Learn the art of Measuring Trail Lengths

Pharaoh Lake
Pharaoh Lake

If you’ve ever planned out a trip, you know that measuring trail lengths ahead of time can be tricky.  I’ve gotten pretty good at it, but sometimes I make mistakes.  I made such a mistake two weeks ago when planning out a route for a backpacking trip across New York’s Pharaoh Lakes Wilderness.  The results were some pretty unhappy campers (pun intended!)

The red numbers show trail length.
Some maps make measuring trail lengths easy. The red numbers show trail length.

Measuring Trail Lengths using Professional Maps or Guides

The best way to accurately measure your trail length is to use a professionally prepared map or guidebook which shows the distances between points of interest.  These types of resources can be found in stores or online for many areas that you might want to hike in.  Detailed maps of the Pharaoh Lakes Wilderness are found at CNY Hiking

twp maps
Measuring trail lengths with a map and string.

When planning using a paper map, your best bet is to carefully lay a piece of string along the trail, and then measure that string using the map’s scale.  The more carefully you lay out the string, the more accurate your measurement will be.  You may also set a compass (the kind used to draw circles) to an increment given by the scale, and then walk the compass along the trail.  Be careful doing this, because the larger the increment you use, the more detail you will miss and you will underestimate your trail length. 

Measuring Trail Lengths with Google Earth

Using Google Earth to measure.
Using Google Earth to measure trail lengths.

Google Earth is a great tool for trip planning, but care is needed.  When measuring a trail, you should zoom in and take time to map out every little squiggle the trail takes.  If you don’t, you risk greatly underestimating the length of your trip.  This is the mistake that had my friends and I walking three more miles than we thought we were going to the second day of our hike.  As careful as you are, you may still be a little off using this method if the overlay you’re using isn’t detailed enough.


 What’s the worst you’ve ever screwed up trip planning?