Even with GPS surveying technology, the use of a steel tape to measure distances isn’t uncommon. The steel survey tapes used in the past are still in use today. These tapes are capable of accurate measurements, and last a long time if cleaned and maintained properly.

Steel Survey Tapes

Lufkin C1288BLKCredit: Amazon

Steel tapes replaced the Gunter chain for land survey measurements in the first half of the twentieth century. Steel tapes made for survey use are 100, 200 or 300 feet long, and wound on a reel. These steel tapes are plated with chrome or nickel, 1/16 inch thick, ¼ to 3/8 inch wide and weigh about 2.5 pounds. Survey tapes are graduated in feet and 10ths or 100ths of a foot. Steel tapes are a precision instrument calibrated for use at 68 degrees F (20 C). They will read true at this temperature. When used at different temperatures, apply a temperature factor to the measurement to achieve the most accurate readings. Other than GPS, steel tapes calibrated for land survey use are the most accurate method to measure distance.


The Lufkin C1288BLK steel tape is one of the best for land surveying. It is 3/8 inch wide, 1/8 inch thick and 200 feet long. The reel allows it to be unrolled easily, and cleaned and oiled as it is rewound.


Fiberglass Survey Tapes

Some surveyors use the lighter fiberglass tapes. These are cheaper and can come in lengths up to 300 CTS Burger 82-1001BCredit: Amazonfeet. Because they are light, fiberglass tapes are subject to being affected by the wind. Blowing wind deflects them to give an inaccurate reading. They are used when less accuracy is acceptable. They are less durable than a steel tape.

Keson OTR18300 300 Fiberglass Measuring Tape
Amazon Price: $101.60 $39.00 Buy Now
(price as of May 19, 2016)

Care and Maintenance

Steel tapes are mounted on an open reel. This allows them to be wiped dry and clean with a cloth when they are being rewound. Rewinding the tape on an open reel makes it easy for the operator to periodically apply a thin coat of oil to prevent rust. Steel tapes will break or kink if twisted or pulled when in a loop. If broken, they can be repaired by an experienced technician, and still keep their accuracy.

Fiberglass or nylon tapes won’t rust, but can rip or tear. Fiberglass or nylon tapes will stretch. Because they are lightweight they can be blown which gives less accurate readings.

Nylon and fiberglass tapes are good to make rough measurements. They are light which makes them handy for quick use. They are also easy to clean, and don’t need an oil coating to keep them from rusting.