Danger! Peligro! If you are a licensed, professional
land-surveyor, reading this article may be a threat to your health
and well-being as it contains enough estimates, approximations and
out-and-out guesses as to risk inducing headaches, vomiting and/or
hypertension in individuals trained in the exacting science of Civil
If, on the other hand,
you are a typical homesteader, you may find that this article, if
used judiciously, may give you the ability to measure your land and
locate your boundaries to a vague, kinda-sorta accuracy without
costing you one red cent.
If you have a reasonably
correct legal description of your property using the Government
Rectangular Survey or the Public Land Survey System method (GRS/PLSS), and a few simple tools, then you can get a
very good idea of the approximate size or location of any rural
Here’s what you’ll need;
All the maps of your property that you can
lay your hands on, especially including aerial photographs. If
you have, and are somewhat familiar with
Google Earth, that would
be oh-so-cool as well.
Remember that the goal of
Hafast Surveying is the reasonable approximation. What professional
surveying is to a Monet or a Rembrandt, Hafast Surveying is to a sketch
on a napkin.
First, let’s suppose that
you know where a corner of your property is, and you want to find the
back line. Let’s also say that your property is a rectangular twenty
acres like this one:
shows a ghost image of the twenty acres we want to define and the
one corner we're pretty sure we know which will be where we begin
Such 20’s as this are the most
common form of 20-acre parcel, usually described as ½ of a ¼ of a ¼
section. It will have a nominal size of 660 feet by 1320 feet. (If you’re already
getting confused, maybe you should read my companion article,
How to Read Your Deed, which waltzes you through the basics of land
Since most properties are
laid out using GRS/PLSS, the first thing we need to know is where the
closest established line can be found. A pretty good (a/k/a hafast) way to do this
is by using aerial photography.
In days gone by, you
could get aerial photos from the U.S. Conservation Service simply by
paying an outlandish fee and spending a few weeks following ridiculous
however, you can
locate the same photos for free at MSRMaps.com, the former MicroSoft Terraserver. (Free, that is on your
computer monitor, you still have to pay
for hard copies.)
use MSRMaps as much as I used to use Terraserver because I now have
Google Earth, which unlike Terraserver, allows me to zoom in and out
than just magnify and reduce. Better yet, I can take surprisingly
accurate measurements without having to calculate and scale.
However, in this instance, I chose to use MSR because like many of their black and white
images, the one of the property I'm interested in was taken during the winter months, and it shows ground details like
trails and roads that may be obscured by foliage in the summer months.
(U.S.C.S. photos also tend to be older than Google Earth images, and
there are times when it’s helpful to see what might have been a few
The first step in locating
the property should be to step back and take a long view of the area.
Unless the neighborhood is composed exclusively of very large parcels,
we should be able to discern a grid-work of the GRS/PLSS system such as you see
in the photo below. (I apologize, I had to go two or three miles
from my subject property to find obvious property lines to follow, so
the scale may make this photo a little hard to understand.)
See the patterns? Most of the
single squares are 40-acre tracts that we can easily discern
from this altitude. While one has to watch out for jogs
and extensions in this system, this is still a good way to
confirm where boundary lines run in your neighborhood.
What I've done here is
locate what are obviously accepted boundary lines in the general
neighborhood that share the same trajectories as two boundaries of the
property I'm interested in.
I've found two of the
boundaries of the parcel by this method, then I've marked them with blue
lines. If you can find two perpendicular sides of a
property, you’re halfway home in confirming the location of the corner
you want to start with. This step isn't always necessary if you've
already got an idea of where one corner is, but it's nice to confirm
that everything appears to be in order.
lower-altitude view shows the convergence of the lines we drew
from further away confirming that the spot which we guessed was
our corner is indeed so.
Next, I find the same corner in
Google Earth and, using the ruler
function, which I've set to “path” I'll measure out the other two
boundaries, and with that, I’ve got the boundary lines
Here's the corner we've
located for our starting point. Looks like and old fence-row
with trees growing along it.
Now I look for landmarks on
my photo which are clear enough that I can locate them both on the aerial photo and on
the ground. It’s preferable for these to be at the corner of the
property if possible, so as to avoid further measuring, but if you can
find something that’s only along a boundary but not at a corner, you can
measure from there back to the corner.
example, I’ve found a line of trees that look like something we’ll be
able to recognize on the ground, but small enough to define as our
corner when we arrive there in the real world.
Now it’s time to hop into the truck and go out to
the site. When you do, don't forget to print out copies of the maps
and photos we’re using from the aerial
photography and take it with you along with the compass and survey
This is a pretty obvious
corner, we'll be traveling to the east (left side of the
photo) from here.
In the photo above, we've arrived at the corner that we located on the
aerial photo. We’ve found the trees we saw from the air, plus we were
lucky enough to locate a old survey pin (in this case a piece of bent
rebar) marking the corner, so we know
we’re (probably) in the right spot.
The first thing I do is to mark the corner with a
double ribbon on the nearest tree or shrub. I'm going to be going
east from here, so I make sure that the tail of the ribbon hangs down on
the east side so that it will be visible for a longer distance.
Now it’s time to start measuring to the next
corner, and by “measuring” I’m being rather euphemistic. If we were
real surveyors (at least in the pre-GPS days) we’d be getting out a long
steel tape or chain, as well as a chain-saw, lopping shears and maybe a
machete in order to clear a path. That would take a lot of time, be a
lot of work and would require at least two people.
Luckily though, we’re just here to do a hafast job, so instead of taking an exact measurement, we’re going to step off
Generally, when people pace off distances, they make
long, exaggerated strides that they then count as three feet each. That,
unfortunately, is just too hafast, even for us.