Big game hunting -- like elk, moose, bighorn sheep, and mountain goats -- is a study in physical fitness, which is too often overlooked in favor of reading, scouting, and shooting. Even with advanced hunting tools and equipment such as high tech rifles, fine tuned ammunition, crystal clear optics, and range finders, one commonly overlooked aspect of preparing for a big game hunt is the need to physically prepare for your expedition.

While keeping physically fit is sound advice for any activity, it seems hunters pay too little attention to themselves. Success in big game hunting can be determined in a matter of seconds and inches, and one of the only variables you can directly control is your own stamina and strength. There's no telling exactly where you'll find quarry and what the exact weather and terrain will be.

The scene has repeated itself for decades:

Your arms, hands, and fingers simultaneously drop your binoculars and slide your rifle off your shoulder into the ready position. It's second nature, like putting on your seatbelt; there's little thinking involved. The butt of the rifle slides snuggly into your shoulder and the scope fits effortlessly to your eye. Squarely in the cross hairs is the 6x6 bull elk you've dreamed of for decades. You've planned months and years for this moment. All that's left is to gently squeeze off the round and wait. Your heart pounds like a bass drum and for a second you wonder if the elk can hear its thump echoing.

You pause and try to catch your breath to steady the rifle -- a couple more seconds and you'll be ready. Contradictory thoughts cross in your mind. Should I hurry the shot? Can I wait another second to catch my breath? You envision the elk startled and ducking behind the bluff. At the same time you can picture the trophy on the wall next to your mule deer buck taken ten years ago. What a great addition this elk would make!

The end result may be an elk bagged. Or, as you gasp for air and unsuccessfully try to steady the rifle, the chance may be lost. So spending a few weeks and months training your body could be the difference between a glowing wall-hanger and head-hanging regret for not physically training for the hunt.

How to Prepare for Your Next Hunting Excursion

Recall past hunts and how you've prepared. If you spend months working at a desk in an office, how can you expect your body to respond successfully to five days of high altitudes and extreme temperature variations?

The best advice is to make cardiovascular and strength training a routine. Training for a specific big game hunt would best begin six weeks or more before a trip. A good place to start is with a doctor's visit and/or doing some research on training for high altitudes and hunting. It makes sense to understand your time and abilities along with physical limitation before setting goals.

Unlike preparing for a road race or other sports, big game hunting at higher elevations will test your strength, heart, and push you beyond your comfort zone.

Proper training and preparation is a small part of the equation that, when successful, helps transform inner satisfaction into an outward smile of accomplishment. The successful hunt may involve ascending mountains, trudging through rain, mud, or snow, while enduring cold and wind -- about every element possible to secure the trophy. Then, after the trigger is pulled, the real test of strength and endurance begins.

A successful hunter will need to call on even more gumption to pack out gear and carcass, maximizing power and longevity through conditions rougher than the hunt itself. No matter the extent of preparation or size of trophy elk bagged, it doesn't matter unless you finish the game strong and bring the trophy home.

Advice from an Expert

Rory Beil is an exercise physiology coordinator and hunter. As a graduate of Iowa State University with a Masters Degree in Exercise Science, he knows hunters should spend just as much time training as shooting. Where hunting equipment has advanced in terms of GPS units and high-end optics, Beil has advanced the training regimen to put hunters in top physical condition, essentially putting them on the same parallel as highly skilled athletes with specific training for their sport.

 "Most people don't plan far enough ahead," says Beil. "I encourage year-round physical fitness, and, if not, I've found that hunters who are best prepared will begin preparing at least three months out."

While going for evening walks is a start, more practice, or in this case more exercise, will equate to better physical condition for your excursion. It's similar to repetitive shooting. "You should add more than just a cardiovascular element to your training," he says. "It's better to include a strength component; these two combined over time will slow the process of fatigue, which essentially empties your fuel tank prematurely."

For more advanced training, Beil suggests mixing it up: Concentrate on lower body and compound exercises, which target multiple groups of muscles. He stresses not being caught up in the body-builder mentality of working one specific muscle group. "We have clients pull sleds, and I like to include lunging exercises into their training regimen," he says. "By doing this we're able to maximize beneficial results in the calves, glutes, and hamstrings -- the entire lower body. Even if you're using your arms to drag out an elk, the weight is still transferred to your lower body."

Hunters should choose free weights over weight machines if at all possible. "Free weights add stabilizer muscles and develop balance, which are key components for maneuvering uneven terrain," Beil relates. "Machines are okay and better than not training, but using free weights is preferred and will show the best results."

If time is a concern, the key still is to do whatever exercise is possible. "I have clients walk in a marching, high-step motion and add ankle weights of 10 to 15 pounds," Beil says. "Marching movements work to develop hip flexor muscles, developing both strength and stamina."

In this time-conscious day and age, Beil suggests a 60-minute workout, with repetition days depending upon an individual's goals and time. As few as three days per week can produce benefits, but four or five days produces the best results. As a final word of advice, Beil cautions against over-training. "Don't forget to rest and mix up your training," he says. "Alternate your cardiovascular and strength training, along with adequate rest. Give your body a day in between strength and cardiovascular training to recover."

A successful trophy hunt is a long process. You can spend the extra time and money on high-end equipment, but that is not necessarily going to bag you your next buck. Rather, it is getting back to the basics and building a foundation of physical strength that will give you an edge -- and may be the difference between a hit or miss trophy hunting this fall.