A bull elk I took with a muzzle loader

Get In Shape for Elk Hunting  

It’s the middle of June and my muzzle loader elk hunt is three months away.  Normally I would be in better physical condition than I am right now, but I have been  completely inactive for the first five months of this year due to my back injury and subsequent surgeries.  Only in the past month or so have I been able to get out and do some lake fishing and kayaking.  A week ago today my surgeon took x-rays of the lumbar fusion in my back and determined that the bone growth is doing well, and now I can start being more active, starting with physical therapy.  Luckily I have been watching my weight during the past six months, and I have not gained any weight, I was in good shape when the injury happened, and that helped.  But now it is time to get to work over the next three months, but I have to ease into it a bit.

Physical conditioning is one of the most important aspects of preparing for a western mountain elk hunt.  Your legs, heart, and lungs will get the hardest workout, and it takes time to get into shape to be able to hunt in steep, rugged terrain.   I wrote another article about preparing for elk hunting; you can read that by clicking here.  But this article is purely about physical conditioning.  As I mentioned in the previous article, if you are not in top shape, you will be a liability to the others in your hunting party if you hunt in a group, you will be a liability to your guide and horses if you use them, or if you hunt alone you will have a difficult time getting an elk on the ground simply by your inability to navigate the terrain, and a much tougher time getting it out of the mountains if you do get one.

Being in good condition will also help you with adjusting to the high altitude of an elk hunt.  I once guided a group of hunters from South Dakota where they lived at an elevation of about 1,400 feet.  When I met them at the trail head there was one guy who was easily 300 pounds and clearly out of shape.  We took the horses to camp, which was at 8,900 feet, and that guy was so sick from the altitude that he stayed in his tent for the first three days of the trip.  Imagine investing over $5,000 for a hunting trip of a lifetime, only to spend three days in bed because you are so out of shape that you can’t handle the altitude.  It was actually pretty sad to witness.

I am not a physical trainer, but there are some things I can suggest to help you prepare your body for a high mountain hunt.  First of all, you should concentrate on exercises that target large muscle groups.  I actually did consult with my 18 year old son who is a total gym rat and works on body building every day, he is a lacrosse player and keeps himself in excellent shape year round.  For overall body strength you can get strong in only three hours a week if you perform these routines in the correct manner.


High country elk hunting terrain

The workouts require five basic lifts; squat, bench press, barbell row, dead lift, and overhead press.  In your first workout do 5 sets of 5 reps each of squats, bench press, and barbell rows.  In the next workout do 5 sets of 5 reps of squats, overhead press, and dead lifts, and then alternate the series of lifts with each workout.  If you are a beginner, start with a small amount of weight, maybe 50 pounds, and gradually increase your weight five pounds at a time each week until you can only do three reps of each exercise, and then back off the weight until you can do five reps again.  You will be surprised at the strength you will build in a short amount of time.

The next thing to concentrate on is your cardio conditioning.  When hunting elk you will not only be exerting a great deal of energy on a consistent basis, but often times you will have to sprint quickly uphill, be able to swiftly side-hill over rough terrain quietly, or rush down into a steep canyon to catch up to a bugling bull.  With each situation, your goal is to take a shot at an animal once you get to where you want to be, and you can’t make a good shot with a rifle or a bow if you are huffing and puffing so hard that you can’t hold a steady aim.

The good thing about cardio conditioning is that you have many different options to choose from.  Jogging is an obvious choice, and swimming is also a good choice as well.  I like to ride my bike since running is hard on my back, and I love swimming in the lake.  I also like to hike in the foothills with a weighted pack on my back, increasing the weight over time.  Whichever exercise you choose, the important factor is to continually increase your exercise sessions to the point that you feel like you can keep going if you needed to.

Once you get to within a month of your hunt you should factor shooting into your workout routine.  Obviously this can’t be done at the gym, so what I like to do is take my bow or an air rifle on my hikes, exert myself so that my heart and lungs are working hard, and then stop to take a shot at a stump or something else that is safe.  This is a good simulation of a true hunting experience, minus the adrenaline you will be experiencing when you see a big 6×6 bull in your sights.


Tough elk terrain

I know I have a long ways to go in a short amount of time, and I am committed to get there.  I know that by September I will not be in the condition that I really want to be in, I can’t rush this mechanical reconstruction of my spine, but I know I will be in good enough shape to have a productive hunt.  I will have horses to pack out an elk if I get one, but I will still have to process an elk and hang the quarters high in a tree.  Luckily for me I will have my best friend Rich with me to do the really hard work that I may not be able to do by that time.  My recovery goal from this surgery was to be able to take this elk hunt in September, and so far I am well on track for reaching that goal.

So if you are fortunate enough to be hunting elk this year, now is the time to start getting into shape.  If you are archery hunting, you have two and a half months, three months for muzzle loader, and four months for the first rifle season.   When your hunt time arrives, you will be thankful that you put the effort in starting now.  Whether you harvest an elk or not, you will enjoy the experience if you are able to handle the physical demands of elk hunting in the Rocky Mountains.