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Pacing and Estimating Distance by Blake Miller

Measuring Pace Length along a Known Distance
Measuring Pace Length along a Known Distance

Many outdoors men and women measure distance in the backcountry by using a Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver. GPS receivers are reasonably accurate, real time, and provide distance traveled and distance to a destination.

But what does the hiker do if they don’t have a receiver, the GPS fails or batteries die?

A proven method for estimating distance is known as pacing.  Pacing is not as accurate as the GPS receiver, but it can give a reasonable approximation of the distance traveled.  Together with a map and compass, pacing is an important component of evaluating a hiker’s track through the backcountry.  In darkness or periods of low visibility pacing helps to determine the hiker’s location through a process known as dead reckoning.

Pacing is a method that begins with measuring one’s stride, with the intent of determining an individual’s length of stride. A pace is a measured two steps; a complete stride.  As illustrated below, every time the right foot hits the ground is one pace. Each pace (two steps) normally measures out to almost 50-60 inches.

Navigating Using Paces

Perhaps the best method to determine a hiker’s pace is to record it over a specific distance to determine an average.  Before embarking on the trail, the individual should develop a “pace average” over a controlled area first.

For example, measure the number of paces for a known distance of 100 yards.  To achieve this, go to a high school foot ball field or track.  Walk along a sideline from end zone to end zone.  Count how many paces it takes to go 100 yards.  Do this eight times and record the total number of paces for each 100 yard event.  Determine the average for all eight 100 yard lengths completed.  The result is that the hiker may determine that the average 100 yard pace count to be 58 ½ paces.  (With children compensate and be mindful of their strides being significantly different, including a skip here and an off trail discovery there.)

Whatever the “pace average” may be, do keep the stride natural and smooth.  Don’t try to exaggerate and unnaturally lengthen the stride.

Don’t get too bogged down in the estimation of the accuracy of the average pace. Of larger importance is to understand the complexity of the terrain and how it will impact stride and a hiker’s “pace average”.   Anticipate strides being different.  Take the time beforehand to imitate a 100 yard course on sloping ground.  Further, try a 100 yard pace in soft soil and hard soil, smooth ground and rocky ground. Move to other locations once an average pace is found on a controlled level environment (football field).  Layout a 100 yard course on sloping ground.

Pacing over long distance can become quite boring and the hiker easily distracted.  This is especially true when the pace count is in the hundreds.  Was that pace 545 or 554?  In such cases pacing beads may be a useful tool.  Pacing beads can be purchased from online venders or made at home using paracord and simple beads.

Pacing beads
Pacing Beads

A quick Google search will turn up several methods for using pacing beads.  For example, Wikipedia states that “As users walk, they typically slide one bead on the cord for every ten paces taken. On the tenth pace, the user slides a bead in the lower section towards the knot. After the 90th pace, all 9 beads are against the knot. On the 100th pace, all 9 beads in the lower section are returned away from the knot, and a bead from the upper section is slid upwards, away from the knot.”

Pacing beads can be an important asset when Dead Reckoning (known as DR) with a map and compass.  Vigilant compass sighting and a steady “pace average” helps provide a rough approximation of both distance and direction when moving through the backcountry.

About Blake Miller

Blake Miller received significant hands-on navigational training during his 20 years of service in the US Navy.  He has taught map and compass, GPS and wilderness survival classes in Central Oregon since 1998.  As a part-time faculty member at Central Oregon Community College, he currently teaches land navigation classes to Natural Resource students.  He has been an active member of the Deschutes County’s Search and Rescue (SAR) team since 2009.   Blake is also a featured speaker at regional SAR conferences, Sportsman Shows, and Cabelas. His articles have been published in several national magazines and he writes a monthly navigation column for seattlebackpackersmagazine.com.  Blake can be contacted through www.outdoorquest.biz.

Blake previously published an article about the Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM) Grid System on SectionHiker.com.

15 comments

  1. Mile comes from the Latin mili or thousand- from the web: The Romans, when marching their armies through Europe, were the first to use the unit of long distance mille passuum (literally “a thousand paces” in Latin, where each pace or stride was two steps). When marching through uncharted territory, they would often push a carved stick in the ground after each 1000 paces.

  2. After decades of hiking and city walking, I find that I’m able to calculate distance very reliably just by using my wristwatch. For example, I’ve found that while hiking, I average 2.5 mph over moderate to strenuous terrain. Even on a long hike of say 18 miles, I generally can finish within +/- 20 minutes of the time I estimate prior to the hike. On city walks, where my purpose is simply to get from point A to point B without sightseeing, I average 3.25 mph assuming I’m not slowed by large crowds.

    Mountain climbing time is much more difficult to estimate because of the vast differences from one mountain to another. For example, a route involving an elevation gain of 1,000 feet per mile takes much longer than one with a gain of just several hundred feet per mile.

    • I do the same thing when hiking. Even in the mountains, I know that I usually hike 1.5 miles per hours which gives me a good ballpark estimate about how many miles I’ve walked since I left camp, and make it easier to find my location on a map (by terrain association) if I’m in an area I’m not familiar with.

      • Doing the same thing here, too. For us Europeans the relatively smaller size of the distance unit (kilometers instead of miles) might make it a bit easier to make informed guesses about the speed reached:
        6 kph = very fast walk on easy terrain
        5 kph = fast walk on easy terrain or very fast on moderate terrain
        4 kph = somewhat slower walk on easy terrain
        3 kph = when I have to stop all the times to wait for my wife on an upslope :)
        And so on. One can reach huge improvements in guessing speed if one often makes guesses which can be verified using a map or GPS.

    • I plan to make my own pacing beads this weekend with some para cord and beads. Lots of very interesting comments; thank you all.

    • I do something similar, but I use Naismith’s Rule to help with accuracy estimate time on routes with significant elevation gain. Basic rule of thumb is that every 2,000 of elevation gain is the equivalent of 3 extra miles, timewise. Once you’ve done it a while and you know your basic pace or fitness level it usually works out fairly well. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naismith%27s_rule

      • hmm, once again I posted without realizing someone had already made same point. sorry, feel free to delete, thanks.

  3. I was telling Blake last night that they teach mountain leaders in the UK this pacing technique for navigating in whiteouts and the trainers/testers are quite adamant that leadership candidates be expert in its use.

    • Doing my Winter and Summer Mountain Leader in the UK I spent many hours pacing and timing, using Naissmiths rule.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naismith%27s_rule

      These two methods work very well together. Work out how far you need to walk, then pace and time together.

      There are some small adaptions for pacing, taken from Martin Moran’s excellent book, Scotlands Winter Mountains. Which currently seems to be out of print.

      Hard surface, level or gentle descent = 50 double paces.
      Average on a firm surface = 60 double paces.
      Rough undulating ground = 70 double paces.
      Steep Climbs, heavy drifts = 80 double pace.

      He also has revisions for Naismiths rule which might make this post too long to put on as well.

      One thing that worked for me on the build up for these courses was every time a commercial break came on the TV, I would pick up a map. With a route, take a bearing, measure distance. Then work out how many paces and how long it would take. Whilst taking note of what the terrain was doing on my left and right. Plus What the terrain would do if I overshot my destination.

    • One does have to keep focus when doing this.

  4. I often have to submit plot plans on existing business establishments to the city for securing permits in my line of work. I have a cadence in my pacing that will get me the dimensions within a percent or two, which has been accurate enough for my needs.

    On a fairly level trail, I can estimate distances that way quite well. I have to generate a fudge factor for steep uphill stretches.

  5. In the Marine Corps in 1968 each squad at one person designated as the “Knot man” he kept track of distance, counting off 100 steps which more or less works out on an average adult to be 300 yards, by tieing a knot in a piece of rope which originated from the Marine Corps Recon Unit and was adopted by Squads. Recon later taught it to the Navy UDT who became the SEALS who came up with the beads on a rope instead of a knot. In real combat, you do not use this method because it can be used by the enemy to backtract to your “home” position. For some reason deep in the back of my mind, I seem to recall hearing or reading that the native Americans came up with this idea and also used sticks to mark their way for backtracking for the return..

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