Thursday, 1 December 2011

Technology in the Field

Elk kit.  But what's that plastic orange thingy on the pack?
I hunt with a 104 year old shotgun and a 50 year old rifle so I would hardly consider myself to be on the cutting edge of technology, but somehow modern technology has slowly but surely found its way into my kit.
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It started with a GPS.  I was hunting elk in the Sierra Madre above Encampment WY and had parked my truck in a pull off on a forest service road.  After a long hunt I navigated back to the road -- duh, just head east and you'll hit the road. Dead tired, I turned left and walked more than a half mile down the road in the wrong direction before I realized my mistake.  Once home I got on the internet and found the least expensive GPS I could. I have used one ever since.  My use is completely unsophisticated, but it's all I need.  When I park the truck I mark the location on the GPS and then turn the thing off and put it in my pack.  I used to park in places where I was more likely to find the truck without trouble, now I can comfortably park it in more hidden locations.  The GPS also turns out to be useful for packing out.  Once the location of the animal is marked, it often turns out that hte shortest route to pack the animal out is not the one you used to hunt it.  This has saved me some miles of hard walking with heavy packs.  Of course, now I have to carry some spare batteries too.

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Estimating distances across narrow canyons is a useful skill for mule deer and elk hunting. I turn out to be a fairly bad at it. Once I realized I really had no intuition for estimating distances a laser range-finder seemed like it a useful tool.  It turns out I'm not terrible at estimating on level ground but that I almost always overestimate the distance across a steep draw.  Two hundred yards just seems to be quite a bit farther when viewed across a chasm than it does on flat ground.  Aside from perhaps holding too high and missing a shot, the downside of overestimating distance is that I might pass on a shot that I thought was too long but which really wasn't.  Generally speaking, 250 yards has been a long shot for me, but with a rangefinder in hand, what might appear to be 300 or 350 yards turns out to be a much shorter distance. My original idea was that I'd carry it around with me before the season started to build my intuition and then to just leave it home.  Of course, now I always carry the rangefinder too. It takes different batteries than the GPS.

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The latest bit of technology I've acquired is a SPOT GPS Satellite Messenger. A friend has been carrying one for years but I wasn't much interested until recently.  I'd seen older versions of this type of device in stores and heard the urban legend about the guy who pushed the wrong button in the store and was charged tens of thousand of dollars for a helicopter rescue in the middle of NYC.  The SPOT communicates via satellite so a cell phone signal is not required - which is why it works.

SPOT GPS Satellite Messenger.

I spend a lot of time alone in the wilderness: I mostly hunt alone, I often fish alone, I cut firewood alone, etc.   So, even though I am mostly technology adverse,  I started to think it might not be a bad idea to get one of these gizmos.  Roger is an avid hunter who also spends a lot of time racing around on snow machines in the winter, he absolutely swears by the SPOT.  He used his last winter to avert a full on rescue when he and some friends got stuck out in the field overnight on their snowmobiles.  They found an old cabin so they had shelter for the night.  He sent an "OK" message so his wife and she knew not to call for a rescue which she might well have done otherwise.  He uses the tracking feature to keep an eye on his wife's progress when she's driving long distance across Wyoming in the winter to visit family.   His enthusiasm sold me on getting one.

You pay for the device itself and then pay a yearly service fee to activate it.  When you sign up for service, you can also pay a small additional fee for rescue insurance which covers up to $100K in search and rescue costs.  The device itself has six buttons: an on/off power button (top center), an "I'm OK." button (left center), a on/off tracking button (right center), a "message" button (bottom center), a "help" button on the (left side) and an "SOS" button on (right side).  The "help" and "SOS" buttons have covers over them so you can not accidentally push them.  When you activate the device you set up which messages get sent when you press a button and who receives those message.  You can choose to have messages texted to cell phones or sent to email addresses.  If it gets sent to an email address, the message arrives with the message and a link to a google map pinpointing the location where the button was pressed. Pushing the SOS button will initiate a rescue.

I have to say that toting this thing around this past fall gave me some peace of mind that I did not know I was missing. When I head out I rarely know exactly where I am going to end up and to be able to indicate to family and a few friends where I am is a useful thing and the messages record times and locations which provides a useful record of my season.

Of course the SPOT uses different batteries than the GPS or the range finder.
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Mostly I hate carrying these gizmos.  Bringing technology into the wilderness makes it less wild, but these things have all proven their use when I'm chasing big game.  Unfortunately, these things are all just more stuff for me to keep track of an to break or lose.  Absent minded professor that I am, I seem to be prone to loosing things. I'm a bit too self-conscious to enumerate my loses over the past five years.  I'm almost at the point where I need a larger pack but that's a topic for another day.


  1. You may need to get a bigger backpack to haul all that stuff. Seems like its worth it if it can help you navigate, judge distance or find help.

  2. I sewed up some tears in my current pack before the season started this fall, I patched it with rubberized canvas from an old pair of waders and sewed with the trusty speedy stitcher. But now, after five years of hard use, the straps are fraying beyond repair. I guess I'll be wanting a new pack anyway.

  3. I may have missed it but what is your shotgun?

  4. Hi Steve,

    The 104 year old shotgun referred to in this post is my Birmingham made W. R. Jeffery boxlock - which I got on your advice in fact. I wrote something about it here: