How Do Golf Rangefinders Work? Are They An Essential?

Accuracy and distance control has become part and parcel of the game of golf. Distance markers on the course are generally found at intervals of fifty yards from the green up to the 200-yard mark.

This is not sufficient for experienced golfers that require precision to assist in a club and shot selection. Experienced golfers require accuracy to within one yard to select the correct club and calculate whether to hit a full shot or three-quarter shot.

Even beginners that have not dialed in their distance control to the same measure as experienced golfers require more accurate information than what is available on the- golf course. Yes, it can be measured in a number of steps but that is not quite as accurate as a range finder.

The introduction of range finders has made this possible and is a necessity in your bag, whether for the driving range or on the course. This enables you to get accurate distances and tweak your swing to hit the distance with various clubs. Having the ability to hit a distance with more than one club increases your options depending on the situation you experience.

Rangefinders come in various formats offering different benefits. The three most commonly used rangefinders are GPS rangefinders, Laser rangefinders, and Optical rangefinders.

GPS rangefinders depend on GPS satellite triangulation to provide accurate distances. This is the same system that is used in navigation systems and is generally accurate to within five yards of the target.

Laser rangefinders use a laser beam to bounce back of a reflective surface placed on the target. Many golf courses have placed such reflective material on the pins and other possible targets across the golf course. These rangefinders are more accurate than GPS and can offer accuracy between one yard and 1/10 of a yard.

Optical rangefinders are the least popular of the rangefinders featuring lenses on one end of the device. By zooming in on a target, the rangefinder calculates the height of the target and converts it into a distance based on a built-in scale.

Slope options enable a rangefinder to calculate the distance considering the slope. Most competitions do not allow the use of slope calculation in competitions.

It is always advisable to determine whether the use of rangefinders is allowed before entering a competition.

Distance measurement is not limited to the pin only. Sometimes you need to determine the distance to a hazard, or the distance required to clear a hazard. Most rangefinders can do this rather accurately.

Although not used to determine the distance to the flag off the tee on par-four and par-five holes, it is often used to determine the distance to any hazards to assist you in club selection. After all, you don’t want to use a driver if there are bunkers that you could easily reach. This will make course management so much simpler.

Important Rangefinder Features

When selecting a rangefinder, it is important to have some criteria against which you will evaluate the different options.

1. Accuracy

The most crucial factor in the selection process of a rangefinder is accuracy. The reason for adding a rangefinder to your accessory pool is to remove the guesswork from your game.

This is what determines your next shot and club selection. The more accurate the reading, the higher the probability that a well-executed shot will be close to the hole.
Accuracy could mean the difference between an eagle putt and a birdie putt on a par five.

You want the rangefinder to provide accurate measurements to the flag as well as to any hazards that may be in your way.

Accurate distance will enable you to fine-tune your distance control on the driving range and increase confidence on the golf course.

2. Durability

It is only a golf ball that would be used more frequently than a rangefinder during a round of golf. Rangefinders are relatively expensive, and you want to protect your investment as best possible.

Most rangefinders come standard with a protective case. It would be highly recommended that you replace it after every use rather than leaving it out in the cart. Having a water-resistant device will make it much sturdier for use during inclement weather.

3. Battery Life

The time that a battery lasts as well as the number of recharge cycles is factors to consider. You don’ want to run out of battery life during the round so look for a battery that can last a minimum of 6 hours.

Most rangefinders come standard with CR2 batteries that have a lifespan of more than six months. This makes the batteries straightforward to replace thus having a backup battery in your bag becomes essential.

4. Value

Value for money is something that everyone strives for. Determining what value the rangefinder will add to your game is essential when you are budget-focused. With the wide range of options, you are almost sure to find one that offers you the added value within your budget allocation.

On the other hand, when accuracy is your top priority, don’t compromise for a device that will not offer you accuracy within one yard.

5. Display/Optics

Golf is often played in bright sunny conditions making some screens difficult to read. Ensure that the screen display caters to these conditions and has sharp images with proper contrast.

When looking for a target the display must be able to zoom in to prevent you from locking onto a target that is in the background rather than the target itself. The zoom should allow for a minimum of 5X magnification and focus

6. Range

Golfers boast about the vast distances that they can hit a golf ball, but few can hot it more than 250 yards. Rangefinders claim to accurately measure distances of up to one thousand yards. There is no benefit in seeing that much farther than what you can hit your golf ball. Magnification is more valuable than range.

7. Slope Measurement Capabilities

Hitting the ball uphill or downhill comes results in different distance requirements. An uphill shot will require the ball to travel further and will shorten the downward trajectory. This necessitates a longer club. Downhill shots travel further and will therefore require a shorter club or a knockdown shot.

Fortunately, there is a solution with rangefinders being able to calculate the distance accurately based on the gradient of the slope.

Unfortunately, this is not allowed in competitive play in tournaments approved by the USGA.

8. Laser

Laser rangefinders are the most accurate of all rangefinders and generally provide a reading that is within one yard of the target. Although many can provide more accurate distances, few golfers are equipped to hit it to that accuracy.

To calculate distance, an autofocus camera sends out a laser beam that bounces back to the rangefinder off reflective material placed on the target. This requires that reflective material be placed on the targets that you want to measure.

As the laser beam speed is consistent, the time between sending out the laser until it returns is then used to calculate the distance.

There is no requirement to have any maps to be downloaded onto the device before you can take a reading.

The target must be within line-of-sight from the device with no obstruction between you and the target for an accurate reading.


  • Accurate within one yard
  • Requires no preloaded maps


  • Requires direct line of sight
  • Reflective material is required on the target

9. GPS rangefinders

GPS rangefinders are less accurate than laser rangefinders and generally only provide readings accurate to within five yards of the target. To calculate distances a GPS rangefinder requires maps to be downloaded to the device before it can be used.

These maps contain GPS locations and require frequent updates when changes are made to a golf course. Some manufacturers offer up to 40,000 courses available on a subscription basis while others offer fewer courses and then charge for upgrades.

When the device is turned on it has to link to any three of the twenty-four available orbiting satellites.

Preloaded maps provide coordinates of the green and thus make it easier and faster to calculate the distance to the target or hazard. As the pin placement changes daily, the distance to the flag cannot be displayed. GPS rangefinders generally display distances to the front, center, and back of the green.

GPS technology is popular for use on rangefinders as well as GPS watches that makes it easier to access and carry with you on the course.


  • Does not tend to be affected by background objects
  • Provides distance quicker than laser rangefinders
  • Uses proven technology used in many industries
  • It requires no pointing to a target.


  • Requires preloaded golf courses
  • Lacks the accuracy of laser rangefinders

10. Optical

This is the least popular and accurate offering in the rangefinder ranges. That does not mean that they are unreliable though.

Lenses are located at either end of a monocular device to zoom in onto a target. Once the object is located, the lenses zoom into the target to determine the height of the object. The ability of the device to focus is key to the accuracy provided.

The height is used to calculate distance based on a formula using a built-in scale.

Optical rangefinders generally provide accuracy within 5 yards to targets up to 100 yards and within 10 yards of targets up to 500 yards.


  • Versatility
  • Affordability
  • They also don’t pose the risk of focusing on background objects like their optical counterparts.


  • A simple unsteady operation
  • They are the least accurate option compared to the laser and their GPS counterparts

Final Thoughts

Rangefinders have become an essential part of the accessories carried in your golf bag. The more accuracy and distance control you can exercise on your shots, the more essential it becomes.

Combining your requirements and budget will ensure that you put the most cost-effective solution in your bag.

Happy golfing and get your distances correct.

Any feedback or advice will be highly appreciated in our comments section below.

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Nick Lomas is the founder of GolfSpan, an avid golfer, not quite a pro but has over 15-years of experience playing and coaching golfers from all over the world. His mission is to bring the golfing community a better experience then it comes to choosing the right golf gear, and finding the right set up for your game.

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