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Flatland to Altitude: Training for Elk Bowhunting

1. Planning and Goals

When programming a training routine for elk hunting I recommend utilizing reverse engineering.  

The three most important factors are distance, vertical, and load. Are you hiking 3 miles, 6 miles, 10 miles and camping? My back-country pack varies from 50-65 lbs with gear; food, water, a weapon, tent, stove, etc., depending on the weather and time of year.

Elk usually habitat around 8,500 to 12,000 feet above sea level.  Not to say you can’t kill bulls in different elevations but I always play the worst case scenario or the boy scout motto of “always be prepared”.  I would rather over train and have a cake walk than under train and be dying.

Write down your hunt plan even if it is simple.  Who, Where, What, When, etc.  I need to hike 6 miles to camp with 65 lbs of gear.  I need a tent, stove, sleeping bag, snow gear, puffy, fleece gloves and hat, gun, tripod, binos, spotter, etc.  The elevation gain I am expecting is 3000 vertical feet.  “Cover your 6 or C.Y.A.”  The better you are prepared the less exhausting it will be.  It will still be hard, intense, rough but being in shape will make it suck less.

2. Hiking

It has been said that elk hunting is “taking your pack on long walks”.  I am a huge advocate for walking/hiking outside to train your body to use pushing or propelling movements.  If you only have access to a treadmill in a gym this is ok but I highly recommend boots on the ground.  A treadmill is different physics than walking. In addition you get the weather effect.  A climate controlled gym is not Elk country at altitude.       

Doing long distance at least once per week and going vertical (up and down) at least once per week is a great foundation for training. It is said that you should be physically able to hike 10miles per day for elk camp.  I have heard of hunters going 90-130miles on a 7-10 day hunt.  Just know your abilities and limits.  It is your responsibility to prepare for your hunt.

Pack/Ruck Training

You should be training with loads on your spine.  Things like barbell squats, hiking with a weighted vest or a loaded pack.  I like to start training with just walking/hiking and add 5 lbs to my pack each week.  Work up to 85-95% of max load.  I recommend not maxing out at 65 lbs every week or do multiple sessions per week with max loads.  Your body will not tolerate it and you will most likely get an injury or rupture a disc. Slowly progress with adding weight to packs.  Slow and steady wins the race.  Exercises like dumbbell steps up or step downs, or wearing a weighted vest and doing lunges are great for getting your bones, ligaments, tendons, tissues, spine, and discs to adapt to having stress on them.  I was taught you want to micro or slowly progress your training to prevent injury.  When you strength train your tissues (muscles, bones, ligaments, tendons) get denser to accommodate more load, tension, stress. Think of it like “you want to get a suntan verse, get  a sunburn or build a callus verse get a blister”.  Use your spouse or kids for piggy back rides or sled pulls.   

3. Vertical Up

At the gym you can use an incline on a treadmill, a stair mill, a stair stepper, or a versa climber to get used to these motions.   Running is not hiking, speeds are different, the metabolic demand is different. I recommend, at a minimum, doing a long/slow distance session per week and an interval (high intensity) session per week.  If you have the motivation and maybe work up to doing 2-3 of each per week as you get closer to opening day. I will do a H.I.I.T (high intensity interval training) workout on Tuesday and a loaded pack hike 3-6miles on the week for 2-4 hours on a Saturday. 

If you don’t have access to a gym or gym equipment, find some stairs either at your house, a park, apartment building, work, and get vertical.  A plyo box with a pack, weighted vest, or dumbbells can work. 

Where I live I have a couple of hills that are 1000’ vertical elevation.  So I will do sets of going up and down.  Typically I will do 2-3sets to get close to my hunting elevation goal.  Essentially do whatever you need to do to reach your goal.

4. Vertical Down

Going down a hill or steep slope can be very taxing on your knees, thighs, and quadricep muscles.  I get winded going up and muscle exhaustion coming down.  Braking/stopping is super taxing on your tissues (muscles, ligaments, tendons, joints, bones). It is an opportunity to fall, get injured or get seriously hurt when coming down the mountain.  Many people are so focused on incline training and they don’t think about decline training.  Then they do fine hiking and hunting until they have to come back down with extra loads from meat, antlers, etc.

If you have access to a decline treadmill use it if you are bound to a gym.  You can go down stairs in an apartment building, or stairs at your house or train down the mountain.  

5. Shooting Skill

Shooting and exercise are perishable skills.  Use it or lose it.  Don’t spend your year training only in the gym and doing sport specific cardio.  Get out and shoot and shoot often too.  Range time, either with your bow or gun, should be a staple on your training program and on your checklist for weekly goals.  

These are examples and suggestions, modify as needed. 

Disclaimer: Please note that these are suggestions/recommendations and can be modified depending on level/ability and/or equipment. You should consult your physician and/or physical therapist before starting any exercise program.

Flatland to Elk Altitude Workout:

Hopefully this is good, sound advice that helps you with planning, training, and getting you prepared for your next elk hunt.  Remember you can modify depending on your level and/or ability.  Feel free to add shooting days, more frequency of exercises throughout the week, etc. Happy training and happy hunting. 

For more information, or video’s check out

Ryan has an exercise science degree with 18 years as a fitness professional working with professional athletes, dabbling in the rehab and therapy fields as well as he once was a licensed chiropractic assistant. He focuses on sustainability, client individuality, and using science to drive program design. Ryan is an avid bowhunter and backcountry enthusiast.  


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