How to Choose a Rangefinder for Bowhunting: Features to Consider
In the post, we'll discuss just about everything you'll need to know in order to choose the right rangefinder for your next bowhunting expedition. We wrote a pretty detailed post about our top picks for bowhunting rangefinders, and in this post, we'll discuss some helpful tips on how to choose a rangefinder, how to use specific features your rangefinder may have, and how to incorporate all that knowledge into a hunt. We'll start with an important feature:
Maximum Distance—The Actual Range Capabilities of Your Rangefinder
One of the main features that separate basic rangefinders from high-end rangefinders is the actual distance it can measure. Basic rangefinders usually have a measuring capability of about 500 yards or less, whereas high-end models can range distances of over a mile. That's pretty amazing, if you think about it.
So what's the right range for you? How far will you need your rangefinder to range? Here's where it helps to understand the type of bow hunting / rifle hunting you'll be doing, and where you'll be doing it.
If you'll be hunting over short distances, or from tree stands, or in thick forest / brush where you won't be able to see very far, a basic model that can only measure a few hundred yards can be perfectly adequate. If you don't need to scope a mile out, there's no need to get a model that allows you that capability, and plenty of bow hunters do just fine with a medium-distance rangefinder that meets their needs.
If, however, you'll be hunting in wide open spaces, glassing game from afar, and requiring a tool that allows you to see far off in to the distance in order to even spot game, then a higher-end model with an extended range capability can be very helpful. It depends on where you'll be hunting, and the environment you'll be hunting in.
Two Things to Remember About Advertised Maximum Distance...
There are two things we should mention before we move on, because we've noticed a lot of new hunters—and even a lot of veteran hunters—have some misunderstandings about what manufacturers actually mean when they talk about a rangefinder's maximum distance:
1) When a manufacturer says, "Our product has a range of 1,000 yards!" what they usually mean is, "Under perfect circumstances, on a cloudless day, with absolutely no airborne pollutants, when you're operating the rangefinder with accuracy and precision, and everything else you could imagine is also perfect, our product has a range of 1,000 yards." It's not that their marketing is untruthful—rangefinders are usually *capable* of ranging their advertised distances—it's that very often, the actual range of your rangefinder in the field may be a little less than what is advertised, and that's to be expected. It doesn't mean your unit isn't necessarily damaged or unusable—in fact, it might be operating exactly how it's supposed to operate—and if it's getting the job done, excellent. It's just that field conditions—haze, humidity/fog in the air, snow, pollution, or literally anything else—may hamper the rangefinder's ability. If it's dramatically less than the range advertised, then that might be an issue, and you may want to follow up with the manufacturer to see what's going on.
2) Your rangefinder will usually be able to range different objects with different clarity, and usually the split is between larger/reflective surfaces and game. Many companies actually note the difference in ability, and will specifically say in their marketing material, "This rangefinder can accurately measure distance to trees and reflective surfaces up to 1,000 yards, and medium- to large-sized game up to 500 yards." Rangefinders are usually able to track game anywhere from a third to half the advertised maximum range. This is *very* important to keep in mind, because while you can range anything... well, most bow hunters primarily care about ranging game, and not much else.
Accuracy, aka "Plus-or-Minus" Distance
You may see that a lot of rangefinders discuss how accurate they are, and most basic models are accurate to +/- 1 yard—or "plus-or-minus" one yard, meaning, the rangefinder will be accurate within a single yard, so if it displays that your game is 75 yards away from you, your game may actually be anywhere from 74 yards to 76 yards away from you. Higher-end rangefinders are a little more accurate, and some can tell you within .1 yard how far your game is from you (and those would be +/- .1 yard)—obviously, a lot more accurate.
So what do you need? That depends. If you're taking shots at 25 yards or closer, that +/- 1 yard discrepancy *may* not be a big deal—because most bow hunting is done within 25 yards, and most high-poundage compound bows shoot arrows that don't fall too much before travelling 25 yards, that +/1 yard may not lead to any inaccuracy. As you take longer shots, however—like that shot at 75 yards—a +/- 1 yard variation can mean the difference between a hit and a miss. As with most gear related to bow hunting, knowing the types of shots you'll be taking can help you determine the type of gear you'll need.
Angle Compensation (Which Goes by a Lot of Names)
The "angle compensation" feature is an incredibly useful tool, and almost all of the picks in our “best rangefinders for bow hunting” discussion have some sort of angle compensation technology. If you're taking shots from an elevated position—either from a hill downwards at game, or from a tree stand downwards at game—it can save you a lot of time trying to do calculations in your head.
As you may have remembered from the classes you needed to take when you first got your hunting/bow hunting license, when you're shooting at game from an elevated position, you need to aim using your horizontal distance from your target, and not your actual distance from your target (and if you don't know what these terms mean, take a look at our post titled "Actual Distance vs. Horizontal Distance"). Basic rangefinders will give you the actual distance from your target—and if you'll be shooting at your target from flat ground, and at the same level as your target—that may be all you need. But if you'll be shooting at game from an elevated angle, it can be helpful to get a rangefinder that will display your horizontal distance from your target.
Every manufacturer that makes rangefinders has a different name for the angle compensation feature. On Bushnell models, it's usually called the ARC—Angle Range Compensation—feature; on Nikon models, it's usually called the ID—Include/Decline—feature. Halo has AI—Angle Intelligence. They're basically the same thing, and they're talking about technology that calculate the horizontal distance to your target, in order to help you aim properly.
If you just read all that and you have no idea what we're talking about, check out that "Actual Distance vs. Horizontal Distance" section—it may clear things up a bit.
The Viewfinder Display Screen
Most viewfinders display a "crosshairs" image in their viewfinder, so you can accurately focus in on a target, along with a number that pops up when you home in on your target. Some rangefinders have a number of different icons they display, from the time, to the battery life, to the mode you're using, etc.
One thing you may want to look for when it comes to display is the color of the display figures. Many rangefinders display numbers and figures in black, which is great during the daytime and in bright conditions, but not great if you're doing early morning / early evening / low light hunting. You may be able to make out those figures, but depending on how dark it gets, you may not. If you plan on ranging where there's not much light, you may want to look into a rangefinder that displays red figures (or a color other than black).
Size and Weight of the Unit
In our humble opinion, this isn't the biggest deal. Most rangefinders are very small, and most are in the same basic size range, where you can hold the machine in your hand. Higher-end units tend to be very small, and some of the more basic options may be a little larger.
As for weight, it seems like most rangefinders weigh in under a pound, with many of them weighing less than three-quarters of a pound.
Scan Mode / Scanning Mode
Scan mode allows you to push a button on the rangefinder, and while you have the button pushed down, you can scan across an entire landscape and the rangefinder will flash out the distance of every item it scans. It's a great feature if you're looking at a complicated or "busy" landscape, and you need to find a particular target. Older rangefinders didn't always have this functionality—you had to find something, push the button, and then the rangefinder would tell you the distance of that particular object—so the scan feature can be a nice improvement.
Scan mode, as you might have guessed, is usually based on the "fanciness" of the model you get. Some basic models may not have scan mode, or may have it only for a couple of seconds at a time, when you push down the button, while higher-end models may have a "constant scan" feature, that allows you to put it at whatever you like, for as long as you like, and get distance readings for everything you see.
"Priority" Modes for Partially Obstructed Targets
This feature is a little bit like angle compensation, because different manufacturers have different names for the functionality, but the premise is that rangefinders are usually accurate when there's nothing between you and your target (like a still deer standing 200 yards away in an open field), but can be a little inaccurate when there's something between you and your target (like a still deer standing 200 yards away partially obscured by tall grass or brush). Those types of impediments—grasses, thicket, brush, twigs, and so on, the kind of things you'll run into hunting—can sometimes scramble the readings, so rangefinder manufacturers developed a technology that can help it measure targets that are partially obstructed by certain items.
As we mentioned, different rangefinders have different names for this feature, but Nikon, for example, has "first priority" mode and "distance priority" mode, and you can toggle between modes as you need them. If have a Nikon with priority modes and you're ranging something that is unimpeded, you can view it through the "first priority" mode; if you have a Nikon with priority modes and you're viewing something that may be impeded by grass or thicket or brush, you can switch to "distance priority" mode for a more accurate reading.
As you'd also imagine, "no frills" rangefinders don't usually have priority modes, and fancy-pants models may have it.
Many rangefinders have a function that allows you to magnify a target that you're ranging. If you're staring at a deer in the distance, but you can't tell if it's a male or a female, you can hit "magnify" to zoom in on it / click in on it and see if you can get a more complete picture. A very useful feature, but it does have a downside: it reduces your field of view (F.O.V.) a little bit. If you focus in on a particular object in your viewfinder, you'll see less of the area around it. That's a bummer, but the feature is still very helpful.
Most rangefinders have magnification capabilities between 4x (which is about average, in our experience) to 6x (which seems to be common on most higher-end models) to 8x (which is pretty rare, at present). The right feature for your hunting practice, like most features we discuss, can only be determined by your personal needs: if you'll be ranging targets nearby, you may not need anything more than 4x magnification. If you'll be glassing open vistas and ranging animals very far from you, more powerful magnification can be a worthwhile tool.
Waterproof vs. Water-Resistant
Something to keep an eye out for: some models are waterproof—meaning, you can submerge them in water, and they'll be fine—while others are water-resistant, meaning that you can use them in the rain and the fog, but if they get seriously wet, they'll cease functioning.
Look at your environment—if you'll be hunting in very dry locations, it may not be a big deal. If you will be hunting in torrential downpours, or are accident-prone and find yourself dropping gear into lakes and rivers, maybe it's something to consider.
Add-Ons, Extras, and Parts
These are the type of things you don't think about until you don't have them: cases (many rangefinders come with a case, or a cover for the front end of the unit), straps or lanyards (that allow you to drape the rangefinder around your neck, so you can retrieve it easily), rechargeable batteries, and so on. They're nice to have, but usually, we look to find the unit we need, and supplement any parts they're missing. Obviously, though, up to you.
That's About it for Rangefinder Features!
If you've read all this, congratulations! Hopefully you're well-equipped with the knowledge you'll need to select the right rangefinder for your needs. Good luck, be safe, and happy ranging!