There is one thing that all hunters have in common: they have a hunter safety certification. Some earn it as an eight-year-old or took it through a college program in a wildlife department. Either way, it’s something every hunter needs to legally purchase hunting licenses and shoot game. Thankfully, Hunter Education programs (also known as hunter safety, hunter ed, and a few other colloquial names) are available in every state. Plus, once you earn one, it’s valid for life.
If you’ve decided to start hunting, getting this certification is the first step to becoming a hunter. Here’s a breakdown of what exactly hunter ed is and how to complete it.
What is Hunter Education?
Hunter Education is a program that every person interested in hunting must complete before being able to hunt legally. It’s offered through state wildlife agencies. Depending on your state, there may be both virtual and in-person learning opportunities available. If you took it years ago as a child or adolescent, consider re-taking it:
“Taking Hunter Education as an adult is valuable in a different way than taking it as a child. As an adult, you understand that actions have consequences. You grasp the responsibility of what it truly means to be a hunter and to provide for your family. Kids are excited to get their Hunter Education card so they can go out and re-create what they have, in many cases, watched their parents or grandparents do. They’re not thinking so much about what comes next. Adults are looking for sincere guidance and specific instruction to venture out and do something brand new. It may change the way they live their lives and feed their bodies. That brings a greater awareness to the importance of taking Hunter Education as an adult and learning the right way to do things.”– Cindy Stites, Hunt to Eat’s Director of Education, Indiana Hunter Education Instructor
Hunter Ed is Mostly a Firearm Safety Course
At its core, hunter ed is a firearm safety course. You will learn a few things about ethical shot placement and how to accurately identify your prey in the field. However, hunter safety is primarily about gun safety.
Large portions of the course are dedicated to learning the different parts of both shotguns and rifles. This includes how they work internally and how to use them safely. Your hunter ed instructors teach you different kinds of actions. This is the part of the gun that encloses the explosion of the gunpowder in each rifle cartridge or shotgun shell. Instructors also cover different kinds of safeties and how to toggle them on and off (don’t forget: red is dead). They’ll also teach you how to comfortably fit your firearm into your shoulder and look through the sights accurately.
Most Hunter Education courses have a final exam. For the exam, you demonstrate how to safely load and unload both a rifle and a shotgun. During my final exam, instructors quizzed me on the different ways to safely hold a gun, too. This included how I should hold it when a person is standing next to, beside, and in front of me.
How Do You Take A Hunter Education Class?
Hunter safety courses are offered by every state wildlife agency in the US. For example, let’s take a look at Colorado’s Hunter Education program enrollment method.
From the Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) website, I located a tab titled “Education” and found a whole section on Hunter Education. Colorado offers both a virtual hunter ed course and a “traditional” or in-person course. I clicked on the virtual option because as an adult I may have a hard time making it into a classroom at the end of the workday.
CPW links to a Colorado-approved Hunter Education course on their virtual hunter ed course page. It’s available to everyone and costs $24.50. Colorado requires an in-person conclusion class. During the class, you’ll take the final exam.
What Do You Learn About Firearms in Hunter Education?
As I previously stated, hunter ed is predominantly a firearm safety course. I mentioned a few of the things to expect to learn in class, but Hunter Education instructor Cindy Stites explains what else goes on while class is in session.
The first thing Cindy teaches her students is getting to know their firearm equipment. This broad topic gets narrowed down into what firearms are, their parts, an overview of the different action types, common firearm features, and how to match ammunition to firearms. Also in the curriculum is explaining the difference between rifles, shotguns, and handguns as well as how to clean them.
The next topic on the curriculum covers basic shooting skills. In class, Cindy teaches students how to hold a firearm, accuracy and range limits, and how to fire rifles, shotguns, and handguns. Usually, bright-orange dummy firearms are available in class for students to learn how to handle live versions safely. There will also be opportunities to learn about primitive weapons like muzzleloaders, bows, and crossbows.
What Do You Learn About Hunting in Hunter Education?
After the firearm safety and handling portions are covered, Cindy’s course transitions to basic hunting skills. She discusses how to plan your hunt, how to identify your quarry, and explains the difference between a wide variety of hunting strategies. In class, you’ll learn about the difference between still hunting, stalking, hunting from blinds, and more.
More important than filling the freezer is ensuring a safe hunt, so Cindy focuses next on hunting safely. Learning objectives for this portion include explaining why firearm safety is important, how to carry firearms in the field, how to transport firearms, and other safety considerations.
Following the section on safe hunting, the focus turns to hunting responsibly and ethically. This section covers why we have hunting laws and regulations, fair chase, and the five stages of hunter development. First aid and basic survival skills are also discussed.
Lastly, and most importantly (except for firearm safety), students learn about wildlife conservation. Hunter ed instructors like Cindy introduce students to basic wildlife management. This includes the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation and the hunter’s role in conservation. Curricula cover the Pittman-Robertson Act and how biologists determine the number of tags to issue each season for each species. This conservation module wraps up the coursework. Next, a student needs only to pass the in-person test to secure her certification.
Why Do I Need a Hunter Education Certification?
Hunter education certifications are good for life. Once you earn it, you’ll never have to take Hunter Education again. However, I recommend taking some time to review the concepts taught in hunter ed annually to stay fresh, safe, and ethical.
Most importantly, hunter ed certifications allow you to purchase hunting tags in every state. You will need your hunter education certification number to buy tags both online and in person. Whether you want to hunt with a bow or a gun, chase small game or big game, your number will make that happen. For example, in Colorado, the first time I made my account with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, it asked me to provide my certification number so they knew I had passed Hunter Education. From there, I provided the remainder of my personal information to add hunting tags to my shopping cart and purchase them online. Then, I could conveniently get them delivered to my home address or pick them up from my local CPW office.
What Should I Do After Earning a Hunter Safety Certification?
After you complete hunter ed, you’ll be itching to go hunt, but you’ve probably already realized that it’s not quite that simple. The course was designed to provide you with the basics, but the list of additional things to learn remains long and includes things like e-scouting, reading maps, being able to identify your quarry’s habitat and sign in the field, how to field dress an animal once it is dead, and how to ethically take care of your wild game meat from the field to your freezer.
It’s hard to learn all these things, which is why most folks have a hunting mentor. Historically, fathers and grandfathers mentored the younger generation in hunting families. However, most folks who are taking hunter ed as an adult today do not have a familial resource to draw upon. If you’re the only hunter in your family, friend group, or otherwise, contact your state’s wildlife agency to see if they have any opportunities to learn more about hunting near you. In Colorado, CPW hosts educational hunting events where you’ll be paired up with an experienced hunter and they’ll take you out into the field. Many nonprofit organizations have similar events as well. Of course, you can just sign up for a Hunt Camp here at Hunt to Eat, too.
After you complete a Hunter Education course, you may not be ready to harvest an animal right away, but you are ready to start your hunting journey. In fact, you’ve already completed the first step by deciding to take hunter safety! I wish you the best of luck in the field as you learn more about wild food and wild places.
Gabby Zaldumbide is the editor of Hunt to Eat Magazine and H2E's online editorial. She resides in Colorado and has been hunting and fishing for over three years. Gabby has an undergraduate degree in wildlife ecology, a master's in public land management, and a PhD in loving her pets.