Mapping Technology for Hunters: How to Plan Your Next DIY Hunt

hunting_apps_fI've hunted prairie grouse, pheasants, waterfowl, and coyotes on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands and turkeys in the Black Hills in South Dakota for more than two decades. My tattered U.S. Forest Service maps, with nearly indecipherable notes scribbled in the margins, are testament to the hours I've logged separating the wheat from the chaff — public from private land holdings, honey holes from gar holes.

And it's not as easy as you might expect. Much of the public land is not clearly marked nor is a great deal of the private land distinguishable from public grounds. As a result, I've had a tendency to hunt the same well-marked properties year after year, instead of further branching out and finding new places to hunt.

That changed a couple of years ago when I decided to take my scouting recon to the next level — to utilize the plethora of incredible high-tech tools available to public-land hunters. I'm talking about mapping websites, software, and mobile apps that enable hunters to quickly identify all sorts of public land holdings and navigate them with confidence.

There's no shortage of public land throughout the West, where hunters can gain access to a wide array of hunting opportunities: upland birds, waterfowl, small game, predators, all sorts of big game. All it takes is a little high-tech homework to locate them and the right tools to navigate them.

Bureau of Land Management holdings, U.S. Forest Service and Fish and Wildlifes lands, federal grasslands, state-managed WMAs, etc., combine to provide access to millions of acres that are largely underutilized. To provide an example: More than 80 percent of all land in Arizona is publicly owned, and much of it is open to public hunting. BLM alone administers 12.2 million surface acres of public lands in Arizona, open to hunting unless otherwise designated.

And thanks to modern technology and high-tech mapping tools, it's never been easier to research and plan a Western public-ground hunt. Much of it can be done from the comfort of your home, which, of course, means you won't have to spend as much time in the truck trying to locate places to hunt. You can simply drive to your predetermined locations, walk in, and begin hunting.

I typically begin with a general overlay of the public land I'm planning to hunt. Online mapping websites, such as Bing, Google Maps, and MyTopo, give you a bird's-eye view of the property and the ability to zoom in to pinpoint detailed terrain features.

My favorite is Google Maps — a free (for non-commercial use) online mapping application. It powers many map-based services and provides detailed, clickable topographical/photographic views. And it's so simple to use.

Begin by clicking the state where you wish to hunt on the provided national map on the site's homepage and then continue zooming in until you're "standing" at a specific location where you can get a good visual image of the layout of the property and its boundaries.

From there you can take a virtual hike around the property, looking for specific terrain features, such as choke points, waterways, bedding cover, etc., if you're big-game hunting, and specific locations to hunt. I've used the same process using MyTopo's interactive online maps — my No. 1 choice if I want a top-shelf printed map of the chosen area.

MyTopo also has a variety of other products, such as digital and instant access maps, mapping software, public land and hunting maps, and mobile apps. Instant access to browse, print, and download unlimited topo maps, aerial photos, map tools, and map prints/downloads will run you $29.95 a year.

OK, I've done my homework, looked at the big picture, and liked what I saw. I've located several public land parcels and have mapped out a circular route to check them out, which will save me a lot of time when I get there.

Now it's time to take my recon to the next level — locating and marking specific spots that show promise. That means it's time for a drive-by. For that I'm breaking out my Garmin nüvi GPS navigator loaded with mapping software from onXmaps.

This is where technology meets terrain. onXmaps' color-coded display makes it easy to identify all sorts of public land holdings, such as state and federal lands, WMAs, tribal lands, etc., and quickly get the lay of the land.

I can cruise around the country block and look for access points, taking note of where public land butts up into private land. If I want I can mark these points on the printed map for a quick cross-reference. When hunting grouse on the grasslands, I use a numbering system and mark all promising locations on the printed map.

That way I can plan my attack before I leave the motel in the morning and have my route mapped out to visit as many honey holes as I can in as little time as possible. If I'm hunting big game, I'll have several different locations picked for different wind directions.

And another cool thing about onXmaps is that if you're feeling brave, it even displays private landowner names if you want to knock on some doors.

OK, let's put leather to dirt — and here's where another set of high-tech gadgets come into play. I'm one of those determined hunters who takes pride in out-hiking the competition, going back as far as I need to to get away from the public-ground-hunting masses.

And even though I have a very good idea of where the boundaries were when I left the truck, thanks to the nüvi, things can change once you get on the ground. No problem. I can use a handheld mapping GPS or one of the many smartphone apps available to keep me on track.

Garmin's GPSMAP 64 is a great choice if you're looking for a feature-packed handheld GPS in a moderate price range ($300). It comes with a built-in worldwide base map with shaded relief for easy navigation. Public land hunters can add detailed topographic, marine, and road maps to target specific hunting destinations. GPSMAP 64 also supports BirdsEye Satellite Imagery (subscription required) that lets you load satellite images onto your device and integrate them with your maps.

In addition, the 64 is compatible with Custom Maps, a map format that allows you to transform paper and electronic maps easily into downloadable maps for your device for free.

I have two navigational apps loaded on my iPhone: onXmaps HUNT and ScoutLook Hunting Weather. I like onXmaps HUNT because I can load the same state-specific maps that are on my truck's Garmin nüvi. This will keep me within the public land boundaries when I'm on foot. And I'll be able to mark promising locations for a return visit.

With the ScoutLook Hunting Weather app I can monitor current weather conditions, and with its unique ScentCone and SetZone wind maps, I can monitor wind conditions out to 72 hours at any location.

Heading West this fall to tackle tough country? Why not take your public-land recon to the next level? All it takes is a little forward planning and thoughtful execution — and some super-cool, high-tech tools. Check out these great hunting apps for the West.

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