Map Scale – Definition and Examples

Reading and interpreting maps (digital and paper versions) is a dying skill these days. Some people know the important role that scales play in creating maps, but we’re here to explain it for the folks who don’t.

Scales happen to be the foundation of accuracy and reliability in the world of cartography. If we make an effort to understand map scales and the role they play, we can interpret and create maps that give us a realistic representation of the world around us. If you’ve ever faced the daunting challenge of reading a map to find your way from point A to point B, you’d need to understand scales and how they work.

In this blog post, we dive deeper into the different types of scales and why it’s important to use the right one. We’ll help you explore what they represent, why they’re important, and give you some tips on how to interpret them.  


What is a Map Scale?

Let’s put this in a simple, easy-to-understand way – A map scale is a ratio that shows the relationship between the distance on a map and the actual distance on the Earth’s surface. It’s an important feature of any map. Scales make it easier to measure distances and determine the size of features like roads, rivers, and cities. Without a scale, it would be almost impossible to find our way around or measure things in a way that’s accurate. 

Why are map scales important?

We’ll use an example to explain the importance of map scales

You’re planning a hiking trip in a national park. You’re using a topographic map with a scale of 1:25 000.

What does that mean?

It means that 1 unit on the map is equal to 25 000 units in real life. If you measure the distance between two areas on the map and it’s 2 centimeters, multiplying that by 25 000 will give you 50. If you’re planning a route and don’t know the area well or need to estimate the time it’ll take you to get there, scales are part of the journey.

Understanding map scales also helps you read and understand different types of maps. For example, a large-scale map (let’s say, 1:10 000) offers a more detailed view of a small area, highlighting the finer details and making it a super useful tool for planning and surveying cities.

We also get small-scale maps (more like 1:1 000 000), which cover larger area. These sales come in handy when trying to gain a general layout of the land.

We should mention that map scales aren’t fixed. They can vary depending on what the intended use is. Some maps might even have more than one scale to show different details. Hiking maps tend to have multiple scales. The goal is to show the route as a whole along with detailed sections to give users the bigger picture.


What are the types of map scales? 

There are so many types of maps and maps scales out there, each designed to serve a different purpose. It depends on whether you’re looking at city maps with detailed street layouts or world maps that show entire continents. On every map, the scale directly impacts the level of detail and information we’re given.

Ratio Scale

A ratio scale is typically expressed as a fraction or ratio like we showed you before – 1:50 000. This scale is used to show the relationship between distances on the map and actual distances on the ground.

Verbal Scale

A verbal scale kind of “explains” the map scale using words rather than numbers. For example, a verbal scale might just say that “1 inch represents 1 mile”. This type of scale is typically used for tourist maps and trails. It’s more focused on being simpler for everyday use.

Graphic Scale

A graphic scale, also known as a bar scale, uses a line or to indicate distances on maps. Users can easily measure the map’s distances by comparing them to the scale. These scales are pretty versatile – They’re adjustable and can be used on almost any size map.

Interpreting Map Scale

If you ask us, reading and interpreting map scales are basic must-haves. Different types of maps might use different scales to translate the distance into real-life, so make sure you know how to interpret them in order to find your way.


When reading a map, pay close attention to the scale and understand its effects on distance and features. A small-scale map could distort your idea of distances, but they’ll still offer a broader picture of an area. On the other hand, large-scale maps give us more details about smaller areas. If you use a map’s scale as a guide, you can rely on it more and be able to make better decisions based on your understanding.

To sum up our thoughts – Maps allow us to measure distances, plan out routes for trips and make better decisions. So, next time you’re using a map, take a second to check-out the scale and notice how it changes your understanding of world around you. It’s often a small detail that can affect your map-reading skills on a large-SCALE.

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