Pacing Beads - A 3,000 word study image

Pacing Beads - A 3,000 word study

September 19, 2022

Reading Time: 22 minutes.
"For want of a nail the shoe was lost.

For want of a shoe the horse was lost.

For want of a horse the rider was lost.

For want of a rider the message was lost.

For want of a message the battle was lost.

For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.

And all for the want of a horseshoe nail."

I've always been overly fixated by small things, the stuff that people don't view as that important when set against the big. I suppose I don't see small things as separate from each other, but rather the aggregate, that big things are formed by small things. Sometimes these things are so small we have to imagine or guess them into existence; the universe, for example, the biggest thing there is, made from the atoms of normal matter, as well as dark matter and dark energy, maybe.

The ability to write a 300,000-word book just on abseiling was not about studying the exercise as a whole, which obviously only requires a book of a page or two, but rather all its thousands of small parts.

Sometimes, it's an interesting exercise to take a small detail and see how far you can run with it, to see what you can discover. Perhaps in digging deep and thinking harder - too hard - you will often discover something important that most others have overlooked, that might be a small thing that is a big thing, the dark matter, I suppose.

So in this short article, I thought I'd run with a small detail of navigation, something most people don't use, but they should, and see where we get.

A first counting machine

Suppose the first thing humans counted was the day, 1 and 0, with 1 being that you made it to the end of the day, and 0 meaning you didn't. Next came the seasons, well the Winter, counting the Winters you survived. I guess early humans would soon realise, pass down, and codify that a certain number of days would span the time between winters, then the first snow to the last, when things grow green and growing, and when they turned brown and died. In terms of survival and human evolution, the ability to count was crucial. Without clocks, ancient people tried to mark time with signs and then monuments, that when the snowdrop appears, and the birds sing, or the sun shines between two stones, Winter was over.

The ability to store value amongst your group by sharing what you have and then ask for that portion to be repaid later no doubt required some rudimentary bookkeeping, first with fingers and then - perhaps - with marks on bone.

I expect the fact that beads are used as counters on an abacus show that before the abacus, there were just beads, that early human would use unique and rare objects, such as foxes teeth, claws, amber, pearls, as ways of counting, and also holding value (would that be an explanation for many religions using beads as holy items for prayer?).

Their agricultural revolution around 10,000BC led to a requirement to do much harder math, and although I'm sure there were many Betamax attempts at keeping a tally of large numbers, it was the abacus that won out around 2700BC. The invention of the abacus can perhaps be traced back via its etymology, in that the ancient Greek term abacus refers to a dust-covered board that could be written on, and how this probably led to a board that hold beads or tokens, that board becoming grooved, then later having the counters captured on cord or rods.

The impact on the humble abacus, when matched to a skilful and sharp human brain, allowed complex mathematical problems to be solved, with tallied numbers held in place in order to free up the mind to do complex sums, even square and cubit roots (whatever they are).

Which, in a roundabout way, leads us to pacing beads.

What is pacing?

To the uninitiated, pacing is used inland navigation as a way to estimate your position from a known point to an impossible-to-confirm point. The best example would be the descent from the summit of Ben Nevis in whiteout when you cannot see more than a metre in front of you, but with cliffs climber eating cliffs all around. In this case, you need to walk 150 metres from the summit for 150 metres at a bearing of approx 231deg, then right to 282deg, and walk 300 metres on the easy ground (without a compass, you might suspect you're walking in circles), and then drop down steeper ground for 100 metres, coming very close to the North face, death cliffs and cornices, and McLean's Steep. Now you carry on on the same bearing for another 800 metres, being aware that you now have the killer Five Finger gully and cliffs on your left. Once you've walked 1200 metres from your initial turn, you should know you're on safe ground and hopefully below the storm. If not, keep on naving!

The idea of a whiteout is something that's hard to grasp until you've been in one, or its ability to mess with your head, leaving most people lost, confused and bamboozled.

Most walkers learn to measure the distance over time and would first need to work out what their average speed is on flat, easy terrain, which is around 5 kph, and then work out what that would be in knee-deep snow, which will more than half your speed, so say 2 kph. Now divide that for your 150-metre first leg, giving you a time of around 4 min 30 seconds, then 36 minutes for your second leg, with greater care taking place at minute 9 and then after 24. All these figures and timings are approximated, but the only way most mortals would even know these would be if they'd already worked them out beforehand and written them onto the mat and have a pace card to make adjustments (if the snow has all blown away, you've travelled at 5kph, turn right too soon and walk over the top of the North face).

For the above scenario, in the real world, the first thing that happens is you find out your watch is buried under all your layers (if you have one), and you need to remove it and place it on your rucksack strap. You will also find that your watch GPS has been on all day, and it's dead, or all its buttons are inoperable when wearing big gloves and numb fingers.

But eventually, you get your watch set right and roped together (in case you fall over the North face), you set the stop watch and begin walking 231 deg for 4 minutes 30 seconds, compass in hand as you cannot take any bearings.

At 20 seconds, you fall over and drop your compass, and again at 50 seconds. One of your crampons falls off at 130 seconds, and the rope goes tight at 60 metres, as your mate isn't ready, and the rope is caught between his legs. Your iced up watch shows you set off 2 minutes ago, but you think you've lost about 20 seconds and no longer feel confident you will hit the next leg correctly.

You stop and wonder what to do and try and take a back bearing but can only see one metre. Now you're watching is showing 3 minutes.

You stand and wait for your partner to work out a plan.

He arrives, and seeing as you're not sure where you are, only the bearing you think you're on. You decide to go back to the summit and try again, on a bearing of 51 degrees, but unsure now how far away it is, plus you find it hard to use the compass with your mitts on, plus it keeps flying around, so you're not sure if it's still pointing the right way.

Of course, you walk for 3 minutes, stumbles included, and then another 3, until you're sure you've missed the summit and now have cliffs all around you and have no idea where you are.

Pace Counting

The alternative scenario for this climbing team is they forgo timing for pacing. The leader knows they will cover 100 metres in 67 strides (so right leg steps 67 times in 100 metres, give or take 10%). A quick calculation tells him that 150 metres will be approximately 100 paces. Although deep, the leader knows the effect on pacing is minimal, as the snow is deep but soft, and so adds another 10%, so he has to walk 110 strides (or 210 steps), at 231 deg, before turning on the next bearing.

With deep focus, and with the same number of stumbles and trips, the climber reaches the deviation; they have already worked out a rough time for that 150 metres of 4:30 and seeing he's gone 5:00 minutes, it works out that he's in the correct spot.

After waiting for his buddy to catch up with him, he now takes a bearing of 282 deg and knows he must walk 300 metres, so 201 steps, but up to 222 for the conditions underfoot.

He sets off again, checking his watch first, and around the count of 150, he begins to focus hard on the ground in front of him, aware he is close to the top of the North face.

He begins to stop and make snowballs and throw them forward, then walk to them, both using them as a navigational aid and to avoid falling over a cliff or cornice.

After 222 steps, he stops and makes sure he's not standing on a cornice; he brings up his partner again, checks his bearing again, and now walks out for another 73 steps, walking slowly but at the same pace.

After 100 metres (73 steps), he knows he should be close to McLean's Step and has to keep the bearing for another 800 metres to get to safe ground. Seeing as this is 589 paces (536 + 53), he knows he's going to struggle to count that long without getting distracted and so needs some method of counting the distance. But how?

Tally counting

The number of steps can be checked in all sorts of ways when walking normally, such as just counting on your fingers, putting stones in your pocket, tying knots in a sling or compass lanyard, moving wires onto an empty karabiner. You can also share the count with your partner or even make it their job to count while you focus on the compass (or they have the compass and use the leader as a reference point to stick to a bearing).

But by far, the best method of pace counting in extremis is pacing or "Ranger" beads, like the abacus, simple, low tech, but very robust and intuitive.

How they work

Not wanting to tell you how to suck eggs, pacing beads comprise a length of cord, either independent and so easily clipped into a rucksack trap or compass or made using the compass lanyard itself. Onto this cord is threaded either a bead or cord-lock, with the number ranging between four, five, ten and thirteen, with the number of counters allowing you to measure longer and more complex distances (thirteen counters will allow you to keep track of distance over 5 kilometres for example).

When using pace beads, you slide one bead up every 100 metres or every 10 metres if it's very difficult conditions, where counting to 67 is not possible. Once you've pushed up the last bead, you should be aware you've covered a set distance, which will generally be 900 metres (pushing your nine beads back down and resting the beads signals 1km, or 100 metres).

Counter variations

Here's a breakdown of how to use different numbers of counters:

4 Counters

This is a compact set-up and ideal for placing on a compass lanyard; the distance measured with 4 counters would be 500 metres (or 50 metres in extremis… or 5 metres!). As above, a counter is pushed up with each segment of the distance travelled, with the missing 5th counter being replaced by the action of all counters being reset to their starting position. For distances longer than 5 it's assumed that a person can remember that they've covered such a distance before resetting the cord. I think it is the best number for most people, as actual pace counting is not done as often as you'd imagine when reading books on mountain skills.

5 and 10 counters

This is much easier to grasp, as you either have one counter for each distance covered either 5 or 10. 5 counters is not as good as the method above. In contrast, 10 counters are quite a lot of counters on, say a compass lanyard, being bulky unless they're small, filling up a whole pocket if using cord locks.

9 counters

Same as 4 methods, but able to measure units of 10.

13 counters

This is the most advanced type of tallying tool and comprises two groups of counters on the same cord, separated by a knot. These two groups comprise 9 counters and 4 counters. At the end of each reset of the nine groups of counters, so every 1000 metres, one of the four are moved up, with the 4 reset to signify 5 km. This allows someone to accurately count distances of up to 5 km or 500 metres in extremis. I suppose you're wondering who would need to measure such large distances and need such a set-up; well, this would generally be of most use to someone navigating in thick jungle, although a lot of non GPS jungle navigation, or analogue nav, is done using a tally counter that counts up to 5000 (Gurkas, for example, have a tally counter attached to their rifle). A secondary use for a tool that can count to 5000, is it's a handy tool when counting without pen or paper, such as the number of chocolate bars or gas canisters left.


There are several options for counters, with size, shape and colour things to consider. Here's a breakdown of the options:

My observation is that the majority of people use sprung cord locks for pace counting, generally having ten on their compass lanyard. The problem with cord-locks used is there's pretty large and bulky when combined in a pocket or rucksack lid, and the metal parts, when combined (say held in your hand with the compass on top), can affect your compass needle - not good! If cord-locks are to be used, then I'd recommend going for mini cord-locks (costing about 20p each), keep the number down to just 4, and be aware that they can nock a needle a little, so keep them a few centimetres away from the compass body.

One advantage of larger cord locks would be operating in large mittens.

A very good alternative to a cord-lock is a bead, as they're cheap and can be purchased in countless sizes, weights and materials. For a pace counter, you're best going for nylon beads or wooden beads, or titanium, as these should be robust enough for being stepped on and abused when attached to a rucksack strap (you'll step on them when the pack is on the ground). Glass beads should be avoided.

The problem with both cord-locks and most beads are that they are a uniform shape, as in there's no easily identifiable top or bottom, or up or down. The ability to identify the direction of travel comes in handy when you have the cord in a pocket, and you see you see you've moved either five beads and have four left or moved four and have five left. By using a shaped counter, such as a pointed or arrow-shaped one, you can move the counters in the right direction. The only option for constructing such a counter, unless you can find them in a bead shop, is to use nylon cord ends (11p), the little cone-shaped pieces of plastic that go on the end of 3 or 4 mm cord.

One way to have a counter that works like a cord-lock, is directional, small, and does not affect the needle, is they try and track down the Nifco CALT1 mini cord lock for 2mm cord, which is small, have no metal parts, but has a directional shape (you can get these from to see if they work for you, plus all other counters).

An alternative to having directional counters is using colour wisely, say having your lower counters (1-4) red and the upper counters (5-9) blue. Brighter colours can also help to identify where your compass when set down on snow or sat on a rock or hut bench. You can also use glow in the dark counters, but I think if you don't have a head-torch on, then you won't be able to see your map, so you're probably not going to be pacing.

An alternative to using glow in the dark beads is to use a reflective cord, with the easiest to find being 2.5 mm guy line cord or 4 mm 550 cord, which works with your headtorch beam to highlight where your counters are, plus shows you where your compass is.

Lastly, you can also make up your own counters using 550 cord, although this will also single you out as a prepper!


The typical cord used for making your own independent (not fixed to your compass) pacing beads is 550 cord, or para-cord, as it's soft and flat but still very strong and tends to be less bulky in your pocket than an equivalent climbing cord, but the 2mm lanyard cord on a compass is used most often to hold the counters, but this can be replaced by something more bespoke.

One note about compass lanyards is that if adding in counters, make sure you don't inhibit the ability to put the compass lanyard over your head (making it an actual lanyard), or clip it to yourself, and don't be worried about beefing up the cord, as for mountain use, rather than Swedish forests, having a cord that's easier to grasp or tie knots into (like 550 cord), can be a bonus.

When tying your cord, make sure you give your counters enough room to separate out (some people only leave one or two counter spaces), so you can see the gap.

If making an independent cord, make sure you have a loop at each end, with the primary end's loop being large enough to easily larks foot the cord to a rucksack strap or zipper tab. The actual length of the cord needs to be 'long enough', but not too long, and the ideal length (dictated by your counter number) need to be able to attach to a rucksack strap, and the end tucked in to stop it whipping you in the face, but not so long that it dangles down. The ideal length for me is generally a little longer than a chest strap so that I can clip one end to each shoulder strap, so the cord sits above the chest strap, making it both easier to spot, stops it from hitting your face (and cracking your teeth), and reduces the chances of your counters being shifted.


So there you go, 3000 words about a couple of cord-locks attached to a length of string, which is I put a bit more thought into, might be enough material for a book!!!


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