The Pace Counter

attached colors

Also known as “pace beads”, “ranger beads”, “SAS beads”, and by other names, this simple piece of gear is a kind of crude 2-digit abacus used for land navigation. It will help you keep track of the distance you’ve traveled.

To use, first determine ahead of time through experimentation how many paces you walk in 100 meters on clear, level land. Let’s say for simplicity you have to walk 100 paces to move 100m. Now, start with all the beads pulled up. The top group represents kilometers (or klicks), and the bottom group tenths. When moving, every 100 paces move one of the beads in the bottom group down. As the bottom group goes from 0 to 9 beads down, you are counting from 0.0 to 0.9km. When you walk the 10th group, you need to “carry a one” (just like the last digits of an odometer going from 09 to 10) so pull the bottom set all up (back to 0) and pull one down from the top group (adding 1). The count is now 1 and 0 (1.0km). Continue on this way and you get up to 4.9km with all the beads from both groups down. When you’ve walked one more group of paces, you’ve walked 5km and it’s time for your odometer to roll over (since 5km is as high as it counts), so pull everything back up and start over at 0.0km.

Bear in mind that the terrain will affect how many paces you walk per 100m. Generally you’ll make longer paces going downhill, and shorter uphill, so you’ll need to count less or more paces respectively before counting a beads. Obstacles, brush, etc will also affect your stride. Through practice, you can learn to estimate the degree of these affects and adjust your counting accordingly.

Obviously based on the maps you’re using and other factors, you might prefer to count in miles/tenths instead of in metric. Just figure out you pace count per 176 yards (.1 mile) instead of per 100m.

Making a Pace Counter

It’s very easy to make a pace counter, but if you don’t want to deal with minimum order quantities, shipping costs from multiple vendors, etc., I custom make them in a wide variety of color combinations for a nominal fee. Email to enquire. (NOTE: I am not happy with the durability of the beads I have been using, so I'm not making them for others right now. If you find a good source for sturdy beads in the right size, please let me know!)

You will need the following items:

  • At least 2 feet of parachute cord (I find 25 inches about right)
  • Sharp scissors or knife for cutting it cleanly
  • A lighter (the butane jet variety works best for this purpose)
  • 13 pony beads, size 6x9mm

For parachute cord (aka paracord or 550 cord), Supply Captain is an excellent source. For beads, try Bolek’s Craft Supply.

Be sure to cut off any melted end of the paracord before measuring, so you don’t end up too short. 24 inches is really the minimum for a short but functional result. 25 or 26 inches gives a little more room for error in positioning the knots.

After cutting, do not melt the ends yet. First, pull out the internal cords and set them aside. This is commonly known as “gutting” the cord. The remaining part is known as the outer braid or gutted paracord. Save the internal cord, because you will use one of them as an assembly tool in a following step.

Now, with your lighter, melt just the very ends of the outer braid to prevent fraying (a butane jet type lighter works best for this) , then fold in half and tie a knot near the end.

Next you will need one of the pieces of internal cord you set aside. You don’t really need a two foot long piece, so cut one in half. Melt the ends with your lighter so that it’s doesn’t fray and is easy to thread through beads. Do whatever you like with the rest of the string, we won’t be needing it.

Loop the cord through the braid, and thread on 9 of the beads. These will be the lower set, counting in 100m increments.

Now, pull the braid and cord ends in opposite directions, and with your third hand, transfer the beads from the cord to the braid. (This is really not as hard as it sounds. One you pull the cord and braid opposite so that the cord is at the top of the braid loop, you can let go of the braid and pull on the beads. You don’t really need three hands!)

It helps to pull just one bead on first, and then you can pull the rest on in larger groups more easily.

Pull the beads all the way down to the knot, and make sure you’ve pulled both sides of the cord through so there isn’t a little loop sticking out one side or the other.

Now, tie another knot above this group of beads. Leave an inch or so of room for the beads to slide back and forth.


Now you’ll thread on the remaining four beads the same way as the first group. There will be the kilometer beads. loop cord through, thread on, pull beads over onto braid.

Finally, tie another knot above this group of beads, again leaving about an inch for the top group of beads to move along. If you measured your cord right and tied your knots accurately, there should be a loop left above the top knot that should also be about one inch long.

The finished result should look like the image to the right. Here I’ve pulled the beads to both ends of their sections of cord so you can see the extra length they have to slide along. (Quiz: what distance does it show? Answer: 2.5km)

The loop at the top is used to attach the pace counter to your gear. One way to do this is to put the counter through a loop or ring on a backpack or other strap, feed the bottom of the counter through the loop on top, and then pull tight.

Note that I’m showing it on the right side strap here, but being right handed, it would be better to put it on the left, leaving the right hand free. (See top for completed attachment).

Instead of attaching directly to the ring, you could instead cinch to some kind of hook, and then attach the hook to a ring or what have you. If you don’t have a ring to attach it to you could also use more paracord and leave a larger loop at the top, and then cinch the loop around the whole strap.

Another idea is to use a button on a pocket, as shown to the right. Simply put the top loop over the button, then button the pocket.

You can also make variants of the basic design for counting different things. Add more beads to the top section to achieve a larger maximum count, or eliminate the top section entirely if you only need to count a small number of things. For example, trying to drink a certain number of glasses of water a day? You could make a small counter for your keychain with only one section.