By Brad Carter
Whether out in the field or sitting at home planning next season’s hunts, maps are an invaluable resource for hunters and outdoorsmen alike. Addressing the issue of mapping can be a difficult one due to the variety of readers possibly reading this article. While much of map reading seems rather elementary to some, maps can be very foreign to others. Hopefully this article can address this and be valuable to all readers.
Rarely can one map be used universally. Often times, hunters use a combination of maps in order to find the information they are after. There are primarily three types of maps that I use for hunting: USGS Quadrangle Topographic maps, BLM maps, and aerial imagery. I rarely use one of these maps alone. Below I discuss the benefits of each.
The USGS has been the largest civilian mapping agency for nearly a century and a half. These maps are probably the most universally available maps for hunting. USGS Topographic quadrangle maps come in different scales, probably the most common and widely used is the 7.5 minute Quadrangle (often referred to as "quad"). These maps have a scale of 1:24,000. Meaning that one unit on the map is equal to 24,000 of that same unit in real life. Example: one inch on the map would equal 24,000 inches. The word quadrangle describes the geometry of the map surface. Because these maps are based on lines of latitude, which are equally spaced globally, and lines of longitude, which converge at the poles, the map is not square nor rectangular, it has 4 unique angles created by crossing lines of latitude and longitude and is therefore called a quadrangle map. 7.5 minutes refers to the grid on which these maps are based. The minutes refers to parts of a degree and sets the width and height of the map based on degrees of latitude and longitude.
Topographic maps have contour lines that show changes in elevation. The distance in elevation change between these lines varies depending on the scale of the map.
Due to the large scale of these 7.5 minute quads they can be used very effectively for looking at smaller areas for the purpose of mapping your trip, localized scouting, and plotting/marking areas that have been/will be visited.
These maps primarily show the topography, but also have roads, trails, rivers and streams, lakes, some water holes, boundaries, and vegetative differences, all of which can be very important to the hunter.
The drawback to these maps is that many of these maps were made decades ago. Updated information is often unavailable. A trip to the area can prove invaluable to see if anything has changed since the creation/revision of your map.
BLM maps are a great resource as well. They are generally smaller scale (closer to 1:100,000). BLM maps are especially valuable to locate public and privately owned land. These maps are great for locating new areas to hunt and scout. Because of the smaller scale these maps can be used to find new available hunting areas, locate general access roads and means of transportation. After locating these areas, these maps can then be used in conjunction with the 7.5 minute quads to look at an area more closely.
Aerial imagery is possibly the most interesting of the mentioned map types. This data is acquired primarily by airplane and satellite technologies. A great resource for viewing aerial imagery is Google Earth. After locating new areas to hunt, looking at an aerial image of the area can prove invaluable. This type of map varies largely in scale, especially when being viewed on a computer. Vegetation, roads, campgrounds etc, can all be seen on a good aerial image. If using Google Earth or a similar computer based technology these images are generally fairly recent (within last 10 years), and can give accurate information in regard to the current condition of your hunt area.
The only problem I have found with aerial imagery is cloud cover. This is very uncommon, but sometimes areas on Google Earth or any aerial imagery for that matter, are covered. You usually don’t run into clouds covering any other type of map.
I use aerial imagery to look at land cover. Vegetation change is very evident on these maps and planning stand locations, vantage points, and animal behavior can be very effective using this type of map.
Each map has both advantages and disadvantages. By using a variety of maps you can find exactly what you are looking for. Using the three maps mentioned above it is possible to find great new areas to hunt. But don’t rely completely on maps. The biggest drawback to maps is the date it was made. The landscape changes constantly, so nothing can replace an in person investigation of what has been found on a map.
Always be familiar with and carry maps while in the field. A compass of some kind should always accompany a map; it can be easy to get lost without knowing direction. Be sure to read legends carefully and understand the meaning of all lines and symbols on a map.
Obtaining the skills needed to navigate maps can be invaluable for hunters. The above mentioned maps are readily available. Our interactive map, courtesy of Google Earth shows both aerial imagery and contour lines and can be used as your resource. Many hunters like printed maps; others strictly interact with maps on a computer. There is also a lot of mapping software available for purchase. These programs are incredible and can be synced with your GPS to get your routes and waypoints downloaded very easily.
However you choose to go about it, getting familiar with maps and using them for scouting and hunting can make you more successful this coming season.