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Practical Land Navigation for Hunters

Updated: Apr 11, 2023

You don't need to be special forces trained to find your way in the wild and home again.


So, you decided to become more adventurous and start hunting in those remote wilderness areas where its just you, the great outdoors and the occasional Sasquatch. Well, good for you, and welcome to the brotherhood of real outdoorsman. By this stage you've probably investigated the lightest tents, best hiking boots, warmest sleeping bags and all the other nifty goodies and now your obviously thinking about what you'll need to navigate the wilderness. Well, you've come to the right place.


There are numerous devices that can be used for navigation. Some give you everything you want and a little more while others are light on information and rely on the operator for effective results. Some are relatively cheap and some are horrendously expensive. So lets jump in and take a closer look at your options and the context in which they are useful.


Before we begin discussing cool gadgets lets take a step back and discuss probably the best and cheapest option available. Actually, it's absolutely free. It's your sense of direction. It is the one thing that you absolutely will need regardless of any other gadgets you may have and, if you are one of the poor few that was born without it, you will struggle. In many cases that built-in, biological GPS in your head and your environment awareness will tell you what direction your headed, recognize land marks and give you a pretty good vibe of where you've been and where to go.



Mountains & Hills vs Flats

I grew up hunting in the hills and mountains and it wasn't until I started venturing into more remote areas that I even considered gearing up for navigation. In fact, I had a PLB long before I ever had a compass, but that's for a different post. Navigating mountainous area is relatively easy due to the many landmarks surrounding you. Rock formations, land contour, tree lines, vegetation and many other things can be used to make a mental map of where you've been and of course, how to get back. If you are only hunting in one direction and getting picked up at a different destination then having a digital or paper based topographic map or aerial view of the area can help identify landmarks.


However, hunting in flat barren or wooded country has a lot more challenges due to the absence of any distinct features. It was only in the last decade I began hunting this type of terrain and I quickly found out (the hard way) how challenging it is. I was hunting deer in a large heavily wooded forest. It was a drizzly, overcast day and the sun was not visible. While traveling to my next camp I stopped to stalk some deer I'd spotted but after less than an hour of sneaking through the bush I realized I was well out of sight of my car and had no idea in what direction it was. To make things worse, in my hurry to hunt, I'd left my GPS in the car. I began looking for footprints to trace my way back but because of the rain, after just a few meters there were no visible prints. I was starting to feel a little uneasy. I was lost! Luckily after pondering my situation for a while I remembered I had a small compass stashed in the bottom of my bino bag. I knew roughly the direction I'd departed from so I just started walking the opposite way to get back but even after finally finding the track I drove in on, I still had to walk about a mile along it to find where I was parked. Needless to say, a GPS and a compass are a must when navigating this terrain.



Should you carry a Compass & Map?

A topographic map is always a handy thing to have when navigating new areas. That said, you don't necessarily need to become a map reading guru, as long as you understand the basic principles of using the scale, understanding elevation lines and identifying features such as roads and water ways you'll be good to go.


On the other hand, I believe a good quality compass is a must whether it be digital or analog. I personally prefer the old school analog orienteering style compass as it still works long after your digital devices have run out of juice. Regardless of where you hunt, you will always have a rough idea of the lay of the land from preliminary research into the area. No one just drives indiscriminately into the wild and starts hunting. In addition, if you are using a paper based map, it is really handy to know which way is north when comparing it to the actual terrain.



What GPS should you buy?

The topic of GPS' is huge and this post isn't about comparing models and features however, GPS' can be broken into three main categories.


1) Basic GPS

A Basic GPS will have all the basic functionality you would expect. This includes a Compass, Way points, Paths, Elevation and maybe some other features. They usually have a simple LCD display and are very robust and affordable.


2) Combination GPS

These are usually the most expensive type of GPS but can also have the most amount of features. Common features would be a large color screen, topographic maps, all the basic GPS features and maybe other more specific ones such as for hound hunting. Some also come with a built in UHF radio so you don't need to carry additional devices.


3) GPS Apps

GPS Apps are exactly that, apps that you install on your smart phone or tablet device. They give you all the features of a GPS in a device you probably already own and have the advantage of displaying many different types of maps on a large screen. Be aware that to use smart devices for maps they need to be GPS capable such as the iPhone however, not all tablet devices have GPS capability so make sure you check before handing over your cash.


At the end of the day, any of these options are going to work for you and it depends on the situation you need to use them in and the money you want to fork out.


Personally, I just use a basic GPS and a free GPS App on my iPhone. I set the GPS up with any tracks I want to check out and my home base so I can find my way back and I use the iPhone app for an easily portable map since I'll be carrying it anyway.


Conclusion

This has just been a brief overview of the basics of navigation in the wild based on the experience I have gathered over my years as a hunter but there is so much more that you can learn. If you feel you want to know more I suggest watching some tutorials on-line or attending an orienteering course. I hope this information has helped you in making a decision so, what navigation gear do you think you will use?


The gear I use

Basic GPS - Garmin Foretrex 601

GPS App - Avenza Maps

Compass - Suunto M-3

 

About Jason

I am an avid outdoorsman who loves hunting, fishing and camping with nearly four decades of experience. I began hunting small game at age 13 with my single shot .22. but by my late teens I found my passion for spending time hunting in remote areas for deer and other large game. Today I still try to find the time to get away and go on adventures whenever possible.




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