hunters carrying dead turkeys on their backs

Big Green Blog

E-scouting vs. Boots on the Ground Scouting

07.01.2024 | By Zach Condon

two hunters looking through monoculars while sitting on a hillside

Summer is officially here and if you were lucky enough to draw a permit or live somewhere you can snag an OTC (Over the Counter) tag, it’s time to start scouting. Depending on where you call home, and where your hunts will take you this fall, your scouting might differ from the next person. I’m lucky enough to call Montana home so even though I was burned in the application process and didn’t draw a single tag this year, I’ve still got access to awesome OTC deer and elk units that I can drive to before the season starts. If you live somewhere like Arkansas and are headed to a state like Colorado, this probably isn’t an option, so you’ll have to spend most of your time e-scouting. In this article, I will cover boots on the ground and e-scouting. Both have pros and cons, and I’ll cover that below.

google map with different colored map markers


Life can be crazy and finding the time to scout your hunting unit might not be realistic, even if you live close to it. Thankfully most of us have a smartphone in our pocket or a computer close by and we can access a plethora of useful maps to give us a look at our unit from home. Although incredibly useful, digital maps can be a bit overwhelming when you first open them up to scout, so here are some things I do when scouting my unit from home.

Use your computer

It’s easy to open your phone and pull up a map. There are tons of them out there. Some are free, but most are not. The three that I have used quite a bit are Google Maps, onX, and GOHUNT. In my opinion, all three have their uses but if I had to pick one, it would be onX. Google has the best imagery but the ability to add custom layers in onX makes it invaluable for me. GOHUNT has some nice features, but I only have it as a backup in case onX crashes or fails to work.

All these apps are available on your phone, but when it comes to e-scouting, I always start on my computer. Your ability to pick apart aerial imagery and topo maps on a large screen is invaluable when e-scouting. I like to spend as much time as I can on my computer looking for roads into my unit, camp spots, and water, evaluating contour lines, and trying to identify glassing locations and bedding areas. What’s great about scouting on the computer is that you can save waypoints, add area shapes or lines, and even save your offline maps. On onX, all of this will sync to your app when you open it up.

Make a plan

This fall I’ve got a big hunt planned where my friends and I will float a raft into a landlocked area. Although possible, it’s not super realistic to get in there this summer. This is a hunt where I am relying on digital maps heavily. I use my maps to scout camp spots on the river, draw lines on what looks like the main channel to avoid confusion on the river, and I’ll look at historical imagery to get a good idea of what the river will look like when I plan to float it in late October.

E-scouting answers most of the questions I have about where I will go, and I can take the information I have gathered from the web maps and plan off that. I am not making end-all-be-all rules that I will follow to a T, but with this information, I now have a plan for the hunt.

I like to color-code my waypoints for different things. E-scouting gives me the ability to have a primary plan secondary, contingency and so on. I’ll map out different plans and color code them accordingly so if I must adjust on the fly and go a different route, it’s easy to tell what is what with a glance.

Hunts like this are not your traditional western rifle hunt where you may have opportunities to shoot 500 yards or more. This is close-quarters hunting so I’m also looking for dried-up back channels, openings in the timber, or anything that could be a shooting lane. This is going to be the perfect hunt for the 360 Buckhammer and finding areas of opportunity to sit and wait for deer will give me more opportunities once the hunt starts.

Don’t be afraid to “markup” your map

When I’m e-scouting, I will mark everything possible with a waypoint. Whether that is a turn off the main highway onto a dirt road or a drainage that looks elky, I will mark it. The worst it does is clutter your map, and if nothing else, it might save you some time in the long run. I have found myself more than once on a hunt where I’m three or four days into it and feel stuck. At that point, I’ll scour the maps from the field, and often my eyes are drawn to one of those random waypoints I saved and provide me the direction I need to keep my hunt moving forward.

Familiarize yourself with the app

Your mapping app is just another tool in your hunting gear. Just like you won’t take your rifle out without sighting it in, or hike into the backcountry without breaking in your boots, you should be sure to know how to use your app before your hunt. Especially if you’re going to an area without cell service. When you first get into a mobile hunting app, it can appear overwhelming, but like anything, if you take the time to learn how to use it before you need it, it will pay dividends on your hunt. Most of the companies that provide these maps have great help centers and articles that can help you learn the app.

Here’s a quick story/lesson. While on a deer hunt in Montana a couple of years ago, my friends and I hiked into a glassing knob to spend the evening. None of us had been to this spot before, with a slow hunt, we were trying to mix it up and see something new. 30 minutes into our sit, I spotted another hunter a mile or so away. 15 minutes later, I saw him again, only this time he was much closer and appeared to be headed our way.

Eventually, he made it to us, and he seemed a bit frustrated, and possibly lost. At that time, we were on Bureau of Land Management land, and he asked us if we knew where the Forest Service was. We pointed to a hill behind us and instructed him to go around the left side of it for the FS land, and make sure not to go to the right, as it would lead him straight to private. He stood around for a bit then wandered away only to walk exactly where we told him not to. It didn’t take long, and he appeared again walking back to us just as we were getting ready to move, looking worse than before. He insisted he knew where he was but when we asked him to pull out his map and show us where he wanted to go, he pointed to a blue line and said, “I want to get to that trail.”

The blue lines on your maps are not trails, they’re water. Fortunately, it was getting dark, and he needed to go the same direction back to the truck as us, so he hiked out with us. The moral of the story is don’t just e-scout, learn how to use your map before your life depends on it.

two hunters walking down a dirt road

Boots on the ground scouting

I remember days when boots-on-the-ground scouting was the only option other than paper maps. With the introduction of digital maps in the last 10 or so years, this style of scouting is not as necessary as it used to be. But it has its benefits and there are tons of things to gain from it that you simply cannot find in e-scouting.

First-hand knowledge of the unit

There is only so much you can see in a 3D map. Whether it’s a new clear-cut, dried creek bed, burn area, or putting eyes on a target buck, there are things you’ll never see as well on your computer or phone. Hiking into your unit, taking the time to find the trailhead, scout a campsite, glassing knob, or locate water in the backcountry, can save you tons of time in the long run. Sure, you can locate most of this on a digital map, but it’s not until you step foot in your unit that you can verify what you see is accurate and this can save you time when it comes to your hunt. For example, I have e-scouted numerous areas ahead of an elk hunt and made my plan around springs, or other water locations. In most cases, the “water” that I found online was either not there, or it was dried up. Finding this out during your hunt could ruin the entire hunt. Especially if you’re in the backcountry.


A huge benefit to boots on the ground is trail cameras. Before I go into placing cameras, it must be noted that every state has different laws around trail cameras so make sure you’re savvy on the rules in your area before taking cameras out. Taking trail cameras into your area is one of those things that brings e-scouting and boots-on-the-ground scouting together. Before I pack cameras into an area, I spend time on the computer identifying potential spots to take them. They’re not always great spots but they give me a good starting point and I typically end up placing my cameras in the general vicinity of the waypoints I saved.

I don’t use cellular cameras myself, mostly because the areas I hike into don’t have service. My strategy with cameras revolves around locating water, wallows, scrapes, or rubs and taking my cameras in mid-July. I’ll let them sit for a month or so then I’ll hike in again just before the season starts and pull them. This gives me great information on what is in the unit and what to expect when the season starts.

Packing in water and other gear

A few years ago, I killed a bull elk miles from the truck, by myself, right in the middle of a heat wave. Water was key on that trip both for me and the elk. In e-scouting, I located several springs and water holes only to find one of them was there and had water. This area was so far in the backcountry that I never scouted it in person before my hunt. During my second year hunting there I planned ahead and not only got cameras in the area but while scouting, I packed 20 liters of water in. Scouting trips are a great way to not only see the unit in person but pack in gear like food and water ahead of time.


There are a million ways to skin a cat when it comes to scouting. There is no one way that is the best. Whether you’re e-scouting, or getting into your unit over the summer, it’s better than going in completely blind. Scouting is an awesome tool that can give you tons of information to plan for and get the most out of your hunt. Not only that, but it’s fun. It’s fun to get lost in your maps, and it’s fun to hike into your area before the season. Fall is right around the corner, don’t let the summer slip by and head into this season better prepared than ever.

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