Hunting bighorn and goats at altitudes exceeding 11,000 feet is a tough effort that requires some pretty dedicated physical and mental preparation by the hunter.
During a recent seminar, I presented a discussion concerning High Altitude Survival. Some of the material dealt with the training needed if a hunter should find themselves in the unenviable situation of being stuck on the mountain, but much of it applies to elk hunters in terms of the physical preparation needed for the coming elk season. I thought I would share some concepts and training tips with you as we move closer to the elk season in Colorado.
Preparation is Key
First, consider what some pretty smart folks have said about the importance of preparation:
“Before everything else getting ready is the secret to success”
– Henry Ford
“It wasn’t raining when Noah built the Ark” – Howard Ruff
“It’s not the will to win that matters- everyone has that, it’s the will to prepare to win that matters” - Paul “Bear” Bryant.
Now I will admit, the concept of spending a whole summer getting ready for my five-day elk hunt seems to be a rather unbalanced commitment of time and energy. But when I speak with hunters, wildlife officers and outfitters about the single most important tip they can give a new hunter concerning elk hunting, the subject of physical fitness ranks in the top one or two answers I get from them.
Hunter = Athlete
As I began thinking about this article, I pulled up some research on the Internet and found over 300,000 references about physical fitness when searching about elk hunting. Each website and article spoke of the physical demands of the hunt and how important the fitness aspect of preparation was to a successful hunt. Training, skills, expertise and dedication were words used to describe the preparation for elk season. As I watched some of the coverage of the Olympic Trials, the commentators used those exact same words; training, skills and dedication to describe our athletes in the coming Olympics. The dictionary defines an athlete as: a person who is trained or skilled in exercises, sports, or games requiring physical strength, agility, or stamina. I think it is appropriate to define the elk hunter as an athlete and as such, we could use some of those same concepts in training as used for those elite athletes who strive for the gold.
Our “sport” requires a special set of skills which are not generally associated with the competitors of track and field, gridiron or the basketball court. On top of our need for strength, stamina and agility, we need precise shooting skills and solid woodsmanship skills to track, read the wind, understand the terrain and carry a pack that weighs more than 40 percent of your body weight for long distances. So let’s begin to develop a training plan that will help us get to the top of the podium (mountain) and reach for the gold this fall.
The exercise industry offers a bewildering variety of fitness plans, from high-dollar gym programs to DIY DVD courses to work-out plans available on the Internet for free. The plan you select needs to fit your personal ability and time as you begin to train for the hunt. The first step is to develop a fitness plan that will focus on three aspects of the hunt; strength, agility and stamina, or cardiovascular fitness. You should focus on a plan that will allow you to engage in some defined activity, everyday, to prepare for the hunt. Every day is important. It's also important that your plan be structured so you can commit to it, follow it and assess your improvement over the next few months.
Note: Before you begin any fitness plan, please check with your doctor to ensure the increase in physical activity, cardiovascular exercise and strength training is acceptable for your age, physical condition and overall health.
Your strength program should concentrate on the muscles you will need most during the hunt. Traversing the drainages, ridges and slopes that elk call home will require strong hips (glutes), lower back, knees (hamstrings and quadriceps), biceps and triceps and your feet/ankles, so target these muscle groups for strengthening. . Fortunately, you do not need expensive equipment to work these muscles and build the kind of strength needed for the hunt. You can make them at home for little cost and they will work just as well as going to the gym. Go to the local hardware store and purchase some cloth parts bags or heavy duty plastic bags. Fill each bag with 5 pounds of sand. Fifty-pound bags of playground sand can be purchased for around $5. Now you have a versatile weight set that you can use for a variety of exercises. You can add a couple of bags to your pack, hold one in each hand and perform bicep and triceps exercises, do squats holding the bags out in front of you.
To build strength needed for climbing hills, get a sturdy box or a solid chair about 24 to 30 inches tall and do step-ups onto the platform. The ideal height would be such that your knees bend to 90 degrees and you can stand up on the platform, one leg at a time. Start slow and build up to 50 or so per set for each leg.
You'll also need strength in your shoulders and your core. Do good old pushups, sit-ups and planks to improve the strength in your arms, abdomen and back.
Your cardiovascular workouts need to focus on building stamina and increasing lung capacity. Those of us who live in Colorado have a bit of an edge over others when it comes to altitude but even those who live a “mile high” find the air to be much thinner in the places elk call home. If running is not your thing, try walking at a fast pace on an incline treadmill, or find some hills near your home and walking up and down them for at least 45 minutes four times a week. Your goal should be to push your heart rate and breathing as hard as you can. Your cardio workouts will help you to decrease your recovery time after exercise. This is critical when getting ready for your shot on your elk with respect to breathing control for shot placement.
Finally, you need to work on some agility skills and add them into your weekly workout routine. Agility and balance are important on the mountain and can help you cross that last 25 yards of broken terrain to get into shooting position or prevent you from taking a tumble down the mountain because you lost your balance. One important skill is the “side shuffle", I found several videos on YouTube and Ehow that will show you how to do them. You should also practice balancing exercises, again the Internet is a great free source. One leg balances, balancing on your toes and heels and then balance when you have your pack on carrying 50 lbs up an incline are all important to your success in the fall. As you walk on the sidewalk, try to walk along the edge of the curb for a bit, take an 8-foot six-by-six landscape timber and practice your balance beam skills, six inches off the floor.
The common denominator here is practice: you improve by working. There is no substitute for sweat.
A relatively new training method that has arrived on the scene for athletes is visualization or mental rehearsal. Sports medicine folks have found that both physical and psychological reactions in certain situations can be improved by visualization. We are athletes. Visualization works for the ball players, track runners and other elite athletes, it will work for you, too. You can read about visualization techniques in many articles and journals but here is a short course from a hunter’s perspective. As you begin your training for the fall hunt this summer, think through the entire hunt, from arrival at the hunt site through the shot and the harvest. Develop that series of images in your head and repeat the process over and over again, mentally. Research says it takes a person an average of 15 repetitions of a task to develop it as long term memory and about 21 days of repetition to develop long term memory in a physical effort to develop it into a habit. While there will be no substitute for time spent at the shooting range practicing and refining your shooting skills, you can visualize the hunt, the shot placement and the trigger squeeze/arrow release over and over again in your mind. While imagining your hunt scenarios, try to “see” them in vivid detail of each piece of the hunt. Try to feel the wind in your face, smell the crisp mountain air and hear the resounding bugle of that bull. To be honest, I have not proved this concept out yet, but it has been great fun and a relaxing effort since I started a few months ago.
Acclimate to the Altitude
A final piece in this workout article has to be a short discussion about the affects of altitude on the chasers of elk. Colorado elevations range from 3,315 feet above sea level in the Arickaree River basin to 14, 433 feet on top of Mt Elbert. Now elk do not live at these extreme ends of the spectrum, but can certainly be found from about 4,000 feet to 11,000 feet depending on time of the year and location in the state. Those higher altitudes can cause havoc on your lungs if you so not give them time to adjust. Altitude also will play games with your appetite, hydration and energy levels.
If you are planning to hunt at an altitude that is more than 3,000 feet above the altitude you live at, you should plan to give your body time to adjust by arriving a day or so early and staying overnight before beginning any strenuous exercise. You should also read about the symptoms of altitude sickness and be able to recognize them. If you experience any of the symptoms, think about heading to a lower altitude for a day and allowing your body to acclimate more slowly.
Altitude will also affect your appetite and thirst, making you less hungry and less interested in drinking water. The best rule of thumb is to drink even when you are not thirsty and eat even if you are not hungry. For an adult, that translates to about three to four liters of water and about 3000 to 4000 calories each day that you hunt. Staying hydrated and fueled up will allow you to be more productive all day instead of hitting that wall about mid-morning because you just grabbed a donut and cup of coffee at 4:00 a.m. as you headed out.
For those hunters who are heading to the mountains for the first time, I hope the information presented above will help you prepare for your first hunt so you can meet the challenges in the best shape of your life. For those who are returning to chase a Monarch again this year, I hope you can glean a few new ideas from the article. If you talk with any long-time elk hunters, guides or outfitters, you will often hear them say that once the harvest is made, “now the real work begins.” Packing out 300 pounds of meat on your back is a challenge best attempted if you are in shape. The question you need to ask yourself is: “Do I want to just go hunting or do I want to harvest an elk?” It is up to you.
See you on the mountain: JB