GPS and Hunting – A Primer Course
By Erik Laing (kiskadinna)
Every year, without fail, there is a new gadget that comes along – designed to improve the lives of duck hunters. But in reality, many quickly fade in popularity because they just aren’t useful. However, every once in a while something comes along that truly does make our lives easier as hunters, and one of these advances is Global Positioning Systems (GPS for short). The problem with GPS is it seems too advanced or out of reach for the average, technologically challenged person. My hope is that I can help you better understand what GPS is; including a brief history, how to use it to enhance your scouting and hunting, and how to select a unit that is right for you.
If you own a nice fishing boat, navigate coastal waters, or fly in small planes, you probably are already aware of some uses of GPS. It is not a new technology, but one that has come into its own in recent years. What started in the 1970s as a Department of Defense program for satellite navigation has grown into a worthwhile tool for civilian use with 50 satellites in orbit as of 2004. The innovations that made GPS usable for you and I are handheld units, and the suspension of Selective Availability by the U.S Government (which previously made accuracy to “no worse than 15-25 meters”). The reality is that GPS can be accurate to within about 3 meters through technologies such as Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS). As far as technology is concerned, knowing the history is not key to using a GPS device, and an Internet search can tell a lot about the history.
What Can GPS Do?
For a hunter, GPS is first and foremost an interactive map. You can zoom in or out, mark key locations such as blinds, fields, nearby buildings, or even your truck so as you return in the dark. Since I don’t only hunt ducks, I use my GPS to mark deer stands, productive spots to flush grouse, and key features under water for fishing. As I am scouting, I may drive or walk a general area I am interested in hunting and use my GPS to lock down the area. If a spot looks like a promising location for ducks or geese, I mark the location. When I get home I spend time to research daily patterns, determine ownership of nearby parcels, or just make a note of what is around. At the heart of this, is the built-in map that you can mark “waypoints” on. After you have marked these spots, you can easily see their location on a map, or if you choose, you can set your GPS to lead you to them. There is also the potential to map places, use aerial views and combine information in many ways through programs such as Garmin MapSource or Google Earth. As an example, I’ve taken a place and posted a couple waypoints that I can put into my mapping program and also look at in Google Earth. I can print maps of these areas or I can use my knowledge of the area to examine deer stand placement. The same applies to a permanent blind or when looking at a new potential hunting spot to get a birds’ eye view of the area. In the first image, you can see a topographical map of the area with the two locations marked (Fig. 1).
One other use outside of normal hunting is the ability to track where you have been. Mapping GPS devices store a track every day, and that track can be loaded into any of the earlier products. On a recent trip to Washington, I hooked my GPS (the same one I used while hunting and fishing) up on the dash of my rental car. In addition to being able to find campsites and other points of interest, it tracked the whole 800 mile trip.
What to Get?
This barely scratches the surface of what a GPS unit can do for you, but to make use of the technology, we have to look at what someone needs in a device. Unless you hunt from a boat all the time, you probably won’t get the most use out of a large boat unit, so for most hunters, a hand held unit is best. People develop preferences for one brand or another, and I am no exception – but it’s worth pointing out, that three manufacturers split the handheld market (namely Garmin, Lowrance, and Magellan). Below is a list of terms you will hear looking for GPS units, as well as some basic features that are handy for hunters.
GPS – As I pointed out earlier, this is short for Global Positioning System. This refers to the system of satellites that orbit the earth. The unit you purchase is called a receiver and uses the positions of multiple satellites to determine where YOU are (called triangulation).
WAAS – Wide Area Augmentation System – various things can interfere with a GPS satellite signal, so reference stations as part of WAAS correct the signal to give greater accuracy. All new GPS units have this feature, but it can be disabled to save battery power.
Basemap – Mapping units come preloaded with a basemap that includes primary highways, basic city information and even what restaurants or services are available at the next highway exit. These basemaps CAN be used for hunting and fishing, but topographical maps and nautical charts (specific to each brand and model of unit) can be purchased and are far better. Look for a unit that has the best map options for your area.
Waypoint – GPS units allow you to save the location in the form of a symbol and name. For example, a location at N 41° 06.885′ W 102° 57.355′ (do you know where this place is?) can be simplified with a familiar name and symbol in a GPS unit. Most units can store an ample amount of waypoints, but many now offer expandable memory in the form of cards so you can store over 10,000 as well as detailed maps.
GPS Features to Consider
Above are two units I primarily use for my positioning. The one on the left is about 6 years old and is more than adequate for most hunting situations. The one on the right has some upgrades including greater antenna sensitivity for use in thick cover, color screen, and a built in altimeter to name a few things. Everyone’s hunting situation and budget determine what is best for them.
Display – if you have a hard time seeing small things, you might consider a bigger display size. Color is also a good option for getting greater detail out of maps.
Antenna – Accuracy is pretty good across the board, but if you hunt in heavily wooded areas, some manufacturers are coming out with higher sensitivity antennas. Like a cell phone, a GPS can lose signal if it does not have a direct line of sight to the sky.
Connection – For me, the ability to connect to my computer is a key feature since there is no keyboard built into units. A computer cable is what allows me to make maps, transfer data back and forth, and saves a lot of time.
Waterproof/Floating – Most units are waterproof, but not all float. I’ve never lost one because I generally secure it to a bag or pocket but you might consider a floating unit if you tend to drop duck calls in the drink.
Compass/Altimeter – While these are different features, for me they fall into the category of nice, but not needed. A GPS is NOT a compass, but some have an electronic compass built in, and this can be a nice feature for navigation, and it enhances the accuracy of the unit itself. Also, map data includes a rough idea of elevation, but a built in altimeter adds a degree of accuracy.
Ease of Use – Each unit has its own feel, and different manufacturers use different menu set ups. If it is difficult to operate one handed for you, try a different brand or model. I have tried what were supposed to be great units, but because I found the operation clumsy, I couldn’t use them.
There is no limit to the number of extras you can get on a GPS unit today; you can also download software to your cell phone that makes it functional as a BASIC GPS. The most important thing one can do is to learn how to use a GPS, and in my experience the best practical way to do that is to give geocaching a shot. A sort of high-tech treasure hunt, a couple of caches will give you a good deal of familiarity with your unit. For more info on that, check out www.geocaching.com.
A GPS can enhance your scouting this year through having more knowledge at your fingertips, and can be a good tool for just about any time you spend in the outdoors. Give it a try, and see what using a GPS can do for you.
The Problem with GPS
GPS technology is an amazing thing, and more and more people are using it in their cars, boats, and daily lives. Still, GPS can be wrong, built in maps can be out of date, and batteries can die. Some people will disagree, but I don’t think it’s ever a good idea to place your trust in GPS to save your life. Compass skills, proper planning and common sense are still your best defense against getting lost.
There is also a valid concern with regards to cyber-scouting. The data you gain should be personal and not shared online unless it is strictly for the purpose of safety or general knowledge. I have done my part to ensure that the places mapped here will not affect other people’s hunting by removing all information that would guide someone to a friend’s honey hole.