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      Spike Camp Essentials for Elk Hunting

      by Shawn McCardell
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      When I first heard the words "spike camp" as it related to elk hunting, I was suddenly envisioning a hunting camp solely for elk hunters who had drawn a "spike" tag. But after some research and experience, I think spike camp is the right camp in almost any elk hunting situation (or big game hunting in general). 

      Which camp type is right for me?

      The easiest and cheapest way to establish an elk hunting camp is by setting up a basecamp. This is a semi-permanent camp that is either at a trailhead or just off the side of the road. For this type of camp you could set up a large tent (like you are car camping) or even bring along a travel trailer. Every day you set off from camp and hike a few miles in and hunt for the day, returning back to base camp each night. This is a great concept because you have easy access to a lot of the creature comforts of home and if there are no elk in the area you can easily pull up camp and head to another spot. The downside to this type of hunting camp is that you can only hunt for elk as far as your legs carry you up the main trail and back at the end of the night.

      The most difficult and usually most expensive way to set up a hunting camp for elk season is with a bivy camp. This is a totally mobile camp where you hike and hunt all day and set up camp wherever you happen to be. Usually, this requires high-end ultralight camping and backpacking gear and the physical fitness to pull off hiking countless miles in search of elk. While this type of set-up allows you to potentially follow a herd of elk as they bounce from basin to basin it can be a gamble. If you hike back 10 to 15 miles and there are not elk it takes a lot of time to pull out and change locations. You also need to be able to carry your entire camp plus the meat on your back each day back to your vehicle if you are successful. 

      But there is a type of camp that Goldilocks would say is “just right”: spike camp. Spike camp blends the best of the other two styles of hunting camp. You pack in a few miles and set up a much smaller “base camp,” then venture out from there each day. This puts you further back in elk country — the ability to hunt in different directions from camp will mean you can glass several basins during your hunt. If there are no elk in the area then you can always pick up and move back to the vehicles. 

      Below are a few points you need to consider before you start planning a spike camp for your next elk hunting adventure.

      Feeding the fire

      This should go without saying, but food and water are going to be of major concern for any spike camp. Typically your menu would revolve around dehydrated or freeze-dried backpacking meals supplemented with energy enhanced snacks like gummy bears and protein bars. When researching pre-packaged meals some things to consider are how good it tastes, the number of calories per meal, how much it weighs, how easy it is to prepare as well as how much water it will take. That last point is a factor because you will either need to pack in all of your water needs (drinking, eating, cleaning etc.) or set up spike camp near a water source. 

      Ideally, you would set up near a water source and use a water filter (Sawyer MINI is cheap and small) or steri-pen (check out Katadyn) to make the water safe for drinking. Once you have your dehydrated meal and water all you need is a little heat and dinner is served. There is a multitude of options when it comes to a backpacking stove but I have found the all-in-one systems like Jetboil or Camp Chef Stryker to be the easiest to use for boiling water. After a hard day’s hike, there’s nothing quite like a full belly to get you ready for bed.

      There’s no place like home


      The foundation for any spike camp is the tent. This is going to be your home away from home in the backcountry so it's going to need to keep you comfortable for days on end. Your tent should be big enough for you and your gear, offer the ability to keep you dry during periods of extended rain and weigh in between 5lbs and 10lbs depending on your preferences. 

      Generally speaking, backpacking experts recommend no more than 2.5 lbs for a backpacking tent but the reality of spike camp necessitates a more durable tent (heavier) as well as a tent that can accommodate the surplus of gear the backcountry hunter brings along (bigger and heavier). The added weight will only be felt on the pack-in and pack-out.

      Browning Camping offers two lines of backpacking tents that could help fill this niche; their Granite Creek and their Boulder line of tents. The Granite Creek comes in a 1 or 2-person tent option while the Boulder comes in only a 2-person tent. If you are hunting with a few buddies don’t overlook the Glacier 4-person tent, even though it weighs in at slightly over 21lbs. Just divide up the poles, tent and fly amongst your buddies so that you each are carrying your fair share.

      Next to the tent your sleeping system will ensure you stay warm and comfortable all night long. Again Browning Camping comes to the rescue with two lines of mummy sleeping bags; the Refuge and the Vortex. These bags range in temperatures from 35° down to -10° and can weigh in between 3lbs and 6lbs depending on insulation. 

      But a sleeping bag isn’t the only thing you need to stay warm. Along with adding comfort, a sleeping pad keeps you and your bag up off the cold ground which can literally suck the heat right out from under you. Browning's Timber Air Pad is lightweight and constructed of durable 75D polyester fabric on both top and bottom, keeping you off the ground and dreaming about those bugling bulls until morning.

      Pack it up, pack it in

      By far the most crucial piece of gear, for anyone considering a spike camp for elk hunting, is your backpack. Your backpack needs to be able to pull double duty by packing all of your gear into camp and then be able to convert to a day pack/meat hauler when you set out for the day’s hunt. We have several packs in our Extreme line that meet these requirements, but the Trophy X + Pack will exceed your expectations in the backcountry.

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      The Trophy X pack bag offers up to 4575 cubic inches of space to store all of your hunting gear. The pack bag is made from 1680D Ballistic and Robic™ nylon with Elimishield® Scent Control Technology, is H²O bladder compatible, comes with an integrated rifle and bow drop-down pocket, and offers stowable shoulder straps to be used independently from the Trophy X frame. With multiple zippered entry points on the main compartment, a zippered lip pocket and fleece-lined pockets for your spotting scope and cell phone, this pack is ready to take you and your gear to the next level in the field.

      The Trophy X frame is made out of lightweight powder-coated aluminum with a load shelf capable of supporting those heavy loads of elk meat. To ensure a comfortable fit while hiking the shoulder straps, molded foam suspension system and waist belt are all covered in Lycra®.  

      Your spike camp awaits

      You should now have a good idea of the essential gear you'll need to have with you for your next spike camp. Your goal should be to be as comfortable as possible while still being efficient (and filling your tag, of course). Don't skimp on your gear, or you may find yourself in an uncomfortable situation next time you're deep in the backcountry!

      Big Game Hunting Pro Tips

      Shawn McCardell

      Shawn McCardell

      Shawn McCardell is an outdoor writer who lives in the western mountains of Maryland with his wife, Dawn, and four boys. He is an avid hunter, angler, and conservationist. Shawn is a board member and the R3 coordinator for the Capital Chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. When not pursuing his next adventure he can be found instructing future generations as a certified hunter safety instructor.

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