Lost? There are few feelings in the world the initiate the instant cold sweat feeling of being lost in the woods and unsure of the way out. Now obviously when you are hunting the family farm or your favorite stomping grounds, you typically know where you are, and there is no instrument better for navigation than the intimate knowledge of and familiarity with your hunting area. But when these areas are not panning out and you need to try new ones or if you are on a once a year DIY hunt out west, having the proper navigation tools and the understanding of how to use them is essential for safety as well as effectiveness.
I am a very visual person and so when hunting an area of National Forest for the first time or even the first few times, I prefer to have a USGS topo map of the area and a working compass. USGS maps are available online, by contacting your local DNR office, and some times they can be found in a public library. The ability to recognize and understand contour lines can save you a lot of time when it comes to scouting and will help identify prominent features from which you can navigate. Slope is determined by feet of vertical fall divided by a horizontal distance. On a contour map, the closer the contour lines are, the steeper the slope. This is helpful in determining travel routes for both you and the deer. Deer are inherently lazy and prefer to take the easiest route to and fromtheir destinations. Therefore a good place to start looking for sign are the areas that you think you would use to move throughout the area. Other features such as natural funnels or pinch points can then be identified and are good locations to ambush deer.
I received an I-Finder Hunt GPS unit for Christmas one year and it greatly increased my confidence. I can download a digital topo map for anywhere in the country and upload them to the unit. It includes most of the government roads through the Jefferson National Forest and many of the walking trails. It also allows you to store waypoints for sign such as scrapes and rubs or set the exact position of stand locations. You will not find me without this tool in my pack when searching for that newest of honey holes. However, the digital age is not without its limitations. Battery power is quickly drained by cold weather, constant use, or use of the screen light. Also, satellite signals vary depending upon position, especially in deep narrow hollers of the Blue Ridge. Therefore, the GPS unit is a terrific tool but you should not rely solely on its use. Study topo maps or aerial photography (if available) prior to beginning your hunt, bring a back up system such as a USGS map, and always let someone know where you will be hunting and your expected time of return. This will prove to be the fastest way to notify the authorities should trouble arise.
Now get out there!
aerial image courtesy of USFW
topographic map courtesy of USGS