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Those who develop an interest in archery may want to apply their skills to bowhunting, which is the practice of hunting game animals using bows and arrows.
In modern bowhunting, rangefinders are almost as important as bows and arrows. Today’s bowhunters generally use rangefinders rather than traditional sights. However, knowing how to use a rangefinder for bowhunting can seem a little complex and intimidating.
So, what are the best steps for how to use a rangefinder for bowhunting?
There are basically 3 steps for learning how to use a rangefinder for bowhunting.
Step 1: Research rangefinders
Step 2: Understanding rangefinder operation
Step 3: Safe and proper use
Advances in bow construction, arrow material, and other archery equipment have refined and streamlined the industry of archery. The same is true for traditional hunting sights, which bowhunters are replacing with innovative rangefinders as necessary equipment. (Scroll down to the bottom if you want to skip to my recommended rangefinders!)
Bowhunters can effectively learn how to use a rangefinder in 3 steps to achieve their hunting goals.
- 1 What is a Rangefinder?
- 2 Benefits of Rangefinders
- 3 Step 1: Researching Rangefinders
- 4 Step 2: Understanding Rangefinder Operation
- 5 Step 3: Safe and Proper Use
- 6 Performance Concerns
- 7 When You Can’t Use a Rangefinder
- 8 A Few Rangefinders to Consider
- 9 Conclusion
What is a Rangefinder?
Most bowhunting experts agree that rangefinders are now as necessary as proper bows and arrows for bowhunting gear. This is primarily due to their accuracy, compactness, and overall affordability.
Rangefinders, essentially, measure the distance between an observer and a target. Modern bowhunters use rangefinders as “sights” and a means to measure distance.
Sights are devices used to aim your bow so that the arrow hits the intended targets. Sights can be designed in any of the following ways:
- Set or system of markers that must be in alignment together with the target
- Optical devices that enhance an image of the target with an aiming point, aligned in the same focus
- Projections of aiming points onto the target with lasers or infrared illuminators
Traditionally, bowhunters would rely on scopes, binoculars, and spotting scopes for optical equipment. These optics allow for the hunter to keep distant from a target so as not to scare it away but still attempt an accurate shot. The onset of rangefinders in the past few decades have enabled bowhunters to shoot from even greater distances with better accuracy.
Modern rangefinders are easy to operate. They use a clock to track the amount of time it takes a projected laser beam to reach the target and bounce back and then digitally display the distance for the bowhunter. Most rangefinders are accurate in calculating distance within about 1 yard. This accuracy can’t be achieved in bowhunting by traditional sights.
Rangefinders also benefit bowhunters when shooting at an angle, which affects distance estimation towards a target. Primarily, if bowhunters are shooting at an angle, the target appears farther away; laser rangefinders account for this perception and adjust the distance for the shooter.
Initially, due to their cost and yet-to-be proven value, rangefinders were considered non-essential and even luxury bowhunting gear. Resistant hunters would prefer established optical devices and rely on their perceived skill for shooting distance.
However, rangefinders have consistently and reliably proven their effectiveness beyond any other equipment for hunters. Rangefinders have quickly come to be considered an essential piece of bowhunting equipment.
Benefits of Rangefinders
Accurate ranging is critical for bowhunting. For bowhunters, distance estimation directly affects shooting. Misjudged range is considered the number one factor in missed shots when it comes to bowhunting. Rangefinders all but eliminate human estimation and guesswork for bowhunters.
Additionally, hunters rarely range their targets on flat terrain but rather at an angle. This complicates distance estimation greatly, due to external forces such as gravity acting on arrows shot from an angle.
Experts agree that bowhunters need accurate estimates (beyond just human sight and judgment) for all distances over 20 yards and up to between 70 and 100 yards.
This is particularly true when shooting from an angle, and rangefinders are the only gear that accurately compensates for it.
Rangefinders eliminate many of the distance estimation issues in bow hunting and offer several benefits:
- Fast and accurate ranging
- Durable and portable in design
- Technologically advanced yet still user-friendly
- Significantly reduce inaccurate shots
- Usable even on steep terrain
- Reduce the risk of missing the target completely
- Range further distances so hunters can lessen physical approach to the target
- Growing more affordable
- Continually advancing in precision and performance
Those who feel that rangefinders all but replace human skill and expertise in bowhunting should consider that they benefit bowhunters only as part of the overall equipment. Rangefinders can’t replace human performance when it comes to using bows and arrows.
They simply enhance more accurate shooting outcomes.
Most bowhunters recognize both the need for and benefits of rangefinders. However, their unfamiliarity with this equipment may prevent some bowhunters from using them.
Thankfully, there are 3 clear steps to learning how to use a rangefinder for bowhunting so that they can be a regular element of bowhunting gear.
Step 1: Researching Rangefinders
The most important step when investing in equipment for any sport or pastime, including archery and bowhunting, is research. Researching rangefinders will help bowhunters understand what equipment will work best for them and how to use it.
Bowhunters should research rangefinders with the same approach they would to researching bows and arrows. There are many brands and types of rangefinders available with an array of features. However, not all bowhunters require everything that some rangefinders offer when it comes to gadgetry and technology.
Bowhunters should consider durability and reliability as important qualities when selecting rangefinders. Reading reviews and consulting others are ways to gather specific information. The cost of a rangefinder should be significant and deciding consideration when investing in rangefinders.
When researching rangefinders, here are some important things to learn more about:
- Durability and Reliability
Many athletes, including archers and bowhunters, feel loyal to a particular brand when it comes to equipment. This can apply to rangefinders as well. Most of the top, recognizable brands in hunting and archery manufacture rangefinders. However, brand loyalty is not essential when it comes to purchasing rangefinders.
Most brand-name rangefinders are consistent in performance, accuracy, durability, and reliability. Therefore, bowhunters can research lesser-known brands if they wish and will most likely get as much value for their products as the more recognizable brands.
Among each brand of rangefinders are various models. Some of the basic features that bowhunters appreciate in rangefinders are:
- Compact design
- Textured design for secure grip (even with wet hands)
- Ergonomic design
- Incline technology
In addition, bowhunters should ensure that they are researching rangefinders designed specifically for bowhunting and not another sport, so as not to pay for extra features.
Optics is the primary feature to consider for rangefinders. Optics refers to the magnification of target, range of sight, and the ability to compensate for angles. It’s important to research which rangefinders are capable of detecting the target with accurate distance measurement, no matter the elevation.
These are the baseline optic features for good rangefinders:
- Range capability of 1,000 yards or more (may be impacted by weather conditions)
- Magnification range between 4 x to 8 x for target sight and field of view
- Capability of calculating distances from various angles
- Adequate lens coating for clarity of image
- Sufficient lens size (larger lenses can add weight to rangefinder)
Knowing the basic features to look for when it comes to rangefinders will help narrow down the choices and ensure that bowhunters are getting precisely what they need without extra features driving up the cost. Rangefinders are used by other kinds of hunters and even golfers in addition to bowhunters. Researching rangefinder features can help bowhunters know what they need and how to use it.
Durability and Reliability
Many rangefinders are made of material designed and tested to withstand rugged outdoor conditions. Good rangefinders are often wrapped in protective rubber casing to prevent damage. Additionally, they often feature O-ring seals to prevent moisture, water, dust, and dirt from getting inside. This ensures accurate ranging of targets even in poor weather conditions.
Innovations in rangefinders have improved their reliability as well as durability. Their range, speed, and scan are superior. Most rangefinder lenses are covered with waterproof coating that allows for clear visibility in most weather conditions.
Outfitted with LED or LCD displays and battery-operated with low replacement and charging needs, rangefinders consistently provide reliable information for bowhunters regarding their targets.
As rangefinder technology and construction have improved, so has their durability and reliability. These aspects of performance are generally widespread among even the most average of rangefinders available. However, bowhunters should ensure that they research these elements thoroughly before purchasing.
Reviews can be helpful when making an investment in rangefinders. With the information and groups available online, bowhunters can consult forums, blogs, and articles that provide thorough, knowledgeable, and even professional reviews of nearly all archery and bowhunting equipment, including rangefinders.
In addition, most online retailers list product reviews that indicate a rating and possibly written summation from everyday customers who have bought and used the item. When it comes to researching rangefinders, bowhunters can rely on these reviews to help assess value and performance.
For those who prefer to shop in-store, a reputable outdoor retailer should have trusted sales representatives that can offer their advice and opinions of available rangefinders.
Admittedly, researching reviews can be a time-consuming and frustrating task. There may be ratings and opinions in direct conflict of the same rangefinder, which can lead to confusion for bowhunters as to which make and model is best.
Therefore, it’s best to get a general sense of what consumers and experts have to say in their assessments and choose reasonable options.
The most important factor in researching rangefinders is cost. Most experts recommend that bowhunters set a reasonable budget for rangefinders and shop within that limit. Rangefinders can range in price from a couple of hundred dollars to thousands.
Bowhunters should carefully consider their needs for hunting, how often they participate in bow hunting, and the potential cost of repair or replacement of rangefinders before they make a purchase.
It’s important to use the above researching strategies to assess quality, however most rangefinders perform in accordance with their cost. Depending on the season, many retailers offer rangefinder discounts.
The average-priced rangefinder is probably more than adequate for most recreational bowhunters. Therefore, bowhunters should purchase rangefinders that fit both within their budget and realistic expectations for optimal satisfaction.
Step 2: Understanding Rangefinder Operation
Once bowhunters have researched and purchased a satisfactory and effective rangefinder, the next step is learning how it operates. Understanding rangefinder operation is the best way to learn how to use it in bowhunting.
Rangefinders operate by sending a beam of infrared light or laser towards a target when the user presses a button and aims for a particular area where the target is expected. The light then bounces from the target back to the rangefinder location.
The distance between the rangefinder and target is calculated by measuring the amount of time the light traveled from the initial rangefinder position to the target and back.
This can seem almost instantaneous considering the beam travels at the speed of light. Yet the technology of the rangefinder is able to accurately measure the distance based on the micro-interval of time experienced by the light beam.
This range information is then displayed digitally for the bowhunter to allow an accurate and clean shot of the target.
Most rangefinders come ready to use out of the box. However, it’s important for bowhunters to familiarize themselves with rangefinders before using them, especially if they are outfitted with many technological features.
The best ways for bowhunters to become familiar with rangefinders are as follows:
- Read the owner’s manual—this will provide manufacture and warranty information, operational instructions, and safety guidelines.
- Explore the rangefinder—this will enhance understanding of operation by isolating different modes such as bowhunting use, rain mode, and scan mode (a running measure of moving targets that assist with reading through obstacles such as vegetation).
- Practice with the rangefinder—experts recommend practicing with the rangefinder the same way a bowhunter would diligently practice with a new bow. Bowhunters can bring their rangefinders on walks and hikes and begin using it with small-game hunting. The more practice, the more bowhunters will get a feel for their rangefinders which will make ranging faster and nearly automatic while bowhunting.
Once bowhunters are familiar with their rangefinders, understand their operation, and have practiced using them, they will be ready to effectively use them for more serious bowhunting.
Before a hunt, while checking equipment for safety and operational condition, bowhunters should use the rangefinders for a quick test shot to be sure the sight is correct. This can be done by ranging a distant target and assessing if the arrow hits with accuracy.
Next, bowhunters should range their distance before the target is in sight (if possible). This can be done by scanning the area to get a sense of where the shooting lanes might be and noting those landmarks for distance. When the game arrives, the rangefinder will be ready.
Bowhunters, in particular, should mark on a tree for each pin on the sight.
If bowhunters are shooting from an angle, such as a tree-stand, they are subject to misjudging the distance to the target. To compensate for this, bowhunters should initiate the holdover calculator features of their rangefinders which take into account the effects of elevation, angle, and gravity on the shot.
Overall, rangefinders are user-friendly and intuitive as long as the bowhunter understands their operation. Knowing how to use a rangefinder for bowhunting is as simple as reading the directions and practicing using its features before any actual hunting takes place.
Accurate shots in bowhunting are a result of smart hunting strategies, practice, and experience. Rangefinders are important to these smart strategies in that they aren’t just a piece of equipment to measure distance.
Rangefinders assist bowhunters in using their bows and arrows as effectively as possible. Bowhunters must be proficient with all their equipment to be successful.
Step 3: Safe and Proper Use
Rangefinders should be considered an essential and important part of bowhunting gear. Their cost and performance make them an investment for bowhunters as well. Therefore, to maintain good working order and extend the life of rangefinders, it’s best knowing how to use them safely and properly.
Bowhunters should follow all safety and maintenance guidelines recommended by the manufacturer, found in the operation manuals of rangefinders. Ideally, bowhunters should be as meticulous in inspecting and maintaining their rangefinders as they would their bows and arrows.
Rangefinders are complex in their construction and technological capabilities. Using them improperly or unsafely can damage them, leading to expensive repairs or replacement.
One important aspect of maintaining good working order for rangefinders is the way it’s carried. Rangefinders need to be carried properly when bowhunting and remain protected when they are not in use.
Rangefinders often come with factory-made cases, however they can be noisy and snug in trying to remove the equipment. Bowhunters may decide to purchase more specialized cases for carrying and storaging their rangefinder.
Experienced bowhunters will benefit greatly from using rangefinders. However, they should also trust their instincts as even high-tech equipment can provide mistaken readings.
If a rangefinder reading is obviously incorrect or doesn’t make sense, it’s best to check again by referencing a different aiming spot. Bowhunters should be confident in their knowledge and skills for safe and proper use of rangefinders.
In addition to trusting their instincts and skills, bowhunters are responsible for their safety and that of others when bowhunting.
This means ensuring the safe condition and operation of all their hunting equipment. In addition, bowhunters are required to know and understand the legal regulations and restrictions for bowhunting in their area. Bowhunters can check hunting legislation with local law enforcement.
If bowhunters are under the assumption that rangefinders will ensure perfect hunting and accurate shots every time, they will be disappointed. Like all devices, rangefinders have their limits and faults when it comes to performance as do the humans that use them.
For example, there are some factors that can interfere with the way the rangefinder is able to detect the light beam’s path from the initial location to the target. These confounding variables include:
- The steadiness of the rangefinder (if not steady, the ranging will be inaccurate)
- Conditions in the atmosphere (low light or inclement weather)
- Size of the target (smaller targets create more difficulty)
- Reflective nature of the target’s surface (dark targets are less reflective)
- Spread or widening of the light beam (known as “divergence,” as beams expand, their level of focus diminishes, which could affect readings)
All of these factors can influence the performance of the rangefinder. However, most of these issues are rare and depend more on environmental conditions and human use than defects in the rangefinder. Like all archery and hunting equipment, a rangefinder’s purpose is to be utilized as a tool, and as such it has the potential for malfunctions.
Therefore, these performance concerns should not deter bowhunters in any way from using rangefinders as an essential part of bowhunting gear. Any potential drawbacks of rangefinders are overshadowed by their benefits when it comes to bowhunting.
When You Can’t Use a Rangefinder
If you are still dreaming of the day you can buy your first rangefinder, or find yourself in a situation where you don’t have the time or ability to get to your rangefinder in time to make a shot, don’t fret. There is plenty you can do to help you gauge the distance between yourself and your target.
With enough practice and experience, you can use your thumb as a rangefinder like this bowhunter explains in this video.
If you hunt from a tree stand, you can mark different distances by tying color-coded ribbons around a few of the trees within range. Even better, you can match the color of the ribbons to the colors on your sight pins.
It is also essential that you practice estimating distances without the use of a range finder because you may find yourself in a situation where you need to judge a distance. You might not be as accurate a rangefinder as the one you hold in your hand, but with practice, you can get rather good. Check out this video for an idea of what kind of practice can help.
A Few Rangefinders to Consider
Selecting a range finder is a personal decision, and you should take into account all the items I have previously mentioned when finalizing your decision on which buy. However, the three rangefinders I list below will get you started on your research as they are some of the most popular.
The Garmin bow sight is the stuff of science fiction. It combines a rangefinder, a sight, and an LCD screen so that you do not even need to remove your hands from the bow to use your rangefinder. It may have a hefty $799 price tag, but if you’re into the latest technology in bow hunting, it is a must-have.
This rangefinder is a more standard rangefinder and far more affordable than the high tech Garmin. It costs approximately $200. It has a 6-550 yard ranging capacity and incline/decline technology with the added benefits of being resistant to water and coming with a 2-year warranty.
If you’re looking for a more affordable option, consider the Halo X-Ray, which is good all types of hunting. At under $200, it can fit most bow hunter’s budgets. It boasts a 1000-yard range, a 6x magnification, and incline/decline technology for accurate horizontal distance. This range finder might not have many bells and whistles, but it will serve you well and is a good rangefinder for a more casual bow hunter.
Technology has intersected with and impacted archery like many other modern sports and pastimes. At times, it’s difficult for traditional or long-term athletes to embrace the incorporation of technological advances when it comes to recreational sports.
Technology can appear to be an intrusion on the purity and history of the activity, and archery reflects this resistance in many ways.
Some archers and bowhunters welcome the intersection of technology with the sport. They embrace the newness of gadgets and appreciate the refinement and streamlining of archery generated by technological advancement.
Rangefinders are an excellent example of the impact technology has made and continues to make when it comes to archery. The development of rangefinders has made distance estimation for bowhunters faster, more accurate, and technologically advanced. In turn, rangefinders have significantly improved the accuracy of bowhunter’s shots.
This progress makes rangefinders not only a beneficial but necessary element of bowhunting equipment. Rangefinders are also fairly straightforward when it comes to learning how to use them.
By following the steps of research, understanding operation, and safe and proper usage, bowhunters will become rangefinder experts and incorporate them as necessary bowhunting gear.
I live in Alberta, Canada where I enjoy indoor and 3D archery with traditional bows and compound bows. On this site, I share everything I’ve learned about archery along the way.