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Gear talk: Pacer Beads

A short and easy DIY task for the winter months…

Where I want to have an idea of how much distance I am covering on trail, I may use a cheaply made and easy to use item. These are my pacer beads.

Clip it compass and ranger beads
Thirteen pacer beads hang from pack shoulder strap

Do people still use Pacer Beads? Well Three Points of the Compass does. It isn’t often that I use these, but just occasionally they have been of great assistance in fog, white-out conditions or similar. They hang from my packs shoulder strap for those times when I want to keep track of my progress across shortish distance to be covered. Usually this is less than a kilometre but just occasionally more. Most often they are used when navigating across moorland in the mist, or a gap to be walked between sidetrails on a track and ensuring I take the correct one.

Pacer beads, also known as Ranger Beads, are an ‘old-school’ analogue tool, which probably means they are not complicated enough for many to consider. But this lightweight, cheap and simple aid can negate the need to fish out the digital aid, be-it phone or GPS. This pace-counting method was good enough for Roman legionnaires as they conquered Europe and it is still a viable technique today.

Hiking in the Black Mountains. Pacing technique can be useful in largely featureless environments
Hiking in the Black Mountains. Pacing technique can be useful in largely featureless environments

You may be aware of Naismith’s Rule- 5km takes roughly one hour to walk plus 10 minutes for every 100m of ascent. To supplement or replace this. I can use pacing technique alongside my pacer beads. On the infrequent occasions when keeping track of the distance I am walking. I move one bead along the cord for each hundred metres I walk, when I have moved all nine beads down, I move one of the four beads down, that is one kilometre walked, then I start with the others again, which have all been returned to the starting end of the cord. From this, I have the means to record up to five kilometres of walking.

As to how to account for what 100m of walking is, that requires a little knowledge of personal pacing. A pace is a double step [a double left (or right) foot strike]. This should be worked out in advance (do it tomorrow). Measure out a hundred metres and walk the distance- how many paces? Try this on various terrains and gradients. My and your pacing will differ, and this can also alter with headwind, tailwind, incline and difficulty of terrain. A subject for a separate blog perhaps.

Pearced wooden beads for hair braiding can be purchased very cheaply
Pearced wooden beads for hair braiding can be purchased very cheaply. These are perfect for making a set of Pacer beads

I have no idea if pacer beads can be purchased, but they are simple to make. All that is required is a length of paracord or similar (Firecord would double up as a short piece of emergency tinder) and a few beads. Many years ago I pinched a handful of light and robust plastic beads from a young Miss Three Points of the Compass and they lasted me a decade.

Wood, glass, plastic and ceramic beads can easily be found online and in craftshops and haberdashers. Ideally four beads of one colour and nine of another are used. Ten beads could be used instead of nine if counting in a different manner. These are separated by a knot in the cord. I am not going into detail on how to make a bead ranger as a picture or two reveals all.

A wire paper clip is used to string beads onto a piece of cordage

My length of green paracord is around 60cm, then doubled and knotted as shown, though it could be shorter. A single bootlace would also suffice. My blue and red beads are 8mm in diameter each with an internal ‘bore’ of 4mm. However just about any sort of cord could be used, with beads or cord locks to suit, that fit snugly and can be slid easily yet hold position by themself. My complete set- of paracord with 13 blue and red plastic beads, weighed 5g.

Having lost one of the blue beads I made a replacement set with small wood beads. Beads are 7mm diameter with an internal bore of 3mm. Threading double strands of a 50cm length of 1.5mm cordage through these gives a snug fit. This new set of pacer beads weighs just 3 grams. This is 20cm long when made.

Pacer beads hang from the pack
A cheaply made yet effective set of Pacer Beads
A cheaply made yet effective set of Pacer Beads. These weigh 3g

Alternatively, look at what lengths of cord are already being carried on trail. Smaller (or larger) beads can be slid onto a compass lanyard, or join a mini torch on a necklace. The 13 large beads that are slid onto the lanyard of my Suunto MC-2G compass shown here weigh 4g. However I do prefer a dedicated set hanging from my packs shoulder strap.

Large wooden beads strung onto compass lanyard can be used for pacing, beside a smaller set of dedicated pacer beads
Sprung cord locks can be used instead of beads
Sprung cord locks can be used instead of beads

Pacer beads can be used in any manner that suits the user. I use these for kilometer pacing however they can easily be adapted for miles. Or slide a bead for every ten paces, or any other way you want to record distance/paces walked. An alternative manner would be to eschew pacer beads entirely- simply pick up ten pebbles, drop one every 100 metres walked, once your hands are empty, you have walked a kilometre.

Three Points of the Compass walked across the UK in 2018. I stopped in with friends Colin and Annette for a couiple of days for R&R en route. Mrs Three Points of the Compass came to join me, bring resupply with her (new trail shoes). Setting off afterward, my pacer beads can be seen hanging from my packs shoulder strap
Three Points of the Compass walked across the UK for five months in 2018. Reaching Somerset, I stopped in with friends Colin and Annette for a couple of days R&R en route. Mrs Three Points of the Compass came to join me, bringing resupply with her (new trail shoes). Here, I am setting off from their farmhouse. Pacer beads can be seen hanging from my packs shoulder strap

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