Why and how

When navigating in difficult areas, particularly “cross-country” or “off-trail” you must be absolutely certain of your location.  GPS has made this easy, but if your GPS unit fails, you should have the skills to navigate using your map and compass.

To start, you will be using “vectors”.  A vector is a mathematical term used in geometry.  A vector has both a direction AND a length.  This is critically important.  Your compass only provides one element of the vector; the direction.

After plotting your start point and end point on a map, you can determine the direction of travel, and use your compass to find that direction.  Now you must measure the distance between the two points on the map.  Using UTM gridlines makes this very easy.  On a USGS 7.5 minute map, the UTM grid is 1km by 1km.  You can count the gridlines, or use a special map measuring tool (basically a piece of clear plastic with 10 evenly spaced tick marks corresponding to the 1km by 1km grid).

Now you can walk along in the direction of travel, counting paces to know how far you have traveled.

Establishing a pace count

Establishing a pace count takes practice.  Starting with a nice flat area, find two landmarks that are 500 meters apart.  Walk from one landmark to the other, counting one pace as each time your left foot strikes the ground.  Divide that number by 5 to give you your “perfect conditions” pace count for 100 meters.

Now put on your backpack with a reasonably normal weight load and pace that same span.  Divide your count by 5, to see what happens as you increase your load.  Your pace count will have gone up.  Your paces are not as long anymore.

This is why you need to practice.  Find trails that have marked distances and practice hiking them with a load, counting your paces.  This will help you determine a rough average pace count that you can use in most conditions.

Higher Pace Count

Lower Pace Count

Heavier loads Light loads
Soft surfaces like sand or snow Firm flat surfaces like trails
Uphill Downhill
Fatigued Fresh
Heavy vegetation Clearings

Tracking your paces

pace counting beads

There are a number of ways to track your paces.  In general, you count your paces until you reach the 100 meter point.  You indicate this with your preferred method, and starting counting paces again from zero.

You can attach a piece of cord to your pack strap or shirt pocket and tie a knot every 100 meters.

You can move a small rock or other item from one pocket to another pocket every 100 meters.

Or, you can use commercially available pace-counting beads.  These generally have two sections; the top section has 4 beads, and the bottom section has 9 beads.

I set all the beads up.  As I count off each 100 meters, I slide one of the lower beads to the bottom of the string.  Once I’ve slide them all down, I count another 100 meters, slide the 9 lower section beads back to the top, and slide one of the upper section beads down.  I’ve now moved 1 km.

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