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.

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