Today I want to take a look at a more advanced navigational skill or technique you can use in hiking to help you in bad visibility or if you’re trying to get somewhere in the dark. That technique is called Pacing.
What is Pacing?
Pacing is basically a way to help you establish how long it takes you to travel from one point to another over a specific distance. Once you have established your ‘pace’, using certain parameters, you can then reuse the result at any time in the future when you’re trying to go a very specific distance in bad visibility, darkness etc.
How do you do it?
First off you need to work out what your, what I will call here, ‘magic number’ is. Your magic number is the length of time, defined in counted paces, it takes you to walk from point A to point B across an exact distance of one hundred meters. (you can in theory use any distance measurement, the principles are the same, but for ease of use I am sticking with one hundred meters).
To do this, you need to measure out one hundred meters from one point to another. This can be done anywhere but ideally on a flat and even piece of ground. The start of this one hundred meters is marked as point A and the end is marked as point B.
When you have done this, go to the start of the one hundred meter line at point A. Then start to walk at an average pace from point A to point B. In your mind start counting from when you start walking, starting at one when your back foot first hits the ground.
By back foot, I mean that if you start by stepping your right foot forward first, you count one when your following back, in this case left, foot hits the ground. This is one pace.
See the diagram to the right that illustrates this. Note the count going up by one every time the left foot hits the ground.
Continue on in this manner and increment your count by one every time your back foot hits the ground until you reach point B of the one hundred meters you have marked out. When you reach one hundred meters, remember your final counted number. This final counted number is your ‘magic number’!
It’s recommended that you get your magic number on the flat two or three times first and then use an average of the three to give you your final number.
What is the ‘Magic’ Number all about?
This final number is the ‘magic’ number as it is the amount of times your left foot hit the ground as you walked the one hundred meters from point A to point B.
You now know how long it takes you to walk, in your paces, one hundred meters, at your average speed.
How can this be applied?
Well, the next time you are out on the hills and visibility is bad, or if you’re hiking at night and can’t see anything in front of you, you can use this magic number to help you get to where you need to go.
To do this you of course need to know where you are starting from on your map first (this is the most critical thing with regards to using maps for navigation, you always need to know where you are first before you can try and get to where you want to go next). We assume here that this is the case and you know where you are.
You then need to take a compass bearing to your next point, apply any applicable degree changes for magnetic north, based on your location in the world, and measure the distance from where you are to your chosen destination on the map. To work out the distance in meters you use the scale on your map and the ruler on your compass.
So, say for example you need to go two hundred meters at a bearing of 205 degrees to get to a specific landmark at night. You set your bearing in your compass as required and then start to walk in that direction counting one every time your left foot hits the ground. When you reach your magic number, you have just walked, approximately, one hundred meters.
Stay on your bearing and repeat to count your magic number again. When you’ve reached it again you’ve walked another one hundred meters. You now know you have walked two hundred meters in your desired direction and so you should be at, or reasonably close, to your destination!
If you need to apply this technique over a longer distance, say for example 1200 meters, it is a good idea to use counting beads or some other way to help you keep track. So every time you reach a one hundred count, you mark off a bead or counter and start counting from one to one hundred again. When you reach a one hundred count again, mark off another bead and so on.
It’s worth noting though that pacing loses more and more of it’s relative reliability the longer you travel so it’s generally better to try where you can to cut longer pacing into definable legs. In summary, it is not ideal to pace out very long distances but sometimes, you may not have a choice.
With regards to counting, be careful when counting in your head into the hundreds as you will quite possibly get confused at some point and lose count. Then you could be scuppered as you won’t know how far you’ve came or how far you have to go!
Pacing is a neat skill to have and not very hard to learn. You may need to be careful when using pacing across rough terrain or going up or down as the magic number for your pace may differ a little. Just keep things like that in mind. If you can, try and do a few tests when you’re out hiking in good weather.
For example pace up a steep incline and measure the distance traveled against your magic number and see how close it comes to one hundred meters. Doing this a few times will give you a better target for steeper inclines and that type of thing as the number does change over different terrain and on steeper sections.
Pacing is never an exact science so don’t rely on it only. Ideally you want to combine it with timing and other navigational aids to help you get a clearer idea of where you are.
Have you ever used pacing? Did you find it useful? Let us know in the comments below.
Hi Colm, Have also not used this technique in the past. Most of the time I have just stumbled around in the dark heading in the general direction of where I want to be, but using this method should be a better option!
Hi David, I was a happy stumbler myself for many moons while out on the trail in difficult conditions. It would either have been luck or being with someone who knew the area really well to help us get out of a sticky situation where visibility was bad and we couldn’t see where to go.
When I came across this technique, it made a lot of sense. If you can combine it with map reading using bearings from your compass for direction, you’ve a pretty good chance of finding your way relatively accurately in bad or minimal visibility. It’s easy to remember too once you have it, once you have your magic number, it’s yours for life 🙂
Great peace of advise here Colm.
I have never tried to use this technique but now I know how to the next time I have to go on a long hike I will be prepared. So if I get caught out at night or in bad weather I can use this to get relatively close to where I need to be. Its simple things like this that can save a persons life. Cheers.