If you don't have a ruler or measuring tape etc. what do you use?
June 8, 2023 1:41 PM   Subscribe

Elbow to tip of middle finger is cubit, but we don't use cubit anymore. As an aside Is the distance of all adults elbow to fingertip the same? So, .... is always a meter, ... is always an inch etc. I couldn't decide on the category, so I picked on Education.
posted by amfgf to Education (45 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: A us dollar is exactly 6 inches and makes a very handy ruler.
posted by AlexiaSky at 1:44 PM on June 8 [6 favorites]

Best answer: I'm not sure if you're looking for anecdotes or factual instances, but I know the first knuckle of my thumb is about an inch, so I use that if I'm looking at a paper map and want to estimate distances.
posted by Ms Vegetable at 1:44 PM on June 8 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I feel like the answer the question on the body of the post is obviously no? People have arms of different lengths.

Are you just asking for common, body-based measurements? A stride and a hand's breadth/span are some?
posted by sagc at 1:45 PM on June 8 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Another possibility is a standard "letter" sized paper, it's always 8.5 x 11 inches.
posted by kschang at 1:45 PM on June 8 [5 favorites]

Best answer: If I don't have a measuring tape or ruler, my go-to is to use whatever object I can find that's of a known size -- printer paper gives you two different lengths, and you can easily fold it to figure out fractions of the paper size and there's usually some around. Sometimes I compare things to the size of my phone (although I usually have to look up how big it actually is). You could use the size of a credit card or business card, as those are standard. Any other thing you've got laying around can be used as long as you know how big it is.

The distance from elbow to fingertip is definitely not the same for everyone, but your own will stay the same length. If you measure that, you can use it later when you don't have a ruler. Other useful measures are the width across your palm, length of a specific finger joint, etc. so that you've got various different scales.
posted by duien at 1:50 PM on June 8

Best answer: I was taught you can get a general idea of how much fabric you've got by measuring from the end of your hand to the middle of your chest. That's roughly a yard.
Also, for measuring horses, the width of the average man's hand is 4 inches. So a horse that 10 hands tall is a) a very short horse and b) roughly 40 inches at the whithers.
posted by teleri025 at 1:52 PM on June 8 [1 favorite]

Best answer: My foot is pretty much 1 foot/30cm long so I'll use that to work out bigger measurements if I don't have a tape handy.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 1:53 PM on June 8 [1 favorite]

Best answer: A us dollar is exactly 6 inches and makes a very handy ruler.

LOL, that's what came to mind for me first too, but in a different way: I knew that it was NOT exactly six inches! US dollar bills (all of them, of course) are exactly 6.14 inches (156 mm) long. Of course that 6.14 value is hard to remember, so it's better to remember that a US dollar is NOT exactly six inches, and google for the actual number :)

Using your fingers or arms for various measurements are poor for linear dimensions due to the obvious variability in human sizes. But they are actually pretty good for angular dimensions on the sky, because the relative dimensions of your body parts scale with size. With your arm held out straight and thus your hand at arms length:
- your pinky finger is one degree
- your three fingers (index-middle-ring) are five degrees
- your fist is ten degrees
- your hand with spread fingers is 25-30 degrees (my favorite)

That last one is the easiest for me to remember because I can confirm it by stacking it 1-2-3 from horizon (0 deg up) to straight overhead (90 deg up). I use that one every time I'm going outside to spot the International Space Station (or a Starlink train). 30 degrees above the horizon is a lot higher than most people think, and even straight overhead is higher than people think too!

I'm also a member of the shoe=12-inches club
posted by intermod at 1:56 PM on June 8 [19 favorites]

Best answer: I happen to know my foot (including shoe) is very close to an actual foot, so I use it to estimate distances of, say, 5-25 feet. It is not ultra-precise but for example when measuring a traffic lane I happen to already know is 12 feet, it will be within a couple of inches.

I also pace things off a lot, as I've measured my stride and know it's pretty close to three feet. That is more in the nature of an estimate, though, not so much a measurement.

Wingspand (outstretched arms, fingertip to fingertip) is very close to 6 feet - another useful one.

End of my elbow to end of my fingers is very close to 18 inches. Going to the end of my ring finger is within 1/8 inch, anyway.

My thumb is very close to one inch - either last joint to end of the thumb, or at its widest/fattest point.

Any of these are going to vary wildly from individual to individual. So if you want some measurement units you can do with your own body - with any degree of accuracy at all - best idea is to get out a tape measure or rule and actually measure some things.
posted by flug at 1:59 PM on June 8

Best answer: It depends on what I'm trying to measure and what I need the measurement for.

Years ago I was trying to figure out a design for a really space-constrained bathroom and made a business trip to Europe (where I encountered a variety of bathrooms crammed into small spaces) during the middle of the process.

I hadn't thought to bring a measuring tape with me but I did have a spool of dental floss, so when I encountered a shower that was small but spacious enough to be enjoyable I measured its span with a piece of floss, put that in a pocket of my suitcase, and brought it home. I likewise measured showers that were too small / felt too constrained for me to make use of them comfortably, using the same method. When I got home I measured the strings and knew what size shower I really required.

I guess what I'm saying is -- if you want a measurement but don't have a measuring implement handy at that exact moment, you can oftentimes figure out a way to let you measure it later -- if you have something basic like string or tape or such on hand.
posted by Nerd of the North at 2:02 PM on June 8 [6 favorites]

Best answer: I often use a piece of paper, possibly folded, to get 5.5" or 4.25".

If I just have to match one thing to another, I've found that an electrical cord or a USB cable works - it doesn't stretch, so you can mark the length by grasping it with your hands at each end, then just walk it over to the other thing.

3x5" cards work too.
posted by amtho at 2:03 PM on June 8

Best answer: If you have an iPhone that's less than about eight years old, you can use the Measure app.

There's probably an Android equivalent.
posted by box at 2:15 PM on June 8 [2 favorites]

Best answer: An Australian $5 note is 6.5cm high, twice that wide.

If you're flush with cash, the denominations get longer (but not taller) by 7mm as they go up in value, so the AU $100 is slighly longer than a US bill.
posted by zamboni at 2:27 PM on June 8

Best answer: I thought I knew that the span of my hand with outstretched thumb and little finger is 9 inches, but I just measured, and it's more like 10.
posted by larrybob at 2:32 PM on June 8

Best answer: Apps exist that you can put on your phone to replicate a ruler.
posted by jenfullmoon at 2:34 PM on June 8 [1 favorite]

Best answer: A US cent coin (penny) is specified to be 0.750 inches in diameter (source: US Mint). You can line 'em up to get multiples of that.
posted by adventitious at 2:35 PM on June 8 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Marching band made me be able to consistently march 8 steps =5 yards which is helpful in getting a vague idea of outdoor spaces
posted by raccoon409 at 2:40 PM on June 8 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Measuring yarn has taught me that the distance from my outstretched finger to my nose is exactly (ish) one yard. Sometimes it even comes in handy.
posted by rikschell at 3:00 PM on June 8 [1 favorite]

Best answer: My friend has feet that are almost exactly one “foot” long (12 inches) from heel to toe, so he will sometimes measure rooms and similar by carefully pacing and counting his steps.

Many people who regularly sew will get very good at visualizing a quarter of an inch because it’s a common seam allowance.

To answer the title of your question though, I am that person who whips out a measuring tape in public to measure stuff. I almost always have a flexible yellow sewing tape in my bag because it’s in a pouch with my little comb and extra pills and such. I also, if I know I’m going shopping, usually bring my small tape measure which is I believe three inches across? And then I’m in like, Nordstrom measuring the interiors of clutch purses with it, and in pottery barn measuring lamp shade diameter. Sales assistants are regularly perplexed by me.
posted by Mizu at 3:22 PM on June 8 [3 favorites]

Best answer: This is a very valuable thread! I visit sites often and don't want to waste time measuring especially when it's raining or windy (& this is NZ so it's probably doing at least one!), or just very hilly and shrubby. Hands free is best.

My shoe 335mm
My step (half a pace) 995mm
I usually have a clipboard and it's 315mm high

I narrate my walkabout on my phone and convert back at the office.

I put a bank type card in images, e.g. against a board or brick or stair riser, and then elevation images are precisely scalable.

With above I can usually eyeball a site sufficient for a model.
posted by unearthed at 3:27 PM on June 8

Best answer: I used to know my thumb to pinky measurement when my hand was splayed and that's an easy way to get a quick rough measurement (spread hand, then move thumb to where pinky is and repeat). It is somewhat effected by flexibility though, unlike the meter that is my leg length.
But I also often carry a soft measuring tape in my purse.
posted by platypus of the universe at 3:47 PM on June 8 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I read that if you want to determine how much time is left before sunset, hold your palm parallel to the horizon with the bottom of your pinky finger on the horizon. Each finger width between the horizon and the sun is about 15 minutes.
posted by bendy at 3:58 PM on June 8 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks all. Wow that a lot of answers. I gave all best answers as I always do, since it not easy to decide. I caught one that accidentally skipped, and just corrected.

I haven't fisnished reading all yet.
posted by amfgf at 4:25 PM on June 8

Are you only interested in lengths? A paper clip is about a gram. A liter is easy if you have a soda bottle.
posted by Mchelly at 5:07 PM on June 8

A US nickel weighs 5g
posted by janell at 5:40 PM on June 8 [1 favorite]

I read once that fingertips to fingertips of one's arms outstretched is basically equal to one's height. I confirmed that for my body with a measuring tape/yardstick. So, therefore, the fingertips of one hand to the middle of my chest is half that. It's the only body-specific measurement I can reliably remember.
posted by interbeing at 6:19 PM on June 8 [1 favorite]

I used to know my thumb to pinky measurement when my hand was splayed and that's an easy way to get a quick rough measurement (spread hand, then move thumb to where pinky is and repeat)

For me this is close enough to 8" to make no difference for anything you might like to measure by inch (ha) worming along.
posted by Mitheral at 6:20 PM on June 8

Count off seconds between lighting strike and its thunder to estimate how far away the strike was:

Sound travels roughly 750 mph (1,200 km/h), or approximately one mile every 5 seconds (one kilometer every 3 seconds). The speed actually varies greatly with the temperature, but the thumb rule of 5 seconds per mile (3 seconds per kilometer) is a good approximation.
posted by tinker at 6:30 PM on June 8 [1 favorite]

Many people can tell if a pair of pants will fit in the waist by wrapping the (zipped) waistband around their neck. It’s a quick way to exclude pairs when thrifting. Calibrate with a pair you wear a lot.

A gallon of water is about 8 pounds.

I’m pretty accurate at walking out distances to the hundreds of feet and measuring yards of fabric / rope / electric cord with an outstretched arm.
posted by momus_window at 7:10 PM on June 8 [3 favorites]

Measure parts of your body and record them in your phone or get a handy poster like this. There are far more things to measure than you'd imagine.
posted by dobbs at 7:21 PM on June 8 [1 favorite]

In one of my journals, I wrote down at the back the length of my full armspan, my hand to my armpit, handspan and a couple of other measurements, so I could approximate measurements without a ruler more accurately.

It's not something I need to do as much anymore, but I still just use my body to measure things and directly compare, or use a tape measure later if I'm say, looking up desks online to fit in a particular space.
posted by Elysum at 7:52 PM on June 8

If you happen to be a rocket scientist, or rocket fan, a Newton of force is the same as the weight of a small-ish apple (on Earth, duh), 100 grams of mass in our gravity field. I love the symbolism of that.
posted by intermod at 8:47 PM on June 8 [2 favorites]

My three middle fingers are almost exactly 2" so for short distances I can go hand by hand counting by 2.
posted by Candleman at 9:03 PM on June 8

My splayed hand, thumb to pinky, is a pretty accurate 8”, and I use it to measure things fairly often.
posted by LizardBreath at 9:08 PM on June 8

Some knitters and crocheters get small ruler tattoos for checking their stitch gauge
posted by Jacqueline at 11:11 PM on June 8 [5 favorites]

I have measured different lengths and spans on my right hand so I can do 1cm, 5cm, 10, 15 and 20cm with reasonable accuracy and therefore any multiple of them. Loses accuracy about above about 1.5m.
posted by dowcrag at 3:11 AM on June 9

Where the bend is in your arm to the tip of your wrist is usually the same length as your foot.
posted by emelenjr at 4:38 AM on June 9

Apespan, the length between fingertips of outstretched arms, is within an inch or two of your height, for most people.
posted by Dashy at 6:03 AM on June 9

I have a small ruler tattoo; it has been occasionally useful.
posted by twelve cent archie at 9:44 AM on June 9 [1 favorite]

I measure common things I have with me and write them in a notes app in my phone.

* Barefoot (also helpful when ordering shoes online)
* Foot length when in one of my usual workboots, hiking boots, and tennis shoes
* Hand length
* Length and width of my phone in its case

Measurements are in cm and tenths of a foot -- I use the latter a lot for work things (work/live in the US), cm for everything more practical :D
posted by curious nu at 9:50 AM on June 9

My grandmother used to estimate yards of fabric, ribbon and trim by stretching from her nose to her fingertips, with her arm stretched out to the side - that is close enough to a yard.
posted by ersatzkat at 10:23 AM on June 9

My favorite cooking tongs are the length of my forearm.
Other than that, I bring a big tape measure, I am that person.
posted by winesong at 3:13 PM on June 9

I am an obstetrician and can measure up to 10cm with my index and middle finger. Here's why.
posted by i_am_a_fiesta at 3:20 PM on June 9

One (chocolate...) M&M is pretty exactly 1 gram.
posted by AsYouKnow Bob at 5:18 PM on June 10

Whaaaat?! I've never heard of ruler tattoos! Anyone have any photos?
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:25 PM on June 10

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