How to use topographic maps to plan and execute your next hunt

How to Use Topo Maps to Plan Your Next Hunt

You’ve been out scouting all day, you found a few great deer hunting spots for archery season, and you plotted them on your map or mobile app. The problem is you can only hunt these spots with a very specific wind, and getting into these spots without getting busted is going to be tough. Walking straight into your spot isn’t always a very smart thing to do and could be the difference between success and failure. It’s time to pull out your topo map or mobile app to plan and execute your hunt so you don’t screw things up.

If you know an area well, this might not be an issue. That being said, ever since I started really digging into the area I hunted my entire life using topographic maps (printed, on Google Earth, and on my mobile hunting apps), I have found tons of new spots I never thought of hunting before. Why? I assumed I knew everything about the area and where the mature bucks liked to go. I can tell you, I was wrong. Now over the last few years, I have been taking down bigger bucks than I ever have before, all because I research and plan out my hunts.

You can too. All you need to get started is to add a few tools to your toolbox. Some of these things you probably know already, but didn’t take the time to put all together. All you need to get started is a printed map or any number of mobile hunting apps (if you’re more tech-savvy). It doesn’t matter. The most important thing is that you know how to do a few key things.

Skills Needed

  • Know How to Read a Topo Map (read our complete guide linked here)
  • Know How to Use a Compass (and a Protractor if using a printed map)
  • Know How to Estimate Distance (see below)

These skills are not hard to master and will allow you to use topo maps to their fullest extent. Once you learn how to put a hunting plan together like this, it will open your eyes to finding potential scouting locations and new spots you probably would have never thought about. When you combine this with satellite imagery from places like Google Earth and use 3D modes to visualize the terrain, you can really plan and execute some incredible hunts.

Planning Your Hunt

To get started, it is critical to make sure you have the right printed map for your location. The USGS allows you to select your target area and download maps for free that you can print and use. You can buy maps on their website and have them shipped to you as well. If you are using a mobile app, then you should be good.

*NOTE: Remember when you are hunting in remote areas that do not have cell coverage to load your mobile hunting app’s offline maps before you leave for the hunt. This is why I like to print maps of the area I’m hunting to use and take with me as backups.

Plot Your Hunting Spots

Always take your map or app with you when you go scouting. Always know where you are so when you find that perfect hunting setup, you can plot the spot on your map. There is nothing more important in this process than being able to plot the exact location of your potential hunting spot or tree. There’s nothing worse than navigating to a spot in the dark for a morning hunt only to realize you don’t know exactly where your spot is supposed to be.

Look at your surroundings and ensure you have the perfect setup visualized and know what wind direction is optimal for your hunt. If you need to mark the tree with a small reflective marking device, do it now. Take notes about what you see too. You don’t want to cross over trails in your target area and leave scent everywhere unnecessarily. Visualize your hunt and take care in plotting the exact spot.

Plot and mark hunting stand spots on your map
Plot your potential hunting stand spots on your map.

Analyze the Terrain

When you are scouting your spot, you need to look at the best avenues of approach to get there without having your scent drift into the target area. Sometimes this means going a long way around a hill or cutting through a swamp to get to the spot undetected. For example, if you are hunting 60-100 yards from a mature buck’s bedding area off of a point (like what is simulated in the graphic above), then you don’t want to go anywhere near the bedding area on your route in or have your scent bust you because the deer winded you 300 yards away. You also don’t want to wear yourself out hiking to the spot.

If you analyze the terrain around the spot you want to hunt when scouting and then confirm it with the map, you will most likely be able to identify potential routes in and out of the spot using the terrain to hide your movement and make things as easy as possible. Your eyes might tell you one thing, but the map is going to show you things you probably didn’t know and/or will give you ideas about potential routes you didn’t think about before.

I highly recommend using the low ground to mask your movement wherever you can. Stay on the military crest (or below) of hills and ridges to minimize silhouetting or exposing yourself while navigating to your spot if you can. Use thick, high stem count brush to mask your movement, but go around it when possible and stay on the backside of these thickets to stay hidden and silent.

You can’t always see this on the map, but in a lot of cases, you can get a good idea of how flat or steep the terrain is, and how high you will need to climb or low you will need to go. Look at the width of the contour lines on the map. Identify where there are possible areas that will allow you to stealthily move to your spot without being compromised. Follow ridge “benches” to move into areas quickly without the need for a compass, following the contour lines to minimize the need for looking at a compass or using a phone or GPS.

Map Your Route

To read, navigate, and follow a topographic map for hunting; you will need to first orient yourself with the map. All maps should be oriented to the north. With this, you should always have a compass so you can not only orient yourself on the ground you are standing on but to orient yourself to the map. Most mobile hunting apps do this automatically but you should always check just in case. Nothing will get you lost faster than facing the wrong direction when navigating. Plus, remember to use the declination diagram if using a standard map. North on your compass doesn’t always match grid north on your map.

Now you should be ready to create a route to your destination. Even if you are just scouting, it is critical to always know where you are and where you are going. If you create a route, remember that it is not always best to go in a straight line anywhere, especially in hill country or the mountains. As discussed above, there can be many different terrain features in front of you and obstacles that you can easily go around if you use the terrain you see on the map to your advantage.

Identify Waypoints (Attack Points)

When creating your route, identify individual waypoints (I call them attack points) and then mark them on your map. You can then use them to navigate and easily and get to hunting spots and get around obstacles in the terrain without stinking up your hunting spot before you get there. A waypoint is a location you have identified that is well-defined like a known point (tree stand), road intersection, or easily identifiable terrain feature.

You don’t always need to be able to find the exact spot, because being in the general area is sometimes good enough to get you to your next waypoint or back to where you started. Knowing where you are doesn’t need to be pinpoint accurate if you know where you are within a 50-yard radius and you can get to the next spot you are navigating to. It becomes more critical when trying to identify exact hunting stand locations.

You can use these waypoints to generally know where you are so you can navigate to the next spot effectively. You can then use your compass, GPS, mobile app, or terrain association (being able to read the terrain and navigate by what you see on the map) to get to your next waypoint. Most mobile hunting apps allow you to easily create waypoints for quick and easy navigation to your hunting spot or scouting location.

Finish Creating Your Route

Once you identify all of your waypoints and have them plotted and have planned your route, it is time to make sure you know the distances between each location and the azimuth (direction in degrees on your compass) to get there and write them down. If you are using a mobile app, you will need to mark it as well as it is still important to know the exact direction of travel so you don’t get off track. Otherwise, you will find yourself traveling in a zig-zag line all time as you try to correct yourself. Knowing the exact distance and direction of travel in degrees to each waypoint will save you a lot of pain if your phone or GPS dies on you.

Route plan for navigating to your hunting stand with waypoints, distances to each, and a final destination
A route plan to your hunting stand or scouting spots should include a known location to start from, waypoints for a route to get there with known distances between each one, and an easily identifiable final destination. *This is a generic example and not necessarily a recommended route.

Know Your Start Point

First, before you start any route plan, it is important to identify exactly where you are starting from. Second, when navigating anywhere that you have the potential to get lost or want to navigate with precision, carry a compass. You will then need to orient yourself to the map and find a known point (like a parking lot, known address, road intersection, etc.) or use a GPS or phone GPS to identify exactly where you are on the map. It is critical when you start navigating to a hunting spot that you know exactly where you are starting from and can actually visualize the terrain in front of you and associate what you are physically seeing with what you are seeing on the map. If you don’t know exactly where you are, an advanced map-reading method for finding exactly where you are that can help is called resection.

Resection

Resection is a method where you can physically see two or more known points that you can also easily identify on the map. Using a compass, you find the exact direction (azimuth) to each of these points you can see. You then get the back azimuth from those locations, draw them on your map, and these lines will intersect at your approximate location. This normally is for those who have physical maps and isn’t as easy to accomplish with an offline map on a phone application.

*Remember, even when navigating with a GPS or mobile app, you need to orient yourself to the landscape you are seeing in front of you with what you are seeing on your screen. These advanced technologies are great but can stop working when you are in remote areas. Know when to turn on offline maps and learn how to use them when you lose connectivity.

Navigate to Your Hunting or Scouting Spot

Now it’s time to actually navigate to the first waypoint on your route. Pull out your compass, GPS, or mobile app and identify your direction (azimuth) of travel. Then, check to see how far it is and what the exact distance is so you can make sure you have at least a general idea of how far you need to go to get there. Navigate to each waypoint using a direction, distance, and understanding of the exact terrain you will be going through.

Use the map to look at the terrain around you and over time you will find that you can navigate to most spots using just the terrain and your pace count. I highly recommend using a pace count to measure distance so you don’t get too far off track or get lost.

Use terrain like draws and benches on ridgelines to navigate to your hunting spot
Using Terrain to Navigate.

Estimate Distance (Know Your Pace Count)

A pace count is a simple method that allows you to measure distance using your own natural walking pace and associating a specific number of paces with a known distance. Knowing your pace count will allow you to navigate much more effectively. For some people, their pace counts are highly accurate and get them where they are going using just the terrain, and they seldom even use a compass. In flat terrain where there are few strong features to navigate with, knowing your exact compass azimuth and distance and pace count can get you to your exact waypoint location quickly and effectively.

It is recommended to navigate in increments of 100 meters or yards with your pace count. This gives you small snippets of distance to navigate with versus trying to remember large distances. It is recommended to use pace count beads to navigate when you a traveling long distances so you don’t forget how far you have gone. As we talked about above, most U.S Maps use meters and kilometers for distance. That is why you should use 100 meters versus yards for your pace count. That being said, a lot of mobile hunting apps use yards. If you are using an App, set your pace count for yards, not meters. Remember, even Google Earth uses meters unless you change the scale.

Measure Your Pace Count for 100 Meters (Yards)

  • To measure your pace count, find a spot (or measure it out yourself) that has an exact distance measurement of 100 meters (yards).
  • Walk this distance and count your paces. Walk naturally and do not stretch your legs or change how you normally walk.
  • Count how many paces (not steps) it takes for you to get to that distance.
  • Do this three times and take the average of those three (56 paces + 58 paces + 61 paces/ 3 = 58.3 = 58)
  • Now you have your pace count

*NOTE: The average pace count for 100 yards for an adult male is 58.5. Remember that you can always estimate shorter distances by halving or quartering your pace count for 100 yards.

**NOTE: When walking in sloped or steep terrain, remember that your pace count will vary. When the ground has a gradual incline, add 5 paces to your 100-yard distance. When moving in extremely steep terrain, add 10-15 paces. When going downhill, you might have to subtract approximately 5 paces from your count. As you use this method of estimating distance, you will learn what works best, but it is recommended to measure and recheck your count in steep terrain when you can.

Planning Your Exfil

You need to plan how you are going to get back to your starting spot too. It is as important to have a route planned to get in as it is to get out. This could be the same route that you went in with, just in reverse. That’s up to you. What you also need to do, is plan for the worst. Have an emergency route that is the fastest or most direct route out. Don’t assume everything is going to go as planned.

Navigating After the Shot

If you shoot a huge mature buck, chances are he’s not going to run in the direction you want after the shot. Make sure you stop, compose yourself, and make sure you can get back to your start point or somewhere convenient to drag the deer out and still know generally where you are. Don’t get excited after you shoot an incredible deer only to get lost in the process.

Conclusion

Now that we’ve talked extensively about how to use topo maps to plan your next hunt, it’s time to practice. Don’t take navigating for granted unless you know the area very well. It is easy to get turned around when things don’t go as planned, so make sure you always carry a compass, no matter what you are doing. My compass has bailed me out more times than I can count. A skilled navigator can look at a map, plan their route in their head, and just go. This takes time and experience, but given the basics outlined in this post, you can do it too.

If you have any questions, please let me know in the comments below. Good luck!

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