Q: I’m preparing for an early season, DIY mule deer hunt in Colorado. My plan is to backpack hunt, and I’m an out-of-state Midwesterner, so scouting on foot is out of the question. Do you have any good advice for me? Robb Tucker, via e-mail
A: Once I narrow down a mountain range to hunt using initial resources like biologists, wardens, and local contacts, I begin e-scouting using onX’s mapping software. This gives me the ability to view hunting environments from home.
By selecting the software’s various Basemaps, you can switch between topo, aerial, and hybrid views. I like the hybrid view, which blends satellite imagery with contour lines to capture terrain features, along with changes in elevation.
Here are the specific steps I follow when e-scouting and planning a deer hunt in the backcountry.
Search out the right country. Muley bucks prefer subalpine terrain (9,500 to 11,000 feet elevation), with rocky fingers jutting downward from “treeless” alpine ridgelines to lush bowls of grasses, forbs, and shrubs. Typically, you’ll find wet meadows that provide water for deer. These meadows will jump out at you as bright tan-green shapes on the onX map. Once you identify these land features, along with good public-access points, you can begin to narrow down productive-looking areas, then move to planning your specific hunting strategy.
Identify access, camping, and glassing spots. For example, consider your hike in with a heavy pack, the distance you’ll travel, the steepness of the trail, and where you’d like to camp. You can use onX’s “Trail” layers to determine trail locations, exact hiking distance, and steepness of slope.
Next, look for prominent vantage points while visualizing your first morning. Choose a practical ascent, perhaps 600 to 800 feet, then use onX’s map tools to draw likely travel routes to several glassing points.
Once a buck is spotted, you’ll need to make your move, using the wind and terrain to your advantage. Bucks usually bed in sections of spruce, or underneath rocky outcroppings, on north-facing slopes. Note good-looking bedding spots on your map, and “feel” your way along the contour lines to establish the most productive stalking routes.
Deer will use paths of least resistance (i.e. saddles in ridges) to escape danger, so mark these areas on the map. Spooked deer almost always head toward roadless territory. OnX has a specific “Roadless Areas” layer to help guide you into these remote honey holes.
It’s easy to ruin a wilderness spot in a matter of one or two days. When this happens, you’ll need a back-up plan. When “going in deeper,” you’ll need to establish a spike or bivy camp, so prepare mentally and logistically for this by marking feasible locations. In every scenario, plot out a good plan on the map, so you can refresh your memory quickly.
Once your map is created, you can easily download it to your smartphone using the “Off Grid” tab. Your phone will maintain GPS capabilities with the location services enabled, even with no cell reception.
Despite the best mapping techniques, things can actually be visually wrong. Historic and current wildfires, timber cutting, and weather can alter the best of plans. This is where added map layers, such as the “Historical Wildfire” and “Current Wildfire” layers, can make a big difference. Mule deer cling to regions disturbed by fire, due to regrowth of plant species. This is critical data, and onX will show these land disturbances, indicating the year of the fire along with acreage size.
By paying attention to the details and using the various features that come with this software, you can begin to see things from both a macro and micro perspective, something you cannot achieve using traditional methods. This ensures never going into a hunting area “blind” again, so you can greatly improve your chances of success and maximize your enjoyment and safety afield.