How To Best Use A Topo Map

The draw results are in, and you should know where your 2015 fall hunting season is taking you. Got a game plan yet?

The dreams of early season velvet bucks and big bulls screaming are racing through your mind as you begin the planning stages of your hunt. This year, I'm hunting in uncharted territory because I didn't draw the tag I'd hoped for. And with fierce competition on public land, I need every advantage I can get over the next hunter.

The time you put into your hunt pre-season is critical to success. If you step on the mountain opening morning and have done zero scouting and have no idea where the bulls and bucks are living, you're already behind the curve. Having a busy schedule—or if you are hunting out of state—makes pre-season scouting more difficult, but technology just made scouting easier for everyone, no matter where you live.

One of the single best investments you can make is purchasing a high-quality topo map. Have this map laminated so you can use a dry-erase pen to mark up areas of interest. I often find it frustrating trying to get the "big picture" of an area on a tiny GPS screen. In the field, a topo map gives you a much larger view of your hunting area.

Use your map to locate these features at a minimum:

  • Saddles: natural crossing points for animals to travel
  • Benches: common bedding areas
  • Northwest slopes: common bedding/living quarters due to more natural shade, vegetation, humidity and water
  • Open meadows: common feeding areas
  • Water: possible drinking/wallowing locations
  • Pressure: locate where pressure might be coming from (trails or roads)

Once you locate some key areas, let your laptop do the walking for you on Google Earth and get a "real life" look at the ground. I use a data chip called HUNT by OnXmaps, which is a topo mapping software that I insert into my handheld GPS that also works with the Google Earth interface on my laptop. Using the two together gives me the advantage of being able to mark waypoints and areas of interest at home on my laptop. When I get into the field when my chip is inserted into my GPS, I can easily and quickly locate my waypoints of interest.

The HUNT software also has valuable landowner information, so I always know who owns the land I want to hunt—whether it be private, BLM, federal or tribal lands. Hunting in a new unit takes time in the field to figure out, HUNT outlines hunting unit boundaries so I can hunt the edges of my unit with confidence.

The aerial perspective that I acquire at home allows me to visually guess the behavior and habits that my quarry is likely to exhibit. By starting my hunt with a topography lesson, I'm miles ahead of others before I ever hit the field.


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