By Tony Martins
If you’ve ever dreamed about having Superhuman or even “Predator” vision, the LTO-Tracker thermal imager deserves a place on your wish list.
It was easy to overlook Leupold’s LTO-Tracker when I ran across it for the first time at the 2017 SHOT Show. Only 5.6 inches long and weighing less than 10 ounces, its size and shape resemble a flashlight, and I must admit that my initial impression of this small thermal imaging optic was lukewarm. And, since we’re being entirely honest here, let’s note that I accepted the assignment to field test and review the LTO-Tracker with little of my usual enthusiasm. Now, just imagine my surprise (and delight) when the little device proved its worth the first time out in the field!
After familiarizing myself with the controls – which are admirably simple – I tested it on my pack of Labrador retrievers during an early evening hike through the woods. The 6x digital zoom option and palette of six different thermal display choices were interesting, though not inspiring. Nevertheless committed to a proper and thorough test, I placed the unit in a pocket of my Hunter Safety System harness, with plans to use it during the upcoming early archery deer season in Arizona. Opening morning while hiking to my treestand, I quickly learned that I could follow both gravel road and narrow brush-choked trail in the total darkness using only the imager… not bad. I typically follow a forest boundary fenceline the final 100+ yards, where elk and wild horses have startled me (and vise versa) exploding from their beds in prior seasons. On this occasion the Tracker revealed two deer an estimated 60-70 yards ahead, moving in the same direction I was heading. Without the imager, I would certainly have spooked those deer, and this could have been a costly mistake so close to my stand. Nice! Consequently, I backtracked and looped around through the woods instead of following the fenceline. On approaching my stand the Tracker’s tiny display screen lit up. Standing at the base of my tree – as if guarding it – were 2 tons of beef, with sharply pointed horns!
This incident immediately reminded me of a potentially life-threatening situation 3 years earlier. Three or four branch antlered bull elk were hanging around my stand location. Apparently spooked as I approached in the darkness, they bolted down the narrow trail through the dense foliage directly at me. Fortunately they split at a small bushy pine I ducked behind, thundering past on both sides so close that I could have touched them. Whew! The LTO-Tracker would have alerted me to their presence, most likely in time to avoid danger. Who knew that a few years later Leupold would invent a device to help hunters locate and recover game that could actually be a lifesaver…?
The Tracker uses state-of-the-art thermal technology to quickly measure and display a heat signature by differentiating it from the temperature of the surrounding air. It’s functional in a variety of environments and temperatures, thanks to the six different user-selectable color filters that display subjects in red, green, white hot, black hot, white-highlight or black-highlight. The thermal signature features multicolor highlights with the white- and black-highlight filters, and higher/brighter intensity with all the filters. And, because the Tracker registers heat instead of creating an image from reflected infrared light like most night vision devices, it functions in broad daylight as well as in the dark. Make no mistake however, thermal imaging works best in nighttime coolness. The device will register temperatures from minus-40 up to 572 degrees Fahrenheit, with a recommended operating temperature range of minus-4 to 140 degrees. Leupold claims detection distance to 600 yards, but after using the unit for several weeks, I suspect that must be for subjects the size of an elephant or maybe a raging bonfire! The LCD screen provides good optical clarity with its 240×204 pixel resolution. However, a human-size form 100 yards distant will register as just a few pixels wide and a few more tall on the Tracker’s 1.22-inch diameter, round display. For comparison, an iPhone 7 screen is 1334 by 740 pixels. Although the screen is uncomfortably small for oldster’s eyes like mine, youngsters that have spent a considerable portion of their lives looking at 3.5 x 2.5-inch smartphone screens shouldn’t have any problem with the Tracker’s tiny display.
The LTO-Tracker offers a display palette of 6 different color filters to enhance image viewing in a variety of lighting conditions.
Since fatally wounded predators will often hide in a hole, or bush-up in vegetation, my hunting partner and I thought hunting these varmints would put the LTO-Tracker to the test. Unfortunately, we were unable to bag a predator during several evening attempts while carrying the Tracker. One morning on the way to my treestand however, I noticed an unusually bright glow emanating from the end of a corrugated metal pipe that connected bar ditches on each side of an intersecting gravel road. Turns out, there was a skunk in the pipe. The following morning in the 4:30 AM darkness this polecat greeted me with tail raised as I passed the entrance to its tubular hideout. Thankfully, the Tracker provided ample advance warning of the potential problem waiting ahead. Based on this experience, I have no doubt that this device can help hunters locate those difficult to find predators, as well as game animals both large and small.
Using the Leupold LTO-Tracker is quite simple – good news for those of us who read directions only as a last resort! Three buttons are positioned across the top of the larger, viewer display end of the unit. The button on the right toggles on/off – press it and the Tracker powers up in about 3 seconds. It will also power down after 15 minutes of inactivity. The left button controls the color palette display, and the unit remembers its last color setting on subsequent power up. The middle button controls the digital zoom, which displays 1.5x on start up, and I find this to be the most frequently used zoom setting. Each click of this middle button increases magnification in a sequential loop – from 1.5x to 2x, 3x, 4x, 5x, 6x, 1x, and then back to 1.5x. You can also hold this button down and zoom continuously in 0.1x increments, up to the 6x max. The 21-degree field-of-view seems appropriate for its intended use, and the 30 Hz refresh rate of the FastFrame LCD screen is sufficient to fool the human eye so imaging appears to be continuous.
The first thing you notice on handling the LTO-Tracker is that it feels solid, just like a Leupold riflescope. The outer shell is machined from aircraft aluminum, and the golden ring unit is built in the U.S.A. Waterproofing makes it safe to use in wet weather conditions, and it’s covered by Leupold’s 5-year electronics warranty. A single CR123 battery (included) powers the Tracker for up to 10 hours of continuous use. With intermittent use, I’m sure that mine has logged more than 10 hours of run time to date, and it’s still going strong. Although the optic is not recommended for mounting on a rifle, Leupold engineers have built-in an interesting feature – double-click the right on/off button and a crosshair appears on the display! This begs the question of whether the Tracker will evolve into a thermal rifle optic, especially with a 30mm main tube that fits mounting hardware available for conventional optics. One annoying negative: The LTO-Tracker comes without a protective case. Considering the price of this optic – $909.99 MSRP, $699.99 at 1800GunsAndAmmo.com – you might expect that a padded case of sorts would be included. Nope. Wanting to protect my unit, I remedied this problem with an inexpensive flashlight case from NEBO (about $4.00) with convenient belt clip.
Possibly the most interesting thing about the LTO-Tracker is that the more you use it, the more uses you find for it. For example: The majority of my big game hunting takes place in the west on public land, where stealth can provide an advantage. I don’t want other hunters to know where I’m at, or where I’m going in the pre-dawn darkness. Thus, I typically move about without using a flashlight or headlamp. The Tracker is ideal in this application, as it highlights trails and warns of potential dangers, like obstacles and animals, without alerting other hunters in competition for game and/or prime observation positions. Besides the intended uses of observing and tracking game, following are some additional applications for the LTO-Tracker:
- Avoid spooking game while traveling to a stand or blind in darkness
- Identification of target and non-target animals in low light and darkness
- Scan food plots and water holes incognito without artificial/visible light
- Locate nocturnal nuisance animals like wild hogs, raccoon & opossum
- Locate squirrels hiding in hardwood trees even during daylight hours
- Locate spots where target animals have recently bedded
- Dogs & Skunks – My hunting dogs occasionally tangle with a skunk in our unfenced yard when let out of the house at night to pee. There’s nothing worse than a skunked dog bolting into the house and diving into its bed on the den floor. I now scan the yard carefully with the Tracker before letting the dogs out!
Battery replacement is simple – loosen the locknut until the display separates from the body and tilt display up to remove battery. Install new battery with positive contact in, close display and tighten locknut.
PERSONAL SAFETY & SECURITY APPLICATIONS
While thermal imaging for sportsmen is in its comparative infancy, the technology has been used extensively by the military and law enforcement. One reviewer reminded that it was thermal imaging that located the Boston Marathon Bomber hiding in a sailboat. And while you may never be involved in a terrorist search (thankfully!), there are more common situations where a thermal imager like the LTO-Tracker can provide security and some personal safety assurance at a fraction of the cost of commercial devices. Following are a few of these situations:
- Identify and differentiate the source of nighttime noises around the home, like the neighbor’s cat vs. a two-legged intruder
- Scan a poorly lit parking lot or dark parking garage before proceeding
- Pinpoint the location of people or animals obscured by smoke or fog
- Location of potentially dangerous sources of heat, like chemical reactants or overheated electrical wires/components
- Identification of concealed weapons hidden under clothing (metal displays black on the imager)
As noted earlier, the more you use the LO-Tracker, the more uses you find for it. Here are a couple of handy applications around the home:
- Detection of wintertime heat leaks around windows and doors
- Identify how recently a vehicle was driven – here’s an example of how this one may be useful for parents:
Dad: Morning Junior. Say, what time did you get in last night?
Junior: Morning Pop… guess it was around midnight.
Dad: You sure it wasn’t later?
Junior: Could’ve been a little later…
Dad: Really? Well it’s 6:30 AM, 40-degrees outside, and my LTO-Tracker shows your engine and brakes are still red hot – you’re busted mister!