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Big Country, How to Keep From Getting Lost by Jay Houston

Excerpt from Elk Hunting 101, A Pocketbook Guide of Elk Hunting Tips

One of the leading reasons elk hunters come home empty handed is that they fear getting lost. Granted there are not too many of us who will admit to this, but drop a guy who is unfamiliar with the territory off out in the middle of elk country 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, 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, It is important to note that 80 percent of all 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. Many of us spend much of our time convincing others 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. 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.

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.

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. 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.

I have had the opportunity to try out many 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.
    • Affordable

Topographical Maps
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.

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 via our partnership with 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 website just go to or click on the link to Topo Maps on our Homepage:

There are lots of map products available, but and 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.

For the remainder of this essay from Elk Hunting 101, and more game-changing information and elk hunting tips, go to our website.

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