Tips for Estimating Distance Without a Rangefinder

A quality rangefinder is a valuable tool for outdoorsmen and can help you take more ethical shots as a bowhunter.

And while being able to judge yardage without technology is a valuable skill, some outdoorsmen struggle with depth perception and have to rely on laser rangefinders.

If you typically hunt the same few spots, you can range several trees — or a fence post, shrub, etc. — near each treestand site for reference. Remember these, and you’ll be able to wing it, even if you forget your rangefinder now and then.

But for days when you forget to take your rangefinder to a completely new spot or it just isn’t properly ranging in rainy, foggy conditions, you can still take steps to estimate fairly accurate distances.

You can walk off the distance from your treestand to particular yardages. Stepping heel-to-toe will equate to about a foot per step, or you can count full strides as approximately one yard. Count your steps, do the math, and either make a mental note or make some type of mark so you’ll have a reference point when a deer walks in.

When estimating distances from your treestand, start with identifying a tree, rock, or other spot you believe is 10 yards away. Then work from there in 10-yard increments to more accurately estimate distances that are farther away. You’ll likely come up with much closer guesstimates this way. 

If you’re using a multi-pin sight, you should be able to use your pins to help you judge range as well. Take note of how deer, your target, and trees look size-wise compared to your various pins at different distances and use this info later in the field. 

But probably the best way to estimate distance without a rangefinder Is to prepare for this situation ahead of time with practice. Move around and guess the distance to your target from each spot before confirming with your rangefinder. And don’t just do this in your flat, open backyard. If you’re mainly hunting from a treestand in timber, do this same exercise in the woods or at a 3D shoot. Using targets that are true-to-size of the species you’ll be bowhunting will help you master this skill too.

13 thoughts on “Tips for Estimating Distance Without a Rangefinder”

  1. BowBully,

    Your thumb at arm’s length is all you really need to estimate distance to prey within a yard/meter. You also need to know the average size of your prey. At the distances bow, sling, spear (Javelin), discus, slingshot, blowgun, or boomerang hunting occurs you will be shocked at how well works.

    Saves a great deal of pacing things off!


    • shootski,
      “Your thumb at arm’s length…”
      Are you thinking of the thumb-jump method they taught us in Boy Scouts? Here’s a link with a nice lay-out:

      Or were you thinking of the body-ruler method where you look at the length of the space obscured by your thumb (or little finger or fist…).

      Both methods work, but:
      (a) Both require you to estimate the lengths of objects in the distance, or to memorize the length of reference objects (a large car is about 5 m long, etc.). Out in the woods, well-defined reference objects may be hard to come by.. Another skill to learn.
      (b) Both need personal calibration. For example, the thumb-jump method descriptions say, estimate the distance your thumb moved and multiply by 10. But when I measure the distances on my own body, I come up with 8 or 8 1/2. This is easy to check with some measured objects and distances..

      Neat stuff. As the first website says, “math is fun.”

      • Guy Carden,

        I had both of those bookmarked since I have two grandsons that Grandpa gets to entertain with the everyday value of Maths. There are a few books that teach all manner of woodcraft techniques; many being Mathematics based.
        I learned a number of systems and also have used my MILDOT reticles for range finding ever since being given my first Radium powered one from Premiere Reticles many decades ago. Size of the object of course was key and essential in using a ranging reticle.

        Fun stuff.


        • shootski,
          Yes, fun stuff.

          Which methods have you found most useful? For other readers, what techniques have you found useful?

          I can’t make a good comparison because I’ve used almost exclusively the thumb-jump method, mostly because I never bothered to work out and memorize the numbers for the human ruler technique,.


  2. The Bow Bully,
    My friend who set me up with my first compound bow also worked in the same place I did. Even though our shop was in a citified area, we needed an antenna range, so we had about 70 acres of woods on the company property. So, at lunchtime, we’d go out and walk the woods; and Efrem would point to something, like a rock or tree, and ask, “How far?” I’d make a guess, then he’d shoot the actual range with his laser rangefinder; but before he told me the actual distance, he’d have me pace it off (not knowing the distance would allow me to use a more natural pace). I got to be pretty good on the flat, especially in the parking lot, LOL! But in the woods, and throwing in elevation, made things a bit more tricky. 😉
    Keep up the good work,

  3. I had an old sniper book and there were many simple but effective methods how to estimate. Unfortunately I can’t find this book any more. I try to find it and will share it. There was a great technic using thumb to estimate. I forgot everything, pitty.

      • Fully agree, it was a sniper technique to estimate range so in general not for airgun / crossbow shooting. Nevertheless it is almost always based on size relation between objects. It is not easy to estimate the range on the sea for example. Usually it is underestimated.

  4. TBB,

    Found that using “numbers” can be a real confusion when taking a shot – too much distraction: estimating the range then deciding which pin or what hold over/under to use. Shooting should be a fluid motion with the focus being on the spot where you want the arrow to hit.

    When I still used a sight I would set it up to give me the best “point blank range” for the trajectory and set the second “range finder “pin to bracket a deer’s chest at that range. By “point blank range” I mean the range at which the arrow will hit within an acceptable tolerance without having to compensate for the trajectory.

    Setup like this, knowing the amount of feet, yards or meters is not important because you now have an analog scale to work with. The range to the target is: CLOSE (0-3 yards) – arrow will hit below the line of sight rising to Near Zero crossover; POINT BLANK RANGE (3-25ish yards where the arrow will hit close enough to point of aim with nocompensation) – arrow is rising from Near Zero to Mid Range (highest point in the trajectory) and dropping through the Far Zero to lowest acceptable (uncompensated) impact point; and FAR where compensation for trajectory is required.

    The “point blank range” is determined by the size of the kill zone, the trajectory and the skill of the shooter. A plus 2 or 3 inch tolerance (at Mid Range) is typical and will result in a lethal hit on a deer out to 25 yards.

    I have always felt that the first (most critical) sight pin should be setup to suit the trajectory – not some arbitrarily distance measured in feet, yards or meters.

    So a deer shows up. You check the chest with the range-finder gap and the he is within the “point blank range” draw and shoot at the kill zone if not, wait or let him walk. For most people 25 yards is the maximum effective range they should shoot at anyway – “numbers” are not required 🙂

    For those who can group their arrows consistently enough to justify additional sight pins, yeah a range-finder is very useful to have 🙂


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