Just because you know where you can hunt doesn’t mean that the area will have animals living in it. So, once you have figured out where you are allowed to legally hunt near you, the next step is to learn what areas are more and less likely to produce a successful hunt. I’m a firm believer in efficiency, and I think there’s a clear progression of scouting techniques — scaling from least to most time intensive — that can be used to find where the animals are living. These techniques include e-scouting, making use of wildlife officers’ knowledge, car-scouting for sign, intensive glassing, and backpacking in, among other strategies. A lot of time can be wasted by inefficiently scouting new terrain for animals. We learned that costly lesson last year. If you have a general idea of where you’re allowed to hunt, but don’t know how to efficiently select a specific area, this e-scouting tools for hunters post is definitely for you. And, if you’re a seasoned scouter you may still stand to gain a tip or two. Read on!
In this post I’ll detail the online tools we use to remotely scout every new potential area we’d like to hunt. If we were going to go hunt in another county or another state these are exactly the tools that we’d use. We wasted a lot of time, money, and effort driving and hiking around areas last year that could have been easily skipped if we just knew about the below tools. Hopefully this can save you that trouble.
E-Scouting Tools for Hunters
The way I conceive of scouting is as a process of elimination: you’re spending time ruling out the areas that are unlikely to work for you. There are many more areas where you are allowed to hunt than there are areas where you will want to hunt. Each step in this process should lead to a narrowing of potential places, hopefully leading you quickly to those few areas that will produce a successful hunt. While the specific area features you’ll be looking for will depend on your location and on the animals you’re hunting — topics too detailed to cover in one post — the tools for eliminating bad areas will remain fairly constant. And the most efficient way to rule out places that I’ve found is something I’ll dub ‘e-scouting’: using the resources available to you online to check out prospective areas, ruling out the ones that don’t pass muster. Within this category, there are three main tools I use: 1) maps 2) power Google searches and 3) forums.
Modern online maps have revolutionized the way that scouting for hunting areas can be done. They sometimes offer tilt-able 3-D relief images of detailed aspects of terrain, allow for land-boundary overlays, and offer GPS coordinates to precise locations that you can load into any GPS (or your phone). They should be your first stop in scouting a new area.
Caltopo is a wonderful (free!) mapping tool that allows overlaying land boundary maps on detailed US Geological Survey topographic maps. If you know the general area of, say, a National Forest where you’d like to hunt, you can pull that area up on Caltopo, zoom in to see the topographic relief and other features encapsulated by the detailed USGS maps, and, by overlaying the land boundaries, figure out exactly where you can and cannot hunt. In many places of the U.S. public land is interspersed with private land, and typically those private lands are not open to hunting. You want to make sure to not trespass, and Caltopo allows this nicely. Before I discovered Caltopo, I had built a collection of specific paper maps for each area I’d hike or backpack. Caltopo is much more efficient.
In order to overlay the land boundary maps, hover over the top right corner of the map, in the area that reads “USGS 7.5′ Topos” you’ll get a drop-down that has a little “+ Add Layer” marker. Below this you should see an item called “Land Management” with a check-box next to it. Click on that check-box and Caltopo will overlay all the land management maps onto your USGS base layer. This will give you the boundaries of National Forest, Bureau of Land Management, National Parks Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and State and Local lands.
You can also set way-points in areas you’d like to check out, save your maps, add map notes, and many other nice little features — all for free (other features are listed here). Hands down, this is one of the most useful mapping tools I have found on the internet.
While the best way to get to know Caltopo is just by messing around clicking on everything, an overview of the user interface is given by Caltopo’s creator here:
As a brief rundown of how I use Caltopo, I first find the specific public lands I want to hunt. Then, I find where these lands are on Caltopo. I look for where the roads are, how many roads run through the public land boundaries, what the terrain is like (steep? flat? rolling?), are there any springs marked on the map in areas not traversed by roads? These areas can often hold game. Is there one or more nice high-points that could offer an overlook into surrounding terrain to glass from? As I’m finding these places, I grab their geo-coordinates (latitude and longitude) by copying the information displayed in the top right hand corner of Caltopo (just below the drop-down menus).
I then, in another tab in my browser, input the coordinates into the search bar in Google Maps. While Google Maps doesn’t offer the useful land-boundary overlay that Caltopo does, it offers amazing detailed 3-D tilt-able images of specific locations. Once you have input your coordinates into the search, click on the “Earth” square in the bottom left hand corner of the map (if you aren’t already in ‘Earth’ viewing mode). This will give you detailed satellite imagery of your point of interest that you can tilt, spin around, zoom into further, etc. Detailed ‘how-to’ information can be found on the Google help site here. Pro-tip: use your arrow-pad to navigate once in the 3-D mode.
When combined with Caltopo, Google Maps’ functionality makes looking at an area almost as good as being there (and in some cases of dense undergrowth, even better than being there). You can search into canyons that might require a few miles of hiking otherwise. You can note where open-terrain ends and forest begins. It’s like renting a virtual helicopter.
But it gets even better. If you have a smartphone — like many do — your phone almost surely has an embedded GPS chip. This allows you to, with the right software, turn your phone into an excellent GPS mapping device. The ‘right software’, in my opinion at least, is Backcountry Navigator, which is available for Android devices.1 With this software, you can input the coordinates of locations you’ve chosen via Caltopo and Google Maps to navigate directly to the location. You can also save your waypoints and descriptions. Moreover, and perhaps the most useful aspect of this software, like for Caltopo you can overlay BLM land boundary maps, ensuring that while you’re out hiking you don’t accidentally move onto private lands that may or may not be marked. As a GPS tool, I’ve found my phone + Backcountry Navigator to be invaluable. I get all the benefits of a phone and a GPS in one device. And best of all, Backcountry Navigator is pretty reasonably priced at around $10.
Power Google Searches
Have you figured out an area or areas near you that look good on the maps? Want to see if anyone else has mentioned anything about them? Search Google with power searches. Regular Googling via typical keywords like ‘hunting near Albuquerque’ will turn up some results. However, learning the best ways to optimize your Google searching can much better sift through the millions of Google results to present you with exactly what you’re looking for. A quick reference guide for these methods can be found here and a more lengthy online course on how to get the most out of Google searching is here.
I typically use the Google search box to try to find anything that might match my planned hunt location. If I’m going to hunt a specific valley in New Mexico on BLM land I might try ‘(blm OR “Bureau of Land Management”) AND (hunting OR hunt OR deer OR mule OR jackrabbit) AND (“emigrant valley” OR emigrant)‘, swapping around terms and logical conditions to try as many permutations as possible. What I’m looking for is to NOT find any results, as the more an area is publicized on the web, typically the more hunting pressure is to be found in it. I want my areas to be relatively less well-known — both because I like to not encounter too many other hunters and because that’s where I tend to find more animals.
Another related scouting tool can be provided by online hunting forums, communities of thousands of hunters all sharing experience and stories. These include sites like 24hourcampfire, Archery Talk, and Rokslide among many others. In general, these are useful resources for the beginning hunter. If you can’t find the answer to a question you have, search a hunting forum for it. An excellent way to do this is to use Google and add the specific site you’re interested in searching into the search. For example, if you wanted to search for New Mexico mule deer hunting on Archery Talk you’d type: ‘“new mexico” “mule deer” hunting site:archerytalk.com‘. If you still can’t find it, ask and many generous people will take the time to answer. I’ve found Rokslide.com to have some of the most helpful and experienced users.
However, as a tool for scouting, forums can be tricky. You can’t just go on and say “Hey, I live in northern New Mexico, where are all the deer at?” Hunters guard their preferred spots very carefully; posting a great hunting spot on the internet is a surefire way to make sure it is no longer a great hunting spot. But, if you are earnest and willing to help out and make new friends, posting a ‘Hey I’m just getting into hunting and would love to tag along’ might get you the ability to go on a hunt with experienced hunters, in turn sharing in their hunting spots. I’ve found that hunters can be an unexpectedly friendly group on average.
So, use online maps, searching, and forums to your advantage. These should be the first steps you take as they cost the least (are mostly free) and require the least amount of effort outlay per prospective place eliminated. Work smart not hard.
Once you have figured out a handful of decent candidate hunting spots, the next steps include calling the local wildlife managers, driving out to the locations, hiking in to more remote areas, glassing glassing and glassing, and even overnight trips. We’ll cover the additional scouting steps as well as the specific sign to look for once on the ground in other posts.