A Guide to Understanding Map Scale in Cartography

Caitlin Dempsey


Map scale is a fundamental concept in cartography and geography that plays a crucial role in representing our three-dimensional world on a two-dimensional map.

What is map scale?

What is the definition of map scale? Map scale is the relationship that the depicted feature on map has to its actual size in the real word.  

All maps are modeled representations of the real world and therefore the features are reduced in size when mapped.  Map scale is a ratio or proportion that represents the relationship between distances on a map and actual distances on the Earth’s surface. It helps us understand how much the map has been scaled down compared to reality. For instance, a scale of 1:100,000 means that one unit of measurement on the map represents 100,000 of the same units on the ground.

A map showing water flow lines.
Maps are representations of some geographic features in the world. Map: International Hydrological Studies Map, USGS, public domain.

Representing scale on a map

All maps will have an indicator of the scale of the map.  The purpose of a scale is to show the relationship of the map distance to the ground distance. In other words, how much does a distance measured on the map represent in the real world?

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Scales are a ratio of the map units to the real world units.

Map scale units will most often be in one of two measurements systems. The map scale may show metric units such as meters or kilometers. The other common measurement system, particularly in the United States, is to show the map scale in a British imperial unit and United States customary unit of distance such as feet or miles.

A map that doesn’t conform to a specific scale will be indicated by the words “not to scale” (or NTS).  This notations is most commonly found on graphic style maps such as the  “we are here” or “how to get here” style maps used on invitations.  

Since GIS relies on a minimum threshold of accuracy and precision, almost all GIS-based maps will have a scale.

What are the three ways to show scale on a map?

There are three ways to show the scale of a map: graphic (or bar), verbal, and representative fraction.  

Types of map scales

Graphic Map Scale

Graphic scales, also know as bar scales, as indicated by the name, show the scale graphically. As the name suggest, this type of map scale is a graphic format.

Some maps will have bars to denote the map units, other graphic map scales will have tick marks to show units.

A black and white graphic showing a map scale in kilometers with tick marks and a map scale in miles with bar scales.
Graphic map scales can either show tick marks (top) or scale bars (bottom). Graphic: USGS, public domain.

Some graphic map scales will show both metric and imperial/customary units for reference like the map bar scale below.

Example of a bar scale used on a map.
Bar scale showing graphically the ratio of map units to ground units. The top scale shows the comparable ground measurement in kilometers (km) and the bottom bar scale shows the comparable length in miles.

Verbal Scale on a Map

A verbal scale is text based, with the scale shown as a number and type of unit measurement equal to a specified unit measurement on the ground.  The left side of the verbal is the unit of measurement on the map and the right side of the ratio is the unit measurement on the ground.  

For example the verbal scale, 1″ = 100′ means that one inch measured the the map represented 100 feet on the ground.  This type of scale is sometimes confused with Representative Fraction scales.

Map scale.  From: Map of part of the city of Washington shewing the situation of the mansion house, grave yard & buildings belonging to Mr. Notley Young : original proprietor of that part of the city, 1796.  Library of Congress.
A verbal map scale on an 18th century map. From: Map of part of the city of Washington shewing the situation of the mansion house, grave yard & buildings belonging to Mr. Notley Young : original proprietor of that part of the city, 1796. Library of Congress.

Representative fraction as a scale on a map

Like verbal scale, representative fraction (RF) scale is also a text based scale but no units are shown.  

For representative fraction, or ratio scale, scale is a simple ratio of map to ground measurement. Representative fraction is written with numbers on both sides of the colon. The number to the left of colon is the paper, or map, units and the number to the right of the colon is those same units in the real world.

For example, a RF scale of 1 : 1,200 means that every one unit on the map is equal to 1,200 units on the ground.  There is no notation of the actual unit type used on a RF scale.  

Therefore a RF scale of 1:1,200 is the same scale as a verbal scale of 1″ = 100′.

USGS topographic maps typically have both bar scales and representative fractions (RF). The scale bars on this map from the U.S. Census shows multiple types of map scales.

A cropped view of a map for Oklahoma that has verbal map scale on it.
An example of verbal scale on a map. Base map of the state of Oklahoma prepared by United States. U.S. Census Bureau. Geography Division. Library of Congress, public domain.

GIS specific map scale

One type of map scale that is specific to interactive GIS maps is known as dynamic scale and may feature scale-dependent rendering. In digital GIS platforms, scale can dynamically change as one zooms in or out, adapting the level of detail presented.

Two screenshots from a web app displaying satellite imagery showing how the scale changes depending on the zoom level.
With dynamic scale, the map scale changes on interactive GIS-based web mapping application depending on the scale. Screenshots from NASA Worldview.

For example, a view of a region on a small scale (or zoomed out) might only display generalized features such as major cities and major roads. The map scale will also represent a larger area relative to a specific distance on the map. For example, 1″ on the screen may represent 1,000 miles. Zooming in, more fine-grained features will be displayed such as minor roads, towns, and parks. In turn, the map scale will change and 1″ on the screen would change to represent a smaller area — 1″ equals 1 mile, for example.

Large versus small scale maps

Maps can be described by how varied the scale is.  Maps that show a large geographic area in comparison to the relative size of the map are known as small scale maps.  The small scale refers to how small the fraction is.

Maps are generally described as either large scale or small scale.  For example, a map showing the entire world would be considered a small scale map whereas a map showing a neighborhood would be considered a large scale map.

Mount Rainier in Washington shown on different scaled USGS topo maps. Source: USGS, public domain.
Mount Rainier in Washington shown on different scaled USGS topo maps. The map on the left (1:24,000) is large scale and the map on the right is small scale (1:250,000). Source: USGS, public domain.

Large scale maps

Large scale maps show a smaller amount of area with a greater amount of detail.  The geographic extent shown on a large scale map is small.  

A large scaled map expressed as a representative scale would have a smaller number to the right of the ratio.  For example, a large scale map could have a RF scale of 1 : 1,000.  Large scale maps are typically used to show neighborhoods, a localize area, small towns, etc.

A New York City planning map with a person using a black sharpie to write on it.
This planning map created by the GIS department for New York City’s bike share program is a large scale map.

Small scale maps

Small scale maps show a larger geographic area with few details on them. Small scale maps show large areas like countries or huge geographic areas such as continents. 

The RF scale of a small scale map would have a much larger number to the right of the colon such as 1 : 1,000,000.  Small scale maps are used to show the extent of an entire country, region, or continent.

A shaded orange map showing areas of the United States with higher than normal carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
This map of atmospheric carbon dioxide anomalies within the United States would be considered a small scale map as it represents a large geographic area. Map NASA, public domain.

Understanding the Significance of Map Scale

Map scale influences how we perceive distances, areas, and features on a map. It affects map design and the amount of detail that can be shown. Small-scale maps cover large areas but with less detail, while large-scale maps zoom in on smaller areas with more detail.

It’s important for map readers to be aware of the scale to interpret maps accurately. Measuring distances, calculating areas, and estimating travel times all rely on understanding the map’s scale.

GIS technology allow for multi-scale analyses, where different layers can operate at different scales. This has led to more nuanced studies that can, for example, simultaneously consider local land use, regional climate patterns, and global economic factors.

Using data that isn’t at the right scale can lead to false conclusions when doing GIS analysis

While being able to perform spatial analysis on GIS data regardless of the scale, doing so can introduce challenges in data integration and consistency. Just because you can analyze datasets produced at different scales and resolutions, doesn’t mean you should.

For example, if you are looking at the availability of open space for a local city, using a vegetation layer produced at a small scale for an entire country or state would lead to faulty conclusions because the data isn’t fine-grained enough to be useful. You would need a GIS dataset created with the smaller geographic area in mind for your study to be more accurate instead of a dataset created to represent a larger area.

Scale affects feature resolution

The larger the scale of the map, the better the features that can be detailed.

A map that shows the water network of a small area may show the river as a polygon layer and will show the tributaries of that river.  A small scale map covering the area would show that same river as a line feature and the tributaries would be removed (a process known as generalization).  

The smaller the scale of the map, the less the actual detail of a feature is preserved.  Smaller scale maps have river features that have the lines smoothed out whereas a large scale map would show more detail about the twists and turns of that same river.

Why Generalization is Related to Map Scale

So why not show the same level of detail regardless of the map scale?  There are two main reasons.  

The first reason is the noise level.  Showing a lot of detail for features on a small scale map would cause a lot of confusion on the map.  By reducing the amount of detail to show only the most important aspects of a feature, the map shows a clearer picture of the area.  

The second reason is the file size.  Features that have a lot of detail are larger in file size.  For a small scale map, loading several large layers will slow down the map production.

An Example of Small Scale Versus Large Scale Representation

Marina del Rey is an area of Los Angeles County that has one of the largest man-made small boat harbors in the United States.

Aerial of Marina del Rey

The representation of this harbor on maps of the area is dependent on the scale of the layer used.  

The layer showing the counties for the entire United States shown in the image below has a very generalized coast line for this area.  The is almost no detail in the coastline and the harbor is not represented at all. (Related: GIS Data and the Coastline Paradox)

Marina del Rey area on a small scale map.
Marina del Rey area on a small scale map. The harbor is not shown at all on the map.

The map below shows the same coastline with a layer of all counties for the state of California.  While still a small scale layer, the coastline shows more detail.  The Marina del Rey harbor is represented by a small inlet on the map.

Marina del Rey area on a county map of the state of California.
Marina del Rey area on a county map of the state of California.

In a large scale layer created to show just the County of Los Angeles boundary, the coastline for this area contains the highest level of detail, and a recognizable harbor is represented.

Marina del Rey at the county level.
Marina del Rey at the county level.

The examples of how the detail of a coastline changes depending on the scale of the layer helps to illustrate as well the importance of carefully considering the scale of any data used for mapping and spatial analysis.  

Small scale data inherently is less accurate and less detailed than large scale data.  

Using small scale data for large scale analysis can lead to gross errors.  Data created for small scale purposes should not be used in large scale maps.  

Large scale data unless generalized, should not be used in small scale maps.

Understanding map scale is an important aspect of interpreting maps

Map scale is a fundamental concept in geography and cartography. It is the key to translating our three-dimensional world onto flat maps, helping us understand distances and relationships between objects on a map. Whether you encounter a verbal, graphic, or representative fraction scale, knowing how to interpret it is essential for effective map reading and analysis.

This article was originally published on September 1, 2011 and has since been updated.

Watch: Large Scale Versus Small Scale Maps

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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.