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    Backcountry Bound

    Elk Camp Traditions and Trends

    Nearly every hunter I know has dreamed of hunting from a traditional elk hunting camp. The comfort and nostalgia of a canvas wall tent, complete with wood-burning stove and sleeping cots, make fall nights spent in such accommodations a “sure to be remembered” experience. However, many hunters simply attempt to tough it out in unheated camping tents or burn up their recreational cash in rented motel rooms. When the weather turns really cold and nasty, though, a nylon tent offers precious little protection from the chill. On more than one occasion, I’ve seen hunters thus outfitted packing it up for civilization at the first hint of foul weather – even though such storms often boost game activity to its highest levels.

    The comfort and nostalgia of a traditional elk camp make them increasingly popular with modern hunters.
    The comfort and nostalgia of a traditional elk camp make them increasingly popular with modern hunters.
    Motel rooms? There’s no denying the comfort, but they increase the cost of a hunting trip quickly and I’ve yet to see even a one-star inn at the end of a U.S. Forest Service road. “Camping out” at a motel usually means getting up hours before dawn to hunt the elk meadows at daybreak. If you’re in the field until dark (as you should be), it’s a long, lonely drive back to the Ramada. A smartly outfitted hunting camp offers the best of both worlds: “at home” luxury that can be transported anywhere a 4x4 pickup or pack animals can travel.

    One of the primary reasons many hunters never get around to creating their own camp is expense. A basic hunting camp reasonably requires an initial investment of $700 to $1,500. The most economical way to get into your own hunting camp is to pool resources with three or four like-minded, compatible hunters and share the expense.

    For more than four decades, my family has maintained an elk camp with just such an arrangement. My dad and uncles scraped together the original equipment. Each year, the actual cost of the camp (food, fuel, etc.) is shared by everyone, whether they’re an “owner” or guest. An additional $25 per person goes into an account that is used to fund repairs or purchase new items as needed.

    Hunters focused strictly on hanging their tag on an elk will be better served by a simple camp than an elaborate setup that takes hours for set up and takedown.
    Hunters focused strictly on hanging their tag on an elk will be better served by a simple camp than an elaborate setup that takes hours for set up and takedown.

    Requiring the steepest investment and creating the backbone of a comfortable camp is a quality canvas wall tent. Wall tents have several advantages over the nylon tents hunters see popping up next to mini-vans in Yellowstone National Park campgrounds in the summer. They’re certainly more durable – a properly pitched wall tent can take six inches of wet snow with a smile. They also provide superior insulation, and best of all, most wall tents come fitted with a stove jack, making it possible to heat the shelter with a wood-burning stove.

    As this is written, I’m sitting not at my desk, but in a camp high in the mountains, hunting by day and nursing prose by night. It’s about 20 degrees outside, chilly enough for misery in an unheated nylon tent. Yet I’m typing in my shirtsleeves, sipping tea, seated in an old folding chair a few feet from a snapping fire in the stove. Between the warmth of the fire and the protection of weighty canvas walls, I’m aware of the breeze outside for its muted refrain in the evergreens, not its flesh numbing chill.

    What makes a good tent? First of all, consider size. My primary tent is a 12x14-foot model with 5-foot sidewalls. This tent can accommodate four hunters (if they’re good friends), but there’s little room left for cooking and lounging. For four hunters, a 14x16-foot model is much more comfortable.

    The current trend in elk camps is toward multiple, smaller tents than a single large one, which promotes easier set up and flexibility.
    The current trend in elk camps is toward multiple, smaller tents than a single large one, which promotes easier set up and flexibility.

    However, whether pitched with an internal frame or supported traditionally with dry wood poles cut on site, the larger the tent, the more manpower required to erect it. In my part of the country, there’s definitely a trend toward multiple, smaller tents for larger hunting parties versus one large canvas cabin.

    The promise of a warm bed and a place to dry clothing provide a strong appeal for traditional elk camps.
    The promise of a warm bed and a place to dry clothing provide a strong appeal for traditional elk camps.
    There’s wisdom in this approach. With two 12x14-foot tents, a party of five can designate one for cooking and even accommodate dry storage for gear such as horse tack, food and water while reserving the other for sleeping. Parties with both men and women also benefit from multiple tents. For example, my wife and I share an 8x10-foot sleeping tent for her privacy at our family elk camp, jokingly dubbed the “honeymoon suite” by a cousin.

    Other advantages to the “several tents” trend apply. With two tents, if half of the group needs to depart before the rest, the remaining hunters can consolidate into a single structure. Depending on a person’s desires and cold tolerance, some of the sleeping tents don’t necessarily need to be wall tents. I have a couple of hardy, adventurous friends who actually prefer sleeping on the ground in a sturdy backpack tent but appreciate the comfort of a heated wall tent for eating, socializing and drying gear. That’s a sensible alternative to a completely traditional elk camp for a larger party with access to a single, heated wall tent.

    One of the first items a hunter will want to pack inside the tent is a stove. Wood-burning stoves come in assorted shapes and sizes, from lightweight backcountry models constructed of sheet metal to back-busting cast-iron heaters that can weigh as much as the rest of your camp. Specialty stoves designed specifically for hunting camps, generally constructed of durable steel and sometimes marketed with options like hot water heaters and ovens, are extremely practical. Alternatively, some camps rely on propane heaters where wood is in short supply.

    A backpack tent provides humble accommodations on its own but can add sleeping space for adventurous souls as an extension of a traditional camp.
    A backpack tent provides humble accommodations on its own but can add sleeping space for adventurous souls as an extension of a traditional camp.

    A heated wall tent is the core of a traditional elk camp. Beyond that, the sky is the limit when it comes to replicating all of the luxuries of home, which spawns a question: “Is this about the hunting or the camping?” Last season, I drove into the mountains to find a trio of relatives, retired guys in their 60s, had already set up elk camp. Although, “camp” isn’t quite the right word. “Canvas Estates subdivision” better described the bivouac. They immediately ushered me on a tour of the development.

    A cooking tent replete with a padded, interlocking floor housed several lounge chairs, a woodstove with hot water heater and a portable oven. The sleeping tent included not only cots, but one fellow’s portable, queen-sized bed with an inflatable mattress, a pair of nightstands and an expansive drying rack for clothing. There was a hot water shower, an enclosed outhouse and even a separate smaller tent to shelter tack, horse feed and fuel for a generator that powered electric lights strung through every structure along with a pair of bulbs illuminating the hitching rail where mounts were saddled before dawn. At the end of the inspection it seemed even the horses were smiling. The euphoria subsided considerably on departure day. It was chilly and spitting wet snow. It took from dawn until midafternoon to return the production to the pickups.

    A separate tent for cooking, eating and socializing is ideal for a larger party of hunters.
    A separate tent for cooking, eating and socializing is ideal for a larger party of hunters.
    Is a camp of such color worth the work? That depends. The several fellows who have killed numerous elk in their lifetimes and hunt rather casually didn’t seem to mind. A group of hard-charging, younger hunters would doubtlessly prioritize the two days required for set up and break down for hunting.

    When it’s all about the hunting, maximizing time in the field and minimizing effort in camp can be accomplished in numerous ways. Propane heat is simpler than wood. Easily prepared meals reduce cooking and clean-up time versus cooking “from scratch.” Battery-powered models operate at the push of a button as opposed to the traditional ambiance but additional work of fuel-fired lanterns. A certain level of the comfort (a heated tent, dry footwear and clothing, sleep-supporting bedding, etc.) afforded by a traditional elk camp supports hard hunting. Still, it’s easy to go overboard if the goal is downing a bull.

    With all of the current options available to the elk hunter, creating a superb or spartan camp has never been easier. Whether it’s luxuriously traditional or purely efficient is for the party to decide.

    Wolfe Publishing Group