 each (8 days of food = $64). Total: $124
Taxidermy, Processing, and Shipping
Here is where driving would have saved me a lot of money. Had I not flown, I could have just boiled the skull and dealt with the meat once I got home. Since I did fly I, I had to have the head and the meat shipped to me. Processing the meat cost $190. Getting a euro mount done cost $200 (you cannot transport brain matter or spinal fluid into the state of Michigan so I had to get the head taken care of). I was able to check the head at the airport for $125 otherwise UPS quoted me at $300. The meat was shipped overnight for $225 (Had a shipping discount through work). Total: $740
When you take a 12 day vacation and fill your tag on the 2nd day, you're left with a lot of unforeseen expenses... like beer. In all honesty, had we hunted the entire time the only additional cost would've been one night in a hotel ($75). I'll add $200 for gas, eating out, and grabbing a few cold ones. Total: $275
*Chris hadn't notched his tag yet but the weather was bad the second half of our trip so we didn't hunt again until the 2nd to last day there. The unimaginable happened on that day. Chris killed a bull during one of the most epic mornings of elk hunting. Watch the video here.
Total Cost: $2,951
How To Do It Cheaper?
Lets say I drove with a friend to MT for this hunt. Take out $740 for taxidermy, processing, and shipping. Also take out the $600 flight. Add $200 for half of the gas. The cost to go elk hunting is at a much more reasonable price of $1,811. Still too much? Find an elk hunting partner who is cool with you buying a tag every other year. He can be the hunter and you can be the caller. I doubt you'll find a hunter who is opposed to being the featured hunter on an elk hunting trip. Even if you don't have a tag, I assure you there is much to learn and every year you do not hunt these great animals, you’ll fall one step behind.
Another option to do this cheaper is to hunt in Colorado or Idaho. I am not sure on the price of tags but I believe tags in both of those states, which offer over the counter tags, is about $300 less. That would bring the expense of an out of state DIY elk hunting trip to around $1,500. If you want it bad enough, you can find ways to save $1,500 over the course of a year.
Elk hunting doesn't have to be a financial burden. It's no longer a trip where you have to hire a guide, stay in a lodge, and drop $10k. The information you can find on the internet and in forums has made it easy for the younger generation of hunters to plan a trip like this. I'm almost 30 and I'm kicking myself for not going sooner. The time to have these adventures is now. Filling a tag or not, you won't regret going on a trip like this. You'll never look back and wish you spent that week of your life somewhere else. No one talks about how much money they made on their death bed. They talk about how badass elk hunting was when they were younger!