How to Choose a Hunting Rangefinder
By Beau Martonik
In my early years, I didn’t have a rangefinder for hunting. At that point, we were just getting into affixing sights onto our bows, so why did we need one? The first iterations of rangefinders I used were so big and bulky that I never wanted to carry them in the woods. I remember my grandfather talking about not needing sights or a rangefinder when I was a kid, and he was right. Of course, you don’t need any of that technology, but knowing your range will undoubtedly make you a more ethical and lethal hunter. There have been incredible advances in technology as a whole in hunting, and rangefinders are a great example of this. They've become one of my most essential tools in my toolbox.
What is the Best Hunting Rangefinder?
Laser rangefinders for hunting come in various sizes and have many features, but what do you NEED? Here's my shortlist of features that I look for in a hunting rangefinder.
Without a doubt, one of the most valuable features in today’s laser-based hunting rangefinders is angle compensation. If all we ever hunted was perfectly flat or level terrain, there would be no need for angle compensation in a hunting rangefinder. However, the reality is that you are rarely on the same level as the animal you are pursuing. Whether you are in a tree stand, elk hunting in the mountains, or putting a stalk on a big buck in the basin below you, there is an elevation difference. The elevation change can create a false reading for shooting with a bow or rifle. Angle compensation will calculate the difference in elevation and give you the correct reading as if you were shooting on flat ground. Without angle compensation, you can be off more than you think.
For a 50-yard straight-line-distance to your target at a 45-degree angle, you'll need to shoot for 35 yards. That’s the difference between a great shot and an embarrassing miss.
This example will be more relevant to rifle hunters: on a 30-degree angle slope with a line-of-sight shot distance of 500 yards, you'll need to shoot for 433 yards. That is a significant difference! Without angle compensation, your shot would be off, causing you to either miss the animal or wound it.
I used to think I didn’t need a rangefinder that could get an accurate range over 900 yards. Why would I? I wasn’t planning on shooting that far with a rifle, let alone my bow. The truth is that the further the effective range, the better the optical quality. The difference is in the quality more so than the power. The sensors of rangefinders that are effective out to 4,500 yards, such as the Maven RF.1, operate better in low light conditions and have fewer false readings than some of their counterparts. This will benefit close ranges, especially as you stretch out the distance.
Note: always use caution when reading the manufacturer’s specifications for effective range. Many companies only list the effective range at a reflective target, which will be drastically different on a live animal and will not translate into tangible experiences.
Performance in Brush and Precipitation
Hunting rangefinders need to perform in less than ideal conditions. I can’t think of a deer season or elk hunt where I didn’t encounter inclement weather. Quality rangefinders can ignore snow and rain while focusing on the target for an accurate range. Unfortunately, many rangefinders will not work in these conditions. Being able to filter out brush, leaves, trees, bushes, etc., are critical components of the best hunting laser rangefinders. It’s a rare occurrence in the Appalachian Mountains of Pennsylvania not to have a branch or leaves between you and the deer.
Filtering and Focus
"Quality rangefinders can ignore snow and rain while focusing on the target for an accurate range."
Having the ability to switch between a hunting rangefinder’s obstruction filtering and being able to focus on small, hard-to-hit targets while ignoring larger objects in the background will be more critical to long-range shooters. To take it a step further, this functionality is also vital to archery hunters planning stalks. For example, if you see a buck bedded across the ridge, you can range him and mark a waypoint in a GPS hunting app.
Functionality and Ease of Use
For most hunters, rangefinders are a tool that we pick up, hit a button, and expect to work. We don’t care about every minute feature or setting that it can do. However, reticle brightness is essential outside of angle compensation and obstruction filtering. I remember this being the most significant pain point for me with my last rangefinder. When it was bright and sunny outside, I could barely see my reticle or yardage indicator. At the same time, you don’t want your reticle too bright, making it challenging to use outside in low-light conditions.
Most hunting rangefinders can adjust brightness only by pushing buttons and scrolling through menu options. However, the Maven RF.1 rangefinder has a well-placed dial on the left side of the body, making it simple to adjust on the fly with a quick flick of your thumb.
While this isn't a rangefinder feature per se, it's an important consideration. Even the best devices with the most sophisticated range-finding technology can encounter problems, especially given the rigors that we as hunters can expose our gear to. It's a complex computer after all, and if you put it through its paces, it's quite possible for accidents to happen and for things to break down. A good warranty is something that helps ease my mind before I throw down my hard-earned dollar on a premium rangefinder.
Using Your Rangefinder for Hunting
Ultimately, choosing a hunting rangefinder can be a painless process if you know what to look for. Buying a quality laser rangefinder will be an investment, one that will pay off at the most critical times and provide years of usage. Whichever model you choose, however, be sure to practice with it regularly so you can take each shot with confidence.
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