Pedometers - Or how to judge how far I've walked

6:55 a.m. on September 4, 2006 (EDT)
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Still new to hiking. I'm sure this will come later as I get a few trails under my heels, but thought I'd ask:

How do most of you measure the distances you have hiked?

A lot of the trail maps I view have distances marked on them, either for partial legs or full loop/length. GPS seems great, but out of my price constraints right now, for effectively finding distances. Are pedometers any good for this to get estimates? Do you just judge by where you are on maps?

I am acustomed to using distances from maps and the dead reckoning method from my flying days. This is sort of a polling of the readers to quench my curiosity. I'd really like to keep accurate logs of my adventures.



10:30 a.m. on September 4, 2006 (EDT)
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I Just use a map and landmarks to see where I am, and how far I have walked. But the only time I really care how far I have Walked Is when I need to be out of the trail by a certain time, and I try to avoid that.

12:47 p.m. on September 4, 2006 (EDT)
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There are pedometers and then there are pedometers. Over the years, I have tried a variety of pedometers and talked with lots of people about their experiences with pedometers. The basic conclusion, in short, is that they are not very accurate. The last one I got is supposed to be "the best", a Sportline. But it, like most others, just counts steps and uses the step length you program into it to determine the distance. You can use an automated calibration, or you can set the step you measure by walking around a running track (running tracks are 440 yards in most of the US, 1/4 mile). It also has a "walking" and a "running" calibration.

But your actual pace varies with all sorts of things - slope, roughness of the trail, walking briskly or slowly, fatigue, you name it. I sometimes find a factor of two difference between the distance it give me going up a hill and returning down the same trail. This for $20 or $30 for a really top quality one. My advice? Don't waste your money, unless you just want a count of steps, in which case the ones that come in a cereal box will work just as well (yes, literally, some health food oriented cereal companies give them away.)

Recently, several of the heart rate monitor companies that cater to runners have added foot pods that use an accelerometer instead of a simple pendulum. These measure the acceleration and deceleration of your foot as you push off and land. So they are a lot more accurate, typically within 5 or 10 percent when calibrated to your walking/running style. But you have to buy the whole HRM setup, so count on a few hundred bucks. Unless you get really serious about training, it's probably not worth it (my wife and I used to race bicycles at National level, and the US Cycling Federation had essentially all Cat 1 and 2 racers using HRMs).

Another trend is GPS receivers. Some of the HRM companies have arm-band pods with GPSRs, and a couple companies have wrist-top GPSRs (one of the companies makes them especially tailored to golfers - pre-load the tee to green distance). You can also get basic GPSRs for $50 at WalMart that are adequate for very basic navigation and will measure the distance you travel. However, be aware that GPS receivers are subject to reception problems due to canyons (urban and natural) and canopy (vegetation and tunnels), especially the cheaper ones. You can sometimes lose reception for long distances in thick woods and hilly country.

Soooo, the best bet, as Dave S said, is measure it yourself off a good, up to date, topographic map. Trail signs are notorious for rounding off distances or not being changed when the trail is changed (last weekend's hike that Barb and I took in the Sierra said 4 miles to the meadow we camped, and the map, GPSR, and foot pod all said 5.1 miles - the trail was rerouted a couple years ago, with some of the survey stakes still in place alongside the trail). A lot of the distances on basic trail maps are also rounded off, and the roundoff error can add up quickly.

It is true that topo maps aren't revised all that often. But if you get a good computerized map program (I recommend National Geographic's Topo!), you can draw in the actual trail. NatGeo also has a "Live Map Update" feature with certain series of its software that will load the latest versions of the maps, trails, and roads via the internet into your computer.

None of these methods is perfect, but good topo maps are the most dependable. Even better, don't worry about it. Just get out there and hike as long as you feel like it, then camp.

5:02 p.m. on September 4, 2006 (EDT)
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I have the National Geographic Topo State series already. This was mostly how I was going to keep track of this stuff, to some degree. Most of the maps I find for NG Topo that are already traced are for the national park and forest trails. But I doubt if I make it to any of those this fall. I was hoping to start at our local Kanawha State Forest trails. I can't find any TOPO maps for these, so I'll need to use the guessimate method at first. Maybe plot them on the TOPO map, even though this wouldn't be very accurate at all, I would guess.

I still would like to get some type of mapping GPS. It certainly made pilotage so much easier when I used to fly than maps and Loran. Still had to revert to maps, though, on some flights. They are such an expensive toy, though!!

I knew about the errors associated with pedometers, also. And that the error was present even on flat ground.

Thanks for the insight as always.


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