Not that long ago, it would take the average hunter a few seasons to truly learn the ins and outs of a new area. Typically, he would gain knowledge of the local topography bit-by-bit, mostly by hunting near obvious landmarks such as watercourses, trails, ridgelines, meadows, and clear cuts. And, for a while, this would work just fine.
But, eventually, that hunter would have cause to leave those familiar places and explore. Then, even with map and compass in hand, there would be times when his exact location was a best-guess situation. Needless to say, this is not a desirable thing, especially after discovering a truly great spot that you want to return to.
Thankfully, something straight out of Star Trek has changed all that. Easy to use and incredibly accurate, Global Positioning System units have removed all the guesswork from outdoors navigation. With a press of a button, you can mark interesting and important waypoints (such as your truck or cabin) and return to them with unerring accuracy. Obviously, this has made them a valuable tool for all outdoorsmen, but few benefit more than the deer hunter.
First and foremost, a GPS is tailor-made for scouting. With one in hand, a hunter can explore his territory and collect vital hunting intelligence far more efficiently than in the old days - that's because he has the assistance of at least three satellites helping triangulate his location at all times.
During initial forays, I'll input trail intersections, bedding areas, rubs, scrapes, and scat. I'll also be sure to mark geographic features that funnel deer, as well as possible food sources, and encounters.
Since you're probably marking many locations - and because almost all GPS units store in excess of 500 waypoints - a bit of organization is needed. Typically, a GPS assigns each waypoint a number - but they also allow you to name the waypoint. I have found that it is a good idea to take advantage of this feature. If you don't you'll soon forget what the original assigned numbers represent.
You don't have to input full names either - that takes time many of us would rather not waste. Instead you can use short forms or initials. For example "S" for scrapes, "B" for bedding areas, "T" for trails, and "F" for food sources to name a few. Using this convention, S2 would then be the second scrape you found, B1, the first bedding area, and so on.
No matter how you organize them, the best part about collecting all these waypoints is that their positions, relative to each other, is made abundantly clear by your GPS. For example, if you are at a scrape line, you might press the "nearest waypoint" function and find out that a bedding area you marked earlier, or on another trip, is only 100 yards away, while the primary food source is just 75 yards over the crest. Obviously, information like this helps in the hunt planning process.
Most modern units also allow you to mark waypoints to topographic maps downloaded on your computer - and retrieve waypoints from anywhere on the map too. Before long, all these waypoints become like the pieces of a puzzle - with a little analysis, they slowly paint an accurate picture of deer activity in the area. And after a season or two, the intelligence gathered is simply amazing. And the best part is you can share coordinates with your hunting buddy so that he can get to a stand he's never been to without any confusion.
As always, once you've figured out where all the deer activity is, it's time to make decisions about potential stand locations. This is where all that collected data really comes in handy. If you've done your homework, core areas of deer activity become evident and you can plan your stand placement with this critical information in mind.
Naturally, it makes sense to mark stand locations as waypoints. This way, you'll find your stands a whole lot easier when slipping in before first light. I remember the first time I relied on my GPS to guide me to a tree stand deep in the woods before dawn. After a few steps into that utter blackness with nothing but a small headlamp to illuminate the way, I had no idea where I was. But I did have faith in the satellites that were guiding me. So I followed the GPS's arrow fanatically and, after a while, when it stated that I had arrived, I shone the flashlight around, and discovered that I was literally underneath my stand. No muss, no fuss, and quiet to boot - it was a textbook example of how a hunter can put this technology to good use.
Of course, using a GPS to mark stand locations is fairly obvious - but what many of us rarely consider is the opportunity to create exact GPS-plotted routes into and out of the stand. These will not just guide you to the location in the dark or through early morning fog; they'll also lead you there via a very specific route - preferably one that's downwind of the ambush zone and utilizes relatively quiet terrain.
Create the right route and you'll minimize the chance of bumping deer on the way in or out and you'll reduce the chances of contaminating the area with your scent. Set up these routes well in advance of the hunt and in the middle of the day when you can take your time and do it right.
This remarkable satellite technology also has practical uses for the lone still hunter. He can use his GPS to set up routes that will guide him through high percentage areas. Conversely, he can put it away and wander the woods to his heart's content, knowing that, when all is said and done, he'll find his way back to the truck or cabin - all that's required is that he marked it in prior to starting out. He can even input coordinates from a map and advance unerringly to a place that he's never seen before. This last option is particularly attractive when you want to head deep into the backcountry and hunt away from opening day crowds.
Better deer drive too
GPS units are also tailor-made for keeping everyone safe and exactly on track during a deer drive. That's because those drivers who have GPS units can set routes prior to the push by taking coordinates directly from topographic maps. If done properly these routes will ensure that the drivers are well spaced and their efforts are coordinated. You might even plan the push so that they hit certain waypoints at certain times. I like to enter several waypoints in every route, each taking me through good cover where I'm likely to move deer. The last waypoint will be the stander who I'd like to come out to. Used correctly there are no surprises.
Garmin's RINO GPS units goes one step further and doubles as handheld radios, while also providing the exact locations of other hunters who are using the same units and are on the same channels (within a limited distance.) This means that, if each member of a hunt camp was carrying one, every hunter could conceivably know the exact location of the others during the hunt. That's obviously desirable, especially when planning and executing complex drives.
Keeping it legal
Many GPS units also have a sunrise and sunset function. These will tell you, with absolute accuracy, when sunrise and sunset occurs. From there, you can determine legal shooting times at your exact location. This is an excellent feature that allows you to stay on the right side of the game laws and it's one that I use on every hunt. It's far more accurate that depending on a wrist watch and solunar table from a newspaper or magazine.
When you have to leave a deer in the woods so that you can get help or collect an ATV or game cart, or finish a push, a GPS is your best friend. That's because it allows you to mark the animal's location well and return to it directly without hesitation. That GPS can also help you figure out the best and most direct route out when it comes time to drag out your trophy. Don't underestimate this simple use - it'll save you a load of backbreaking work.
In the right direction
My last observation is a simple one: all these benefits can only be reaped if the hunter has taken the time to become familiar with his GPS unit. It's no good just carrying one around and having merely a vague familiarity with it. They're excellent tools, and the good ones are intuitive and user-friendly too, but like any tool, you only make the most of it with practice and experience.
On the other hand, once you're proficient with a GPS, no deer woods is too big and there's no cover you can't explore. This, in itself, won't get you a deer but it will certainly take you to the right places. And maybe that, my friends, is the final frontier...
Steve Galea is a full-time outdoors writer who lives in central Ontario, Canada. He divides his time afield between hunting big game, chasing ducks, geese, and upland game, and fly fishing the lakes and rivers around his home. An award-winning columnist, his work is featured in several community newsapers as well as leading outdoors magazines.