How to Estimate Height in the Woods

estimating heights featImagine this: you’re in the woods, and you want to know how far you would have to climb to get to a certain point, or how far a particular place is from you. No matter the situation you’re in, knowing how to estimate heights can be tremendously important, if not even crucial.

I do not mean to be overly dramatic, but accurate estimations may save you in the outdoors. Take campsite, for instance. Let’s imagine that you find the perfect place to camp: there is a water source near you and firewood close at hand. However, when you look up to scan the horizon before dropping your pack, you spot a very tall, dead tree. How tall is it? Can it reach your campsite if it falls?

Doing a quick estimate of the height so that you can sleep without worry of that tree crashing through your tent is the best thing to do. However, you need to know how to do it, and that is what I am going to teach you.

There are four accurate ways to estimate the height of trees and other structures in case you do not have a compass.

1. Lumberjack Stick


This method is the easiest, and it involves no math calculations. Grab a small stick or twig. Ax handles work, too.

Put some distance between you and the tree or object. Facing the tree, hold a stick vertically so that a 90-degree angle is formed between your outstretched arm. Align the tip of the stick with the top of the tree. Move your hand up or down to the bottom of the stick until your thumb aligns with the base of the tree while the tip is in line with the treetop.

Now, rotate the stick 90 degrees clockwise (for left-handers) or counterclockwise (for right-handers). Make sure that your thumb is on the pivot point – base of the tree. Make a mark of where the tip of the stick appears to touch the ground. If you have a partner, they can stand and mark the spot with your directions. The distance from this spot back to the base of the tree is the approximate height of the tree.

This method is recommended for determining the path of a tree that is going to fall or be cut.

2. The Portrait Method

Let’s say that you meet a cliff, and you cannot decide if you want to 4-easy-ways-to-estimate-height-in-the-woods-thesurvivalsherpa-com-1climb it or not, as you are not sure of its height. This method is the solution to this problem.

Place an object of known height at the base of the cliff. This object could be a person or walking staff. Stand back away from the rock face. Hold a small stick, as described in the previous method, so that the tip is aligned to the top of the object that you have just placed at the base of the cliff. Moreover, make sure that your thumb is sighted on the bottom of the known object.

Now, move this known unit of measure – thumb – to the tip of the stick, up the cliff face to give you an estimate of its height. I will give you an example: let’s say that your obstacle measures 4 units. Multiply the height of your known object with 4 to determine the height of the cliff ( ex: 6’ x  units = 24 feet).

3. Use Your Shadow

3-easy-ways-to-estimate-height-in-the-woods-thesurvivalsherpa-comIf it is a sunny day, you can use your shadow to estimate the height of an obstacle. The shadow on the ground is one side of a right triangle. The distance from the top of the tree to the end of the shadow is the hypotenuse. The tree forms the third side of the right triangle.

Start by measuring the distance of the tree’s shadow. Now, place an object of known height in the Sun. Look where this shadow ends and measure the distance or length of the shadow.

You are going to have 3 measurements:

  • Tree shadow
  • Your shadow
  • Your height

What you need to find out is the height of the tree. Let’s note it with „x”.

Set up a proportion using the corresponding sides of each triangle as illustrated in the diagram. Make sure that you place the relevant sides across from each other. For instance, the shadow lengths are the numerators (top numbers) and the height measurements are both denominators (bottom numbers). You can flip-flop these figures as long as the sides correspond to each other.

Cross multiply and divide to find the missing length. In the given example, the height is 24 feet. If you do the math right, this is a very accurate method.

4. Eleven + 1 Method

copy-of-3-easy-ways-to-estimate-height-in-the-woods-thesurvivalsherpa-comThis is another highly accurate way to determine height, and it only requires a stick.

From the base of the tree, measure 11 equal units straight away from it. The key to using this method accurately is to make the 11 units about the same distance as the object that you want to measure. For example, you may estimate that a tree seems to be about 30 feet tall. 30 divided by 11 gives you a rough estimate of 3 feet per unit. One of my walking steps would work for my unit measure. For a tree double that height, I would use two steps as my unit of measure.

Bend down to the ground with your dominate eye as close to the ground as possible at the 12th unit. Now, sight in the base of the tree to the bottom of the stick. Look up the stick until your line of sight crosses the stick at the top of the tree, and mark this spot on the stick. The distance between these two points in inches equals the height of the tree in feet.

Your Body as a Measuring Device

hand-sizing-diagramIn a survival situation, it is always helpful to know your personal measurements, just in case you do not have a measuring device (it can happen that you lose it, or it gets broken).

These are the personal measurements that you should know:

  • Thumb to pinky finger
  • Elbow to fingertip
  • Armpit to fingertip
  • Height standing flat-footed with hand extended above head
  • Fingertip to fingertip with arms spread forming a “t.”
  • Outside boot measurement
  • Personal height

You can use these measurements to estimate the length of rope, a piece of material or something that you find in the woods. Moreover, it is recommended that you also know the length of your equipment. You can note all of them on a small piece of paper and carry it with you at all times.

Each of these methods can be used without any particular equipment. All you need is a stick and some basic math skills.






What other methods of estimating height do you know? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.


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