Are you interested in LAND?  Then you might find one of these articles handy:

Homestead Woodlot Management by Doug Smith

Yesterday’s Fence for Today’s Homestead by Kathryn Wingrove

Living with Poison Oak by Wade Truex

Homestead Prepping: Buying a B.O.L. by Doug Smith

Attract Wildlife to Your Property by Doug Smith

Crofting Life by Magdalena Perks

Buying Land at a Tax Auction by Neil Shelton

How to Sell Your Land Yourself and Move on with Your Life by Neil Shelton

How to do a Genuinely Hafast Job of Surveying Your Own Land by Neil Shelton

Dendrology Demystified - A Tree Tutorial by D. Glenn MIller

Dendrology Demystified: A Tree Tutorial - Part Two by D. Glenn Miller

You CAN Afford Your Homestead Dream by Tony Colella




How to do a Genuinely Hafast Job of

Surveying Your Own Land

by Neil Shelton



Disclaimer: Warning! 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 Engineering.  

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 property. 

Here’s what you’ll need;

  •  A compass

  • A calculator

  • Survey ribbon

  • 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:

This photo 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 our "survey".

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 description.)

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 governmental protocol.

Nowadays however, you can locate the same photos for free at, the former MicroSoft Terraserver.  (Free, that is on your computer monitor, you still have to pay for hard copies.)  

I don’t 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 smoothly, rather 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 years before.) 

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.

This 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 closed in.

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.

In my 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 ribbon.

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 the distance.

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.

Continued on page 2   >


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