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Scouting with Google Earth
written by Michael D. Faw

Google Earth -- a free program that combines satellite imagery, maps and the power of Google Search -- offers hunters a new way to scout and gather important information before the hunt.
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Google Earth Screen Shot
After physically scouting the hunting area, you can add placemarks, notes and trails to your Google Earth map for future reference.

Ever wonder what's across that distant ridge, or beyond the nearby property line fence? As a hunter scouting new ground, you might also be interested in locating deer bedding hotspots, openings near your hunting area, and the travel lanes that deer use when they're on the move. Answers to these questions -- and more -- are now much closer than you think thanks to Google Earth.

Gaining Access

First off, you'll need to download the program, which is located at www.earth.google.com. The best news is that Google Earth, along with its detailed mapping and terrain information, is free. This saves you money for more important things -- like hunting gear!

Once you've installed the program, open it up. If this is your first time using the program, I suggest entering your home address in the "Fly To" area of the "Search" bar, just to get an idea of what can be found and in what detail. On a similar search, I saw my old truck with some lumber loaded in the back while it was parked in the backyard! While not every part of the US is available in such detail, the covered areas are rapidly growing. Many regional maps and views have been upgraded during 2009, including one of my favorite hunting areas. I took another look recently at the hunting site and could see trees, fences, creeks and farm roads with ease. The overhead view helps me plan hunts, select future food plot sites, study treestand sites and easily accomplish other common hunting related tasks while sitting at home. However, you shouldn't expect to see foot trails in a Montana wilderness area -- yet.

Google Earth permits users to tilt and look at the terrain and surrounding area, so you can see into valleys or up onto mountains. This view and information can be useful for anyone who steps outdoors. In order to quickly return to the information you've found while looking around, you can save searches and addresses in your "Places" folder to cut down on your return search time. 

 Google Earth Screen Shot
Some Fish and Game Departments have created special data files that work with Google Earth. These files outline public hunting areas and provide information and regulations on specific public hunting areas, making it even easier for hunters to plan public land hunts.

Some state game departments have even created special KMZ data files that work with Google Earth, making it even easier for hunters to plan hunts on specific public hunting areas. After downloading the KMZ file, public hunting area boundaries become outlined on Google Earth maps. You can also view special conservation area maps published by the conservation agency, as well as information on area facilities, activities and regulations -- all within Google Earth. Missouri, Kentucky, Idaho and a few other states have KMZ files available for download. Look for this trend to increase.

From Here to There

The search for a hunting site can begin by entering your home address and then following roads to the site you'd like to visit, or by entering nearby points of interest. In addition to providing general high altitude overviews of large areas, you can zoom in to look at roads, and then fly in closer to see trees and fences. This system is much like having your own personal military drone, minus the real time view of where the deer are standing now.

Additionally, you can customize your Google Earth maps by adding placemarks, notes and trails on the map. These customizations are saved in your "Places" folder, and you can add to, change or delete these details at any time. Other hunter friendly features include the ability to add images, such as a buck that your game camera captured as it passed by a specific location. This can be very valuable when making hunting plans, or when keeping notes to share with other hunters.

While it's easy to see the big picture of areas online with Google Earth, you can also easily print your discoveries to carry afield. I prefer to print maps, place these in my pocket or daypack, and then mark them as I walk through an area. While the down-to-earth views are interesting, it pays to go to the location and look for stand sites or game trails so you can better judge distances.

 Google Earth Screen Shot
Icons, notes, trails, pictures and other information are stored in your Places folder. You can easily manage icons or create new notes, making your maps more valuable over time. 

If you have a GPS unit, Google Earth permits you to add waypoints and routes from most GPS units to the maps you create. You can also see the specific GPS location of a site by looking at the bottom of the page or map you have open while viewing Google Earth. Use the Google Earth user guide to obtain more details. In the guide, look at the details on how to add layers to the big picture, such as 3-D elevation. These details are in the user guide under terrain. Another useful feature to explore is measuring distances by drawing lines on the mapping program, then using the ruler selection to determine the distance between points. This program allows you to obtain driving directions from your driveway to a trailhead or hunting area. After you have created personalized maps, you can also email the images to share details with others. Much of this work is completed with a mouse click, and the entire program is very user friendly. See the tutorials and frequently asked questions (FAQ) sections if you need more information on what the search permits and offers to users.

The site offers one other aid that many hunters will enjoy. While I did not see deer and standard hang-on treestands on possible hunting property, I have noted where other hunters have placed food plots, tower stands and built access roads. This has helped me determine areas for me to hunt, and sometimes decide where to place food plots on the properties I manage. I saw ponds on two properties that I had no idea were even there, and this information helped me decide where to locate wildlife watering sites on a property I manage. I've also looked at valleys, saddles, and obstacles that naturally funnel deer onto a farm that I hunt.  Thanks to Google Earth, taking a look at what my neighbors have on their hunting properties has been useful for getting the big picture on possible game movement patterns in the region. This strategy is most useful when planning hunts for deer that are being pressured.

There are other useful options for hunters using this mapping program. You can save icons on your screen to customize your maps, plus add and store notes.  It is easy to click and drag to move around in areas, and this makes using the site fast and easy for most. The field-of-view permits a zoom in to a degree that it's easy to distinguish trees, open hayfields, and idle CRP ground in many areas. All of this is useful information when planning a hunt. On the down side, clouds present when the satellite passed overhead have obscured some images and the details that hunters might be seeking. You could possibly have to wait three or more years to see the upgraded view.

Information is important when planning any hunt. Google Earth adds a new route to this important information, and hunters everywhere are taking a more detailed look.

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