Blue Range Primitive

Measuring Distance on a Topo Map


Measuring distance on a topographical map is not difficult and there are different techniques for you to use when measuring distance.  Measuring distance is important because it gives you the opportunity to do two things. First, it will allow you to examine the terrain in the area you will be exploring.  Second, it will allow you to establish a timetable on how long it will take you to travel from one point to another.  That timetable will be based on your physical capabilities, which would be speed of travel.

My technique to measure distance on a topographical map utilizes a pencil and clean piece of paper.  You then will need to look at the Legend of the map. The Legend gives you important information and references about your map. One of those references is the scale of the map giving you distance measurements.


1. Take the sheet of paper and lay it under the scale of your map.The scale will have length in miles and kilometers.  The below picture shows the scale with miles and kilometers.

Land Navigation

2. Place the corner of the sheet of paper on the zero portion of your scale and then mark out the tick marks on the paper with your pencil. In the below picture you see that the scale on this map has me mark out .5, 1,  2, and 3 miles.

3. Next, find your starting point on the map. On this map it is the Turkey Creek Trailhead.

Land Navigation

4. Put your scale on the starting point. Use your pencil to begin pivoting on the trail. Continue following the trail using your pencil to pivot your scale along points of the trail. Continue doing this until you determine the length of distance between your 2 points.  (See You Tube Video Below). Use a pencil on the map so you can erase it if needed.

Trails are not all straight and using this method allows you to accurately pivot around turns and curves on any trail.  This method should be used in your pre-planning method and it can be used in the field as well.  You can also use other methods such as using a piece of thread or even 550/paracord, (the strands inside the 550/paracord), to measure a length of trail. You can then take the thread or paracord and use the scale in the legend to determine your distance. This method, using a thread/paracord, can be a little difficult when measuring out tight turns but it is a viable choice to use in the field.

The above technique, (paper and pencil), is a very easy and accurate way to  measure distance on a Topo map. Please see my video below for further information on this technique.

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