How To Navigate Public Land

November 8, 2019

Much of what is taught to new hunters is about, well, hunting. But the finest equipment and smartest strategies in the world won’t do you any good if you get horribly lost going to or from your car or base camp, and “I had to call a rescue helicopter because I kept circling the same big rock for eight hours” doesn’t make for much of a story. Public land is vast, and it’s where most hunters do their hunting, so let’s talk about how to navigate it.


You already have one huge advantage over hunters of old, and that’s what you’re using right now: the internet. There are countless sources of maps online, including both government agencies like the Bureau of Land Management and the United States Geological Survey, and private companies that make both paper and digital maps specifically for hunters. The former are free, but the latter have an exhaustive and detailed inventory of specific locations that might come in handy.


Aerial photography services like Google Maps and the more robust Google Earth are also valuable scouting tools that allow you to plan out large portions of your hunt before you’ve even left your home. There’s a plethora of great apps out there too, like OnX, which offers extensive information on trails, topography, and the boundaries between public and private land, and Gaia, which helps you place waypoints and plot your trek into the wilderness. Many hunters also use GPS devices—they’re accurate, their batteries will last you all day, and unless you’re planning to hunt in rural Siberia during a blizzard (please do not do that) you will get a reliable signal that’s precise to within a few feet.  


There are many more apps out there, as well as additional resources like hunting forums that discuss the current state of local land. But you get the idea: the internet has a wealth of land information that you should absolutely take advantage of. You ultimately need to see the land with your own eyes, but the more you plan your hunt in advance the more time you’ll spend actually hunting instead of trying to figure out where you’re going.  

Now that you know about all of these resources, how exactly should you be using them? Well, you need to plan your hunt, you need to navigate public land responsibly, and you need to ensure your own safety. Planning involves identifying the likeliest locations for the game that you’re looking to hunt (online resources and local wildlife officials can both help you with this), but it also involves plotting out a good route to reach those locations. Identify and avoid areas that look dangerous—cliffs, steep slopes, raging water—and don’t plan an excursion that goes deeper into the wilderness than you’re comfortable with. With time and experience you’ll learn your local land and acquire the skills needed to push your boundaries, but don’t try to do it all in your first hunt.


We just talked about how reliable GPS devices are, and digital apps for your phone or tablet are handy as well, but you should still have a physical map and the knowledge of how to read it, as well as a durable compass (i.e. not one that came out of a cereal box). You just never know what’s going to happen out in the wilderness—a seemingly reliable electronic device might die on you, or you might stumble and fall, and you can’t exactly break a physical map the way you can break the phone in your hand. We’re not trying to scare you; accidents are rare. But you should always have multiple ways to navigate yourself out of trouble.  


There are both crash courses on how to read a physical map, and in-depth government guides that stretch to the length of a serious book. Like with many outdoor skills you ultimately need practical experience, but there are a few essentials to keep in mind. Make sure that your physical map is relatively up to date and has significant topographic detail, because there are many simplistic maps that are fine for hikers looking to stick to major trails but are useless for anyone veering off the beaten path. Once you’re out in the bush, look for prominent physical features to orient yourself around—a ridgeline, a river bend, a mountaintop that’s always visible. A good way for new hunters to practice is to predict where they are with a map and compass, then use a digital device to see how close their estimation was. Practice this and orienteering will become second nature in… well, not no time, but a reasonable amount of time. And it doesn’t have to be hunting season for you to practice your navigational skills!


Now for some public land etiquette. A big part of learning to navigate public land is learning to stay on public land—private property isn’t always well marked, but if you harvest an animal on it you could end up in a heap of trouble. Learn any relevant boundaries in your area, and keep an eye out for them to avoid inadvertent trespassing. Keep an eye out for other hunters too, and have a backup plan in case someone beat you to the territory you scouted out. It’s both safe and polite to leave some distance, because no one wants a stretch of land you’ve been keeping an eye on all day to suddenly be inundated with hunters looking to snag a quick deer out from under you.


Last, but most importantly, let someone know where you’re going. And don’t just say “Hey, I’m going hunting, see you later!” Provide details based on your pre-hunt research, so if you don’t come back your friends and family will know where to look. Again, accidents are rare, but just like the rarity of car accidents doesn’t stop us from buckling our seatbelt the rarity of hunting accidents shouldn’t keep you from doing your diligence. Modern technology can help once again—apps like Cairn will let contracts see where your phone is, so they’ll know something’s up if you’ve been sitting in the same ditch for four hours. But don’t neglect the timeless method of a written plan spelling out that you’ll be in a certain area for a certain number of hours. You should also check in and out at your local ranger station, if there is one where you’re heading. The best hunts are always the ones where you show off your fancy newfound navigational skills by coming home safely. 

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