How to Keep From Getting Lost
In the preceding chapter of Elk Hunting 101,I mentioned that there was nothing that would ruin a great elk hunt faster than creating unrealistic expectations. Next in line of those items that often plays a significant role in a hunter coming home empty handed is the fear of getting lost. Granted there are not too many of us who will readily admit to this, but drop a guy who is unfamiliar with the territory off out in the middle of nowhere and see how far from camp he goes. Not only have I witnessed this phenomenon I have been that guy. There are all types of fears that we, as elk hunters, may be forced to deal with, but the fear of getting lost will surely put the skids on, keeping us from maximizing our potential for a successful elk hunt.
If you have spent much time reading what I have written over the years on ElkCamp.com, or for that matter, anyone who has written on this subject, you will see a common theme. If you want to become a more successful elk hunter, one essential ingredient in the success receipt is that you have to get away from the roads! I’ll discuss this in greater depth later, but for now it is important to note that 80 percent of elk hunters will hunt within one mile of some type of road. The list of reasons for this self-imposed restriction is long, but having talked to many road hunters, the fear of becoming lost in some very big country is at or near the top of their list. Consider this, if 80 percent of the hunters in any given area hunt within one mile of the road, how many elk do you think will be hanging out within that same one mile. This is a not rocket science folks. When we, the hunters, move into their territory, the elk will move out. So if you expect to find the elk, you will have to leave the roads and the pressure generated by the great orange hoards behind.
OK, so what can you do to help overcome any fear or concerns that you may have about your ability to find your way back to the truck, and at the same time manage to leave most, if not all of the road hunters behind?
First, there is no substitute for knowing the land that you plan to hunt like your own back yard. Unfortunately, even those of us who are fortunate enough to live in elk country do not always have enough time to maintain this level of familiarity. If your knowledge of the land is not at this level then it is very important that you have a good compass, a waterproof topographical map of your area and practical knowledge and experience on how to use both.
Let me take a moment to draw a special emphasis on the word practical. How many fellow hunters have walked up to you and showed you their brand new $50 glow in the dark compass tied around their neck with some hand woven leather neck cord, and you knew good and well that they didn’t have the faintest idea what to do with it? Unfortunately that is all too often the case.
Pardon me a minute while I wax on philosophically (it won’t be the last time). These days many of us spend much of our time convincing others, usually in business but such behavior is far from limited to this arena that we know far more about a particular subject that we actually do. I know, I’ve been guilty of this sham on more than one occasion. Haven’t we all? We may do this consciously or unconsciously, but we do it. After a while, this can get out of control and we can begin to believe in what are essentially lies about ourselves. I personally believe that all lies are wrong, you will have to make up your own mind, but wrong or not, some lies can and will get you into a heap of trouble. In the case above, the last thing a hunter can afford is to be way back in elk country depending upon gear or technology to help get him back to civilization that he has no idea how to use. While I guess it can be done, though I don’t recommend it, learning to use your compass in the middle of a freezing cold moon less night, five or ten miles from a road with little or no clue where you are is, in my most humble opinion, way way behind the power curve and just plain stupid.
Why not get ahead of the curve and take the time to enroll yourself in a short one or two day practical course in orienteering, better known as ground navigation. Groups such as the Boy Scouts, Sierra Club, NRA, and other outdoor oriented groups offer these courses in most cities and towns throughout the year. Sporting goods retailers may also offer such courses, so give them a call. If they don’t offer such a course, often the sales person can refer you to someone else who will know when and where a course will be offered.
In the event that you cannot find a ground navigation course near your home, a final resort is to purchase a book on the subject from your local bookstore or online from resources like Amazon.com. There are literally dozens, if not hundreds of good practical books on the subject, but one that I have found to be a good resource is, Be Expert With Map & Compass, The Complete Orienteering Handbook, revised and updated by Bjorn Kjellstrom, and published by Macmillan. ISBN 0-02-029265-1. The book retails in paperback for around $17.00.
Finally, there are few substitutes for a good personal GPS (Global Positioning System), a good supply of spare batteries, and a thorough understanding of how your GPS works. I personally use a Garmin eTrex Vista, because it has most of the features that I look for in a personal GPS and is very lightweight and compact. When I’m elk hunting, every ounce of additional weight counts because whatever it weighs in the morning will feel as if it has doubled by late afternoon. There are quite a few great GPS units out there, so shop around and find the one that best suits your personal needs and budget.
Though it took a while, GPS has finally come into its own. I remember not too long ago when if you told someone you had a GPS in your pocket, you may have gotten laughed out of elkcamp. Today, experience has shown that more hunters have them than not. They may not tell you about it, wanting you to think that their skills as a woodsman are more than they are, but there is a pretty good chance that somewhere in all that gear they are carrying around is a GPS.
Here is a great story to bear out the value of having a GPS with you in the backcountry. A few years ago, I was scouting some new elk country west of Rocky Mountain National Park. My partner (who shall remain nameless for reasons that will soon become obvious) and I had hiked a fair distance off the beaten path following some recent elk rubs, one rub leading to another, kind of like a trail of cookie crumbs. Well, we had been at this business of walking with our heads to the ground for some time when we decided it was getting late and time to head back to the truck. Our original plan had been to follow the rubs back out the same way we came in, only what we had not planned on was that the rubs were mostly on the opposite sides of the trees and were now pretty much invisible to us. Well, we wandered this way a bit and that way a bit, and before long, it became apparent to at least one of us that if we didn’t get our act together, we could be spending a long cold night in the woods. After some deliberation, my partner pointing his finger said rather emphatically, I think the truck is that way! I wasn’t quite so sure he was right, but on the other hand, I wasn’t all that sure he was wrong either, when it hit me like a bolt of lightning. I remembered that I had put my brand new GPS, with the coordinates to the truck locked into its memory into my jacket pocket before we had headed out. So out comes the GPS, I click the GOTO window onto the truck coordinates and bingo, the course indicator says, that-a-way guys!
You would think it would end there wouldn’t you? Not so fast. My partner’s faith in that little gray box was less than what might be deemed enthusiastic. He didn’t want any part of marching off into who knows where based upon some pie in the sky technology that he had never tried. So I said, I’m going this way (i.e. following the GPS.... due to training left over from my days of flying in the USAF. Sometimes you just have to trust your instruments). My partner says somewhat quizzically, I don’t know? I say, tell you what, you go that way and I’ll go this way, whereupon he saddled up and we followed the GPS bearing pointer directly to the tailgate of the truck. Soon thereafter, my partner went out and dropped a couple of bucks on his own GPS.
Update April 2009: Since writing Elk Hunting 101 in 2004 I have had the opportunity to try out many other handled GPS units. One negative characteristic I found in some units is that they do not use conventional batteries. By this I mean they use rechargeable batteries similar to those in your cell phone. The downside to this is that in elk country there is no place to recharge the battery. Your only option is to purchase and pre-charge additional batteries, which can be costly. I now stick with a GPS that uses AA size batteries. I buy the longest lasting batteries I can find regardless of price and I carry about a dozen extra batteries with me on every hunt. Tip: keep a set of extra batteries in an inside shirt or coat pocket to keep them warm. They will last longer.
Features to look for in a good GPS:
- Easy to learn and easy to use
- Backlight feature for night use
- Color Display (easier to read in sunlight)
- Relatively easy on batteries (uses replaceable batteries like AA)
- Altimeter feature
- Mapping feature
- Accepts map and GPS downloads from your mapping software.
- Screen large enough to see.
- Buttons work well with gloves on
- Tracks satellites somewhere more remote than when you are standing in the middle of a freeway, some older models will not.
When it comes to having a security blanket out in the backcountry, for some it might be a difficult decision. Having a good waterproof topo map or a space blanket? For me, it’s a no brainier. A good waterproof topo map can do both, keep you dry (somewhat) and help you to know where you are.
Maps that you can use for elk hunting come in a variety of sizes, scales, and levels of detail, depending upon their purpose and who produced the map. When you are planning your elk hunt, my recommendation, if you are unfamiliar with the territory is to go from big to small. That is, start with a map that covers a lot of territory in what I like to refer to as the big picture showing less detail such as a National Forest or Bureau of Land Management (BLM) map. These are typically scaled at 1:100,000. Both National Forest Maps and BLM maps are excellent for showing boundaries between public and private land, major land features such as rivers, roads, campgrounds, etc. BLM maps also include terrain contours as well, which can help to plan land navigation or identify benches where elk like to hold up during midday. Again, these are both a good place to start and can be purchased from their respective agencies and sometimes from your local map or bookstore.
Another good map that will often show more detail than either Forest Service (FS) or BLM maps are the Trails Illustrated series of maps produced by National Geographic Maps. Not only are these maps made of a special waterproof and tear resistant material, but due to their approximate 1:40,000 scale, they show much greater detail with special emphasis on trails that may not be as apparent on FS or BLM maps. These maps are favored by backpackers and hikers and sold in many outdoor supply stores such as REI, EMS, and the like. Though they are a bit more expensive at around $9.00 each, they last nearly forever, and are updated much more regularly than FS, BLM or even USGS Topo maps.
This brings us to the map that I recommend that every elk hunter learn to use and have with him when he is afield in elk country, the USGS (United States Geological Survey) 7 ½ minute quadrangle topographical map. For purposes of this brief discussion, I’ll just call this map a Quad. Quads will by far show the elk hunter the greatest level of detail available in the area he plans to hunt. Roads, jeep and cattle trails, water sources such as rivers, streams and even swamps, vegetation boundaries i.e. general tree lines, meadows, and land contours are just a small amount of the valuable information that can be gleaned from a Quad. Elk are not fools and when they move from their nighttime feeding areas to their daytime bedding areas, they will typically follow the same or similar paths daily. These paths often follow particular contours of the ground to make the journey easier. A Quad can help the elk hunter identify probable travel routes long before he leaves home.
As the elk hunting season progresses, elk often change the elevation that they hold out in. A good elk tactic once you have located elk at a particular elevation, say for example 9,500 feet, is to draw a line along the 9,500-foot contour on your Quad and look for more elk along that same elevation level. Your Quad will not only show you the 9,500-foot line, but also help you plan your land navigation to other areas that may hold elk on that same line.
During the day, elk often will seek out cooler areas to bed down and digest the graze from the previous night. Many times the elk bedding areas can be found on benches or timbered areas of level ground located on the side of a larger slope or hill. Think of a bench as a small level notch taken out of a hillside. Sometimes these benches are only a few hundred yards across and nearly invisible to the naked eye. They can however in many cases, be identified and located using a Quad if you know what you are looking for. Let me tell you a personal story about hunting benches to illustrate this point.
It was around 1978. I was in the Air Force living in San Antonio, Texas and had gone on a mule deer hunt with a few of my neighbors to Southwestern New Mexico, east of Alamogordo. I was fairly new back then to the high country, and knew virtually nothing about mule deer hunting. My assumption, like so many, was that deer hunting was deer hunting, how different could it be?
Opening day of the season arrived and I headed out early like so many times in the past, hunting Whitetails in Tennessee to look for a tree to climb up in and ambush some unsuspecting Muley. Most of you who hunt out west are probably falling out of your chairs laughing about now with this picture of some young whipper snapper from somewhere back east walking around the desert with his head up in the air, or somewhere else, looking for a tree limb to climb up in, in southern New Mexico. Needless to say, in that particular area of New Mexico tree limbs of any sort that will hold a man’s weight are few and far between and had I done any amount of research on where I was planning to hunt, I would have known ahead of time that the land was covered in Juniper and Pinion Pine.
So like any newbie, I dropped off the side of a road, walked down a few hundred yards and sat down on a hillside overlooking what appeared to be a level notch cut out of the hillside. Is this starting to sound familiar? I guess I had been sitting there glassing this way and that, not really knowing what I was doing for the better part of an hour, when I began to hear what I thought to be the sound of something slowly coming up the hillside from below the bench. The time was now, as near as I can recall between 8:00 and 9:00 a.m. I was facing west and the sun in the east had just begun to clear the top of the ridge behind me and started warming the bench below. As I waited, rifle to my shoulder looking over the top of my scope and feeling the pounding of my heart in my chest like a jack hammer, a beautiful four point (western count) Muley buck stepped out of the Juniper on the west or downhill side of the bench and began to slowly graze his way across the bench completely oblivious to my presence. What is important to note here folks is that this little bench where the buck was feeding and would likely have bed down was no more than fifty yards across and almost completely surrounded by Juniper and Oak brush. It was not visible from above or below, but would clearly show up on a Quad if one knows what to look for.
I wish I could make this story end with me coming out looking anything but a fool, but without some serious stretching of the truth I cannot. I was young, foolish, arrogant, and full of myself back then. For the better part of fifteen minutes, I watched that buck through my rifle scope graze that bench at a range well within 150 yards, a piece of cake shot. All the while, thinking in my arrogance and ignorance that something bigger and better would come along before the end of our five day hunt, I choose to pass and just said bang...bang as I watched the buck graze. Eventually, I think the buck winded me or just figured out something was not quite right, so he moved off. Ok, now you can really laugh!
The lesson here is that the buck had been down low feeding during the night and was on his way to bed down for the day. His stop on the bench could have been fortuitous for me. Perhaps he was planning to bed down on the bench, or maybe it was just a snack stop on the way to a nap. Either way, the bench presented the opportunity.
When I am planning a hunt, part of my pre-hunt research is to locate as many of these benches as I can find in my area. I then load them all into my GPS using the Latitude and Longitude coordinate extracted from my Quad, and then I plan a stealth route to each. This type of planning has many advantages, but one particular advantage that has proven itself of value over and over again is that by planning your route into and out of elk country ahead of time, you do not usually find yourself confronted unexpectedly by some river gorge a mile deep standing between where you are and where you want to be. Remember what I said earlier, “Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance.”
Which Quads Do I Need?
First you will need to identify the area in which you plan to hunt. Then expand that by 20-25% to allow for the possibility that the elk may have moved to a nearby area for which you will want to have a map. Now you need to buy the quads that cover that area.
There are basically two ways to address the issue of buying quads for your area. One way is the way we have done it for years because there was no alternative. Go to the map store, sort through drawers and drawers of USGS Quads and hope that the ones you are looking for are in stock. Then take them home, lay them out on the floor and try to create a single usable map of your area by piecing all the separate quads together with tape. Now that you have them all assembled, you will have something like to half your living room floor covered with this huge mosaic that will never make it out of the house, much less to elk camp.
There is however a much more simple, effective and cost saving solution, create your own custom designed and printed Quad!
Custom Topographical Maps from www.elkcamp.com
ElkCamp.com via our partnership with MyTopo.com can provide you with custom printed waterproof topographical and aerial maps of your area for less than the retail cost of two USGS Quads from the map store.
To access this feature from the ElkCamp.com website just go to: http://www.elkcamp.com/html/topo_maps.html or click on the link to Topo Maps on our Homepage: www.elkcamp.com.
There are lots of map products available, but ElkCamp.com and MyTopo.com specialize in producing maps that you design! Each waterproof Expedition Map and glossy Poster Map is custom-printed when you order. This unique system gives our maps some great advantages over other stock map products.
1. You can center your map anywhere
You precisely center your custom map anywhere in the lower 48 United States. This solves one of the biggest problems with stock maps... having to buy two, four, or more maps to cover the area you want.
2. Built to last
Our Expedition Maps are printed with waterproof and UV/fade-resistant inks on durable waterproof paper.
3. High detail and clarity
Every one of our maps is made from the most detailed USGS maps available. We print every map on special high-quality equipment to produce a beautiful, detailed map.
Since you design every map, you can add your own titles, your name, and choose navigational grids for every map.
Finding the right map can be a hassle, but when you design and buy your map from ElkCamp.com via myTopo.com it will be shipped quickly, usually within 24-48 hours.
A Special Request
While anyone can go directly to MyTopo.com and place an order for their map, I would like to encourage you to place your order through ElkCamp.com as the cost is exactly the same to you, but ElkCamp.com will receive a small contribution for each map order that is placed via the link on the ElkCamp.com website. This helps us to continue building and maintaining the website and making it an ongoing and valuable resource to you and future elk hunters.
PC Mapping Software
When it comes to topo mapping software for your PC, there are few products available that can compare to Delorme’s TOPO USA. Granted that there are a host of such software programs, but most are limited to producing maps at scales no smaller than 1:100,000. As I mentioned earlier in the discussion on BLM and National Forest maps, this scale is adequate for defining boundaries between public and private land, and gaining a general idea of the lay of the land, but you really need a 1:24,000 scale to see how the land really flows.
Some things to look for in a good mapping software include:
- 1:24,000 scale capability
- Route plotting
- Map annotation capability
- 3-D Visualization
- Vertical profile projection
- Export to your GPS
- Import from your GPS
- High resolution print
If the cost of some of these software packages takes you back, keep in mind that in most cases you don’t have to purchase the entire USA on a map. Many of these vendors sell their software broken down by region or even states. My software is regional, and therefore it cost me only a fraction of what the entire USA package would have. So before you go out and drop some really big bucks, do a little homework and see if you can find a product produced in regional or states versions. TOPO USA is such a product.
For the remainder of this essay or more information on elk hunting from Elk Hunting 101, CLICK HERE.