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How To Construct & Interpret Scale Maps

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Instructor: Elizabeth Friedl

Elizabeth, a Licensed Massage Therapist, has a Master's in Zoology from North Carolina State, one in GIS from Florida State University, and a Bachelor's in Biology from Eastern Michigan University. She has taught college level Physical Science and Biology.

Scale maps are used to make ratio information more readable or understandable to an audience to communicate statistics clearly. Learn more about scale maps, their importance, uses, and application methodology. Updated: 11/03/2021

What Is a Scale Map?

A long time ago there was a princess, and she decided that she wanted a new bed. So, she hired the best carpenter in the land to construct it for her. This princess was very particular, so she measured out the size of the bed herself, using her feet. She told the carpenter that the bed should be 30 steps long and 20 steps wide.

But when the new bed arrived it was humongous! Much bigger than the princess wanted. Can you figure out why? The carpenter's feet were much larger than those of the princess, so when he made a bed that was 30 x 20 steps, he used his own feet to measure, which made for a bed that was the wrong size.

This silly story helps us understand the important concept of scale, which is just a ratio of two numbers. In our story, it would be the ratio of the princess' feet to the carpenter's feet. More useful to us is a scale map, which is just a map with a scale. And, that scale tells you pretty much the same thing: how to relate what you see on the map to the real world that the map is portraying.

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  • 0:01 What Is a Scale Map?
  • 1:01 Reading Scale Maps
  • 3:23 Constructing a Scale Map
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Reading Scale Maps

You might be thinking that almost every map you've seen has a scale on it. While this is technically true, the scale you've seen on most maps is a bar scale. This simply shows a scaled distance on the map, telling you how far a certain distance is. For example, one inch might equal one mile, or 10,000 feet. So while the distance is scaled, it's not quite the same as a scale map.

The scale you'll see on a map will be a ratio, which will look like this: 1:250,000. This reads 1 to 250,000, and it is basically saying that on that map, 1 of something equals 250,000 of it in the actual real-world location the map is portraying. So instead of saying that 1 inch equals a mile, this type of scale is telling you that 1 of whatever you are using to measure on the map would take 250,000 to make the actual distance in the real world.

Have I lost you yet? Let's look at an example to see if it clears things up a bit. The bar scale tells you the exact distances, while a ratio scale can use anything to measure the distance between two points. The fun part is that we're not limited to miles, kilometers, or feet; we can use whatever we want!

Let's start simple. Say we have our scale map, and the scale is 1:10,000. On our map we want to measure the distance between two points, your house and my house. On the map, your house is one inch away from my house, and since our scale is 1:10,000 this means that in real life, your house is 10,000 inches from my house. Cool, huh? If inches aren't your bag, you can convert up to feet, miles, or whatever.

But, here's where the fun comes in. What if you wanted to measure the distance between our houses with something a little less typical, like a spoon? You can totally do this on a scale map! By chance, the distance between our houses is exactly one spoon long. This means that in real life, our houses are separated by a distance of 10,000 spoons. Prefer forks or knives? How about measuring with a pen or pencil? Maybe you prefer to measure with pinecones, beetles, or chopsticks. The possibilities are endless with a scale map! The only rule is that you have to stick with the same unit of measure the entire time. You can't go from spoon to fork halfway through, or even change the size of your spoon. It just doesn't work like that.

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