Get off the Beaten Track for Better Hunting

by Phillip Watts

You've probably heard it before–to find the best hunting, get off the beaten track and go where the crowds don't go. This is sound advice, because elk have learned to avoid areas with lots of human activity, especially during hunting seasons. And elk range over large areas so sometimes you need to cover a lot of country to find them. But where do you begin?

First, you'll have to acquire some basic wilderness navigation skills. These skills will make you a better hunter–you'll be able to leave your "comfort zone" near roads and trails without worrying about getting lost. You'll be able to drop an elk in the middle of a thick forest, go back to camp for help, and return directly to the spot. And you'll be able to scan a map, locate a promising area such as a spring on a dry mountainside, and navigate your way to it with no problem. With a little practice and a few basic techniques, most outdoorsmen and women can learn to find their way in the backcountry, and become better hunters in the process.

Brushing Up on Navigation Skills

You'll need to develop your skills to the point that you're able to navigate unfamiliar terrain using a map and compass if you want to find the best backcountry hunting spots. There are several good books on wilderness navigation to get you started (see sidebar). But you can't learn all the skills you need from books alone; you'll also need hands-on experience. You can gain this experience on your own, or better yet, try orienteering.

Orienteering is a sport involving navigation through unfamiliar terrain using map and compass, with the object of completing a pre-set course in the shortest time possible. Elite orienteers combine the endurance of cross-country runners with expert navigational skills, but you don't have to compete at that level to learn to navigate. Log onto the US Orienteering Federation's website ( for educational links with excellent tutorials, and consider joining your local orienteering club.

Map Reading

Topographic map reading and interpretation are the most important skills to master for the beginner. Topographic or "topo" maps use contour lines to depict areas of equal elevation. You can learn to recognize terrain features (ridges, valleys, knobs, saddles, cliffs, etc.) by the patterns the lines form. For example, concentric closed topographic contours represent a hilltop or mountaintop; contours in the shape of a "v" with the elevation increasing in the direction the "v" points represent a valley or swale, and so on. You can also learn to recognize potential elk hot-spots like remote high basins. The books listed in the sidebar can help with topographic map interpretation, but again, these are only starting points and hands-on experience is needed.

Useful Maps and Sources

Back in the "good old days" there was one source for accurate topographic maps--the United States Geological Survey (USGS). Now there are several good sources, and you can choose from paper maps, CDs, or customized maps printed on waterproof stock. See the sidebar for sources.

When I want to check out a new area, I start with 1:100,000 scale (1 inch = 1.6 mi.) Forest Service or BLM topographic maps. These maps allow me to scan large areas and also show the location of private lands. In Colorado and other western states, private lands aren't posted and it's my responsibility to know the boundaries and stay off these lands unless I have permission.

Once I've zeroed in on a few promising areas, I'll switch to smaller-scale maps like the USGS 1:24,000 scale maps (1 inch = 2,000 ft., also called 7.5 minute maps) or the National Geographic Trails Illustrated 1:63,000 scale (1 inch = 1 mi.) maps. These make navigation easier by showing terrain features in greater detail.

Practice Makes Perfect

The best way to get hands-on experience is to hike through your hunting area while constantly checking your topo map against the terrain features you see on the ground. Pick out prominent landmarks such as knobs, ridges, or saddles and compare them to what you see on the map. Hike up a ridge and compare the spacing of the contour lines on your map to the slope you're climbing. You'll soon develop a sense of what a steep slope looks like on a map versus a moderate slope. You'll be able to scan the map and select travel routes with slopes you can comfortably climb.

You'll also need to learn what the various colors used on maps mean–green for forest, white for clearings (meadows, rock-slides, etc.) blue for water, black for man-made features such as roads and buildings, and brown for topographic contours. And you'll need to understand the limitations of topo maps–they're not exact duplications of the terrain, only approximations. For example, topo maps in mountainous terrain use 40-foot contour intervals, meaning that each contour line is spaced 40 feet apart in elevation. Features less than 40 feet high, such as a 30-foot cliff, won't even register on the map. And topo maps can't show all the obstacles you'll encounter, such as downed timber, thick brush, boulder fields, and the like. I've learned the hard way that you can't judge a travel route by map study alone–it helps to know the characteristics of your hunting area.

Route Selection

Route selection is the art of studying a topographic map, noting the terrain features, and selecting the best travel route from one point to another. The most common example of route selection is picking a route from the foot of a ridge or mountain to the top. There will likely be several routes you can take to the top, and the shortest route may look the best on the map. But most of the time, especially in the mountains, the shortest route is not the best. Usually it's best to pick a gently sloping ridge and climb up the nose of the ridge, even if it's longer than the more direct route. It only takes one or two times struggling up the steep side of a mountain for this lesson to hit home.

If you combine map-reading skills with a working knowledge of your hunting area you'll have a powerful tool indeed. In my favorite elk hunting areas of Colorado, steep north-facing slopes are generally covered with thick timber, and are shady and cool. If I want to sneak up on bedded elk during the mid-day hours, these are the places to go and I can identify them just by looking at a map. But if I'm traveling cross-country and trying to select the best travel route, I'll avoid these areas like the plague because I know that walking through the timber will be slow going.

Selecting and Using a Compass

There are many different types of compasses on the market, but not all are suited to wilderness navigation. It's best to choose one designed specifically for backcountry use or orienteering. These will all have a few characteristics in common–a rectangular base plate with a direction of travel arrow, a rotating round housing that is graduated or marked with the 360 degrees of the compass and the cardinal directions (east, west, north, and south) and a liquid-damped needle. These are commonly referred to as "baseplate" or "orienteering" compasses, and they don't have to cost a lot–models made by Silva, Suunto, and Brunton can be had for less than $30 and will do nicely.

A complete discussion on compass use is too lengthy for this article, but the sidebar references are very helpful. A few key points are in order, though. You'll need to learn how to correct for magnetic declination. Magnetic north, the direction your compass needle points, is not the same as true north. Magnetic declination is given at the bottom of USGS topo maps, in degrees east or west of true north, and varies according to where you are on the planet. In Western Colorado where I hunt, magnetic declination is 12 degrees east of true north. For every mile I travel, if I don't correct for the magnetic declination I'll be off course by 92 feet per degree of declination, or 1,100 feet. Also, metal objects influence a compass needle, so when you use your compass, move away from vehicles, rifles, and the like or your measurements will be suspect.

The most common use for a compass in the backcountry is to plot a course from your present location to an objective (some place you want to go to), and then use the compass to follow the course to the objective. Your objective can be something visible from your current position, such as a distant meadow on a mountainside. Or your objective might be something that you can only see on your topo map, like a small spring on an otherwise dry mountainside. In this case, you'll have to learn to measure your bearing off the map to plot a course to the objective.

Another use for a compass is to find your way out of trouble if you get disoriented. For example, you may be hunting on a broad mountainside that rises from east to west, with a road running along the eastern edge of the area. If you get disoriented, you can set your compass for a course to the east, and walk back to the road.

A Word on GPS

With the advent of inexpensive GPS receivers, many outdoorsmen think that map and compass skills are obsolete, but don't fall into this trap. GPS receivers are wonderful tools (I own two) and are especially useful in finding your way to a previously recorded point such as your vehicle, camp, or a downed bull. Every serious backcountry hunter should consider getting one. But don't rely on a GPS receiver as your only navigation tool, because it's a battery-powered electronic device and subject to failure. If you depend solely on GPS to find your way in the backcountry, you can get into serious trouble. It's best to develop your map and compass skills in concert with your GPS.

Selecting a Hunting Area

If you want to leave the crowds behind, you'll need to find areas without roads. The majority of these are either designated wilderness areas or roadless areas in our national forests or BLM lands. To locate these areas, log onto the Wilderness Information Network at Click on the "search maps" icon (a map of the U.S.), click on your chosen state, and click on any wilderness area for a description and links to the managing agency. Contact the managing agency for information and USGS map coverage.

You don't have to mount a wilderness expedition to find solitude and good hunting, though. You can study topographic maps of most national forests and BLM lands and easily locate areas without roads. This sounds basic, but it works. I've used this technique to locate good hunting areas in my home state of Virginia and my adopted state of Colorado. The farther you can get from roads the better, but you only have to go a few miles to leave most other hunters behind. One word of caution–not all maps are up to date, and not all roads are shown on the maps, so don't be surprised to find roads where none are shown.

Map Out a Plan

Once you've selected a promising area, it's time to hit the trail, right? Not yet. It's time to do some map work and come up with a plan. Study 1:100,000 scale Forest Service or BLM topographic maps to get an overview of your area including access points, public/private land boundaries, and major landforms. Then switch over to 1:24,000 scale topo maps for more detailed study. Note the position of roads, trails, streams, ridges, and other prominent linear features you can use to orient yourself. In orienteering parlance, these are called catching features and handrails and are used to help guide you through the backcountry. Catching features are situated perpendicular to your travel path, and let you know when you've reached a boundary or when you need to change direction. Handrails are situated parallel to your path and are used to guide you to your destination. In areas without roads or trails, handrails are indispensable as travel routes.

The key to using catching features and handrails for navigation is to select features distinctive enough to be easily recognized on the ground. For example, if you're on a mountainside with numerous small parallel streams or finger ridges, don't choose a stream or finger ridge for your handrail because it will be hard to distinguish one from the others and if you choose the wrong one you could end up off-course.

Do Your Legwork

The next step is to hit the ground and do some exploring. If you live near your chosen area, set aside a weekend or two before the season to explore it. Otherwise, try to arrive a few days before the hunt. If there are trails, stick near them for the first few days until you're familiar with the lay of the land. If there are no trails, travel along prominent features such as ridgelines or streams.

At this point, don't be overly concerned with finding game or hunting locations, but concentrate on getting a feel for the area, noting things like vegetative cover, steepness, and other characteristics that influence ease of travel. Also, look for all the necessary ingredients to hold elk--cover, feed, and water. Look for these well away from roads and busy foot trails, but don't rule out areas near trails if they're far from access points and roads. I've seen many elk while walking trails in the backcountry. On last year's muzzleloader hunt in southwest Colorado, I saw elk every day while walking the trails, and filled my tag within 100 yards of a trail.

As you travel through your area note the position of potential handrails and catching features, especially prominent catching features that can be used to orient you no matter where you are within your area–these are called baselines. A good baseline could be a road or stream that runs along an entire boundary of your hunting area. For example, if you know that a road lies along the eastern boundary of your area and you get disoriented, you can use your compass to plot a course to the east, hit the road, and re-orient yourself.

If you use baselines for navigation, another useful orienteering technique used in concert is aiming off. Using the example above, say you parked your vehicle on a Forest Service road that runs along the eastern boundary of your hunting area, and the road is your baseline. You've hunted west of the road, climbing high above the road following a well-worn elk trail to a wet meadow with several wallows and rubs everywhere. You waited until almost dark, but didn't see any elk. It's getting late, and you want to return to your vehicle. You know where the road is, and you know the approximate location of your vehicle, but you're not sure you can navigate straight to it. If you plot a course to the road and aim for your vehicle, you could intersect the road on either side of it, and you won't know which direction your vehicle is in. So instead of aiming directly for your vehicle, you aim off, that is, you plot a course well to one side of the vehicle. When you intersect the road, you know which way to go and you walk to your vehicle. Of course, another way to handle this problem is to record the coordinates of your vehicle with your GPS, but if your batteries die, it's always good to know how to navigate without it.

Putting it All Together

Once you're familiar with your area, it's time to leave the roads and trails behind and strike out cross-country. I like to study my maps and target out-of-the-way potential hotspots to check out. These could be remote high basins, a series of meadows in an otherwise unbroken expanse of forest, or a spring on a dry mountainside, far from a trail or road. In order to thoroughly probe an area, it's best to borrow some techniques from orienteering, such as attack points, waypoints, and beelines. The accompanying map (Figure 1) illustrates how these techniques work.

Say you're trying to locate elk on a dry mountainside. On your map, you notice a small bog with a spring that could be a watering hole or elk wallow area ("A" on the map). You decide to check out this potential elk magnet, but it's located deep in the forest at least a half-mile from the nearest trail. How do you get there?

First, search the map for the nearest easily identifiable landmark, such as a knob, steep drop off, or sharp bend in a trail or ridgeline. This will be your attack point, or the point you will use to "attack" or find your objective. Using the example of the spring, the best attack point is the knob located about 300 yards southeast of the spring ("B" with the elevation shown as 9207 feet). Next, you need to find the best route to get to the attack point. Look for handrails that will lead you there. Your attack point is located on a long ridge (Beef Pasture Point), an ideal handrail. The top of this ridge intersects the trail (another handrail) at point "C" but there are several similar ridges in the area that also intersect the trail. How do you pick the right one?

By using waypoints. Waypoints are locations along your travel route that are easily identifiable, and allow you to pinpoint yourself on a map. These can be sharp bends or stream crossings on a trail or natural features similar to attack points. In the example, the ridge you've selected as a handrail is the first ridge west of the sharp bend in the trail ("D"), so the bend becomes a key waypoint.

To reach your objective, hike into the area on the trail, checking off waypoints as you go. Assuming you're traveling from east to west, once you pass the sharp bend in the trail, slow down and find the first ridge that intersects the trail. Using the map scale, estimate the distance to your attack point, the knob (it's 0.5 mile). Follow the handrail to the attack point.

When you reach the attack point, re-check the map. Note the distance and compass bearing to your objective (300 yards northwest). Set your compass on the proper bearing remembering to correct for declination, and sight down the compass's direction of travel arrow to the northwest. For the sake of our example, assume the forest is too thick to see more than fifty yards, so you'll need to make a beeline for your objective. A beeline is just what the name implies–a straight line to the objective. To follow it, pick out the farthest visible feature in your line of travel such as a rock or tree. Keep your eyes on the landmark and walk to it. Pick out another landmark in the line of travel and repeat the process.

After a few minutes of walking, the lodgepole pines give way to willows and grassy openings littered with elk droppings and fresh wallows. You've arrived. You know you can return to this spot using map and compass, but for good measure, record the location with your GPS.

What about the reverse situation? Say you're hiking cross-country through thick forest, and stumble onto the elk hotspot described above. Better yet, say you downed the bull of a lifetime, and need to go get help to pack him out. You know approximately where you are, but you need to be able to return to this spot, and the forest is too thick to see any landmarks. What do you do?

If you have a GPS, record the location as a waypoint. And of course, mark a few trees with surveyor's tape or something similar so you can see the spot when you get close on your return (don't forget to remove the tape when you leave). Then, break out your map. Assuming you know your approximate location, scan the map to find the nearest handrail. Estimate the shortest route to the handrail, set your compass for the proper bearing, and make a beeline to the handrail. If it's not far to the handrail, count your paces so you'll know the approximate distance back to your objective.

When you intersect the handrail, mark your point of intersection with surveyor's tape, or a rock cairn. This will be your attack point for your return. Record the point as a waypoint with your GPS. Then follow your handrail or route back to camp. To return to your elk, just retrace your steps and use a reverse compass bearing from your attack point to make a beeline to it.

Staying Found

The cardinal rule of wilderness travel is to always know where you are and where you're going. When you plan your travel routes, scan your map and identify easily recognized waypoints. When you travel, watch for these and check off each one as you pass it. That way, you'll always know your position, and this knowledge will give you the confidence you need to strike out cross-country. If you have a GPS, stop and record each waypoint, and give it a unique name. You can use the GPS to backtrack or return to your last waypoint if you get off course. And be sure to record the location of camp or your vehicle.

Learning to navigate in the wilderness takes time and effort. But once you get the hang of it, I think you'll agree that it's worth it.

For More Information on Wilderness Navigation:

  • U.S Orienteering Federation,
    Forest Park, GAw
  • The Outward Bound Map & Compass Handbook
    By Glenn Randall
    The Lyons Press, New York, NY
  • Wilderness Navigation
    By Bob Burns and Mike Burns
    The Mountaineers, Seattle, WA
  • Be Expert with Map & Compass
    By Bjorn Kjellstrom
    Hungry Minds Inc., New York, NY
  • GPS Made Easy, Third Edition
    By Lawrence Letham
    The Mountaineers, Seattle, WA

Sources for Topographic Maps:

  • United States Geological Survey
  • 1-888-ASK-USGS
  • National Geographic Maps
  • DeLorme Topo USA
  • Topozone

Code of Responsibility for Wilderness Travelers

Over the years, wilderness travelers and mountaineers have developed a code of responsibility. Paraphrased, it goes like this:

  • Always leave your trip itinerary and expected return date with a responsible person.
  • Never get into a situation that is beyond your skills and experience.
  • Always be self-sufficient, and carry the equipment you need to handle any situation that could arise.

If you follow this code, you'll stay out of trouble and avoid becoming a burden to others, such as the local search-and-rescue team. But if you do get into trouble, you'll have the tools you need to survive, including the Ten Essentials, which should be carried by every wilderness traveler:

The Ten Essentials

  1. Topographic map
  2. Compass
  3. Extra food (a few days worth)
  4. Extra clothes (to handle the coldest, wettest conditions you'll encounter)
  5. Flashlight or headlamp, w/ extra batteries and bulb
  6. First aid kit
  7. Waterproof matches
  8. Fire-starter or tinder
  9. Knife or utility tool
  10. Sunglasses/sunscreen (for snow travel)

Phillip Watts is a geologist and environmental consultant living in Englewood, Colorado. He is an avid muzzleloader and archer and is very interested in preserving wildlife habitat and the tradition of the hunt for his sons. This article originally appeared in the magazine Bugle.

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