How A GPS Device Can Make You A More Effective Hunter
October 07, 2010
GPS companies get it. They're finally giving hunters eye-popping tools we can use to plan, scout and pack out our quarry.
Guys aren't big on reading the instructions. But sit down with your new GPS and pore over the book. Otherwise you'll miss out on dozens of new, cool features. Photo by Rob Reaser.
I'm in the middle of reading a wonderful book about pioneers who explored and settled the frontier lands west of the Ohio River in the late 1700s. So far I'm utterly impressed at the navigation and memory skills of these early folks. They could comfortably traverse what to us would be two or three states' worth of undeveloped, hostile terrain in the same way we negotiate a 300-acre hunting lease.
But that was a different time, and those stout fellows grew up with different skill sets than most of us need today. It makes me wonder what our they would think of the sophisticated devices we now use in our pursuit of the big one. A few might scoff, yet I'd bet good money most of them would have sacrificed a body part to have in their hands the kind of navigational marvel we know as the modern GPS receiver.
GPS devices have been around for quite some time now, long enough that an entire generation of hunters considers them part-and-parcel of their hunting arsenal. The latest units from companies like Magellan, Lowrance and Garmin, however, are lightyears from the clunky and often user-hostile GPS receivers of 10 or 15 years ago.
At their core, GPS receivers from yesterday and today are basically the same. All receive data from several global positioning system satellites orbiting the earth and translate that data to reveal the receiver's longitude, latitude and altitude. The big difference is what you can do with that information, the user interface and the various mapping, custom data logging and data transfer options that are now available.
So beyond the basic "how to get from here to there and back again" function, can a feature-heavy GPS receiver be a valuable tool for the hunter who isn't worried about getting temporarily confused while hunting on a familiar parcel of land?
You better believe it.
Let's examine some of the latest features that are quickly becoming standard fare on the top-end GPS receivers and how they can help you be a more effective hunter on the ground. Then we'll take a step back and see how all of this technology can be used to develop hunting strategies that work.
THE MICRO VIEW
The simpler, lower-cost GPS receivers still use basic navigation screens that usually show little more than user position, heading and longitude/latitude coordinates on a monochrome LCD screen. That's fine for rudimentary navigation. But large color screens and high-memory data cards now allow GPS receivers to display sharp, highly detailed data.
As a result, the better units can accommodate detailed topographical maps, satellite imagery and 3D-like hillshade contour maps. This feature offers valuable benefits for the hunter.
It makes the user interface less abstract, so you can better comprehend the relationship between the terrain you see around you with what is being displayed on-screen. Some folks, for example, find it impossible to visually translate the contour lines of a topographical map to actual changes in terrain elevation. But with the new hillshade mapping, it's much easier to quickly see on-screen the relative changes in elevation. So if you are using a GPS uploaded with a detailed hillshade mapping program, you can better pick your route in unfamiliar territory.
The increased internal memory capacity of GPS receivers and their ability to accept high-capacity memory cards -- particularly SD and microSD cards -- also permits the use of detailed satellite imagery in most models. From a hunter's perspective, the value of such information is obvious. You can see the exact location of woodlands, edge cover, funnels, pinch points, fields, roads, waterways, buildings and other major features relative to your location. Again, when hunting in unfamiliar areas, this is vital to planning your hunting strategy instead of blindly stomping around looking for a suitable location to set a stand or blind.
Once you plug your GPS unit into your computer, the new features are going to blow your mind. How about loading every note, image and waypoint into Google Earth and sharing it with a friend. Or wall-size color images of your hunting trip, documented via GPS? Awesome. Photo by Ron Reaser.
GPS receivers are important to a variety of end users, and are adaptable for numerous outdoor activities. Outdoorsmen, however, make up one of the major market segments in the handheld GPS receiver industry. As such, manufacturers have paid special attention to our needs when developing features. Perhaps the best example are specialized waypoint icons.
Waypoints are simply coordinates that the user stores into the GPS unit's memory. Usually these waypoints are associated with something specific, like your base camp, trailhead, navigation point or truck. Hunters have been using waypoints for logging all sorts of things, like bedding areas, kill spots, hunting stands and scrapes.
In the past, hunters who aggressively used their GPS units to store numerous points of interest found it difficult to easily identify one from another, as most waypoints were identified only as a number or generic icon. Fortunately, all that has changed.
Take the Lowrance Endura Safari, for instance. This model includes more than 190 different hunting- and outdoor-oriented graphic icons that display everything from stands to scrapes, food plots to foot trails. This allows you to, at a glance, see all of the vital points-of-interest within your visible hunting area, as well as their relative position to you and to each other.
Following a blood trail from shooting location? There are icons for that. Found a new scrape or rub line? Give them their own icon. Think of this as a handheld corkboard with a map of your hunting area, and you're pinning small pictures of everything that's going on in your hunting world. That's powerful stuff!
In the latest models, built-in 2- and 3-megapixel cameras store images to SD or microSD cards. They are a cinch to transfer to your computer for printing or social network uploads. This two-in-one feature is great because you have the option of stu
ffing one less item in your day pack.
Yet picture-taking is not the coolest feature of GPS/digital camera combo. When you capture an image, the GPS automatically "geotags" the photos, effectively embedding the GPS coordinates in the photo file. In other words, it's saying, "I took this picture of the Mother-of-All scrapes at this location."
That's the kind of photographic memory we could all use.
Geotagged Voice Recording
Not only can you geotag photos, some also allow for voice recordings to be assigned to specific waypoints. Perhaps you were coming in from a morning hunt by a different route than normal and jumped a huge buck out of its bed. You could make a waypoint of the location, then vocally record the time, weather conditions, direction the deer headed or other pertinent info.
An Endura model has tree stand icons, accurate directionals and voice notes to help you get anywhere in the woods. It even dims down to 1 percent -- a feature designed with hunters in mind -- so you don't spook game.
"A good GPS can take someone directly to a tree stand he's never been to in the dark," said Scott Roy of Lowrance.
Game Cam Viewing
Nearly all of the up-level GPS receivers now have picture- and video-viewing capabilities, and some are even MP3 compatible so you can listen to your own MP3 music files while afield. (Some Ted Nugent, perhaps?)
What this means is that you can view, and in some cases upload, your trail cam photos and video onto your GPS receiver. That's because most of the popular trail cameras from top manufacturers such as Moultrie, Stealth Cam, Cuddeback and Bushnell use SD memory cards. You'll need to check with the individual GPS and camera manufacturers to determine compatibility (particularly if your GPS uses microSD cards only), but the point is this is an added feature that can be exploited.
The GPX Revolution
So you've logged a successful hunt and want to transfer all of your trip data, waypoints and notes from your GPS receiver to a friend's GPS, or make the information available to your hunt club members. In the not-so-old days, transcribing trip data meant printing it out, then manually inputting data to the receiving GPS unit. Today, the GPS mapping and software industry has pretty much settled on a better way of doing business, thanks to the GPS eXchange Format, or GPX.
GPX is a common format (based on XML language) that allows files to be exchanged between different GPS data programs. What this means is you can download GPS data from other hunters and upload them to your GPS, and vice-versa. Some GPS units, including Garmin's Oregon, Colorado and Dakota models, can share this information wirelessly between units.
Property boundaries, such as state and federal lands, as well as private property, can also be uploaded to the newer GPS units via the GPX standard. With this function you can always know when you've hit a property boundary.
For example, say you need to track a deer that has crossed onto private property. You can upload the property owner's contact info into your GPS so you can call him or her directly from the field and gain permission to proceed with your recovery operation.
This is pretty cutting edge, so you'll have to do some diligent searching to find companies that offer this service on the Web. But one company that specializes in this type of GPS-friendly information is KMLers.com. Check them out. It's amazing.
Even more useful is the ability to import your GPS's GPX data into Google Earth, the ground-breaking 3D mapping program that's free to download onto your computer (earth.google.com). It really must be experienced to be appreciated, but the short version is it provides virtual 3D aerial mapping of the entire earth, and allows you to "fly" over the terrain from practically any angle. It's a terrific tool for scouting out an area without ever leaving your house.
By uploading your GPX files to Google Earth, you can gain an entirely new perspective on your hunting pursuits. The program is also customizable, so you can edit the trails and waypoints from your GPS directly to folders you create within Google Earth.
THE MACRO VIEW
By now you can see how the newest generation of GPS receivers and mapping technology can be of tremendous benefit for any hunter while he or she is "in country." But your GSP receiver can play a much larger role in making you a successful hunter over time.
The waypoints you create with your GPS need not be one-time points of interest. But by diligently collecting data over the course of a season or a year on morning and evening feeding areas, travel routes, bedding areas, scrapes, rubs, water sources and the like, you will eventually notice patterns in game behavior that you might not see from the ground. It's that old "can't see the forest for the trees" thing.
For example, you might not be able to tell from the ground that the rubs you've been noticing actually form a distinct rub line until viewed from above. Or that the rub line connects a feeding area with an isolated bedding area you never knew existed. Now overlay this data with a topo map, hillshade contour map or satellite image. Maybe you've been entering your hunting area all wrong and never realized it.
Such is the power of the modern GPS receiver.
Another benefit to the file transfer capabilities of the latest GPS receivers is the ability to add waypoints, routes and information into the GPS well before you ever take to the field. Returning to Google Earth as an example, this program can be used to virtually scout out new territory. You can "fly over" a target area, examine the terrain from all angles, identify open country, wood cover, field edges and all the usual key features, then take an educated guess at where you think the deer will be. This info can be marked in your custom Google Earth file map, then the data can be manually inputted into your GPS receiver.
That's the straightforward method. If you are a bit adventurous and tech savvy, there is available free conversion software that takes the Google Earth KML data and converts it to GPX so you can electronically upload to your GPS unit.
As you can see, today's leading GPS receivers and mapping technology provide substantially more benefits to the hunter than they did just a few years ago.
They'll still get you from Point A to Point B if that's your main concern, but given the many options available for maximizing the effectiveness of your time afield, it just makes sense to use the power at, l iterally, your fingertips, to your optimal advantage.
EXPERT ADVICE: GPS PUTS SUCCESS IN ELK STALK
A handheld GPS is obviously great for safety. But in several cases it has put us in the zone by letting us know what the unknown terrain ahead looked like.
Last September, Dave Poteat, a guide and I were making an ankle-breaking jog across the rough, rocky slope of a New Mexico mountainside. We were paralleling the ridgeline. We wanted to make sure the bull scream-ing in the meadow on the other side didn't silhouette us as we tried to circle him to get down wind of the herd.
As we rounded an outcropping of ancient lava rock, suddenly we had to stop short. We unexpectedly reached the end of the route -- a large gorge lay between us and the down-wind side of this hot bull. It looked like the hunt was over.
"I wish I could see how this ridge lays on top without going up there," said the guide.
I pulled out our Lowrance Endura Sierra handheld GPS from my back-pack. Whenever we run'n'gun for elk, before we leave the truck, I mark a way point on the GPS, and let the unit go into sleep-standby mode and drop it into my pack. So all I had to do was wake it up, and the unit would lock on and give us some very welcomed insight as to what the terrain looked like on the other side of the ridge.
According to the unit, directly above our location was a point that stuck out off the mountain wall far enough to possibly have timber growing on it. We decided to go for the top. We found a small topography change that let us hide from the eyes of the elk in the meadow.
Fifteen minutes after we thought our stalk on this bull was over, we were back on the trail to a trophy elk. -- Tim Anello is one of the hosts of Inside Outdoors TV.