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If you are a serious hunter, it's pretty likely that you already own a rangefinder. If not, I am sure you have considered one at least once and need to go ahead and bite the bullet. Having and knowing how to use a rangefinder will be one of the biggest steps you take to increase your odds.
In hunting, there are a lot of things that have to come together to get that perfect shot. There is a lot of timing, luck, and preparation involved. You have put a lot of effort and money toward having that opportunity. We owe it to ourselves not to miss because we failed to accurately account for range.
With any new device, this starts with understanding how it works and its limitations.
How a Rangefinder Works
At its most basic level, a rangefinder is simply a laser, a light meter, and a clock. When you shine the laser at an object, a part of the beam will bounce back and register with the light meter. The time it takes to make its round trip is measured by the clock and can be used to accurately estimate the distance between you and the target.
All things reflect light, it's just a matter of how much so anything you shine the laser on will reflect it back. Some objects, like harder objects, will return a more powerful beam where softer objects tend to diffuse the beams more.
A rock will return a sold beam and therefore can be ranged accurately farther away. A deer is soft and its fur will diffuse the laser light and the reading may not be as accurate, depending on the distance. While many rangefinders boast of ranges near or over a thousand yards, they may not be effective against an animal that far, the best ones at maybe half that distance.
Understanding those limitations, we can then look at best practices.
This section is what I would call basic operations of a rangefinder. How I use one from the time I identify my hunting location all the way up to the time I take my shot. Accurately planning and practicing these steps will help you get the most out of the investment you made in your rangefinder.
Carry it Scouting
Always carry your rangefinder when you go into the woods. If are a rifle hunter, being able to gauge ground distance to locations that show deer activity gives a good idea of where we can set up our blind or hide. At this point, I don’t need to be dead on accurate, I just need to know the difference between 150 yards and 300 yards.
For a bowhunter, knowing the distance from the base of the tree you may use to locations where deer sightings are likely will help you assess how good your location is or if you would benefit from moving your stand to a different tree. Either hunter can use the rangefinder to effectively locate where he will hunt from.
On the Hunt
Once the season starts and you are in the woods for real, range early and often. You don’t have to have an animal in front of you. It's good to know the location of ‘landmarks’ in your hunting area. This can help you decide what shot to take and when to wait a little longer.
For a bowhunter, get points on trees around your area that are in locations you could take a clean shot. Sometimes a deer won’t stop and wait for you to get a bead on him and KNOWING, not guessing, the rage to his location could be the difference in a kill and a missed opportunity.
Similarly, with a rifle, I want to take notes on landmarks around where I hunt. I don’t restrict myself to areas that I think are likely for deer but any location around that I might be able to make a clean shot. Deer don’t follow plans and may pop up where you don’t expect them.
As a rifle hunter, you usually have more time to make your shot so don’t rush it. You may know the distance to the wood line but it pays to get a second reading to make sure, especially if you are an extreme range hunter.
Deer in Sight
When you actually have an animal that you can get a shot at or that will likely move to a position where you can get that shot, the rangefinder will really pay for itself. The key here is slow, steady movements to not alert the animal, this is especially true for bow hunters.
Having a rangefinder with scan mode really shines if you are tracking an animal and waiting for him to get in a good position. With a bow, I don’t like to be ranging when he stops in a clearing. By that time, I want to have my bow drawn and ready.
I range as the animal moves and stop a few yards before I would want to shoot. If I ranged my area well, I should have a solid number in my head for that range.
If you have the time or it’s a farther rifle shot, don’t settle on just ranging the animal, remember they don’t read as well on a rangefinder as hard targets. Range the tree or rock he is near. Anything you can to get a more solid range. If you are out at 300 yards, the difference between a hit and a miss can be very small.
Remember, slow and steady. You want your movements so clean and silent that your prey never knows you are there.
Three pieces of advice:
Get the best one you can afford. Buy once, cry once.
The differences between a good range finder and a bad one are huge, don’t make that mistake.
Get a rangefinder suited to your chosen hunting tool.
One for either bow or rifle will have features better suited to that tool, you may not think you need them now but it’s better to have them up front than to pay for them twice.
Buy more than you need.
Because of the limitations on range, get a rangefinder that has the longest range you can afford. Very few people hunt at 1000+ yards but a rangefinder that will read well past that will likely be more accurate at shorter ranges than one that is near its limits.
If you would like more information on rangefinders including some brands we like and why along with solid advice on selecting the perfect rangefinder for you, feel free to visit our article here.