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August 27, 2007

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A Savage And Unwarranted Attack On GPS

I just finished reading a column in Bugle magazine by Wayne van Zwoll, and was delighted to find that there is someone else who does not use a GPS. Wayne feels, as I do, that you go hunting to escape technology, not to root and wallow in it in the outdoors. In my case, I also don't use GPS because a) I can't figure it out; b) I don't want to figure it out) and c) when I've been around someone who had a GPS, it worked about half the time.

I've been lost three times, once in Vermont, once in Montana, and once in what was Rhodesia. In all three cases I figured out where I was in about a half hour. The reason for my sterling record is this: I do not boldly go where no man has gone before. I'll make the trip, but I will be practically peeing my longjohns in terror. I always carry three compasses: a big Silva with a mirror, a smaller Silva with a mirror, and a little bubble compass that I pin on my orange vest.

Most important, I pay attention to where I am and where I am going. I shoot back azimuths occasionally, and am not above making notes about times, distances, terrain features, etc. Most of the hunters who get lost, I think, do so because they're tracking game and forget to do stuff like this.

I learned to use a compass in the Maine woods when I was 13. It has stood me in good stead ever since. And no compass has ever refused to give me directions because the moon was not in the Seventh House and Jupiter was not aligned with Mars.


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Black Rifle addict

Dave-I agree with you that the compass is a very effective tool in the wild, but being old school when it comes to GPS is like you not using a computer.This is not going to happen. Besides, it the case of an emergency, GPS allows for down right pinpoint accuracy needed to guide help to a location.
I'm 50-ish, and if I can be taught to use a GPS-ANYONE CAN!
ps-it's a great tool to have on the boat, too!


I agree a compass is the most important thing to have and know how to use. I'm 27, and have never used a GPS but I think they can be a great addition and safety item to have. I also grew up hunting in the thick Maine woods where my father taught me all about bearings and knowing landmarks. Something I've added in recent years are aerial images, topo maps, and a good recent Delhomme atlas...that when taken together shows recent logging activity, new roads, etc. That way, I always know what direction to head in to hit a road, brook, pond, to get myself the hell out!

Here in CT on the other hand, if you walk a mile in any direction and you're on a paved highway, so getting lost around here isn't a big deal. However, if I ever get out west, I think I'll invest in a good GPS, but will be sure to bring along a compass or two.


Greg Morris

I have to agree with Dave here, mostly. I like my GPS just fine for navigation on the water (and marking great fishing spots) but I've found that they are nothing but extra weight when you are in thick woods or mountainous terrain. I carry a GPS out into the wilderness sometimes, but I won't rely on it. I usually keep a topo of the area and always a good compass with me.

I've been lost in the wilderness _with_ my GPS, because it wouldn't sync up with the satellites. But using a compass and a good overall knowledge of the terrain, I got un-lost rather quickly.

Blue Ox

A good GPS might be a nifty little gadget to have around, once you figure out how it works. But Murphy will always be there to make it crap out on you whenever you need it the most. (you guys know what i'm talking about.) I'll take the compass and mirror, the landmarks, and the stars every time.

Chad Love

Silly people...who needs GPS OR the compass when you have a cell phone? Like, duh! Just text some rescue-type person and have them come pick you up! There, problem solved.


I don't own a GPS but I do see the value in them. I do carry a cell phone and a compass. Lucky for me I've not been lost (so far), but I try to be prepared just in case.

Hell, F&S should do their yearly "Your compass and how the hell to use it" article and the follow that up with "GPS, necessity or high tech hype?".

Dennis Crabtrey II

GPS is great if you can get in an open area to get reception. You should always plan your routes around good landmarks and learn to use a compass properly. I got lost once flying in Iraq when my GPS on the Aircraft died. All I had for reference was a compass, a big lake and a very rough map of where i was going. Good thing it was dark. We got there on time, but now I fly with a spare Garmin Foretrex 101 (about $100) excellent GPS for the money. Small, light, and runs on AAAs. Always have a backup!!!


Agreed; mostly.
1. Map and Compass should be a required part of every hunter safety course.
2. Three compasses come out with me every time and yes I do take a bearing once in a while.
3. Cell phone isn't going to work everywhere either, especially in rotten weather. Duh.
4. Getting lost IS going to happen to most of us if we spend enough time in the woods.
5. Getting 'un-lost' is more about state of mind than technological wonders.
6. Almost all survival situations are more about presence of mind than a buttpack, backpack or wheelbarrel load of Geek Gadgets.
Were I to have a heart attack while hunting or come upon another person having a medical emergency in the woods the cell phone is very comforting to have. It would also be nice to guide rescuers in via GPS coordinates.
Just my $.02

Matt in MN

Glad you're posting again Chad. You crack me up!

Mike Strehlow

Back when I lived in Wyoming, whenever there was an unexpected snowstorm (which can happen any time of the year), you'd hear of elk hunters lost in the mountains. Wyoming's Bighorn Mountains are a good place for a hunter to carry a GPS device; there aren't a lot of roads, the ground is more than big enough to get lost in, and a compass loses a lot of value if you can't see landmarks due to inclement weather.

On one of my last Wisconsin hunting trips, my friend and I drove past a hunter walking on the side of the road, dragging his gun behind him by the barrel. We picked him up and took him back to town (he was still about ten miles out), and he told us that he was a lifelong resident of the county, went into woods like he had a thousand times before (and northern Wisconsin is BIG woods), got turned around, used his compass, and came out, safe, but on the wrong fire road. By the time we found him, he said the water in the ditch was starting to look good to him. His compass got him out, but again, if you are completely surrounded by trees that go on for miles and miles in all directions, there's not much you can orienteer on with it. If you are lost the compass will keep you from walking in circles, but you have to have a good idea of the direction you wish to travel in, and you may come out a ways away from where you went in; this happened to me once, and I know how to use a compass, something not every 'outdoorsman' can honestly say. A GPS device could be a handy thing to have in big woods.

That all said, I know of guys who take their GPS units with them when they hunt litle 40 acre stands of woods that are surrounded by farmers' fields. They do this because they think that GPS units are fun to use, and and so they use them whenever they can. The little geek that lives in most of us can relate to this. So long as the earth possesses a magnetic field, a compass is the most reliable thing you can carry, but "fun" defies arguments to the contrary. Carry your GPS and have fun with it; it can save your life, or at least get you back in time for dinner. But keep a compass in your pocket.

Mike Diehl

I mostly do not use a GPS. I find it *is* useful for knowing the locations of dirt access roads and turn-offs from dirt access roads when I'm driving in some unfamiliar place.

But when I hunt it's quad maps and two compasses. Sort of funny 'cause where I live now the range is so open and the mountain peaks so obvious it feels impossible to get lost. Yet I always have my brunton and my old pocketwatch style brass compass. I'd never be without them.

I learned to use a compass the same place Dave did. In the Maine woods.

Clay Cooper

Ditto's Black Rifle addict

When it comes to orienteering, I know I can give the best the run for there money. But with less time or no time to prescout an area, it makes it very difficult to hunt in area that’s boarded by National Forest, absolutely no reference points, 50 yard or less visibility and riddled with private land. Every year I would stumble across an individual saying I’m on private land, when in fact it’s National Forest. It’s great to whoop out my Lowrance iFinder® Hunt C GPS Unit and prove to them that there lying.

Before I got my gps, I would windup on the backside of some hotheaded landowner threatening to shoot me, take away my gun and call the Game Warden. I would give them my humble apology and say I didn’t know. Then I would tell them, I’ve been Federally incarcerated for 20 years and a lot of things have changed. This scares the hell out of out of them and they instantly back down. After a couple of minutes I would let them know that I was in the Military and not in jail at anytime. What can I say? It works and I’ve been given the permission from a few of them to return to hunt.

One more thing, if you’re really good at orienteering, you can dive straight into an area with little or no problem. Besides, in case of an emergency, I can press two buttons on my gps that marks the location as “MAN OVERBOARD” and it will guide me by providing several screens of going back to that location with help.

Clay Cooper

Come-on David, you know you want one. I know you do!

I like to take you to a few places I hunted. Your compasses would be absolutely worthless! The only thing that is 100% reliable is a good topo map and know how to read it! A gps works excellent to, provided you have plenty of batteries to feed it and it doesn’t fail!


Only got truly lost once... in the Adirondacks of upper New York, the Forever Wild area, if anyone knows of it.

Way back in the Hemlock swamps on a dull, rainy, grey day, is a bad place to get turned around. I had topos and a compass, but without any visibility to landmarks it becomes pretty pointless. It becomes even worse when every time I'd turn 90 degrees, the compass needle swung with me. So when south becomes north, then becomes west or east... well, orienteering gets a little tricky. Best I can figure is there were some kind of iron deposits or something and they totally whacked my compass.

I finally settled my head and trusted my instincts until I reach a spot that was open enough to mark a high peak and match it to my topo. With that in mind, and a good guess, I was able to recross the only maintained trail in the wilderness and find camp.

Point being, even the old-school stuff can fail you. A GPS would probably not have worked well under that canopy of hemlocks either.

But I have GPS now, and it can be a pretty handy tool. I'm not real thrilled about ever staking my life on something that uses batteries, but it has its place.

Dave Petzal

To Clay Cooper: No, I was not kidding, I really don't want one.

The only place I've found a compass useless is way up in northern Quebec on the Laurentian Shield, where there's so much iron underfoot that your needle just spins in despair. Aside from that, the places where I'd least like to navigate are:

1. The eastern end of Anticosti Island.
2. The Crazy Peaks in Montana.
3. The Costa Rican rainforest.

Clay Cooper

Dave Petzal

Northern Quebec?

I bet you had a blast!

Got a few pic’s of the hunt?

At night, did the roof of your tent look like it was on fire?

To tell you the truth, I really wouldn’t be using one, but my Father got it for my birthday and insisted that I would use it, so I can show him the locations I will be at. When you hunt by yourself, as you know it’s best to let someone know the area you will be in.

Besides, if I didn’t pick on you, you would think I’m mad at you!
Equal opportunity harassment! Not to be confused with the Office PC variety.

338 RUM? My ears are still ringing! LOL!

Clay Cooper

You know when you’re in trouble?

When a big brown bear is carrying away your backpack and it has all your stuff in it including map and compass. Not to mention that your britches are down around your knees.

True story!

Chad Love

In reference to Mike Strehlow's excellent comments above, I have to agree. Kidding aside, and despite the fact I'm often accused of being a Luddite I actually think GPS can be a pretty damn useful tool for hunters even in places where it's almost physically impossible to get lost for any length of time.
For example, the public hunting area where I do the majority of my deer hunting is around 15,000 acres of contiguous land, mainly rolling mixed grass sand-sage prairie interspersed by a number of fairly steep draws leading to a riparian corridor along a typical prairie river. It's not flat by any means and parts of it are downright rugged, but the Bob Marshall it's not. Even the most talcum-soft of the hordes of metro-area hunters who converge here every rifle season could, if lost, choose literally any direction, start walking, and within a few hours they may lose their pride but they'd find themselves on a section line road, a lease road or a highway (provided of course they don't step on a rattler first...)
No compass or GPS needed.
But at 4 a.m. in the morning when you're trying to find that one perfect little spot after a two-mile walk up and down a bunch of tree-choked draws is where I think GPS has the potential to shine.
I know my particular WMA very well but I don't know how many times I've gotten a little turned around in the dark and ended up somewhere other than where I wanted to be.
As there gets to be more and more pressure and competition on public areas I think little things like GPS will become more and more common.

Clay Cooper

Have you ever wondered how those folks in a swamp or bayou ever get around yet alone in the Amazon jungle?

When I was younger, I had the ability to track across unknown country to go to a location without any aid. Kind of like internal navigation. The old saying is true, use it or lose it!


While GPS costs to much for me to spend on it for what I need it for, I would love to have one. Mainly for the reason that I now live out of state where I hunt and being a public land hunter, that as been forced out of areas I know like the back of my hand it would be nice. Mostly for knowing exactly where members of my group are and the fact I am unable to go on many scouting trips due to time.


It’s funny to watch a hunter with a compass holding it need his gun barrel or down at his belt buckle!

It’s funny to watch a hunter with a compass holding it next his gun barrel or down at his belt buckle!

Got a thousand monkeys jumping on my key board!

Clay Cooper

David, what did you do/hunt in Costa Rican rainforest?


Be careful of buying a gps online. I was at the Bass Pro in Springfield Mo and it was $47 cheaper and it had the latest software to go with it.


"Every year I would stumble across an individual saying I’m on private land, when in fact it’s National Forest. It’s great to whoop out my Lowrance iFinder® Hunt C GPS Unit and prove to them that there lying.

Before I got my gps, I would windup on the backside of some hotheaded landowner threatening to shoot me, take away my gun and call the Game Warden."

I also hunt an area that is part county, state, and federal land, with private land inter-mixed. I running across more and more land owners trying to claim public land as their own and even posting it.

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