In this day and age of uncertainty and tight budgets, more and more hunters are looking for ways to still get out there and get after it while keeping costs in check. When it comes to elk and mule deer, this has many Western hunters thinking “drop camp” instead of “fully guided.” But before you decide to go this route, you need to first understand what a drop camp is—and what it is not.
What Drop Camps Are
Drop camps are designed for experienced hunters who are able to or prefer to hunt on their own. That is not the same thing as a DIY hunt. With a drop camp, you’ll be the client of an outfitter, and that outfitter’s drop camp will usually feature pre-set tent camps that include wood or propane stoves, pre-cut and stacked firewood, cooking and eating utensils, cots and foam sleeping pads, lanterns and fuel, propane cook tops and propane, cooking and dining tables and latrine facilities. Sometimes there will also be axes, saws and shovels, depending on liability waivers and so on. There should be a good water supply close by, but if not, plenty of potable water should have been packed in for you.
Drop camps are usually accessed by horseback, with packhorses used to haul camp gear in and out. Hunters are generally responsible for all their food and beverages, hunting licenses and tags, personal gear, sleeping bag and hunting equipment. Unless special arrangements have been made, it is rare that the outfitter will leave horses for you.
Camps are often checked by a packer or the outfitter himself at regular intervals, usually every three to four days, to make sure things are going okay and to see whether you have any meat and capes ready to be packed out. Whenever possible, drop camps will usually have radios for communication with base camp.
Most important to a drop camp, the outfitter should provide its hunting clients with maps and/or information related to current elk numbers, locations and expected movement patterns given the conditions—after all, this is a hunting trip, not a scout-o-rama. You need elk to hunt, and because you’re paying an outfitter, you should not be expected to go into the thing blind.
What Drop Camps Are Not
Drop camps are not guided hunts. You should never book one expecting in-the-field help in any way, shape or form. It is the hunter’s responsibility to locate game, figure out how to get a shot, and then, if luck holds, field dress the animal and pack the meat back to camp where a packer working for the outfitter can then pick it up and pack it to the trailhead.
Because you’ll be packing in on horseback, you should expect a drop camp to be set up far enough away from easy vehicle access, making it extremely difficult for most other hunters to make it to where you will be hunting. Still, on public land there is no guarantee you will not see other hunters who have their own horses or the moxy to backpack in on a total DIY hunt.
At first blush, the drop camp option has much appeal. However, you must research your options carefully before booking.
“I book very few drop camps because you must look for quality first, not shop prices,” said Wade Derby of Crosshair Consulting. “Some outfitters set up drop camps in marginal areas, reserving their prime hunting ground for their fully guided clients and leaving the drop campers on the fringes. This is the biggest fear when booking a drop camp—that you’ll end up in a complete wasteland with few, if any, elk to hunt. That said, I work with a couple of outfitters that, at times, see their drop camp hunters have higher success than their guided clients due to weather conditions that force the elk to leave the high country.
“My suggestion is to find an outfitter who thinks like this and you will be fine, otherwise I do not recommend most drop camps. Often a better option for those who want to shave a few bucks off the cost of a guided hunt would be a group lease of private ground where you can hunt on your own for similar money.”
I have also heard some horror stories of camps with leaky tents, stoves and lanterns that do not work, no firewood, promised camp checks that do not materialize, and so on. In other words, you must do your homework. Ask for past client lists and make the calls to lots on the list, not just the ones who gave an outfitter a five-star review. You’ll weed out the ones who had bad weather for their whole hunt and blamed the outfitter, of course, but you’ll take seriously the ones who have specific criticisms that can mean the difference between a hunt’s success or failure (not to mention you’re expected comfort level in camp).
One of the most important things you can do when researching drop camp hunts is to assess the country. By its very nature, wilderness elk hunting in the steep, high-elevation mountains of the West is some of the most physically demanding big-game hunting on the continent. I tell people that many of the Dall’s sheep hunts I’ve made in Alaska—and those sheep hunts are plenty tough!—are nothing compared to hunting elk in the high mountains of Idaho, Montana and Colorado. And once you shoot an elk, oh my goodness, packing all that meat on your back for long distance over broken, nasty terrain can be a back-breaker!
This means two things. First, if you want to elk hunt on your own you must be physically fit enough to be able to take it on. That means training for the hunt on a regular basis. Second, you should be realistic about your physical capabilities and select an area that matches what you can do as closely as possible. It makes little sense to hunt the straight up-and-down 10,000-foot elevations of Idaho’s Selway Wilderness Area if you cannot cover the requisite mountain miles day after day after day to give yourself a chance. Instead, why not look for a hunt in the 5000-foot rolling hill elevations of New Mexico?
Booking a Drop Camp
For all the above reasons and many others, never forget that the motto when booking a drop camp is just the same as booking a fully-guided hunt: Caveat emptor—“Let the buyer beware.” You have to do lots of research and check each prospective hunting area and outfitter out carefully before handing over your hard-earned Jacksons.
You can start your hunt research on the internet. All you have to do is Google “drop camp elk hunts” and all sorts of outfitter information will pop up. When you find a handful that sound right for you, be sure to ask if they are licensed and bonded, and, as I’ve said, ask for a reference list. Burn up those cell minutes and call as many as you can to get a feel for how their hunts went.
What does it cost? I’ve seen drop camp elk hunts advertised as cheap as a grand and as expensive as $4,500. It seems like most run somewhere between $1,500 and $2,500, plus licenses, tags, food and incidentals. It’s hard to generalize, since no two hunts are exactly the same, but that range should help.
The Bottom Line
Success rates for drop camp elk hunts vary widely, but rarely are they as high as for fully-guided hunts in the same general area. One of the most overlooked reasons why you book a fully guided hunt is to take advantage of the guide’s years of experience hunting the same ground. Knowledge of elk movement in a specific area under varying weather and hunting pressure conditions can make or break a hunt, so unless you have hunted an area yourself for a year or three it is impossible to have the knowledge of a guide who’s been in that same area for years, even decades. That’s why I tell people, if you find an area you like hunting, stick with it for at least three years so you can accumulate this knowledge.
Can you kill an elk on a drop camp hunt? Absolutely. Is it a sure thing? Absolutely not. (It’s also not an absolute on a fully guided hunt.) But if you are an experienced elk hunter in good physical condition and can cover lots of ground until you locate the elk, then wiggle into position for a shot, a drop camp can be a good option for you.
Bob Robb is one of the most well-respected voices in outdoor media, with more than 40 years of columns and essays in print recounting his exploits in the field. A renowned archery expert, Robb has hunted on five continents and also lived 15 years in Alaska, where he held an assistant hunting guide’s license. His work has appeared in titles small and large, from American Hunter and American Rifleman to Whitetail Journal, Field & Stream, Petersen’s Hunting, Deer & Deer Hunting, and many others. He recently retired as Editorial Director from Grand View Media Group, where he oversaw the content for eight publications, including Bowhunting World, Predator Xtreme and Waterfowl & Retriever. Still, retirement is rather an ugly word to Robb, and so he continues to contribute to a variety of publications, just as he continues to hunt around the world.