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Compass and Map Skills for Hunters

Solid map and compass skills are essential for anybody who strikes out into the great outdoors, but for hunters they’re all the more so. By its very nature, after all, hunting tends to take you off the roads, off the established trails, and very often deep into the backcountry. Unlike a backpacker navigating to a lakeside campsite or a mountain climber bushwhacking toward a summit approach, a hunter aims to go where his or her quarry is—a moving target, in other words, and one that can lead through some mighty rough, mighty remote country. That’s all the more true in heavily hunted areas, where game has learned to be especially retiring and reclusive.

Electronic navigation aids are enormously helpful to hunters: apps that place you exactly on a digitized map, GPS devices you can use to track your course and mark kills and other important waypoints. But they can also let you down without warning, thanks to dead batteries, nonexistent reception, or those everyday gremlins that cause our gadgets to act funky.

A compass and a hard-copy topographic map? By contrast, they’ve got your back through thick and thin (as long as you don’t lose them in the brush, of course). They can help you explore cross-country without fear of getting lost, predict wildlife movements based on terrain and weather, mark important locations such as campsites and water sources and kill areas, and help get yourself back on track if you find yourself turned around.

So bring whatever battery-powered tools you want, but don’t leave behind your topo and compass—and don’t embark into the woods until you know what they can do and how you can use them most effectively. And that’s just what I want to cover in this post: starting with topo maps, then tackling compasses, and finally breaking down techniques for employing both of them together out on your hunt.

Introducing the Topographic Map

The defining feature of a topographic map is the contour line, which marks elevation above sea level. The elevation is the same along all points of a single contour line; the elevational difference between two successive contour lines—the contour interval—is constant. (Every fifth contour line comes marked in bold and labeled here and there with its elevation; this is the contour index.) A topo’s orientation and spacing of contour lines thus illustrates the terrain: not just the basic layout of its slopes, but also finer-grain depictions of landforms such as ravines, ridges, plateaus, hills, and mountain peaks.

The most useful topo maps for hunting are larger-scale ones—that is, topos showing smaller areas in greater detail. In the Lower 48 states, the go-to is the U.S. Geological Survey 7.5-minute series quadrangle maps—or their descendant, the GIS-derived US Topo maps put out by the USGS, or the U.S. Forest Service’s related Forest Service Primary Base Map Series (FSTopo). These maps have a scale of 1:24,000—an inch on the map equals 24,000 inches on the landscape depicted—and typically have a contour interval of 40 feet.

(Of course, you’re likely going to be using such “zoomed-in” topos in conjunction with smaller-scale maps—including basic planimetric ones—which show land ownership, wildlife management units, regional road networks, and the like. Rely on these general maps for reaching your hunting area and respecting property boundaries; don’t count on them for on-the-ground, in-the-hunt navigating.)

Tightly packed contour lines (showing significant elevation change across a short distance) indicate steep country; those so closely bunched that they converge portray a sheer cliff. Contour lines that “point” downslope indicate a ridge; those that point upslope show a drainage. A closed circle of a contour line shows a hilltop or peak, unless the inside of the circle is hatched, in which case it reveals a hollow.

It’s important to keep in mind that, depending on a map’s contour interval, many small-scale landforms that can obstruct your travel may not register on the topo. For example, a 15-foot cliff won’t clearly show on a 7.5-minute topo, nor will a steep-sided 30-foot pinnacle on a knife ridge—both challenging, maybe even impassable, terrain to traverse. So be prepared to adjust your route on the fly, even when you’ve planned out what seems to be a safe, efficient way through the landscape based on close study of your topo map.

Topo maps will also indicate land cover on a fairly crude basis: showing, for example, green where significant forest or woodland stands, blue-outlined snowfields or glaciers, and a marsh symbol for wetlands.

Hunting With a Topo Map

A topo map, used with or without a compass, is a powerful navigational tool, which I’ll get into later in this article. In this section, though, I want to run through some of the kinds of clues to game movement and behavior you can glean from a topo—when planning out your hunt at home, doing some preseason scouting, and actually out there on the chase.

Ridge lines serve as classic travel corridors for many wildlife species, from deer and elk to mountain lions and wolves. For one thing, they often offer the easiest-going compared to steep slopes or drainages cluttered with thickets, deadfall, and boulders. They also provide ready escape routes—downhill on either side, for example—to ungulates confronted by a predator (including a human hunter). Because of their elevated position and the availability of escape terrain, ridgetops also appeal to deer and elk as bedding spots.

Midslope benches—shelves of gentler or minimal grade on a mountainside or ridge crest, which’ll appear as a widening of contour lines—also tend to funnel game movement and provide bedding refuges.

You can also identify saddles or gaps along narrow ridge lines—showing up as local depressions on those linear heights—which deer and elk often use to travel between drainages.

Topo maps also help you key into how weather and terrain together drive game movements. Consider slope aspect, for example. In frigid weather, you might navigate your way to the south- and southwest-facing hillsides, where large mammals seek out those orientations’ greater solar insolation. In fierce winds, game may shelter on leeward aspects, particularly in tucked-away coves or basins


Conversely, windward slopes may draw grazers in snowy conditions, given prevailing winds often scour away snow on these aspects to expose forage. Springtime bear hunters know to glass south- and west-facing slopes early in the season, given these warmer, sunnier exposures spur earlier plant green-up—prized fodder for bears fresh out of their winter dens—when north or east aspects are still snowbound (or at least dormant).

The land-cover depictions on a topographic map aren’t quite as exact as the contours—understandable, given features such as vegetation and wetlands tend to change more rapidly than topography itself. But they can still help you plan your hunt. For example, a patch of green representing isolated timber in mostly open country (such as sagebrush steppe or alpine grasslands) can be worth investigating, as these groves often serve as thermal or hiding cover for game. Swampy spots in headwater basins may attract bull elk for wallowing purposes.

I’ve only really scratched the surface when it comes to what a topographic map can reveal in terms of terrain features that direct, attract, and deter wildlife, but hopefully what we’ve covered above gives you some things to play around with. Certainly, they show how valuable time spent studying your topos can be before you head out hunting: You can identify areas likely to draw game, thus focusing your efforts when actually hitting the backcountry and cross-referencing based on physical signs or sightings.

And once you’re hunting, you’ll be able to consult your topo map to switch up your game plan if conditions change. Say temperatures climb to unseasonable heights: Maybe it’s time to zero in on deep, cool stands of heavy timber on north-facing slopes, where deer and elk often hole up to beat the heat. Perhaps a howling winter-style storm hits, in which case hunting leeward aspects out of the bluster might well be fruitful. With a good topo map, you can do your pre-trip homework to select promising spots to hunt, you can alter your tactics and targeted locations based on weather, and you can keep track of your location all the while.

Compass Basics

A high-quality compass goes hand in hand with an appropriately chosen topographic map, though as with the map the compass can be used for a variety of useful route-finding tasks all on its own.

And just like a topo map, a compass isn’t all that helpful if you haven’t studied up on its basic functions and put in some practice hours with the thing. For some useful background on compasses, I’ll (humbly) suggest checking out some of my previously published articles over at Outdoors Being: one breaking down different types of compasses, another covering Compass Anatomy 101, a third serving as a compass and navigation glossary, and a fourth running through the fundamentals of using these tools—definitely worthwhile to read before delving into the rest of this material, as I’m not spelling out such nuts-and-bolts as taking a bearing here.

That last article I linked to addresses the issue of magnetic declination, easily overlooked by beginning compass users but vital to take into account so you’re wayfinding as accurately as possible. Declination refers to the difference between true (or geographic) north, which is what maps are arranged by, and magnetic north, which is what a compass needle points toward. To use your compass with your topo map, you’ll have to factor in declination—by manually adjusting declination on your compass, if your model allows it, or by adding or subtracting degrees accordingly when you take a bearing—or your navigation will be off.

Compass & Map Practices in the Field

In this section, I’ll run through a few procedures for compass-and-map work that definitely come in handy on the hunt.

Let’s say you don’t know your location and want to: perhaps to mark the spot of a carcass you’ll need to return to, or the last bit of sign along a blood trail you’re trying to follow. Identify two or three major landmarks in different directions—in as divergent directions as possible—which you can also identify on your map. For each landmark, take a back bearing, then place a corner or edge of your compass on its position on the map, with the direction-of-travel arrow pointed roughly toward your general location. Turn the compass itself until the dial’s meridian lines align with the map’s north-south lines, then trace a line of position (using a straight edge if necessary) toward your general location. Repeat this with the other landmarks, and you’ll identify your location, at least generally, where the three lines of position intersect. The closer to a right angle those lines intersect, the tighter the location area you’ll define: hence the value of choosing reference points that are far enough apart.

Let’s close things out with a couple of compass techniques specifically aimed at keeping you on the map—or getting back on it. First, let’s tackle the concepts of baselines and “aiming off.” A baseline is a linear feature such as a road, a hike, or a river that lies in a known direction from where you’re hunting. 

Now, if you’re simply navigating back to a footpath or a stream that’ll then direct you back to a trailhead or a road, you might just strike-off in the direction of your baseline and then turn whichever way back to your ultimate starting point.

But let’s say you parked along a forest backroad, then struck off cross-country on your hunt. Maybe said backroad runs north-south; you can easily find your way back to it, but how do you know whether you’re north or south of your vehicle? Aiming off—also called intentional offset—helps you account for the difficulty of following a bearing exactly back to your vehicle. When you take that bearing from whatever your turnaround point is, trek back by one or the other side of that direction of travel—veering off it by maybe 10 degrees or so. Whenever you hit an obstacle, always detour in the same, offset direction. This way, when you reach the road, you’ll know for sure whether to turn north or south to hike back to your rig.

Now, what if despite your best efforts you find yourself lost out there in the backcountry? There are obviously many things you can do in this situation, but let’s talk about one way to use your compass to get back on track. It’s risky to strike-off willy-nilly in an attempt to find a reference point you remember or can identify on the map—you may just get yourself more thoroughly lost. But if you use your compass to stay on a straight line—and count your steps as you go, so you can retrace them—you can explore your surroundings in out-and-back forays or right-angle canvasses, hopeful of striking something that’ll reorient you but also confident you can work your way back to where you realized you were lost, if need be.

About the Author

Some 20 years of service in the army fed Alex’s interest in outdoors skills and ecological awareness. He’s passionate about self-sufficiency, outdoor survival, and environmental awareness, topics he explores on his website Outdoors Being.

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