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Modern navigational aids will keep you on the right path every time.

A LEADING OUTDOOR MAGAZINE (Outdoor Life) recently asked its readers, "Are today's sportsmen too reliant on technology?" Of those who replied, 92 percent said yes, while only 8 percent said no. To the question, "Should basic woodsmanship, such as map reading, wilderness survival, reading tracks, rope/knot crafts, etc., be made a part of hunter-safety programs?" The yes side won 91 percent to 9 percent.

I agree with the majorities in both instances. Nonetheless, I strongly believe that certain high-tech devices, such as cell phones, walkie-takies, and GPS receivers, the subjects of this article, do have legitimate places in the modern bowhunter's life -- especially as they relate to personal safety.

Why? Because, unlike our woodswise forebears, most of us can't possibly spend enough time outdoors to master the many skills that comprise basic woodsmanship. Also unlike our forebears, who conducted their activities in relatively small geographic areas they knew intimately, we often travel great distances and hunt in completely unfamiliar surroundings. Recently, after a bush pilot had gunned his Super Cub and left me standing on a remote Alaskan mountaintop, I couldn't help but think that if something went wrong, that plane might never return. I took comfort in having a GPS receiver containing the locations of the outfitter's base camp and also the nearest village. Moreover, even the explorers of yesteryear, who probably weren't the great natural navigators we'd like to believe, used the best technologies of their times, namely maps, compasses, and sextants.

For those who might not know, GPS is an acronym for the Global Positioning System -- a network of 24 earth-orbit satellites, which earth-based receivers use to calculate their exact positions anywhere on earth. The current crop of hand-held GPS receivers, which are significantly more efficient and user-friendly than earlier models, fall roughly into two categories: basic units that are relatively inexpensive but still do a marvelous job of getting the user from here to there and back again; and more-sophisticated mapping units capable of displaying actual maps.

Basic GPS Units

Features typically found on basic units, such as the Magellan Blazer 12, Garmin GPS 12, and Lowrance GlobalNav 12, include:

*12-channel technology capable of tracking 12 satellites simultaneously for short lock-on time and good retention of satellites.

*Easy-to-follow status and navigation screens that display distance, bearing, heading, steering, speed, exact time, time to go, elevation, cross-track error, and satellite elevations and directions.

*Pocket-sized dimensions and light weights for easy portability.

*High-contrast, backlit displays for good visibility in low light.

*User-friendly keypads for GO TO, Navigation, Menus, and other functions.

*The option of showing positions in latitude/longitude, UTM, and other coordinate systems.

In short, basic units have everything it takes to record and save the locations of waypoints (also called landmarks), such as vehicles, campsites, trailheads, ground blinds, treestands, and downed animals. And, when the need arises, they can steer the user unerringly back to such places, either directly or as part of a route consisting of several waypoints.

The caveat regarding even the most basic GPS receivers is that, despite their user-friendliness, learning to use them correctly still takes considerable study and practice. This is best done at your leisure, such as when you are walking to and from the post office, not when you are lost in the woods at night. Moreover, if you're like me, in the field you'd rather hunt than mess with electronic gadgets.

GPS With Maps

Recent examples of GPS units capable of displaying detailed maps include the Garmin GPS 12MAP, Magellan MAP 410, and Lowrance GlobalMap 100. Though most basic units have plotting screens -- a mini map that displays routes and creates plots (bread-crumb trails) showing where you have traveled -- full-blown mapping units will do much more. For example, the Garmin GPS 12MAP comes with a base map containing cartographic information for North and South America, including a database of cities, interstates, lakes, rivers, railroads, coastlines, and exit information for the federal interstate highway system. Further, if you need topographic and other pertinent details, you can insert one of Garmin's Topo MapSource CD-ROMs into a personal computer and download mapping information.

The caveats regarding mapping units include: One, the more features a GPS receiver has the more complicated it is to use. If you are not into high-tech gadgetry, and especially if you are not computer literate, you might be better served by a more-basic model. Conversely, if you are technically minded, you will love this rapidly developing technology. Two, the viewing screens on most mapping units are too small to contain much detail. Therefore, you'll be zooming in and out a lot. The reason for such small screens, which typically measure 2.2 x 1.5 inches, is that hand-held receivers have been miniaturized to the nth degree for convenient field use.


In addition to CD-ROMs available from the GPS manufacturers, you can get exciting after-market products. These include DeLorme's Topo USA Version 2.0 (this is the same company that markets Atlas & Gazetteer books containing topo maps for each of the 50 states) and Maptech's Terrain Navigator. Both are very helpful even if you don't own a GPS.

Besides their many practical applications, these computer-based maps are great fun to use. The 3-D views provided by DeLorme's Topo USA is like taking a virtual airplane flight over a prospective hunting area. With either program, you can create routes using a mouse pointer and watch the displayed latitude/longitude and elevation coordinates change as you move. For example, while planning a mule deer hunt that would take me over a ridge from one creek drainage to another, I pulled up a profile of my chosen route, which showed I would need to hike 3.15 miles and climb 762 feet. Then I downloaded the route to my GPS receiver, printed a colored topo map of the area, and went hunting. For complete information on these mapping products, you can contact the companies directly or check out their websites.

Paper Maps and Magnetic Compasses

Given the marvelous things that GPS receivers can do, you could get the idea that old-fashioned navigational aids, such as paper maps and magnetic compasses, are now obsolete and, therefore, superfluous. Nothing could be further from the truth. Though today's GPS receivers tend to be very reliable, they can, like all electronic instruments, suddenly give up the ghost. Or, if nothing else, the batteries can die. For this reason, every GPS manufacturer issues warnings that their instruments should not be relied on solely.

Furthermore, GPS receivers are at their best when used in conjunction with maps and compasses. Suppose, for example, that you want your GPS to guide you to a wilderness campground where you've never been and for which you have no saved waypoint. An alternative way of getting the waypoint is to take latitude/longitude co-ordinates from a USGS or similar map and hand enter them into your GPS, which will then give you the straight-line distance and bearing to the campground. But, since straight-line travel is seldom possible in wilderness areas, the map might be needed again to help you get around mountains, hills, or other geographical barriers. Also, apart from carrying a laptop computer with a CD-ROM map, which isn't practical, nothing beats a hand-held map for giving you an overview of an area. Topo maps are available from many full-service sporting goods stores and from the USGS outlet in Reston, Virginia.

Since any GPS receiver will serve as a super-accurate compass, why would anyone need a magnetic compass? One, for a GPS unit to function properly it must be locked onto at least three satellites, which sometimes isn't possible, especially if you are inside a building or a vehicle or in a deep, narrow canyon or valley. Two, even when locked onto satellites, the receiver must be moving before it can begin actively pointing in the right direction (walking a short distance will get it started).

Also, it is important to understand that a GPS receiver can be set to use either true north or magnetic north as a bearing reference. Called "magnetic declination," this difference between true and magnetic north can be as much as 60 degrees at some locations in North America. Consequently, should your GPS and magnetic compass disagree regarding directions, most likely the GPS is using true north as a reference. This can be corrected in two ways, either by resetting the GPS to use magnetic north as a reference or by adjusting the magnetic declination (found on all good compasses) to correspond with true north. For anyone needing such a compass, Brunton has introduced two new needle-less models, the Eclipse 8096 ($40) and the Eclipse 8099 ($80). Both models were designed for use with GPS and have 1-degree accuracy.

The bottom line in all of this is that a GPS receiver, combined with maps and a good compass, can make you a more successful bowhunter. How? By allowing you to venture farther afield, day or night, in any kind of weather, without fear of getting lost. Never again will you need to ask, "Where on earth am I?"

Bill McRae is one of the most respected authorities on optics and other technical hunting gear.
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Author:McRae, Bill
Date:Jan 1, 2000

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