Measuring Your Distance Using Strides

Hand Tally Counter

A useful way to estimate the distance you’ve walked or hiked for any given period of time is by counting the number of strides you’ve taken.  A stride (or pace) is the distance traveled by the heel of one foot to the next time that same foot strikes down – in other words, two steps, since in that time the other foot has also touched down once.  Knowing how far you have traveled is extremely useful for being able to accurately determine where you are on a map or trail.

Measuring Your Stride
There are many reliable ways to determine how long your average stride is, or how many strides you take to travel a pre-determined distance.  Here are two methods that I like to use.

  1. The Wet Foot Method: Create a puddle of water on a stretch of sidewalk or street where you can be walking at your natural speed before and after you reach it. Start walking at your natural pace and walk through the water. Keep walking naturally for about 10 more strides. Now measure the distance from the heel of your left footprint to the following heel of your left footprint (one stride) on several of the wet footprints and average them to determine how long your stride is at your normal walking pace.

  2. Measured Distance Short Walk
    Measure off a known distance – 20 feet or 50 feet. Then get up to speed in your natural walk and count the number of strides it takes to cover that distance. Divide the number of feet by the number of strides. Feet/strides = Stride length in feet. I personally use the metric system, so I measure off 10 meters and see how many strides it takes me to cover that distance. From there the math is easy. Note: Most quality maps use the metric system (kilometers) so knowing how to calculate distance or count you strides for kms is a good idea.

Once you have determined your length of stride or how many strides it takes you to cover a pre-determined distance, the next step is to track how many strides you’ve taken or how far you have gone. Here are two trusted methods to keep track of your strides and distance using simple tools.

Ranger Beads on my Daypack

Ranger Pacing Beads
Ranger beads have been used as a means of measuring distance for centuries. The tool is usually constructed using a set of 14 or more beads on a length of cord. The beads are divided into two sections, separated by a knot. 9 beads are used in the lower section, and 5 or more beads are used in the upper section. There’s often a loop in the upper end, making it possible to attach the tool to your gear or the shoulder strap of your pack with a simple Prussik knot.

There are two ways to use the beads. One is to represent the number of strides you have walked, while the other is to represent the distance you have walked. Both methods requires you to know the relationship between the strides walked and the distance traveled. As previously mentioned I use the metric system. Each lower bead represents 100m and each upper bead represents 1km. I know my 100m stride count (60). Every time I reach that count, I slide one of the bottom 9 beads up to the knot. After the 9th one, all bottom beads get pushed back down, and one of the upper ones gets pushed up, marking 1km (or one “klick”).

Ranger Pacing Beads

The set in the photo is one that I made myself for almost no cost using some left over paracord and some pony beads that were $1.50 for a pack of 500 at Walmart.  You’ll have to remove the inner strands of the paracord to leave just the sheath if you want to make a set for yourself, commonly referred to as “gutting” the cord.  My set is capable of measuring 5km.  It can just as easily be used for measuring distance in miles. With each lower bead representing 1/10 of a mile, and each upper bead representing 1 mile – I’d have to count my strides differently of course.

Hydration Counter Variant: Instead of using Ranger Beads for land distance estimation, they also work great as a simple visual hydration counting system. Here’s how it works.  Every time I drink a whole bottle of water I move a bead. I aim to have moved all the beads by the end of the day or I know I haven’t been drinking enough water – which for me is usually around ten bottles on a long hot hike.

A significant draw back that I’ve experienced when using pacing beads is that I have to pay a lot of attention to counting as I walk. It sounds obvious, but unless you are constantly counting in your head the whole system fails.  Why is that such a big deal? Well, one of my main reasons for getting outside and hiking is to enjoy the surroundings and relax.  I like to look around and talk to a hiking buddy as I walk – having to constantly count in multiples of 60 and move beads is very distracting and memory intensive (for my pea brain at least).

A much easier way to keep track of the number of strides I’ve taken without the need to be constantly counting in my head is to use a simple hand tally counter.

Hand Tally Counter

Hand Tally Counters
A tally counter is a small, light weight mechanical device that sits in the palm of your hand and reliably counts the number of times the button is depressed.  I use my tally counter to count the number of strides I have taken by pressing the button every time my left foot takes a step.  Because I carry the tally counter in my left hand it feels very natural to depress the button in time to my left foot’s pace.

The advantage of the tally counter is that I don’t have to concentrate on counting in my head, I can easily keep pressing the button as I walk and enjoy my surroundings.  Whenever I stop I can look at the counter window to see how many strides I’ve taken and calculate the distance I have walked.

Operation of the tally counter is very straight forward. Push the button each time you want to track a stride. To reset the counter just turn the black knob clockwise until it resets to 00000.  I bought mine for a couple of dollars online and so far it has worked reliably.  It weighs just 1oz so it’s light enough to take with me every time I hike.

Whatever method you decide to use to estimate the distance you have walked, remember that this is only an estimate at best.  It’s most accurate when walking at an even pace on flat terrain.  Changing pace or going up and down hill will significantly impact the accuracy of these methods of estimation.

Do you use either of these methods for tracking distance as you hike? Or do you have a different technique that you’d like to share? Please feel free to leave a comment.

Gear Links: My Store | REI | CampSaver | Patagonia | Altrec

Be Sociable, Share!
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10286816493637692728 Andrew

    Really good post on pace-counting Brian.

    As I used this method in the military quite a bit, I added a bit to the technique to have a bit more accuracy. In addition to the flat ground count, I would also add uphill and downhill pace counts. This would allow me to factor in terrain when trying to estimate distance. I managed terrain estimation by having another set of pace beads that I would move up or down on the strand whenever I incremented my pace count. So, if I was traveling uphill for an entire beads worth of pace, I would move a bead up on the terrain strand (start with equal number of beads on top and on bottom of the strand, like one of those scoring strings on a pool table).

    I would also get my pace count by averaging several measurements of the pace, measuring each at least 3 times. As this was the military, I also got pace counts for when I was moving at high-speed under load, when I was trying to be all stealthy and also when I was fatigued.

    It was also important to be aware when external influences might impact your pace, such as when you are recovering from injury or even a change in footwear. Any of these cases might require a re-measurement of your pace.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13230104803414566724 Lance Milks

    Ahh, Ranger Beads. Im not sure where my set has gone to. Although mine has little skulls for the beads. Havent used them for hiking though.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12969421780777507389 ADVENTUREinPROGRESS

    I have a Tech4O watch (TrailLeader model) that has a built-in accelerometer. What you do is enter in your stride length and it calculates your distance based on the number of steps it counts, just like you are describing here. The cool thing about it is that you can enter in your stride length for both walking and running and it automatically detects which you are doing and calculates speed/distance accordingly.

    I know it is higher-tech than what you are describing here, but thought I would mention it anyway.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09628095804170935682 Brian

    Great comments Andy. Sounds like you’ve used the beads system extensively, so maybe you could clarify one minor question. I was always shown to start with the beads at the bottom and move each one UP at a time, but some folks say that you start with them all up and move them down. How were you shown how to use them? Moving them up seems to make more sense to me.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09628095804170935682 Brian

    Lance, stay tuned in that case because I’m going to be giving away a couple of sets of Ranger Beads in the next week or two!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09628095804170935682 Brian

    @Adventures: The Tech4O watch looks very interesting, I wasn’t aware of it. I’m looking at the specs right now and it’s very impressive.

    Reviews say that it measures distance incredibly accurately, has that been your experience with it too? Thanks for sharing :)

  • http://twitter.com/EQUIPnTRIP EQUIPnTRIP

    Thanks Brian, this is a great post. I was not aware of pacer beads – very interesting.

    I’m interested in any views about these techniques compared to the use of GPS or even a pedometer.

    Allan McDonald @
    EQUIPnTRIP

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12495441507908789479 Robin

    Intersting idea, generally I just use my watch. I find that my pass is generally the same and only varies due to how hard the terrain is; so I start my hike, notice the time, then at the first known spot I check the time.

    I find if I’m walking say 2.5 miles/hour – the an hour later I know were I am simply by the time.

    I find this to be accuate (enough) and simple.

    robin

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10286816493637692728 Andrew

    Really good post on pace-counting Brian.

    As I used this method in the military quite a bit, I added a bit to the technique to have a bit more accuracy. In addition to the flat ground count, I would also add uphill and downhill pace counts. This would allow me to factor in terrain when trying to estimate distance. I managed terrain estimation by having another set of pace beads that I would move up or down on the strand whenever I incremented my pace count. So, if I was traveling uphill for an entire beads worth of pace, I would move a bead up on the terrain strand (start with equal number of beads on top and on bottom of the strand, like one of those scoring strings on a pool table).

    I would also get my pace count by averaging several measurements of the pace, measuring each at least 3 times. As this was the military, I also got pace counts for when I was moving at high-speed under load, when I was trying to be all stealthy and also when I was fatigued.

    It was also important to be aware when external influences might impact your pace, such as when you are recovering from injury or even a change in footwear. Any of these cases might require a re-measurement of your pace.

  • http://stephenrice.eu Stephen Rice

    To be fair, knowing your speed and working out how long you’ve been walking *is* extremely simple. It just relies on knowing your speed at all times. I think that would have a dramatic margin of error on longer walks.

    • http://www.briangreen.net Brian Green

      Stephen you’re right, it’s not rocket science. Even without ranger beads or a pace counter I’ve kept track of my time traveled in order to guesstimate my distance. A good estimate combined with a simple compass reading or map reference marker will keep you on path.

      This is just another method for those that are starting out or want a slightly more accurate way to gauge distance.

  • http://www.briangreen.net/ Brian Green

    Stephen you’re right, it’s not rocket science. Even without ranger beads or a pace counter I’ve kept track of my time traveled in order to guesstimate my distance. A good estimate combined with a simple compass reading or map reference marker will keep you on path.

    This is just another method for those that are starting out or want a slightly more accurate way to gauge distance.

  • http://stephenrice.eu/ Stephen Rice

    To be fair, knowing your speed and working out how long you’ve been walking *is* extremely simple. It just relies on knowing your speed at all times. I think that would have a dramatic margin of error on longer walks.

  • Ed Morse

    In another life (before retirement) I was  a land surveyor. Measuring distance and estimating accuracy was the job. Now when hiking my ‘job’ is to enjoy the hike. Pacing, even in the best conditions, is accurate to about 10% of the distance. I carry a GPS and each day I set the distance back to zero. There is too much to see and too many “distractions” to think about my hiking distance.
    I have several fallback methods to estimate my distance hiked but the GPS is most accurate and also provides a few safety features so that (as long as it works) I can not get lost.

    • http://www.briangreen.net Brian Green

      And as long as the batteries are powered up,not a problem for short trips I’m sure. You’ve piqued my interest with your comment “I have several fallback methods to estimate my distance..” – care to share any of them with us here? I’d love to know of some other, reliable, ways to estimate distance. Thanks for leaving your comments Ed.

  • Ed Morse

    In another life (before retirement) I was  a land surveyor. Measuring distance and estimating accuracy was the job. Now when hiking my ‘job’ is to enjoy the hike. Pacing, even in the best conditions, is accurate to about 10% of the distance. I carry a GPS and each day I set the distance back to zero. There is too much to see and too many “distractions” to think about my hiking distance.
    I have several fallback methods to estimate my distance hiked but the GPS is most accurate and also provides a few safety features so that (as long as it works) I can not get lost.

  • http://www.briangreen.net/ Brian Green

    And as long as the batteries are powered up,not a problem for short trips I’m sure. You’ve piqued my interest with your comment “I have several fallback methods to estimate my distance..” – care to share any of them with us here? I’d love to know of some other, reliable, ways to estimate distance. Thanks for leaving your comments Ed.

  • Craig

    This is also easily done with most commercial pedometers.  Fairly cheap and the batteries last for a few months.   You can enter your weight and stride length so that it can count calories burned and distance.  Just have to wear it. http://www.omronhealthcare.com/products/hj-112/

  • Craig

    This is also easily done with most commercial pedometers.  Fairly cheap and the batteries last for a few months.   You can enter your weight and stride length so that it can count calories burned and distance.  Just have to wear it.

    http://www.omronhealthcare.com/products/hj-112/

  • John

    http://treklogic.blogspot.com/2013/01/keeping-track-of-distance-without.html
    I agree, counting paces is quite reliable, although it could be tedious. And estimating distances paced requires a calculator as well. For that reason, I prefer to use 2mph as a flat rate and 3 min.s for each 10th of a mile. The above link explains clearly. It’s very easy to learn to do in one’s head and requires no calculator.