There are times in life when you need to measure something, but don’t have a ruler, yardstick, or tape measure with you. You could be at the furniture store wondering if your purchase will fit in the back of your vehicle. You might be at a garage sale looking at baking trays, trying to find the best size for your oven. You see a desk left on a curb with a “Free” sign attached and you want to know if it will fit through your front door.
What do you do if you don’t have a tape measure with you? You improvise!
The trick to taking measurements without a tape measure or ruler is to already know the length of some common items or even your own body measurements. In fact, nothing could be handier than your own hands, feet, and arms, and once you’re an adult, they don’t change in length. Luckily, these body parts can make it easy to estimate the length of an object.
When you are at home, take a moment to get out a ruler or tape measure and measure the length of these common items and body parts. If you know these measurements ahead of time, you can more accurately use them to estimate lengths.
Measurements Based on Common Objects
• A standard business card usually measures 3.5 inches by 2 inches.
• Credit cards are usually 3.4 inches wide and 2.1 inches high.
• A standard letter-sized piece of paper is 8.5 by 11 inches. A legal-sized piece of paper is 8.5 by 14 inches.
• A standard paper clip is one inch long.
• A standard 3-ring binder is about 11.5 inches, making it a good way to approximate measurement.
• A standard baking dish is 9 by 13 inches.
• An American football field is just over one acre.
• Most major league baseball fields are about 2-1/2 acres.
• Measure your phone to determine its length and width and use that for quick estimates.
Measurements Based on a Dollar Bill and Coins
• A U.S. dollar bill is 2.6 inches by 6.1 inches.
• A penny is 0.75 of an inch in diameter.
• A quarter is 0.955 inches, or just under an inch.
Measurements Based on Your Body
You can use plenty of objects for accurate measurements, even your own hand! The distance from the top knuckle on your thumb to your thumb tip is approximately one inch or 2.5 centimeters.
The distance across the back of your hand from the knuckle of your index finger to the knuckle of your pinkie is approximately four inches.
Spreading your hand out completely is another way to measure short distances. The length from the end of your thumb to the tip of your pinkie finger is usually 7 to 10 inches wide. Measure your own hand to get a more exact measurement. You can then use that length measurement when getting a ballpark measurement. Place your outstretched hand with your thumb at the starting point. Then “inchworm” your hand down the length you are measuring, transferring your thumb to your pinky until you get to the end of the length you are approximating. Keep track of how many times you’ve moved your hand. Then multiply the count of this movement by the number of inches you previously determined for the length, and you’ll have the measurement of the whole item.
If you hold your arm out horizontally and make a fist, the distance from your nose to the knuckle of your index finger or middle finger is about one yard. A meter can be measured using the same technique, but using an outstretched hand. Measure from your nose to the end of your fingers with your hand outstretched to approximate a full meter.
Your outstretched arms from thumb tip to thumb tip are a good way to measure a longer distance. You can determine the length of your arm span by making a small mark on a wall. Place your thumb tip on it and stretch your arms out horizontally. Mark where your other thumb ends. Use a tape measure to measure that length. Most people find that their arm span is very close to their height. This is a handy way to measure things like lengths of rope.
A woman’s shoe size 9 is designed for a foot that is about 10 inches long. A men’s size 11 shoe fits a foot about 11 inches long. It is more accurate to measure using your foot length than your shoe length, as different shoe styles can affect the length.
Get to know your usual stride length. Walk normally for several paces and then measure the distance. Divide by the number of steps taken and you’ll have the approximate length of your normal walking stride. This is helpful for measuring longer distances. This truly is an approximation, as your stride is variable when you walk. If you need more accuracy, use the heel-to-method of measuring.
Other Measuring Tips Without a Tape Measure
Laser Measurement Device
A laser measurement device is a great way to measure without the need for any measuring tools. It is important to learn how to use the device properly to get accurate measurements. You also need to take care that you are keeping it as straight as possible. If you tilt the laser beam at an angle, then the measured length will be longer than it actually is.
If you don’t need to know the exact measurements of something, but rather you just want to know if it will fit somewhere, you can use a string as a length reference. For example, if you want to know if a barstool will fit in the back seat of your car, simply use the string to document the length of the stool and then see if that length is less than the width of your car’s seat. If so, you’re good to go.
String is also a good way to measure the outside diameter of a cylinder or sphere. Pull the it around the object and mark its length. Then measure the length of it to get the diameter. Be sure to keep the tension the same when you wrap and when you measure, and take care to go around the center of the object for the most accurate measurement.
Standard sheet printed paper makes for a great makeshift ruler. To use a sheet of printer paper, remember that the standard dimensions of printer paper is 8.5 by 11 inches. Assuming half of the letter paper is 4 inches, fold it in half for smaller measurements. This is a great method if you are without a tape measure or don't have a ruler handy.
The Trick is Getting the Most Accurate Measurements, But Don’t Expect Exact Dimensions
These tips can help you get a ballpark estimate without a tape measure, and estimating is sometimes all that’s needed. Of course, if you need a precise measurement for something, then these hacks are not going to cut it. In that case, you will need proper measuring tools to do that, such as a flexible tape measure, ruler, or yard stick. But if a close measurement will do, and you only need an estimate, you can get a good approximation using these techniques.
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