The Ultimate Shed Hunting Guide

The Ultimate Shed Hunting Guide

The Ultimate Shed Hunting Guide For Beginners

Shed hunting can be a great way to spend time outdoors.  It is also a great way to get over your winter hunting hangover.  Hunting season in the U.S. starts in the fall, around September and can go all the way until the end of January.  After hunting season is over, most hunters are stuck with nothing to do in the outdoors.  That’s where shed hunting can come into play.  It’s not just for hunters though, shed hunting can be for anyone looking to escape to nature for a bit and unwind.  If you’re new to shed hunting, or even if you aren’t, keep reading because below we will go over everything you need to know about shed hunting and offer up a few tips and tricks to finding some sheds. 

What Is Shed Hunting

Some big game animals have horns and some have antlers.  When they are on the animals head it is almost impossible to tell the difference between the two.  The major difference is that horns will stay attached to the animal’s head indefinitely and antlers fall off every year, only for the animal to regrow them the following year.  When an antler falls off the animal’s head, it is referred to as a shed.  That’s because the animal “sheds” the antlers.  

Every year, hundreds of thousands of animals across the U.S. and the world shed their antlers and then start regrowing them for the following year.  In the U.S. the main animals that shed their antlers are deer, elk, moose and caribou.  Once these antlers are on the ground, people will go searching for them.  Think of it like a giant adult easter egg hunt.  Except instead of finding eggs and looking for them in your yard or park, you find antlers and look for them out in the mountains.  

What Time Of Year Should You Shed Hunt

Animals shed their antlers at different times depending on the species of the animal.  Deer, elk, moose and caribou all shed their antlers between December and May but the exact time is different for each animal.  

Deer

two male mule deer in field
Mule Deer

All species of deer including mule deer and whitetail can shed their antlers between the months of January and May.  Different species of deer can shed their antlers a little earlier or a little later though.  After a deer sheds its antlers, it takes until August or September for them to be fully regrown.

  • Mule Deer 
    • The majority of mule deer will shed their antlers between the months of February and March.  It’s possible for a few of them to shed them in January and it’s also possible for a few of them to hang on to their antlers into April.
  • Whitetail Deer
    • Whitetail deer start shedding their antlers earlier than mule deer.  A lot of whitetail deer shed their antlers in January.  It’s not uncommon for some whitetail to hang on to them into February though. 
  • Coues Deer
    • Coues deer shed their antlers later than both whitetail and mule deer.  The majority of coues shed during the month of April and into May.
  • Blacktail
    • Blacktail deer typically shed their antlers around February and March.

Elk

Rocky Mountain Elk
Rocky Mountain Elk

There are 4 subspecies of elk in the U.S.  They are the rocky mountain elk, tule elk, roosevelt elk and the eastern elk.  Elk will typically shed their antlers in the months of March and April.  After an elk sheds its antlers, it takes about 6 months for them to fully regrow.

Moose

male moose
Moose

Moose start shedding their antlers a little earlier than deer and elk.  Most moose will shed starting in December and a few will hold on to them into January.  Moose antlers only take about 5 months to fully develop which makes them one of the fastest-growing antlers.

Caribou

Caribou
Caribou

Caribou are a little different from the other animals that have antlers.  Both the male and female caribou grow antlers.  They also both shed them.  Females typically grow smaller antlers than the males and hang on to them longer.  Female caribou typically shed their antlers in June and after they have given birth to their calves.  This helps them defend themselves and their young against predators.  Male caribou shed their antlers earlier than females, typically in November or December. 

Reasons People Shed Hunt

People go shed hunting for a variety of reasons.  Some die hard hunters are going through hunting withdrawals, some people are looking for some exercise, some are just wanting to get out into nature, some are looking for solitude and some do it for the money.

Shed hunting is a great way to get out into nature with friends or family.  I know plenty of people who go on camping trips where they go shed hunting for a few days with friends.  You can also go by yourself if you are looking for some solitude.  Depending on where you go, you might be the only human around for miles and miles. 

You can also make a little extra money shed hunting.  In parts of Asia, antlers are used as a dietary supplement.  Here in the U.S. a lot of companies sell antlers as dog chews.  Some people even make art out of them by building chandeliers.  

Most antler buyers purchase them by the pound.  The price per pound depends on how old the antler is and also what animal it came from.  Elk antlers are worth the most because they are big and heavy.  It will take a lot of deer antlers to make any substantial money.  For example, I go shed hunting for mostly mule deer antlers and I usually sell all of my antlers every 2 years.  In those two years I find on average 100 to 200 deer antlers and spend over 100 hours looking for them.  I can typically sell all of those antlers for anywhere between $300 to $400.  So as you can see, it’s not a wise investment if you are shed hunting strictly for the money.  

Shed Hunting Laws

Each state has different laws when it comes to shed hunting.  Since shed hunting has grown in popularity the past 20 years, many states have enacted shed hunting season.  Make sure to check your local state’s guidelines and laws before you go shed hunting.  Below are links to a few western U.S. state’s division of wildlife resource websites to help you find any laws.

Shed Hunting Basics

There are a few things that all shed hunters can do to improve their odds of finding some sheds when they go out looking.  They include scouting, packing the right gear and wearing the right clothes.  

Shed Hunting Scouting

Just like any type of hunting, it is important to scout first.  It’s a pretty basic concept, you need to know where the animals are in order to find their sheds when they drop.  If you aren’t putting in the time to scout, you might as well throw a dart at a map and go wherever it lands.  Sure you might get lucky but chances are you aren’t going to find anything.  

You want to start scouting a month to two weeks before the animals start shedding their antlers.  Typically animals will stay in their winter range until spring time hits.  This means that if you find where they are a month before they start shedding their antlers, chances are they will be in the same area when they start shedding.  It’s important to not push or chase the animals out of the area during scouting.  The less pressure they have the more likely they are to stay in that area.  

Shed Hunting Gear

There are a few essential items you will need if you are going out shed hunting.  If you take these items with you every time you go out, you will be more likely to find some sheds. For a full list and recommendations on shed hunting gear check out our shed hunting gear post.

Shed Hunting Backpack

shed hunting pack horn hunter packs
Horn Hunter Full Curl Pack

A shed hunting pack is a must.  This will give you a spot to carry everything you need.  It will also allow you to strap the antlers on the pack once you find them.  That way you won’t have to carry them with your hands the whole time.  Besides, if you get into an area with a lot of sheds, you aren’t going to have enough hands to carry them all anyways. 

Binoculars

A good pair of hunting binoculars are also a must.  It will surprise you how many times a stick laying on the ground will trick you into thinking that it’s a shed.  With binoculars you can take a glance at it real quick to see if it’s a stick or a shed.  Otherwise, you will have to walk up to each and every stick you think might be a shed.  Binoculars are also a must for glassing.  Glassing is a term shed hunters and hunters use when they look for sheds or animals far away through their binoculars or spotting scopes.  

Tripod

I would put a tripod into the useful category for shed hunting but not essential. It will come in very handy if you are glassing or using your binoculars to look a long way but other than that, you won’t have to have one. 

Radio

A two way radio is a must for shed hunting if you have someone else with you or if you are with a group.  Typically, when people go shed hunting together, they don’t hike side by side.  So you will need a way to communicate with the other people and a two way radio is the best option.  If you are going alone, you don’t need one but it’s not a bad idea to have one just in case you get lost or need help.  Keep in mind that even if you do have a radio, it doesn’t mean you will be able to talk to someone if you need help.  Someone will need to be within the radios distance and also on the same frequency to hear you.

GPS/Phone

A phone with a mapping app or a GPS is essential to have.  Shed hunters will walk long distances over ridges and through valleys.  Being able to find your way back to camp or your vehicle is an absolute necessity.  Phones have basically replaced the old handheld GPS units but either one will work.  There are alot of cool apps for hunting and maps out there nowadays.  Some you will have to pay for and some are free but remember the saying, you get what you pay for.  Being able to get back to your vehicle or camp is the number one most important thing so paying a few dollars for an app to help you do that might be something to consider. 

Shed Hunting Clothing

The clothing you will need is entirely dependent on your location and the weather when you go shed hunting.  If you live in the desert southwest, you can probably get away with jeans and a jacket.  If you live in Northern Montana or the Northeast, you will most likely need water resistant pants or gators and a bigger coat.  Either way, be prepared for the weather that day and it doesn’t hurt to carry an extra jacket in your shed hunting pack.  

The main thing you need to think about is your boots.  If you are planning on shed hunting in the snow make sure the boots are waterproof or atleast water resistant.  If you aren’t planning on shed hunting in the show, make sure you have comfortable boots that you can lay down some miles in.  

Finding Your First Sheds

As corny as it sounds, finding your first shed will be an experience you won’t forget.  I remember the first sheds I ever found.  It was a 2 point mule deer set laying side by side, half covered in snow under a pinon tree.  For reference, that was 27 years ago and I still remember it.  Once you have done all the scouting and found where you want to shed hunt, the rest is pretty easy.  

You just start walking in the area and keep looking around while you do it.  Make sure you are scanning from side to side instead of just looking down at your feet.  If you are in an area that has a lot of snow, it’s good to hit the south facing slopes because that’s where the animals will most likely spend their time.  It’s warmer and has less snow.  Animals also like washes and low spots.  They travel low spots and washes to stay out of the view of predators.  

Glassing is also a good strategy to employ.  If you are walking in terrain where you have a bunch of hills you can see, find a good spot to sit and get your tripod and binoculars out.  Start glassing the hillsides and see if you can see any sheds on them.  It will take a little while to train your eye on what to look for but once you have it down it will be a huge time saver.  It allows you to search hillsides for sheds without having to walk all of them.

Matching Sheds Up

mule deer sheds
Mule deer sheds on top of eachother.

Most of the time, when you find a shed, the other side won’t be right next to it.  There are a few strategies you can use to help find the other side.  Keep in mind that animals don’t always shed both horns close together, especially deer.  Matches to antlers can be miles apart so don’t spend too much time looking for the other side if it isn’t close by.  I usually only search a long time for the other side if the first antler is big.

Grid Pattern

Gridding is when you walk a grid pattern back and forth just like search and rescue does when they are looking for a missing person.  Walk in a straight line one direction and when you get to a certain point, move over five or ten feet and walk back the opposite direction in a straight line.  That way you will cover all the ground and not miss anything.  Obviously that isn’t feasible for large areas so make sure to select the ground you grid wisely.

Circle Pattern

Another strategy people use to find the match to a shed is walk in a circle pattern.  They start right where they found the first shed and then walk in a circle or a spiral pattern.  As  you walk you will get progressively farther away from where you found the first shed.  

Final Word On Shed Hunting

Shed hunting isn’t easy.  Don’t be fooled by youtube videos where it makes it seem like they find sheds all the time.  Remember that for every shed they find, they walked miles and miles and didn’t find any.  If you follow these tips and put in the time required for scouting and looking, I guarantee you will start finding sheds. 

Remember the old saying, persistence pays off?  Well, I believe that is especially true in shed hunting.  Once you find an area that the animals are in during shed season, just keep walking and sooner or later you are going to find something.  There’s a saying in shed hunting, it’s “miles for piles”.  It means that if you want to find sheds and quite a few of them, there is no other way than to put in the miles.  If you are interested in more specific tips to help you find more sheds, check out our shed hunting tips blog post.

Happy Hunting!

Karson

Hey I'm Karson. I've been hunting since I was 8 and shed hunting even before that. If you have any questions for me, fill out a form on the contact page, send me an email at karson@huntinggearinsiders.com or leave a comment on the below. Thanks