When most people get into land navigation, they get hung up on plotting points, shooting bearings, and calculating declination without taking one critical factor into consideration: Distance. While the aforementioned things are extremely important, they all involve getting your direction right. They don’t do anything to tell you how far you’ve come. And even if your heading is dead-on, if you don’t know how far you’ve walked, you really don’t know where you are. Are you almost at your point, or have you overshot it? How many meters do you have left to go? Simply put, if you’re not counting your pace correctly… you’re as lost as last year’s Easter egg.
As search & rescue trainers, the one area where we’ve seen most students fail their land nav courses is in their pace count. They nail their headings, get their declination right, but completely bomb their distances.
So, what’s a pace count? Simply put, it’s a way to measure the distance you’ve traveled by counting the number of steps you take. And if you practice a lot and know your averages, you can measure distances with a surprisingly high degree of accuracy.
How do you find yours? First, you’ll need a set course. Using a rolling tape, measure out a 100-meter (land nav is always metric) path on reasonably even terrain. Mark your start and end points clearly.
Next, walk it. Don’t think about the steps you’re taking, just walk a normal pace. Count every time your dominant foot hits as one pace. If you mess up and lose count, start over. My pace averages 62, which means that my right foot strikes the ground 62 times in a 100 meter span.
Once you get your count, you’ll use a factor to multiply it. Multiply your number of paces taken by the factor number, and voila – you’re left with the number of meters you’ve traveled. Check out this handy guide from our friends at MountainPathFinder to find your factor and math it out: http://www.mountainpathfinder.com/pace_count_handout.pdf
After you get a pretty solid average for your pace on level terrain and get the hang of factoring it out, it’s time to take it up a notch. Lay out a 100-meter course going uphill, one downhill, and one through heavy brush or over rocks. Practice, and practice a lot. Once you run through this a few dozen times, you’ll end up with a reliable average pace that you can use whenever you go in the field. Write your pace and your factor on a piece of tape and slap it on your compass, get it tattooed on your hand, etc.
Now you’re ready to roll. When you’re plotting your points, measure out the distances between them and write them down along with your headings before you go out in the field. After you set out on your heading, keep count of your pace (More on best practices for that in a second). In doing this, you’ll know with absolute authority when you’ve reached your point. Congrats – you’ve just taken another variable of uncertainty out of backcountry navigation.
But wait – how do you keep an exact count of every other step for hundreds of meters? I don’t know about you, but I’m bad at counting. My brain doesn’t like numbers, and it’s very easy for me to lose count due to the tiniest distraction, whether it’s tripping or stumbling over an obstacle, getting a call over the radio, or someone else on my team asking me a question. These things are pretty much unavoidable in the field, so I take precautions against them, and recommend you do the same. There are two basic tools to keep track of your pace – ranger beads and the clicker. Ranger beads are dirt-simple… two sets of beads on a string of paracord, separated by a knot. We’ll probably do another Pro Tip on how to make and use them sometime in the near future. They’re tried and true, low-tech, and they work. I do find it slightly easier to lose count with this method, though. The clicker is my preferred method. It’s simply a hit counter used by boxing refs, and it works by clicking a button every time your dominant foot hits. Once you get into a rhythm, you don’t have to think about it. The only real disadvantage is that since the little device is metal, it can throw your compass needle if you’re not careful about keeping it well away from it when you shoot a bearing. But it’s cheap (I think I paid less than a dollar for mine), and it works.
Feel free to use either one of these methods, or both. Or neither, if you’re an otherworldly math geek with iron-willed focus. But just know that if you’re doing this at 4am after 12 hours in the field with no meals, with constant radio chatter, all while trying to search for something as small as a cigarette butt… you’ll want all the help you can get.
There is no “hack” to getting your pace count right. There are best practices, followed by lots of practicing. Go out and find a place to lay out a 100-meter course, and get to it. What if you’re not military or SAR? Is this relevant to you? Absolutely. If you claim to call yourself a woodsman, you need to get comfortable with land nav, and a pace count is a critical component of it. And one cool side effect of this is that if you do it enough, keeping track of distance in the woods starts to become intuitive, even if you’re not on a formal nav course or trying to keep track of your pace. If you’re traveling through the backcountry, be it in a wilderness survival situation where you’re trying to hike out, or just hunting on foot and need to know how far you’ve gone, this skill is a good one to have in your toolbox.
If you want to learn how to count your pace in a guided setting on one of our pace count courses, come join us for Land Navigation Essentials on Saturday, March 30th from 9am-7pm – learn more and register here! https://www.sarcraft.com/course-registration/land-navigation-essentials