Distance Judging Tips

Distance Judging Tips

If you ask any seasoned archer what their top challenges are, estimating yardage will invariably be near the top. Also, if you notice who is winning your local 3D tournaments and leagues as well as on the state and national level, you will notice they have one thing in common: excellent yardage judging skills. Of course you must also have a high level of skill in putting the sight where you want to hit and releasing so that the arrow hits the intended mark, but if you haven’t picked the correct distance in the first place, it is all for naught.

When I first began my archery career in earnest, I became a fairly competent shot in a short amount of time, at least in my mind. I was on top of the world when I could go out and shoot and put every arrow in the 4 or 5 ring at 20 yards and thought that I had “made it” and was a full-blown shooter!

What a humbling experience it was the first time I stepped onto our local unmarked 3D range and proceeded to send arrows above and below the targets with alarming regularity. I had assumed since I was decent enough of a distance judge to bring down ducks and pheasants with a shotgun, or shoot a deer with a rifle, that I was good to go with shooting arrows at unknown distances. Boy was I wrong!

I absolutely cannot stress enough the need to practice yardage judging if you hunt or shoot at unmarked distances. Especially in hunting situations, it is absolutely critical that you can accurately judge distances in order to make an accurate and ethical kill shot. My experience from talking to hunters is that a large portion of wounded animals is caused by improperly judging the distance to the intended target.

Not only must a bowhunter accurately judge yardage, but they also must often do it very quickly and under adverse conditions. It’s one thing to be able to take your time with a target in plain view, with no obstacles in between and judge the yardage properly; it’s completely another to have to look at a moving elk across a shadow filled ravine with the sun in your face.

If you want to be the best archer and/or bowhunter possible, want to make ethical kill shots and have the best chance of hitting that 12 ring, PRACTICE, PRACTICE then PRACTICE some more!

Yardage judging practice tips and hints
I have been fortunate to have been taught by several different people how to judge yardage using a variety of methods. There are some people that are innately good at judging yardage; some bordering on near-laser beam accurate. However, I am not one of these people! Life has blessed (cursed!) me with the lack of a dominate eye and thus my depth perception is somewhat suspect at times and judging yardage is something that I have to work at.

The “Gut Feel”

Steep inclines can be very deceptive!
Some people can simply look at an object and guess it’s distance. It is something built into their natural abilities. One fellow I have often shot 3D with stands out in my mind. He can walk up to the shooting stake, look at the target for a few seconds, pull up and drill the center nearly every time. I have asked him how he can so easily and accurately judge yardage and his reply is “I don’t know, I just do it.” Talk about make me green with envy!

After years of shooting I have somewhat developed this talent to a point where it is the very first thing I do when I look at my intended target, be it foam or flesh. Instinct and natural ability are powerful things, and can often be your most reliable asset. While I may not be pinpoint accurate with this method, it is always the first thing I do and then I usually back it up with a different method.

The Walk-Up

This is a very common method and one of the best to practice with and use when time permits. The basic method is to be sufficient good at picking out an object between you and the target, at a distance that you can always judge accurately. Usually this means finding something at 10 or 20 yards (or whatever you are comfortable with) and then repeating that distance until you get to the target.

For example, I may walk up to a shooting stake and see a bedded doe target that I first “gut feel” to be about 35 yards away. Then I find a landmark, a bush or weed or rock, that I know is 20 yards away because I have practiced the 20 yard distance so much that I can almost always nail it. Next I look for something that is 10 yards beyond that first mark, and so forth until I have crept up to the target.

Generally speaking this is easier for most people because they are able to take a large task and break it down into smaller bits. I find that for me, this is the most accurate method to use when time permits.

Sizing the Target

doe in trees
Big doe or little doe? Big tree or little tree? Tough to tell!
While somewhat similar to the gut-feel method, the sizing method relies on your ability to gauge distance by looking at relative sizes. I find that this method is very useful for shooting at objects that are of known sizes, especially 3D targets. After having shot nearly every 3d target made dozens or hundreds of times, I have gained a certain feel for the size of the target and thus how far away it is.

For example, the small axis deer 3D target is going to look different in an open field than the mule deer buck. By realizing how different sized targets look at different distances, it is possible to use this information to help determine the exact distance. This is a bit tougher on live animals, but with practice it is possible.

Arrow travel time

This method was introduced to me by a crafty older fellow that had a rough time gauging distance because of his poor eyesight. When shooting with other people, he would quickly key in on how long their arrows took to travel to the target and used this information to help judge the distance for his own shot. At first I thought he was full of it, but after trying it myself I found that I could hear the difference from release to impact at different distances and use that information for my benefit.

Of course this method only works when shooting in groups and when it isn’t your turn to shoot first. However, on some tricky shots where judging is tough, using your hearing can give you some very valuable information and can make a big difference.

Things that make it tough!
downhill creek bed
Shadows, creek bed and lots of obstacles!
There are many things that can take an easy-to-judge target and make it extremely difficult to get right. My biggest bane is probably shadows that lay between me and the target, or that shade just the target or just my position. Light can play funny tricks on the mind and understanding how shadows change your perception of depth is very important. Generally speaking, heavy shadows will tend to make most people believe that the target is farther than it really is, though I know people that have the opposite reaction.

Large objects such as trees, rocks or even hillsides can really mess with your judging abilities. These objects can not only hide part of the intended target, but can also distort your view of the target’s size.

Another thing that many people struggle with is elevation changes. This can mean shooting uphill or downhill, but it can also mean shooting at something at the same height, with a ravine, gully or stream bed in between. The change in height adds another element to the guessing game, especially considering that the archer must judge the pure horizontal distance, not the actual distance in order to get the arrow to fly true.

One more obstacle that I have had the pleasure of shooting over on occasion is water, especially water with reflections of objects, or worse, the sun. Water has a tendency to really distort your perception of distance and can cause all sorts of issues.

So why bring up all these negative? Because every archer needs to understand how to overcome any and every issue possible.

How to practice distance judging to become a better archer and bowhunter
Sunset lake
Beautiful…and murder on judging the distance across!
Of course nearly everyone will agree that the best way to become better at something is to practice at it, and practice a lot. But often people are left scratching there heads as to the best way to practice.

When I was learning to judge yardage, I began with the basics. Judging objects in the open on flat ground and then stepping them off. This of course necessitated practicing my stride which I did by laying a tape measure in the back yard and pacing back and forth until I got it right.

This was great practice, but not of much real use in the real world where things are rarely set up perfectly. To make it to the next step, you have to move to judging objects with all of the above stated obstacles and at every conceivable distance possible.

It is very possible to walk into the woods, pick out an object, judge its distance then pace off the distance to see how close your number was. However, one of the best purchases I swore that I would never make was a range finder. This has increased my practice session effectiveness at least fivefold. I will walk into a good area, pick out three to four objects, judge the distance, then hit them all with the range finder to see how close I was.

One of the greatest benefits of this method is that if I am wrong, I can bring the range finder down and figure out where I went wrong without moving. I can also use the range finder to test my walk-up method by checking the objects I picked at 20, 30, etc. yards. If you don’t have a range finder and mis-judge a distance, walk back to the beginning. It is always worth the extra time to get it right.

I highly recommend taking the time to do nothing but go out and practice judging yardage in areas similar to where you will be shooting. Pick the object(s), judge the distance, find the actual distance by either stepping off or using a range finder, then either congratulate yourself for getting it right or figure out where you went wrong.

The biggest mistake you can make is the misjudge and object’s distance then just move on to the next object. Take the time, figure out where you went wrong and why (Did the shadow deceive you? Was there a tree in the way? Or did you simply rush your judgement?) Pick hard things to judge, look for obstacles and learn how they affect your vision and your ability to judge. If you consistently over-judge anything in a shadow, learn from it and use that information the next time.

There is no such thing as too much practice judging distance. Everyone can always use more practice and in the end it will only benefit you. Practice as you are walking into work, hiking to your favorite fishing spot or jogging along that river trail. There are always opportunities to practice; use them to your benefit!