Map Scale - Measuring Distance on a Map

Measuring Distances on a Map: Map Scale

Picture of two teenagers reading a city map in Copenhagen.
Two teenagers trying to decipher a city map in Copenhagen. (Picture courtesy Muriel de Seze / Getty Images)

A map represents a portion of the Earth's surface. Since an accurate map represents the land, each map has a "scale" that indicates the relationship between a certain distance on the map and the distance on the ground. The map scale is usually located in the legend box of a map, which explains the symbols and provides other important information about the map. A map scale can be printed in a variety of ways.

A ratio or representative fraction (RF) indicates how many units on the earth's surface is equal to one unit on the map. It can be expressed as 1/100,000 or 1:100,000. In this example, one centimeter on the map equals 100,000 centimeters (1 kilometer) on the earth. It also means that one inch on the map is equal to 100,000 inches on the land (8,333 feet, 4 inches or about 1.6 miles). Or even 1 paperclip on the map is equal to 100,000 paperclips on the ground. Other common RFs include 1:63,360 (1 inch to 1 mile) and 1:1,000,000 (1 cm to 10 km).

A word statement gives a written description of map distance, such as "One centimeter equals one kilometer" or "One centimeter equals ten kilometers." Obviously, the first map would show much more detail than the second because one centimeter on the first map covers a much smaller area then on the second map.

The first two methods of indicating map distance would be ineffective if the map is reproduced by a method such as photocopying and the size of the map is modified.

If this occurs, and one attempts to measure an inch on the modified map, it's not the same as an inch on the original map.

A graphic scale does solve this problem because it is simply a line marked with distance on the ground which the map user can use along with a ruler to determine scale on the map.

In the U.S., a graphic scale often includes both metric and U.S. common units. As long as the size of the graphic scale is changed along with the map, it will be accurate.

Maps are often known as large scale or small scale. A large scale map refers to one which shows greater detail because the representative fraction (e.g. 1/25,000) is a larger fraction than a small scale map which would have an RF of 1/250,000 to 1/7,500,000. Large scale maps will have an RF of 1:50,000 or greater (i.e. 1:10,000). Those between 1:50,000 to 1:250,000 are maps with an intermediate scale. Maps of the world which fit on two 8 1/2 by 11-inch pages are very small scale, about 1 to 100 million.

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Your Citation
Rosenberg, Matt. "Map Scale - Measuring Distance on a Map." ThoughtCo, Mar. 3, 2017, Rosenberg, Matt. (2017, March 3). Map Scale - Measuring Distance on a Map. Retrieved from Rosenberg, Matt. "Map Scale - Measuring Distance on a Map." ThoughtCo. (accessed September 21, 2017).