The Mental Side of Big Game Hunting

Everyone knows about the physical demands of big game hunting. Waking up early, climbing over mountains and packing out meat each put a lot of strain on the body. Equally taxing can be the mental stress that comes from the hunt. An elk could respond to a bugle and present a shot 30 seconds from now, or the hunt could drag on for two more weeks. Remaining prepared and focused at all times can leave your nerves fried. 

In my first years hunting big game I struggled with slow times and overthinking my decisions. Over the past few years I have found ways to handle the head game better. We have written other posts on the tangible ways to hunt longer in the backcountry, such as hygiene, food and small comforts. This blog will focus on the mental side of hunting big game for long periods.

Playing the Odds

During my first season elk hunting I would tell myself each morning, “Today’s the day. I’m going to shoot an elk.” I thought that convincing myself of imminent success would keep me focused. Instead, it wore me out. Today, I focus less on individual hunts and more on my overall performance. I like to think each hunt as a bit like rolling dice or “playing the odds.”

I’ve shot three bulls in the last three years while hunting 47 days. That means that on any given day I have roughly a 6% chance of success. At 4:30 a.m. its tough to crawl out of a warm sleeping bag for a 6% chance of shooting an elk. However, over the course of an entire season the odds of success begin to tip in your favor.  In my head I take 94% (my daily probability of failure) to the 20th power (the number of days I hunt), which means a 29% chance of failure or 71% chance at success for the season (For 14 days there’s a 58% chance of success). If I stay disciplined day in and day out, I will give myself the best odds at success. From there I focus on controlling what I can control. 

Control What You Can Control

Know what you can control and what you can’t, then gauge your success on how well you handled the factors under your control. I can’t control weather patterns or the number of hunters that choose to show up in my unit this year. I can control things like the time I get out of camp in the morning, keeping the wind in my favor and remaining focused. For instance, I want to hunt all the way to the truck at the end of each hunt.

I expect to hunt well for 20 days, not necessarily to shoot a bull. When a bull slips away I keep this goal in mind. As a result, on day ten I am on my way towards success instead of failure. I know that if I hunt in a focused, disciplined way I will have success over time. Essentially, the animals will take care of themselves if I take care of what I can. If I go out each hunt and give my best, good things will happen. 

Don’t Cheat

I slept in on a morning deer hunt a few weeks ago. The odds of success were low, but I felt I cheated myself and the dog out of an opportunity to improve. You have to ask yourself, “Can you sleep at night knowing you skipped that one morning hunt?” The pain and exhaustion only last a week, but you’ll remember the feeling of success for much longer. Respect the hunt, yourself and the money you spent by putting the time and effort in to give yourself the best chance.

Everyone has their own threshold to consider. For me, when I’ve met my expectations, I feel a little sore in my legs. If I’ve cut corners and cheated a hunt, I feel it in my gut. Not cheating doesn’t mean running yourself ragged. Know when to rest for a day or an evening.

Treat Setbacks as Opportunities

Mike Tyson has a quote, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” You’ll get punched in the mouth at some point during your next hunt: gear will break, bad weather will roll in, nasty neighbors will make fun of your haircut. Each has a chance to derail your hunt. Treat setbacks as opportunities to gain experience and become a better hunter.


I avoid ups and downs by focusing on the big picture and factors under my control, instead of focusing on individual events. I’m going to give myself the best odds at success and let the cards land where they will. I hope this approach helps you a bit on your next hunt. Let me know what works for you. 

Thank you for reading, 


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