Understanding Map Scale

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You might have come across the term "map scale" when someone is referring to a map. You might have ended up making the polite noises even though not quite understanding what was meant by the phrase. Do not worry, you are not alone. There are a lot of people who do not understand what map scale is and how to interpret it.

Simplistically speaking - and really that is the only way to explain it - the map scale refers to the area on the map with reference to the area on the ground. For instance, a 1:100,000 scale on the legend on a map means that every centimeter on the map corresponds to 1000 meters on the actual ground. Or alternatively, one inch on the map equals 100,000 inches on the ground equivalent to 2.54 miles. A map is where the globe or a part of it is shrunk to fit into a more manageable dimension while the map itself projects itself to the Earth itself.

When you look at a map you will find the map scale as well as a graphical representation of distances depicted by equally interspersed bars which will help you to quickly translate map distance into ground distance. Knowing map scale helps you to orient yourself on the ground with the information you deduce from a map. Obviously the more detailed the map, the more accurate it will be. Also, the more detailed the map, the lesser area it will cover. For instance, a map scale of 1:5,000 will show greater detail of a smaller area compared to a map scale of 1:100,000, for instance. The greater the detail the LARGER the map scale. A small map scale would be 1:2,000,000 which is typical of a world map.

Remember, the SMALLER the number, the LARGER the map scale.

The more common map scales you will find are 1:24,000 (1 in = 0.379 miles), 1:62,500 (1 in = 0.986 miles), 1:250,000 (1 in = 4 miles), 1:500,000 (1 in = 7.891 miles), 1:100,000 (1 in = 1.578 miles) and 1:1,000,000 (1 in = 15.783 miles).

Here is a chart to understand map scale better:

Map Scale

One Inch
56.0 yards
139.0 yards
0.158 miles
0.316 miles
0.395 miles
0.789 miles
1.00 miles
1.97 miles
3.95 miles
7.89 miles
15.78 miles


One Centimetre
20.0 m
50.0 m
0.1 km
0.2 km
0.25 km
0.50 km
0.634 km
1.25 km
2.5 km
5.0 km
10.0 km
One Mile is
represented by
31.68 inches
12.67 inches
6.34 inches
3.17 inches
2.64 inches
1.27 inches
1.0 inch
0.507 inch
0.253 inch
0.127 inch
0.063 inch
One Kilometer
is represented by
50 cm
20 cm
10 cm
5 cm
4.17 cm
2.0 cm
1.58 cm
8.0 mm
4.0 mm
2.0 mm
1.0 mm

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