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How to Measure Distance on Trail

Being able to measure distances on trail is a small but handy skill that can help you care for the land you’re traveling on while you hike.

Being able to measure distances on trail is a small but handy skill that can help you care for the land you’re traveling on while you hike. And thankfully, your feet and eyes can serve as great tools for approximating distances. With just a little bit of legwork, you can create your built-in ruler in the form of your step length. 

To find the length of your average step, grab a measuring tape and mark a 10-foot span along the ground in your living room or backyard. Walk between the two ends while counting each of your steps. (And remember — walk naturally. Don’t overthink your steps here!) Try doing this back-and-forth a few times to give yourself an average number of steps. Divide 10 by your average number of steps and this is the length, in feet, of one step. 

A lone tent tucked up in the trees is lit up against a dark night sky.
To leave a light touch on the land,  it’s useful to know how far from water and other sensitive areas you should camp or cook. Photo Yuriy Garnaev.

Take it to the trail 

So how exactly can this play into trail stewardship? Well, many of our common trail tasks — using the bathroom, rinsing out our thermos or setting up a tent — require a pretty sizable space cushion to minimize their impacts. By using the bathroom too close to a waterway, you risk contaminating that water source and negatively impacting the wildlife who rely on it (and the hikers who come after you!). By rinsing out a thermos too close to camp, you risk attracting unwanted visitors at night.

To avoid these issues, we recommend following the “rule of 200 feet” — a helpful guideline that ensures our trails, wildlife and fellow hikers have the space they need.

    • Tent: Set up 200 feet from trail, water, food storage site, dishwashing area, toilet. 
    • Food: Store 200 feet from tent, dishwashing area, toilet
    • Dishes: Wash 200 feet from water source, tent, trail, food storage area, toilet. (Note: If you wash dishes in the backcountry, use minimal soap and pack out all food scraps. Don’t wash in the water source.)
    • Toilet: Use 200 feet from tent, trail, water, food storage area, dishwashing

By memorizing your step length, you’ll be able to measure your 200-foot buffer on trail — just figure out how many steps add up to 200 feet and get trekking. (To get you started, an average stride is about 2.5 feet, which would mean about 80 steps.)

After doing this enough times, you’ll likely get better at reading distances with your eyes too. Visual estimates can be helpful for instances when you can’t easily walk between two points, like when you’re trying to keep a safe distance from wildlife. Larger animals like bears or mountain goats call for a wide berth of 150 feet or more when passing, so use your past on-foot experiences to judge the appropriate distance.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of Washington Trails magazine. Support trails as a member of WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.