Guided or Self-Guided?

By Garth Jenson, August 2015

Both guided and self-guided hunts have equal benefits and drawbacks, it just really depends on the individual and their situation with time, money, and what their version of a trophy is. That will determine which hunt will be right for you.

Roughly 75% of the hunters who apply out-of-state every year know going into the draw whether or not they’re going to hire a guide or try their hand at a selfguided hunt. However, for the other 25% of hunters who are still trying to make up their mind, I’ll give you a few things to consider that are associated with both.

Let’s start off with guided hunts. One of the biggest misconceptions I hear about guided hunts is that they cost a lot more than self-guided hunts. In most cases, when you factor in all the time that’s involved with researching and scouting the area in order to have a reasonable chance at harvesting a trophy animal, a guided hunt is often the cheaper route. It is hard to put a price on the amount of knowledge and experience a quality guide has acquired over years of hunting his backyard. The facts are, if you live more than 8-10 hours away from your hunting area and have a full-time job along with everyday family commitments, scouting isn’t much of an option.

Another benefit of hiring a guide is the ease of knowing all you have to do is show up at your hunting unit in good shape and be able to shoot straight and everything else is taken care of. I’ve gone on enough self-guided hunts in areas I knew nothing about to know that by the time I was done with most of them I was left exhausted and scratching my head thinking I would’ve been money ahead to have just bit the bullet and hired a guide. Once I am finished sorting through all my receipts and factoring in the hours I had spent setting up and taking down camp searching for that honey hole, I realized this was definitely NOT the most efficient way to maximize my time spent in the field.

There are definitely some hunts that are no brainers for hiring a guide for me. For starters, for any trophy caliber hunts where I haven’t had a lot of experience judging the animals I will be pursuing and they are rare tags, I will hire a guide. This is one aspect that some hunters don’t take into consideration when thinking about hiring a guide. For instance, I haven’t spent a lot of time field judging Mountain goats or sheep, so when I finally get a tag I definitely want someone there to lean on who could tell me if that goat is 8 1/2" or 9 1/2" or if that ram has 14" or 15" bases. It’s little measurements like these that can often make the difference between a trophy and an average sized animal.

Another scenario where a guided hunt is definitely warranted is when you hit one of those years when you’ve pulled more tags than you have time to devote to them. When you get to that stage where your points are starting to accumulate, where you actually have the chance to pull multiple tags in different states in the same year, guides are worth their weight in gold.

Self-guided hunts are my forte as I typically go on hunts where I’m familiar enough with the animals to accurately judge trophy quality and I have enough time to dedicate toward scouting and research. I already have all the equipment, like tents, trailers, horses, backpacks, and even a couple trusty pack goats, that I can use on all my trips. These are items I would never consider buying if I was only planning on using them for one or two hunting trips.

Self-guided hunting is a lot of work, and at times it can be very frustrating to try and figure out where the best place to be is amongst the thousands of acres in your hunting unit, but just like my grandpa used to say to me, “You’ll never appreciate it if you don’t earn it.” This really holds true when it all comes together and you’re standing over a trophy that you earned all on your own.

Self-guided hunts can be extremely time consuming and oftentimes end in more exercise than opportunity. It is mostly going to be a process of elimination of areas not to go more so than finding those areas that are full of game. One of the hardest aspects of a self-guided hunt is keeping yourself mentally focused on the prize when you’ve spent days and days on your hunt and haven’t turned up anything even close to your goal. This is when you truly find out if a self-guided hunt is what you wanted! Anyone can stick it out for a couple days, especially if they’re seeing game and going on a few stalks, but around that fourth or fifth day of glassing different canyons and still not turning anything up is when that “way too expensive” guide starts to look pretty cheap.

In the end, a self-guided hunt really only has one tangible benefit in that it can be cheaper if you already have all the equipment and are already familiar enough with your hunting area and the species which you are pursuing. The biggest benefit for me, and really I would say anyone who prefers a self-guided hunt over a guided hunt, isn’t something that’s tangible, it’s just that feeling you get after all the hard work and sacrifice finally pays off and you’ve just downed that big buck or bull in the bottom of a deep canyon in the middle of nowhere. You have that overwhelming feeling of accomplishment that can only come after you’ve experienced countless defeats and you’ve learned where to be glassing from when the sun peaks over the ridgetop, what direction the wind will be blowing at 11:00 when that buck finally beds down for the day, the patience it took to stay put in that clump of deadfall when you weren’t quite certain if you were busted or not, and finally, making that one shot opportunity count after weeks and maybe years of disappointment. It’s that feeling right there when you are approaching and can see antler tips sticking up out of the brush and you realize you’ve just outsmarted an animal that has avoided hunters and predators alike for half a decade or more. It’s hard to put into words why this feeling is so powerful that it can equal, and in some cases outweigh, all the benefits associated with a guided hunt, but if you’ve ever experienced it, I don’t have to tell you because you already know the feeling.

One of the most important things to keep in mind is that we are all hunters with the same goal. It doesn’t make you any less of a hunter if you choose to hire a guide to increase your odds at harvesting a trophy, and it definitely doesn’t make you any more of a hunter if you hike 10 miles into the backcountry, drink out of mud puddles, and shoot 1,000 yards. It just simply means we are all hunters who share the same passion for the outdoors and are blessed to live in the greatest country that allows us the freedom to hunt our own way.