Being able to estimate distance in a survival situation is highly important as it will help you judge heights and calculate time relative to the speed of walking.

Moreover, maybe you will want to know the distance between two trees to see if it is suited for making a shelter.

However, like any other skill, estimating distance takes practice. This method is based on the Pythagorean Theorem, but don’t worry, there is nothing to compute!

There is no math calculations involved. No square roots, no dividing, no multiplication, no algebra. If you can walk a straight line and count simple steps, you can use this method to estimate distance. In fact, all you really need is a stick.

Estimating Distance with Right Triangles


Estimations are more than guessing. They are based on computations and they are tremendously useful for many tasks in bushcraft, homesteading and outdoor self-reliance.

Here’s how it works:

Step 1: Locate a Landmark

This method requires a lot of open space along the river or creek. Hilly terrain will affect your estimate as well.

Spot a landmark (tree/rock) across the divide that you intend to cross (Point X). By standing directly across from it, mark the ground with a stick or scrap of your boot. Point Y is where you begin counting your first 20 steps.

Step 2: Start Stepping

Turn 90 degrees away from Point X and take 20 steps in as straight as possible path. Drive a stick in the ground at your 20th step. This is Point A. The stick should be tall enough. You may want to tie a bandana or other material to make it easy to spot.

Step 3: More Stepping

From Point A, continue in a straight path by taking another 20 steps. Mark this spot as Point B with a small stick or rock.

Step 4: Turn 90 Degrees

While standing on Point B, turn 90 degrees with your back towards the river or ravine. Now, begin walking perpendicularly away from the river. Make sure that you count your steps. As you step, look back towards the stick on point A. Stop when you visually line up with Point A and Point X (the landmark across the river). This is Point C on the diagram.

The number of steps from Point B to Point C is the approximate distance across the divide.

That’s pretty much everything that you need to do. However, I told you about taking steps and walking in a straight line. Did you know that people have a tendency of walking in circles? I am going to give you some useful information that might help you in a survival situation.

Counting Paces (a step represents a pace)


An average person has a pace of 30” (76 cm) and will walk at three miles an hour over flat ground. You should calculate your own pace in order to estimate time and distance successfully.

To help you count your pace, count your right foot pace only and multiply by two when you reach 100 paces.

In order to keep track of your counted paces, put pebbles or nuts in one pocket and transfer one to the other one at each 100 paces.

Walking in Circles

Circle of Footprints 2

The difference in leg length that we all have will cause the person to veer if he is walking normally. The deviation is greater at a faster pace and is increased when the head is bent forward as when carrying a back pack. The full circle march time can vary from one to six hours.

Other causes may include:

Our dominant eye. If you point at something, at a distance, with both eyes open, you will see that the finger has been aligned with only one eye.

Wrong balance of items in a back pack or the pack being incorrectly adjusted on the back. For example, if you tie one strap of it tighter, it may make you veer to the right.

Wind, rain, snow and the slope of a hill are other possible factors that may contribute to you veering right or left.

If you approach an obstacle, you might tend to pass on the „right” side or up-slope and gradually veer off course.

How to Walk in a Straight Line


If you are in an open, treeless place, pick a distant landmark and walk towards it or orient yourself by it.

Find two landmarks ahead of you and line them up, or find two prominent points behind you and do the same. Look back ever so often to make sure that you are still on course.

If there is only one landmark available, place a second one (a flag on a stick which is lined up with a distant hill and walk forward). Also, make small fires along your path to help maintain your direction at day or at night. This is tremendously useful on a flat surface as a plain or desert.

Factors that Affect Estimation:

  • In bright light or when the Sun is shining from behind the observer.
  • When looking across a depression that is totally visible.
  • When vision is confined as in streets, draws or forest trails.
  • When the object is in sharp contrast with the background or is silhouetted because of its size, shape or color.
  • When seen in the clear air of high altitudes.
  • When the object blends into the background or terrain.

Moreover, you should know that objects look much farther away when:

  • The light is poor
  • The object is at the end of a long road.
  • You are looking over undulating ground.
  • The color of the object blends with the background.
  • When only a small part of the object can be seen or when the object is small in relation to its surroundings.
  • When looking downward from high ground
  • When looking down on a straight, open road or along a railroad.
  • In poor light, such as dawn and dusk; in rain, snow, fog; or when the Sun is in the observer’s eyes.

Now that you have all the necessary information, you can estimate distance, count your steps and walk in a straight line with no problem. They are all basic things that you need to know in order to survive in any type of situation.

What other things do you consider important in estimating distance? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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1 Comment

  1. Very useful information. Thank you for sharing it!

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