How to Measure Your Walking Distance

Couple on walking path checking their phone and smartwatch

Tang Ming Tung / Getty Images

How do you know how far you have walked? There are several ways to measure your walking distance, more so than ever before thanks to mobile apps, GPS, and computer mapping. The best one to use will depend on whether you are walking outdoors or indoors as well as your budget and the information you're collecting such as distance, pace, calories burned, and so on.

Measuring walking distance can be helpful for a number of reasons. You might be training for an event or race, following a workout or training plan that requires specific distances, or you simply want to log your distance and pace and compare your progress over time. Learn about the pros and cons of different technologies that can measure walking distance to determine which one is right for you.

Mobile Phone GPS Apps

In the ancient past (as in, just a few years ago) you needed a special GPS unit to measure walking distance via satellite technology. But now GPS is built into your smartphone and is used by walking apps that can track your speed and distance, such as MapMyWalk.

Mobile Apps Pros

These apps couldn't be more convenient since it's likely you'll bring your phone along with you on your walk. Besides knowing how far you've walked, you can also see the route you've taken, which can help you navigate back to where you started.

Many smart pedometers and fitness bands, such as Fitbit, are linked to apps that have an exercise-tracking function that will use the phone's GPS to map and measure your walk. In addition to measuring total distance, you often can review your route on a map, and some apps allow you to save and use the same route again.

Mobile Apps Cons

The accuracy of GPS distance measurement depends on several factors. Phone GPS measurements tend to be off by as much as 10%. This is because your phone must have frequent communication with multiple GPS satellites.

If your phone doesn't have a clear view of the sky, it won't be locking position with as many satellites. If your phone loses contact with one or more satellites, you can see a sudden jump in distance. If you look at your route as plotted on a map, you can see this "GPS jitter" and the errors it introduces.

If you are walking in an area with many tall buildings, in a deep valley, or next to a hill, you may see more GPS inaccuracy and loss of signal. Plus, GPS is often lost and doesn't work well indoors. It won't measure your distance on the treadmill because your position isn't changing.

For better distance accuracy, you can walk the same route several times and compare the distance each time.

GPS Watches

More and more smartwatches and fitness bands are incorporating GPS for distance and speed readings, such as the Apple Watch and the Fitbit Sense and Versa. These allow you to leave your smartphone behind during your walking workout and still get GPS speed and distance measurements.

Garmin, TomTom, and others make GPS watches for runners and cyclists that also work for walkers. These often display both your speed and distance and may link with heart rate monitor straps or have LED pulse detection built-in.

GPS Watch Pros

These are easy to wear, provide a lot of data and information. They may be more convenient for checking on the fly compared to your mobile phone app.

GPS Watch Cons

GPS smartwatches are generally expensive and are also subject to GPS failures, which means they may not always provide the most accurate measure of your walking distance. 

GPS watches have the same drawbacks as your mobile phone GPS for losing contact with the satellites and not working indoors.

Online Maps

Using MapMyWalk online, you can create and measure a walking route. The website allows you to draw the routes and get a distance reading. MapMyWalk has both street view and a satellite view. You can zoom in on portions of the route that use a sidewalk or path that isn't along a street. With a premium subscription, you can print out maps and directions and export them to your phone app to use while walking.

Other online map services include Mapometer, a map-based route planner that calculates the distance and elevation of your walks, tracks your progress, and monitors the calories you burn. Similarly, Plot a Route is another route planner and activity tracker for walkers, runners, and bikers as is On the Go Map, which also tracks your distance and elevation and allows you to share your route with others.

Online Map Pros

These are often free or low-cost and you can use a path that’s not reachable by car. Depending on the program you choose, you may be able to save and reuse your routes.

Online Map Cons

In some cases, an online map can be tedious to draw out. You have to either remember where exactly where you walked or plan in advance. You'll also want to make sure that you don't deviate from the route in order to get the most accurate assessment of your activity.

Odemeters

You can drive a walking route in a car or measure it on a bike with an odometer. But the distance may be off depending on whether your odometer is properly calibrated for your tire size and other factors.

Odometers are the gold standard for walking events and running races, using a mechanical walking wheel that clicks off each yard or meter. Of course, these are not always appropriate or available for everyday use.

Odometer Pros

Odometers are easy to use and accessible for most people with a car or bike. They are generally quite accurate, which means you can rely on their assessments to stay on track with your mileage goals.

Odometer Cons

Car odometers will only work on the streets you can actually drive on. While a bike odometer may give you more access to paths and trails, you would have to invest in both a bike and bike odometer. This is also a fairly time-consuming activity and may not always provide you with an accurate reading compared to a car odometer.

Pedometers and Fitness Trackers

Pedometer and fitness tracker steps are translated into a distance measurement based on your stride length. Many pedometers ask you to measure your stride length and enter it into your user profile, then it automatically calculates the distance you walk.

For this to be reliable, you need to have a very consistent stride. It's wise to use the pedometer distance reading only to get an estimate and not to rely on it as an official reading. If your pedometer doesn't calculate steps to distance for you, there are charts to convert steps into miles and kilometers.

Fitness Tracker Pros

Pedometers and fitness trackers are relatively inexpensive, easy to wear, and require no extra time. In general, most can provide an accurate reading of heart rate and calories burned.

Fitness Tracker Cons

Some fitness trackers, such as pedometers, may not always provide an accurate step count, particularly among slower-paced walkers. However, improved technology has made wearable trackers increasingly more accurate, according to research. But results can vary if your stride length is inconsistent. Trackers you can wear on your waist, hip, arm, or wrist are generally more accurate than trackers placed in your pocket.

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