Tools, Tips, & Tactics – Locating Deer and Elk

Locating Deer and Elk. Video by © Jerry Neal/CPW

Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologists, park rangers and wildlife managers spend a substantial part of their careers in the field. This time in the field offers our experts valuable interaction with the public and, in turn, allows them to share information about what they are seeing and directly respond to the public’s questions. In an upcoming series of blog posts titled “Tools, Tips, and Tactics,” Colorado Outdoors Online will share advice and guidance from agency experts on a broad range of topics, including hunting, fishing, recreational trail use and much more.

Today’s post focuses on how to best locate deer and elk in the field.



Brad Petch, Senior Terrestrial Biologist: Get off of the beaten path to have a better chance of finding elk and deer.


Okay, before you say, “Thanks for stating the obvious,” I want to give you a little context behind this tip. Let’s be honest – most Colorado hunters have witnessed similar activities to what Senior Terrestrial Biologist Brad Petch describes in the video above. Simply stated, during the big-game seasons, roads and trails are heavily traveled by hunters.

The first requirement for any big-game hunt is the license. And Colorado has a number of scenarios that provide hunters with guaranteed opportunities to get out in the field and pursue big game. These options include over-the-counter elk licenses, leftover limited licenses and the reissue of limited licenses. For more information on obtaining a license, visit

So how do we find the spots that aren’t overcrowded with hunters? If you did not get your regular license during the big-game draw or if you are new to big-game hunting, the challenge becomes less about the ability to purchase a license and more about feeling confident about where you’ll be hunting. The type of terrain you choose to hunt and the potential to harvest a big-game animal both are factors in how confident you feel when you step out of your car. Having the right tools and knowing some good tactics can help you plan a productive do-it-yourself (D.I.Y.) public land big-game hunt in Colorado and give you the confidence you need to hunt where you’re most likely to find the animals.


As Brad mentioned, getting even a ¼ mile to ½ mile off of the roads and major hiking trails can dramatically improve the presence of animals. But in order to do that, you must feel confident when you get out of your car or truck and venture off the path to find deer and elk. We all can agree that well-planned hunts tend to produce the best results. There are, however, circumstances where planning windows are not as long as we would like and we can’t physically get out to locate our hunting spot and explore the terrain. Pre-scouting with powerful online maps can help take some of the guesswork out of what we will encounter when our boots hit the ground.

Modern mapping tools provide hunters with a variety of layers, including road, satellite, and topographic views that offer a preview of the landscape. The maps allow hunters to focus in on potential hunting locations by identifying habitat, food, water and cover for elk and deer.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Colorado Hunting Atlas, pictured below, goes a step beyond providing terrain details and adds layers that display species-specific data. Even if you are hundreds or thousands of miles away from the GMU for which you purchased a license, the atlas can help you identify where you can expect to find animals; how animals move during periods of migration; and where the animals summer and winter concentrations can be found. Admittedly, these sophisticated mapping tools take some patience and practice to master, but the benefits provided are game-changing.

If you are new to the Hunting Atlas and are looking for a little guidance, I’d recommend taking a look at the tutorial video. And for the less technically inclined, there’s another great option. Call a CPW hunt planner at (303) 291-PLAN. Hunt Planners are a free service provided by Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and they are experts when it comes to using the Colorado Hunting Atlas.

Colorado Hunting Atlas

CAUTION: When using mapping tools for pre-scouting, do not fall victim to ‘end-of-the-road syndrome.’ Novice map users tend to track a road on the map to the very end to locate what appears to be a remote location to start their hunt. This often leads to overcrowding at that “remote” location, as many first-time map users take the same approach. Your best bet is to use maps to survey roads and to locate accessible land that is not at the end of a road.


There is no shortage of mapping tools available to big-game hunters to use once they’re out in the field. Whether you choose a waterproof and tear-resistant physical map, a high-tech GPS or a self-printed set of maps from the Colorado Hunting Atlas, you will have the confidence to get off of the roads and trails, and you will greatly increase your chances for success.

The map making business is constantly evolving, so a quick google search for “Colorado hunting maps” is always a great place to start. Listed below, you will find some reputable map makers that will serve as a good starting point to see what type of products are currently available.

Map options for phones and GPS Units


The following products provide information on public/private land boundaries, herd information and much more, which can all be viewed from a smartphone or modern GPS unit. Just remember that it is always a best practice to carry a compass and physical map, just in case of an electronic failure.

Physical Maps

Getting off the beaten path and into nature will give you the best opportunity to find elk and deer and locate a great hunting spot. You can plan your hunt with the Colorado Hunting Atlas or by speaking to a hunt planner.  And then, find the type of map that works best for you when you’re out in the field to increase your chance of success. Most importantly – although a successful harvest is a goal of every hunter – our experience out in nature is what drives us from season to season.

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