Adding a Scale Bar in the QGIS Map Composer

I recently finished revisions for the next edition of the manual for my GIS workshop, and incorporated a new section on adding a scale bar in the QGIS map composer. I thought I’d share that piece here. I’m using the latest version of QGIS, 1.8 Lisboa.

The scale bar in the map composer automatically takes the units used in the coordinate reference system (CRS) that your layers are in. In order to get a scale bar that makes sense, your layers will need to use a CRS that’s in meters or feet. If you’re using a geographic coordinate system that’s in degrees, like WGS 84 or NAD 83, the result isn’t going to make sense. It’s possible at large scales (covering small areas) to convert degrees to meters or feet but it’s a pain. Most projected coordinate systems for countries, continents, and the globe use meters. Regional systems like UTM also use meters, and in the US you can use a state plane system and choose between meters or feet. Transform your layers to something that’s appropriate for your map.

Once you have layers that are in a CRS that uses meters or feet, you’ll need to convert the units to kilometers or miles using the scale bar’s menu. Let’s say I have a map of the 50 states that’s in the US National Atlas Equal Area Projection, which is a continental projected coordinate system of the US, number 2163 in the EPSG library (this system is also known as the Lambert Azimuthal Equal-Area projection). It’s in meters. In the QGIS Map Composer I select the Add New Scalebar button, and click on the map to add it. The resulting scale bar is rather small and the units are clumped together.

Scalebar button on the toolbar

With the scale bar active, in the menus on the right I click on the Item Properties. First, we have to decide how large we want the individual segments on the scale bar to be. I’m making a thematic map of the US, so for my purposes 200 miles would be OK. The conversion factor is 1,609 meters in a mile. Since we want each segment on the scale bar to represent 200 miles, we multiply 1,609 by 200 to get 321,800 meters. In the Item tab, this is the number that I type in the segment size box: 321,800, replacing the default 100,000. Then, in the map units by bar, I change this from 1 to 1,609. Now the units of the scale bar start to make sense. Increase the number of right segments from 2 to 3, so I have a bar that goes from 0 to 600 miles, in 200 mile segments. I like to decrease the height of the bar a bit, from 5mm to 3mm. In the Unit label box I type Miles. Lastly, I switch to the General options tab just below, and turn off the outline for the bar. Now I have a scale bar that’s appropriate for this map!

Most people in the rest of the world will be using kilometers. That conversion is even simpler. If we wanted the scale bar segments to represent 200 km, we would multiply 200 by 1,000 (1,000 meters in a kilometer) to get 200,000 meters. 200,000 goes in the segment size box and 1,000 goes in the map units per bar. Back in the US, if you’re working in a local state plane projection that uses feet, the conversion will be the familiar 5,280 feet to a mile. So, if we wanted a scale bar that has segments of 20 miles, multiply 5,280 by 20 to get 105,600 feet. 105,600 goes in the segment size box, and 5,280 goes in the map units per bar box.

A reality check is always a good idea. Take your scale bar and compare it to some known distance between features on your map. In our first example, I would drag the scale bar over the map of the US and measure the width of Illinois at its widest point, which is just over 200 miles. In the Item Properties tab for the scale bar I turn the opacity down to zero, so the bar doesn’t hide the map features underneath. If the bar matches up I know I’m in good shape. Remember that not all map projections will preserve distance as a property, and distortion becomes an issue for small scale maps that cover large areas (i.e. continents and the globe). On small scale maps distance will be true along standard parallels, and will become less accurate the further away you go.

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