Map & Compass
Weather you hunt wilderness elk or small woodlot whitetails,
a good topo map and compass will always increase your effectiveness as a hunter.
By Bill Vaznis
“ It will be shooting light soon,” Bob said as he pulled the 4×4 off the road and down into a gully. He left the diesel running and turned on the dome light to show me an old topo map complete with diagrams and plenty of notes in the margins. “Take this old logging road down to the clear-cut, about a half-mile away,” he said, “and then work your way along this edge. I’ve seen elk here, here and on this ridge just below the cut. It should take you most of the morning to cover it thoroughly.
“When you get to the creek, cross it just inside the cut, and have your lunch. Then take out your compass and head 280 degrees for about a mile until you reach a rocky bluff and a line of aspens. Follow the line of trees due south. Keep your eyes open now because there have been a couple of big bulls seen here in recent days. You should come out on this other logging road around sunset. I’ll pick you up there. Any questions?”
“Yes,” I replied. “What happens if I don’t hit the logging road by dark?”
“Just shoot three arrows in the air,” laughed Bob, “and I’ll park the truck and come in to get you. If I can’t find you by midnight, however, I’ll tell the guys back at camp that you are good and lost, and they can divvy up your gear.”
“You won’t have to get out of the truck,” I replied with feigned sarcasm. “Just open up a thermos of hot coffee, and hang it out the window. I can smell a cup of hot coffee a mile away. Besides, I know you’ve got your eyes on my bow case and Gore-Tex rain gear, so I’ll be sure to be at the logging road by dark. See you then buddy!”
It is difficult to take full advantage of a topo map when hunting for elk, moose or deer unless you know exactly where you are in relation to the map. One way to orient yourself is by simple inspection. Take up a position in your hunting area that offers you good visibility, and then pick out a few prominent physical features such as hilltops or a lake. Orientate the map until its typographical symbols correspond to the terrain in front of you, and then using the contour lines try to pinpoint your exact location on the map.
A more precise method is to set our compass at 360 degrees and place the side edge of its transparent base plate on a line parallel with the Magnetic North line. Use the Declination Diagram found in the map’s margin.
Now, point the Direction-of-Travel needle to the north and rotate the map and compass together until the north part of the compass needle points to the “N” on the compass housing. (Some models have a black outline of an arrow permanently drawn inside and on the floor of the housing. It always points to “N” on the compass housing and some outdoorsmen find it easier to align the magnetic needle with this arrow.) Make sure your jack knife or wristwatch are not influencing the compass needle. There, you have oriented the compass, map and yourself to Magnetic North. It is that simple!
Scouting Big Woods
Topographical symbols and the spacing of contour lines can help you locate probable feeding and bedding sites, as well as runways and escape routes, from the comfort of camp. Basically, the closer the contour lines are to each other, the steeper you’ll find the terrain. Most ridge contours point downhill toward lowland feeding areas while valley contours point uphill towards the higher elevations—two locations elk and deer like to frequent!.
I often study those little brown squiggles for hours trying to locate bottlenecks, saddles, gentle slopes and natural crossings that often govern the daily movements of most big-game animals. I always check out meadows, burn-overs, clear-cuts and old farmsteads for evidence of feeding activity, and , the edges of dense swamps, nearby high ridges and the tops of steep ravines for possible bedding sites.
One fall, while bowhunting for elk in Colorado, we found a hotspot for elk by closely studying a topo map. We knew there was a herd of elk nearby, but they seemed to disappear from the face of the earth once the bulls stopped bugling. A creek bed, however, caught our attention. It seemed to meander effortlessly through the valley we were hunting. Upon closer examination, however, we “saw” on the map where a steep ridge blocked the creek at one point causing it to flow due east for a few hundred yards before it resumed its natural course. That herd of elk was holed up on the bend of that creek, and if it wasn’t for an unexpected close encounter with two black bears we might have arrowed one of those bulls.
Finding Your Way Around
There is no mystery to navigating in the big woods. Just use your common sense and follow these basic rules and you can hunt with confidence just about anywhere in North America.
The first rule is simple. Before you take that initial step into the wilderness, pick out a prominent landmark to help you return to your starting point. A mountain peak or ridgeline can often help you stay oriented without a compass—even in the dark. In other cases, I like to use a power line right-of-way, a river or even a dirt road as a backdrop. This will allow me to find camp even if I overshoot my starting point.
For example, let’s say you want to hunt an aspen-covered ridge that lies due north of a large stream. No matter where you are at quitting time, all you have to do is travel due south to hit the river. The best part is you can be off by a half mile and still locate your starting point in the dark by simply following the river’s bank back to your vehicle.
Of course, back bearings are not always so easy to figure out. Let’s say your forward compass reading to the ridge is not magnetic north (zero or 360 degrees), but rather 95 degrees. In this case, traveling due south to get yourself out of the woods could get you good and lost!
The rule of thumb to reverse directions is to add 180 degrees if your forward reading is less than 180 degrees. Conversely, if your forward reading is more than 180 degrees, then subtract 180 degrees. In this latter case, your return compass reading or back bearing will be 275 degrees.
If you can’t remember which is which, don’t worry. Choosing the wrong formula will result in an answer of less then zero degrees or more than 360 degrees, and both of these are of course nonsense.
Don’t wait until you get turned around to figure out how to get back to camp. Know where you are at all times! One way to do this is to sketch your forward progress, keeping note of pertinent landmarks you encounter en route. Write down degree bearings, too. It is easy to forget what direction you want to follow after a day of chasing big whitetails about.
As you hike through the woods, turn around once in a while to see what the return trail looks like. It is amazing how different everything can appear from this new perspective! Nothing is more disconcerting then to be on the correct path to camp, but not recognize it as such even in good light.
A few words of caution now about navigating in the big woods—beware of lateral drift! You can become hopelessly lost by following your compass “more or less” in the general direction you want to go. Lateral drift occurs when you take one step in the right direction, say due north, but two or three to the “left” to go around a rock or fallen tree. In essence, you have gone one step in the correct direction, and two in the wrong direction—due west! Where do you think you’ll be in two hours? I can assure you it will not be due north of your original position!
To counteract lateral drift, pick out a landmark straight ahead in the direction you want to travel, even if it is only 50 yards away, go to it, and then sight down your compass to another landmark. Continue with this procedure, and you’ll soon be out of the woods. Remember the shortest distance between two points is a straight line!
Of course this can be tricky sometimes, especially in the dark. If I am going “way back,” I stuff a shoulder pack with a small flashlight, extra batteries, some dry clothes, water-proof matches, some food and a small plastic tarp in case I get a bit “bewildered” or get a shot late in the day. Trying to find the blood trail in the big woods on a return trip the following morning can be like looking for the proverbial needle. It might be much easier to stay with the animal overnight, and then continue to follow the blood trail the next morning in good light.
Finally, always trust your compass. Human beings were not born with a “sense” of direction. If your compass indicates you must turn around and go back through the swamp, then do it! Try and keep in mind that it is you who are confused—not your compass!