On a recent whitetail deer hunt, one of the hunters in camp told me he wanted to try bowhunting for elk. He was from Arkansas, and had hunted only whitetail deer all his life. The thought of planning his own elk hunt intimidated him. Would he be crazy to try a self-guided hunt, or should he hire a guide?
That’s one of the most frequent questions I receive, and I do not have a stock answer.
Personalities vary. For some people I say, Do it yourself! For others I advise, Go with an outfitter. Which category do you fall into? Only you can answer that, but maybe some of my thoughts from 40 years of hunting — guided, self-guided, and often misguided — will help you make the right decision.
Legality — In most of Canada, law requires nonresidents to hunt with outfitters. In Alaska, nonresidents must hire a guide to legally hunt grizzly/brown bears, sheep, and goats. This is the main reason I have hunted with guides.
Money — If you’re wealthy, this might be of small concern, but if you’re on a tight budget, money might be the main concern. Only you can decide what you can afford.
Some working-class hunters would rather save their money and take guided hunts every three or four years, while others would rather take less-expensive, self-guided hunts every year. I personally fall into the latter group.
Time – Planning takes time. If you don’t have time to research and execute a major hunt, hire a guide. If you have the time and enjoy planning and scheming, do it yourself.
Physical condition – Big game hunting is hard work. Packing in, setting up camp, hiking mountains, butchering animals, packing meat — it can wipe you out. If you’re in mediocre shape, or you have physical disabilities, hunt guided. You still have to get around on your own, but your guide will do the grunt work for you.
If you’re fit and you thrive on work, don’t hesitate to hunt on your own. Age is no limitation. One year in Central Idaho I ran into a guy from Massachusetts who, over a period of three days, had packed an elk 13 miles. The man was 64 years old. He had been doing this self-guided hunt for 20 years. He loved it.
Gear — If you plan to take only a couple of major hunts, and you don’t own tents, cook gear, packframes, rafts, horses, ATV’s, or other needed gear, go guided. In the long run, it will be cheaper and more efficient.
If you plan to hunt seriously for many years, then outfit yourself and go for it. With today’s retail outlets like Cabela’s, Bass Pro, and others, anyone can assemble adequate gear for the most extreme hunts.
Knowledge – Years ago, standard advice was to take a guided hunt or two to learn the ropes, and then to try hunting on your own. That used to make sense, but it makes less sense today. Now you can go online to get big game regulations, surveys, and reports in seconds. And even if you’ve never hunted elk or moose, you can become a virtual expert by reading, watching DVDs and TV programs, and chatting online.
Further, you don’t need someone to show you the country; you can scout it from your living room using Geographic Information Systems (GIS), Internet map sources, and GPS mapping systems. Today, nobody has any excuse for lack of knowledge. It’s available. You just have to dig it up.
Personality — If you’re intimidated by the unknown or cannot adapt mentally to unpredictable and threatening circumstances, hunting with an outfitter may be your best option.
Conversely, if you welcome challenge and thrive on adventure, do-it-yourself hunting will suit you fine. Sure, you’ll hit speed bumps along the way — who doesn’t? — but you’ll hurdle them aggressively. And even if you do not fill any tags, you will come home full of pride at your accomplishments — and immediately start planning next year’s adventure. Frankly, I think personality is the key ingredient in this discussion. If you have the will to hunt on your own, you will find the way to do it.
In 1958, while hunting the Little Delta River in Alaska, Fred Bear wrote:This was an unusual hunt in many ways. The best of it was that we had no guides. This makes for much greater freedom and provides opportunities to exercise one’s own initiative. All decisions are your own. You plan the day, find your own game, and make the approach. If the stalk is successful there is greater pride in accomplishment. If it is a failure there is only yourself to blame. (Fred Bear’s Field Notes, p. 82)
If his words appeal to you, you’re a prime candidate for hunting on your own. Of course, only you can decide whether you would be crazy to go self-guided on your first adventure hunt. But if your personality fits the profile, you might be crazy not to.