Leupold’s Thermal Tracker Detects Down Or Wounded
Game Quickly, Even In Heavy Cover
By Dave Anderson
It’s the nature of technology for electronic devices to get faster, smaller, better and cheaper. I remember when laser sights for firearms first appeared on the market. They were heavy, cumbersome things and cost several thousand dollars. Current laser sights are so compact they add hardly any weight or bulk to the firearm, are far superior in performance, and cost a fraction as much.
We’re seeing the same kind of pattern with thermal imaging technology. Much of the development of thermal imaging was done for military use. Obviously being able to see and engage enemy forces at night is a huge advantage. As a result, when I thought of thermal imaging equipment I associated it primarily as a night-vision, weapon-sighting system.
When Leupold introduced the LTO Tracker I wasn’t sure exactly what it was for. On the plus side here was a thermal imaging device I could actually afford, from a highly respected manufacturer. On the other hand, Leupold stated unequivocally it was not a sighting device. It was promoted as a tool for finding and recovering wounded game, certainly a worthy goal, although I think (I hope!) for most of us the need to follow up wounded game is a rare occurrence.
After using an LTO Tracker daily for a couple of weeks I have a better understanding of the utility of thermal imaging. First I had to get over the idea of it as strictly for night vision. Unlike infrared-based night vision devices, thermal imaging works in daylight as well as in complete darkness.
I knew theoretically how thermal imaging works, but as with many things you really have to try it to understand. For the dozen or so old-timers like me who aren’t quite up to speed, a few thoughts on the technology might be useful—and for those to whom this is old news, I beg your indulgence.
The Leupold LTO Tracker is not an optic. It doesn’t see light, whether part of the visible spectrum or not. You don’t look through it; you look at a screen, not unlike your computer or smart phone screen. The sensors detect heat, not light. They recognize minute differences in the level of heat emitted by objects within the sensors’ field of view. A processor translates each level of heat to a shade of grey, to form an image on the screen.
The Leupold LTO Tracker makes thermal imaging available and affordable. For an old-timer like Dave
who still remembers the introduction of pocket calculators as a marvel, technology continues to astound!
Three buttons access magnification from 1.5X to 6X and enough ways to “see” heat even if you suffer
some color blindness.
Orienting the Tracker with the three control buttons on top, the right-hand button is held down about 3 seconds to turn the unit on or off. With the unit turned on, clicking this button twice activates or turns off a crosshair reticle, about which more later. The Tracker is powered by a single CR-123 battery with a claimed life of 10 hours. If none of the control buttons are used the unit will switch off after 15 minutes.
The Tracker lets you select from 6 “color palette” options by pressing the left button on the unit. For example “White” shows hotter objects as white/light shades of grey, with cooler objects progressively darker. Press the button to change to “Black” and it reverses, with hotter objects dark.
Next as you keep pressing the button come the “Hi-White” and “Hi-Black” palettes, similar to the first two except now the warmer objects appear as yellow/red, getting progressively a deeper shade of red as temperature increases. If you’ve ever seen the movie “Predator” you’ve seen about how it looks. Pretty cool really. Palettes 5 and 6 are all red and all green respectively with warmer objects progressively being lighter shades.
The center button is for digital zoom mode. When the unit is turned on, it defaults to the 1.5X setting. Hold the center button down and the digital zoom moves smoothly up to 6X. You could release the button and stop it at, for example 4.7X. Alternately, pressing and releasing the button increases digital magnification in whole-number steps. To get 1X you have to click to 6X, then one more click.
In terms of locating game animals, the Tracker works best when there is a substantial difference in temperature between the animal and the surrounding terrain. To give an example, from what I read online most mammals have a body temperature in the high 90 degrees F. range. I’ve only been in Africa in July and August and although this is winter there, afternoon temperatures could get to the high 80s, meaning not much difference in temperature between animals and terrain.
A few of a Dave’s neighbor’s cattle, imaged from about 100 yards at the 1.5X setting
at about 2 in the afternoon using the “Hi-White” palette.
Since the LTO Tracker sees heat, not light, you can see things even in heavy brush where
they would not otherwise be visible. This is a fairly large bird, most likely an owl, on
a branch in the middle of thick tree cover and invisible to the eye.
Even with temperatures in the 70 degree F range, dark trees and rocks under direct sunlight get quite warm by midafternoon. Scanning bushes and heavy cover, some individual trees and rocks would stand out. While it’s not hard telling a tree from an animal, a big rock could sometimes resemble an animal lying down.
I got best results after temperatures got to around 50 or 60 degrees. While temperature makes a difference in distinguishing animals from terrain, ambient light does not. If temperatures are the same, the LTO Tracker displays the same image whether it is light or totally dark.
Indoors, late on a very dark night, I tried it with the house lights turned up bright, then switched them off. Even in near-total darkness the image was unchanged. It’s kind of spooky actually.
Over the course of taking some hundreds of big game animals I haven’t had to do much tracking of wounded game. Use enough gun, select a good bullet, learn to shoot well enough in the field to place shots accurately, and they seldom go far. But I can recall incidents where the Tracker would have saved me some anxious moments.
Dave’s prized coffee mug “Old Chippy” is half full of hot coffee, and the palette set
to Hi-Black with the crosshair reticle turned on.
Hunting mule deer one crisp fall day I shot at a buck running up a hill, quartering sharply away at about 90 to 100 yards. I was using a Remington 700 Mountain Rifle in .280 Rem shooting 140-grain Barnes XLC bullets. The buck kept going and was over the crest before I could fire again. I was very confident of the shot, and equally confident the Barnes bullet would reach the chest cavity.
Hurrying to the hill crest, expecting to see the deer close enough for a follow-up shot, I saw instead a 3- or 4-acre patch of brush, less than 3-feet high but very thick. From an elevated position I glassed the brush and the open terrain beyond without seeing the deer.
After a half hour glassing the area with no results I finally did what I should have done to start with—went back to where the deer was when I fired. Immediately I found some cut-off hair, and a thin spray of what looked like bubbly lung blood, indicating the bullet had exited. A light blood trail began about 20 yards further on. I followed it into the brush patch, had to backtrack once or twice where it made sharp turns, and then practically stepped on the buck.
It must have been down and dead within seconds of the shot, and as always when sighting game, once you see it, it’s hard to believe you could have missed it. With the Tracker I’d have found it in minutes. I’d say the best idea is to start using the Tracker promptly, while the light is good. If the game is dead you want to find it before it cools, and if alive you’ll need your rifle to place a finishing shot. While some states allow night hunting of varmints on private land I know of none where night hunting of game is legal.
Although Leupold does not sell the LTO as a sighting device, after clicking on the crosshairs I couldn’t resist attaching the sight to a Ruger 10/22. Tested at 25 yards (in daylight, on the range) point of impact was 5 inches low and left. An adjustable base, or even shimming the base, could get it sighted in fairly close. Leupold warns the LTO Tracker is not a sighting device and is not built to withstand recoil.
But even where night hunting of varmints is legal I’d never use this as a sight. One of the inviolable rules of firearm safety is to be sure of your target—not 99.9 percent sure—100 percent sure. The LTO will show there is an animal, but not whether it is a coyote or your neighbor’s dog. Used for its intended purpose the Tracker is a very useful tool.
Maker: Leupold & Stevens
14400 Northwest Greenbriar Parkway
Beaverton, OR 97006
Thermal Sensor: 206×156
Operating Temperature: -4 degrees F to 140 F
Temperature Detection Range: -40 F to 572 F
Focus: Fixed, 1X-6X digital zoom
Field Of View: 21 degrees
Detection Distance: 600 yards
Display Resolution: 240 x 204 pixels
Startup Time: <3 seconds Frame Rate: 30 Hz
Color Options: 6 palettes
Battery: CR123 (10 hours continuous use)
Length Overall: 5.56 inches
Length Of Main Tube: 1.5 inches
Main tube diameter: 30mm
Weight: 9.9 ounces