Mapping technology has made navigating the backcountry much easier for bowhunters. With a glance at our phones, we can learn property ownership, elevation and weather forecasts. We can even see our exact location on the map. I love and embrace this technology. But there’s still an old-fashioned compass in my pack anytime I’m in the backcountry.
The technological revolution started with the handheld GPS device. Using GPS, we could see our position on a base layer, mark waypoints and leave track lines, showing where we’d been.
Mobile apps eliminated the need to carry a separate device, and now we can get this information on our smartphones. Mapping tools such as Google Maps or Bing Maps show your position and can help you measure distances. Hunting apps like onX Hunt and HuntStand integrate handy features for hunters such as property ownership, deer management units, localized weather and even tree identification and crop rotation history.
But smartphones have drawbacks that you won’t experience with a GPS or compass. You may not have cell reception in remote areas, which means apps won’t work. That isn’t a problem if you plan ahead, though, and download maps of your area for later offline use. Do this before your trip, when you have good reception, and you’ll be fine. Downloading maps is usually an intuitive process, but it’s still best to familiarize yourself with it and practice before you embark on a two-week bowhunt in the backcountry.
Smartphones have other limitations as well. They might not function if you submerge them while crossing a creek or drop them in a swamp. Dropping your phone from a treestand or crushing it against a rock when you slip may also render it useless. Phone batteries go dead, too. Switching your phone to airplane mode saves battery life, but some apps won’t work on airplane mode. And even at that, you’ll only get a couple of days off one charge, and maybe less if the weather is cold, since cold weather saps battery life. I always sleep with my phone inside my sleeping bag in cold weather.
Charging your phone is a possibility when you’re away from home. A portable power bank can recharge your phone one time or multiple times, depending on the model. If you get a solar-powered power bank, you can keep charging your phone for days, as long as the weather cooperates. Another option is to simply bring an extra pre-charged phone battery. These days, if you’re careful — and prepared — you can continue using your favorite apps for the duration of your hunting trip.
Still, just as it’s wise to carry multiple fire-starting devices plus water-purification tablets in case you can’t get a fire going to boil water, it’s a good idea to always bring along a compass for insurance. Some hunters who grew up in the GPS and smartphone era may never have used a compass, so it’s worth taking an orienteering course or at least watching YouTube videos to learn how to navigate with a compass. If you only carry a compass with you, you’ll be able to find your orientation and head along a bearing, but to fully navigate the backcountry, you need a map of the area as well.
The mapping abilities and added hunting information from apps put a wealth of knowledge at your fingertips. And although you can usually rely on your phone with prior planning, it’s nice to have backup. If you’re planning on getting into remote areas, the extra weight of a GPS unit, map and compass are not only worth the space they take up, they could save your life.
Here’s a good resource for learning how to use a compass:
Here’s information on portable power banks: