If this is the first time you are joining the Map Reading series, you should start from the first post.
The scale on a map is probably the first decision (after where to go) that needs to be made for navigation. Choosing a scale depends on the demands of the adventure:
1. What is the intended distance?
2. What is the planned activity? (Hiking, running, skiing, ski touring, cycling etc)
4. Ease of use
The most common map scales
Outdoor adventures will always require a topographic map, and these are offered in set scales all over the world. The main ones are 1:25,000, 1:50,000 and 1:100,000. There are bigger scales but they become almost useless in terms of navigating accurately and are mainly for reference purposes. Also available are smaller scale maps (down to 1:5,000) for orienteering or mountain/trail running. One more unique scale is 1:24,000 that is only available in the United States (and no 1:25,000 or 1:50,000 are available there).
Bigger or smaller scale?
As the saying goes – bigger is not always better. With topo maps we have a trade off between bigger and smaller scales:
– Small scale offers greater detail of the area and allows for better navigation.
– Big scale shows a bigger area on the map and so requires fewer maps for longer distances.
– Small scale requires constant “messing with” to have a comfortable navigation view while going.
– Big scale might completely miss important small features such as small trails, small streams and more things that are vital outdoors.
When choosing a scale you need to base it on what you are doing. If a big distance and speed are part of the trip – go big. If it’s absolutely vital to have very accurate navigation points, go smaller. Usually for day activities or long weekends go for a 1:25,000. For longer trips or vast distance, or if weight is an issue, go for 1:50,000 or even 1:100,000 (for packraft trips or mountain biking).
Other map scales
Of course, you can find other great scales out there to meet your needs. I just got 1:40,000 maps for my upcoming Cape Wrath trail trip as they represent a great balance between detail, distance (and so number of maps) and ease of use.
I think the best way to feel comfortable is to try – get a few scale maps and try them. I like the 1:40,000 (by Harvey) for long trails, the 1:25,000 for most hikes, and the 1:50,000 when in a climbing area. What is your favourite scale?