I can’t begin to describe how a handheld GPS (Global Positioning System) unit can send out signals that bounce around in space until they are picked up by enough satellites to precisely nail down your position. But I can say these handy little devices have helped hunters fill plenty of tags and have gotten countless hunters safely back to camp.
Handheld GPS units have evolved from simple products that marked positions (waypoints) on black-and-white screens, to highly-intuitive models with preloaded topographic maps, backtracking features, and multitudes of icons for marking game sign, stand sites, trailheads, and access points.
With the progression of GPS units as valuable tools, bowhunters have expanded their uses for them. I started using a handheld GPS unit as a safety net for occasions when I might get turned around while trekking through new terrain. But now I also use my GPS for vastly improved hunting efficiency.
Few hunters would question the value of a GPS for scouting new country for elk or mule deer. But what about for trailing a whitetail arrowed in the evening? Marking your stand location, the exact impact site, and blood sign can provide visual clues to keep you on the deer’s travel route and aid in recovery. Blood trailing can often lead you to uncharted territory, and in the dark that can result in a frustrating and potentially life-threatening situation. I never embark on a nighttime blood trail without first marking my truck and treestand as waypoints in my GPS.
The newest generation of handheld GPS units can help you pin down a specific buck’s travel routes. You can mark individual rubs and scrapes with different icons, resulting in a picture of a buck’s preferred travel corridors and leading you straight to the big boy’s bedroom and secluded food sources.
Beyond sign, you can mark specific stand trees, which has become one of my go-to methods for expanding my options in the woods. Each site earns its own waypoint on my GPS, so no matter how much my memory fades or the woods change as the season progresses, I can march right to any of my stand sites, even in the dark.
Familiarize yourself with all of your GPS’s functions long before you ever step into a high-country camp or take up the trail of a wounded whitetail. Take your time to mark waypoints while walking the dog or shed hunting. Learn to use your backtrack feature, or to read the maps offered up on the display screen. If you have the option of uploading higher-quality topographical maps or aerial photos, do so, but make sure you know how to find your location on those maps and how to mark new locations. Without a complete understanding, a handheld GPS is nothing more than a glorified compass with a cool display screen.
Lastly, while this might seem elementary, always carry at least one set of extra batteries and a compass. Today’s units are highly efficient, but they will all run out of juice eventually. I prefer a carrying case that fits my GPS and has room for “just in case” batteries.
Here are some of the most hunter-friendly handheld GPS units and GPS-related products on the market.
HANDHELD GPS UNITS
BUSHNELL BACKTRACK POINT 5
Choosing a new GPS unit can be a daunting task, so base your decision on your personal tech-savvy, your willingness to learn, and your budget. If you’d rather stick a finger into the GPS waters without having to dive in headfirst, consider the Backtrack Point 5 ($79.99) from Bushnell. The main attractions of the Backtrack Point 5 are:
1) it’s absurdly easy to use
2) it’s truly affordable.
Each unit allows you to save up to five waypoints at a time, which is perfect for marking vehicles or trailheads when you’re embarking on day trips into unfamiliar territory. Visit www.bushnell.com or call 1-800-423-3537.
EARTHMATE PN-60W with SPOT SATELLITE COMMUNICATOR
On the opposite end of the techie spectrum is the Earthmate PN-60w with SPOT Satellite Communicator ($449.95 for basic unit; prices vary for SPOT plan) from DeLorme. The PN-60w uses SPOT services to send one-way text messages (even in areas with no cellular coverage), which is a great feature for checking in with loved ones or contacting emergency services. The unit also features an icon-based user interface that can store up to 20,000 waypoints, meaning no matter how many stands you hang, wallows you locate, or bear baits you run, the PN-60w will help you keep track of them all. Visit www.delorme.com or call 1-800-561-5105.
GARMIN OREGON 550t
Another option if you harbor no fear of feature-packed electronic devices is the Garmin Oregon 550t ($599.99). The Oregon 550t offers all of the standard options you would expect in a top-quality unit, plus some that will truly benefit the most hardcore hunters.
The 550t features a 3.2-megapixel camera that immediately “geotags” your images with the location in which they were taken. This means every time you snap a photo of a deep woods community scrape or a thigh-sized rub on a cedar tree, the Oregon 550t can lead you back to the exact location. Other features include touchscreen navigation and built-in U.S. topographical maps. Visit www.garmin.com or call 1-800-800-1020.
LOWRANCE ENDURA SIERRA
A mainstay in the world of all-things-GPS is Lowrance, whose Endura Sierra ($399) features a 2.7-inch color touchscreen, and the capability of storing up to 4,000 waypoints and 500 routes.
One of the most compelling reasons to check out the Endura Sierra is the preinstalled Accuterra high-resolution topographic maps that cover the Lower 48. To help you find your way to potential hunting areas, the Endura Sierra also offers road navigation through the NAVTEQ road network. Visit www.lowrance.com or call 1-800-324-1356.
MAGELLAN eXplorist 710
Magellan has long been known for hunter-friendly handheld units. The eXplorist 710 ($549.99) comes standard with a World Edition Pre-Loaded Map that shows water features and urban and rural land use — a perfect option for locating overlooked patches of whitetail cover.
A touchscreen coupled with two hard buttons ensures ease of use as you navigate through the eXplorist’s many options. Visit www.magellangps.com or call 1-800-707-9971.
CABELA’S BUDDY-LOK PADDED GPS/RADIO CASE
I’ve found that no matter which model of handheld GPS I carry while scouting or hunting, I use it more if it’s easily accessible. Cabela’s Buddy-Lok Padded GPS/Radio Case ($14.99) provides a means for securing a handheld GPS to a pack or jacket for quick access.
The Buddy-Lok is available in two sizes to precisely fit specific units and is offered in three camouflage patterns. Visit www.cabelas.com or call 1-800-237-4444.
The MicroPak GPS Case ($14.95 camo, $13.95 black), which will secure units measuring up to six inches high, features mesh side pockets for extra gear storage and a front zippered pocket sized to hold certain models of cell phones. Visit www.gpsoutfitters.com or call 1-800-477-9920.
BRUNTON NOMAD V2 PRO
If you’re not quite ready to pull the trigger on a GPS unit or you wish to carry a backup compass (always a good idea), check out the Nomad V2 Pro ($168.60) from Brunton.
With features like a built-in barometer, thermometer, altimeter, and two daily alarms, the Nomad V2 Pro is lightyears beyond a simple compass. Caught in the dark and can’t see your compass? No problem with the Nomad V2 Pro. Running on a lithium battery, it lights up immediately with a backlit digital display. Visit www.brunton.com or call 1-800-443-4871.
COLEMAN DIGITAL COMPASS
The budget-friendly Digital Compass ($19.99) from Coleman features a stopwatch, thermometer, alarm clock, and calendar. A large display screen shows direction, time, date, and current temperature. Visit www.coleman.com or call 1-800-835-3278.