Map Scale Calculator

Map Scale

1 cm on the map = m on the ground.

1 km on the ground = cm on the map.

Reading walking maps and interpreting scale

Even now, in the era of portable GPS systems, multi-function watches and other technical devices, good old-fashioned maps still have an important place in the Alpine world. The obvious reason is because they can never run out of juice.

An important number, which can cause initial confusion, is the scale. This gives the ratio of the map distance to the distance on the ground. This might sound complicated at first, but it simply means that with a scale of 1:50,000 one centimetre on the map represents 50,000 cm on the ground.

How is the scale calculated?

The scale is usually given as 1:scale number. The formula for calculating the value, which should of course have the same unit of measurement, is:

Scale = Map distance ÷ Distance on the ground

Scale Factor = Distance on the ground ÷ Map distance

If we take the above example, the scale factor comes to 50,000 and the scale is therefore 1:50,000. If two centimetres on the map corresponded to a distance on the ground of 50,000 centimetres, the scale would come to 1:25,000.

As a rule the scale is located in a relatively prominent position – both on the cover of the map and in the corner of the unfolded map itself, so with a ruler on the compass it is relatively quick and easy to work out the distance.

Large or small scale

Walking map scales in comparison
Scales of Outdoor Maps

The terms “large” or “small” scale can at first be confusing. This doesn’t refer to the scale factor, it actually means the level of detail in the map. If an object is depicted as larger on the map, the scale factor will be smaller. Still sounds pretty complicated, doesn’t it? But this just means that on a map with a scale of 1:25,000 (large) more details can be shown than on a map with a scale of 1:100,000 (small).

The scale used on each map depends on its intended purpose. In general, you might say that the faster you are moving, the smaller the scale would be. Hiking maps have a correspondingly large scale, generally of 1:25,000 or 1:50,000, while cycling maps tend towards 1:100,000 and the maps in road atlases start at a smaller scale of 1:200,000.

What about digital maps?

As you might imagine, the greatest advantage of digital maps is the variability of the scale. GPS devices often give you the option of zooming in and out and changing the scale. But this is not the only advantage of these electronic aids! You can often save more than one map on these devices, meaning that you don’t have to drag along numerous analogue maps on long treks.

And they don’t have any folds, so you can get them out easily, even in the smallest spaces. The biggest advantage of classical maps is pretty clear: They never run out of juice! But the best system for you depends above all on what you need to use it for.

Topographical maps and walking time calculation

Outdoor maps are typically always topographical. This means that they have delineated contour lines and give further information about the terrain. Distinctive features such as summits and bridges are marked, as are large bodies of water. This gives you the advantage of being able to figure out your route more accurately and precisely, and most importantly helps you calculate how long a route will take.

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