Questions to Ask Your Outfitter Before Booking

These hunters' experience lead to questions they should have asked before booking.

Hunting with an outfitter can be a very different experience and one many aren’t prepared for. This account of a father and son booking their first trip on a guided elk hunt provides some of the great questions you can ask when getting ready to pick up the phone and book a guide.

John Millson of Non-Typical Guides in Oregon provided some great insight on things to think about before booking your elk hunt. His experience guiding clients into monster elk in the Owyhee mountains speaks to many of the issues raised by these two gentlemen’s experience trying to find guides for a successful hunt.

My dad has always dreamed of going on a true Western backcountry, horseback trip to hunt bugling bulls in September. I, on the other hand, have always tried to talk him out of it; opting rather for DIY on public land and being able to run our own program. So, after years of this back and forth, having the means to go all out on a guided hunt and staring down the barrel of turning 60, my dad finally decided he was going to book an outfitter for the two of us to hunt elk.

After thoroughly searching for an outfitter, there were some things to address before finding the right one:

  • Decide the #1 most important aspect of the hunt. Whether it’s the cost, quality of animals, opportunity rate, accommodations, etc. these things can make or break your hunt. If it is the accommodations, it's extra important to fully understand what's involved with a drop camp hunt to make sure it's the right fit for you.
  • Be honest about your physical ability. If you tell the guy you want a hard-core backcountry trip to go after real trophy animals, you’d better be prepared for hard days and short nights.
  • Start the process well in advance. We really put ourselves in a tight spot trying to book the same year. John’s input: Most outfitters are booked far in advance and all have return customers if they're good. Plan on booking one or two years out.

We got really lucky. We found an outfitter that had a client cancel and was looking for a replacement. We needed to make up our minds quickly as the vacancy was not going to remain open for long. After some lengthy phone conversations, everything felt good, we all seemed to be on the same page, so we went ahead with the deposit and contract.

Here are a few things I wish we’d asked:

  • Will there be other hunters in the same camp?
  • How many guides will be in camp?
  • How long have you been outfitting in this area?
  • How far is the camp from the trailhead?
  • Are there any motorized trails near where we’ll be hunting?

Millson has a couple points here: The dynamic in a camp with multiple hunting parties can be difficult. Understand if you will be in camp with strangers for a week and prepare to be flexible. Between the guides, cook, and clients, there are lots of personalities at play.

We arrived the night before our hunt was scheduled and met the outfitter the next morning. After a short drive to the trailhead, we met the rest of the crew, which included two guides, the outfitter, a cook, a wrangler and the other hunters, who were on their 5th trip with this outfitter. Once in camp, everything was set up and very professional. Our tent, which we shared with the other hunters, had enough room for the 4 of us, our gear, and a wood stove which was lit each night when we got back to camp and the woodpile replenished. After a great meal prepared by the camp cook we went to bed, excited to start our hunt the next morning.

John wants his clients to understand the concept of “camp." Many clients have it in their head that all hunting takes place from a comfy bed. When hunting elk, it’s just not the case.

I awoke the next morning to our guide lighting the lantern in our tent and telling us breakfast would be ready in 15 minutes. We discussed the plan for the day over coffee and another great meal, were given a sack lunch and headed out on horseback. After an hour-long ride in the dark, we tied up the horses and hiked a couple hundred yards up the trail onto a good glassing knob. As the sun broke, we could tell we were completely socked in by fog and glassing was near impossible until about 9:30 that morning.

We noticed a group of about a dozen elk on the ridge next to us about 700 yards away, including a 320 class bull. We sat in the sagebrush glassing them for about 15 minutes, discussing a game plan. Suddenly a cow snapped her head up and stared hard in our direction. Two minutes later, the entire herd was high-tailing in the opposite direction. “Those were some spooky elk!” I said. Our guide explained that there was a single-track motorized trail a few hundred yards above us and the elk might’ve heard something from up there. Subsequent conversation revealed that the week before there had been 6 or 8 guys hunting the same drainage.

Millson wanted to inject some thoughts here. “Much of my job is managing expectations.” There are so many variables to chasing animals on public land. “Understand, your guide can control what’s in his power.” Consider how long the season has been open and how many people may or may not have been into animals. Outfitters will put you into the best situation they can.

Overall the hunt was slow, but we did see animals. On the last day we headed toward where we’d seen the elk the evening before. While still on our horses, we began hearing bugles. I was in the lead and as we rounded a curve in the trail I spotted elk on the hillside above; pinned down, I dropped to my belly and signaled the others. Our guide dropped below the trail and began to call aggressively. A big 6-point broke from the herd 150 yards above and came downhill at a trot. Two other bulls in the timber above also lit up several times while the big bull bugled back and forth at us. At 80 yards, he hung up and just wouldn’t commit any further. Finally, he turned and followed his cows back into the timber. Having hunted public land, I know that’s how it goes sometimes.

John's input: Public or private land… they’re sometimes gonna hang up.

Being first timers to the whole guide experience, we didn’t know what to expect and could have done a few things better. The food was first class, the lodging was very comfortable and our guides were great guys. After hunting heavily pressured elk on public land late in the season, we realized we were lucky to have good guides who were able to put us into animals. Perhaps no animals were harvested, but our experience served to teach us about the outfitted experience. Now equipped with a framework, we will be back on a guided hunt in the future.

If you are completely new to elk hunting, this Elk Hunting 101 article will be helpful. If you are ready to begin your conversations with outfitters, you can search thousands of elk hunting outfitters at