Understanding Distance, Direction & Scale

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  • 0:04 Understanding Maps
  • 0:43 Direction on a Map
  • 2:06 Distance and Scale on a Map
  • 3:14 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

If you're lost in the rainforest with a map, you'll need to know how to use that map. Learn about some basic concepts that you need to know to read a map: distance, direction, and scale. Then take a quiz to see how prepared you are for the wild.

Understanding Maps

Let's say that you're lost in the middle of the Amazon rainforest. You can see a river with the distinctive bend, but unfortunately you did a pretty poor job of packing your backpack. You have no GPS, no cell phone signal, and only a few hours of sunlight left. Thankfully, you do have a map and a compass. So you'll be fine, right?

Being lost in the rainforest would be quite daunting
Being lost in the rainforest would be quite daunting

Not necessarily. Unfortunately, a lot of people have no idea how to use a map properly, or even what the various symbols and shapes on the map mean. A map is only as good as the person who's using it. In this lesson, we're going to take a look at some of the most basic concepts when it comes to map reading: direction, distance, and scale.

Direction on a Map

Direction is the most important thing you need to know when you're lost in the rainforest. Direction is the way that you have to travel to get from one place or object to another place or object. It's usually measured in terms of compass directions: north, south, east, and west. North is directly up on standard maps; south is directly down; east is directly right; and west is directly left. If this is ever not the case, there will be something on the map that tells you this. This will usually be an arrow, a cross, or some kind of pointed star that shows which direction is north.

Maps usually have a compass on them to show which direction is north

If you know roughly where you are on a map, and you know where you need to get to, you can use the map to see whether you should travel north, south, east, or west. If you have a compass, traveling that direction is easy. If it's at night, you could also use the North Star, which is called Polaris. Unsurprisingly, the North Star is always in the north.

Figuring out direction when you're completely lost is a little more difficult, but it's still possible to do with the map. What you need is some points of reference. If you can find two points of interest, like the distinctive bend in the river and maybe an unusual-looking hill, it's possible to use the directions of those two objects to triangulate your position using the map and compass. If the hill is directly to the north, and the river bend is to the east, then it should be obvious where you are on the map by drawing a couple of lines and seeing where they cross.

Distance and Scale on a Map

So now you know which direction to go in, but it's starting to get dark. Can you make it in time? To know that, you need to know how far it is to your destination. You need to know the distance. Distance is the measure of the space between two points, measured in a straight line. But how do you know the distance from the map?

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