Bull Elk

Hunting in the Wind

If you are hunting elk in the western mountains, you can almost be assured that the prevailing wind will come from the west. While it would seem obvious then that a still hunter would always want to hunt with the wind in his face, hunting from east to west, it’s really not that simple.  In mountainous terrain there are wind currents called thermals, which are caused by the heating and cooling of the mountain air.  This doesn’t happen when you hunt deer on the plains or flat land.  On a typical elk hunt, you may change your elevation by over a thousand feet easily, multiple times a day.

Thermals are caused by the differences in temperature of the air at certain points in a mountain terrain at certain times of the day.  During the cool hours of late afternoon, during the evening, and early in the morning, thermals blow downslope as the air cools and sinks to lower elevations.  As the day heats up, the thermals reverse and the winds then blow upslope as the air warms up and rises. While you can generally count on this behavior of wind currents, the problem is compounded by erratic winds that can blow from every direction caused by the terrain.  While the prevailing wind will come from the west, as that wind hits drainages and sharp contrasts in the terrain, it will funnel along the path of least resistance.

If you have the conventional winds and thermals in place, hike uphill early in the morning when the thermals are blowing down toward you. They’ll usually remain that way until midmorning unless it’s unusually hot; in that case the thermals will reverse earlier. In the afternoon, plan your return downslope when the wind is still blowing uphill, but never leave so early that you’ll miss the last few minutes of shooting light.


Elk hunting as the sun rises

If the winds are blowing from every direction, don’t give up. While I am sure it has happened, most people don’t shoot elk while they are sitting in their camp. Don’t let the wind keep you from trying to harvest an animal, or any other factor for that matter.  In the case of severe winds during bitterly cold weather, look for elk on leeward slopes where they’re offered some protection. However, that doesn’t mean you won’t find animals out in the strong wind as elk commonly feed on windswept ridges because the snow is blown away and forage is easier to obtain.

The point is to understand the wind, and as all hunters know it can be the first thing to reveal your presence.  But it’s a different story in the mountains, and you will increase your success rate if you have some basic understanding of how the wind behaves and how the animals react.