Maximize Map Reading Skills for Whitetails

Using maps is the norm for hunters in our modern times. It's one piece of the arsenal that is so important and is not overlooked by many. We can look at these maps almost any time we want, and the best part is that they are very reliable. 

In the past, the skills to use a compass and paper could bring you to the right area. Those skills have fallen by the wayside in today's techy world. Here's the catch, because of apps, the spots that used to be the best are the places you'll find the highest competition. 

A saddle between two ridges that your grandpa swears by might as well be a lush soybean field edge in the early fall. So how do you prioritize your waypoints and hunting spots? What if you need help finding obscure locations on a map; how will you go straight to an area worth the time?

Basic Favorites

Can you point to a spot on a map and predict where you'll find most treestands? If you have yet to reach that point, it will only take a few e-scout to in person trips for you to figure it out. In the big woods setting, a few areas come to mind. 

  • Ridge Points. I'll use the blanket term loosely because we will discuss it again later. Ridge points are by no means a waste of time. However, you may have company. If you don't have to nitpick the contour lines, neither does anyone else. Don't avoid main or secondary points, but do know what you will find there before you go. Blind hunts on a ridge point could turn out less than ideal.
  • Major Saddles. I'll tell you the bad news about saddles first. They aren't what they used to be! Saddles are one of the most identifiable pinch points on a map. Because there may still be on and off action in a saddle, chronic hunting pressure becomes a problem. Here's the good news, all saddles are not created equal! Does the spot you're hunting lack pressure? Do you have to zoom far into map layers to see the slightest elevation change that makes up the saddle? If the answer is yes, you should have a look!
  • Transition Zones. These zones are what hunters refer to when many features run together. When you can find a seam of a few different types of vegetation, you've found the makings of transition. Pair that with structural terrain features, and you'll sweeten the deal! Remember, obscure is what you want to help avoid major hunting pressure.
  • Benches. Hard to hunt. Sometimes hard to identify. When you can combine those things and figure out how to make it work, you'll likely find yourself alone in the woods. Tight contour lines will tell you how steep the terrain is, but only a slight widening can mean a flat spot on the side of a ridge. Find a long flat spot; I bet you've found a good place for bedding or travel. Even when you've found a bench that doesn't have sign, there's a good chance of encountering deer on that spot. Hang a camera to confirm and then determine how the wind works on that bench. The wind is the biggest challenge of hunting a bench, so if you figure it out, you're in the chips.

Elevation and Contour

This is probably not your first time reading about topo and how to use a map. So why are these two things all that important? Isn't elevation and contour the starting point for map reading? It sure is, but here's why you should continue to study these elements even if you're an advanced map reader. 

Deer adapt! A good rule is hunting the upper third of a hill. Consistently, you will always find the bulk of the deer herd here. But big bucks don't get big doing what every other deer does. If you're hunting an area with heavy hunting pressure, you may have to get creative with elevation. Understand what is immediately below that upper third where other people are hunting. 

Pressured bucks in the upper third will retreat to lower areas until maybe a doe comes into heat. Learn through history and get in front of the change in movement. Steep elevation in hill country often contains rocky terrain, making excellent security cover for a mature deer.

Contour is important because the more you can find, the more edges bucks will have to hide behind. Subtle waves on a contour map don't always translate to subtle contours in person. Find as much colliding contour as possible because it will increase the odds of attracting a lot of deer.


There are always so many decisions to be made in the whitetail woods. Choosing the best spot makes the top of the list every time. Of the many ways to look at this picture, two are as straightforward as it gets. Are you hunting close to home, or are you hunting out of state in a place you won't be able to see in person prior to hunting it? 

If you're hunting close to home and can confirm what you've seen on a map with your eyes, it's easier to find those tucked away subtleties. Take the opportunity to let those spots slow cook. Build history and tighten up skills in a place like this.

Be smart; check out the major terrain features on out of state hunts. Go to the obvious first and follow the sign to the not so obvious. But you'll up your odds of success on a first hunt and build a foundation for future hunts. The more your eyes confirm what you've seen in a picture, the more you'll get those maps right every time

Author: Aaron Hepler, Exodus Black Hat Team Member