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Continental VS Contiguous


Do those of us in geographic related industries need a geography lesson? About a month ago I received an email from someone letting me know of a mistake I’d made in an article. I’d used the word “continental” to refer to a set of maps which contained data for the USA without Alaska and Hawaii. I scratched my head for a moment thinking about the issue, and realized that it indeed was incorrect. Then I got looking around at how many other websites use the term and began wondering what was truly correct.

The question comes down to what exactly what is meant by “continental” and if that includes Alaska. It seems nobody can really agree and the answer depends in part on where you are. The distinction is important in GPS as I’ve had a couple of people tell me recently they had purchased maps or devices that contained “continental USA” mapping assuming it included Alaska.

I’ve since gone through this site and I think I’ve cleaned up any ambiguity I could find. However I’ve since come across numerous examples of confusion on other GPS manufacturer’s websites regarding the terms “continental” and “contiguous”.


There are many products out on the market today which advertise having maps of the “Continental USA”, but those products do not include Alaska. Sure, Alaska is way up there, but last I checked it was still on the North American continent. In the strict definition continental means “belonging to a continent” and Alaska certainly belongs to the North America continent.

I’ve polled a few people around me and (without trying to lead the question) there were mixed results if Alaska is part of the continental USA. When I asked a few people from Alaska however, the results were different with all of them saying that Alaska most certainly is part of the continental USA. This was just a couple of people and certainly wasn’t a scientific survey.

However that definition is far from unanimous. I asked a mapping technician at the USGS if Alaska was part of the Continental USA and was told “yes”. However even parts of the USGS website don’t always agree.


Where we see people (including us!) use the term continental ambiguously is most often places where the maps should have been labeled “contiguous”. So if a map contains maps of the USA except for Hawaii and Alaska the term “contiguous” is the least ambiguous choice. Contiguous therefore would reference the same geographic location as what people commonly think of as the “USA 48”.

Lower 48

This is yet another term that doesn’t seem to be technically correct. When most people think of “lower 48” they commonly think of the 48 contiguous states. Yet I’m not sure what those states are supposed to be “lower” than. Last I checked most of Hawaii was below the Tropic of Cancer, further South than Key West which is just above the Tropic of Cancer. Maybe we should call it the “Middle 48” or the “East 48”


Here are a few places where we can see the ambiguity in action. Take the current Nuvi overview page at garmin. They describe the Nuvi 200 has having coverage for “continental U.S., Hawaii and Puerto Rico”. Okay, so if it includes the Continental USA plus Hawaii, why not just say the entire USA? Well, because it doesn’t include the entire USA as Alaska is not included on the Nuvi 200 despite their use of the term “continental”. They do a better job of explaining it on the Nuvi 200 detail page where they say this:

map data for the continental U.S., Hawaii and Puerto Rico (no Alaska or Canada detail)

Magellan also has a few places where the mapping detail is confusing. On this press release they say “the RoadMate 1400, comes preloaded with Navteq road maps of the Continental United States, Hawaii and Puerto Rico”, but they note that the 1412 adds maps of Alaska that the 1400 does not have. But it is less ambiguous here on the 1200 page where they cite “Pre-loaded maps of contiguous U.S., Hawaii & Puerto Rico”.

Again, I’m not saying Garmin and Magellan are wrong, rather we need to be aware that the term “continental” seems to be ambiguous and the meaning can differ depending on where you are from.

6 Responses

  1. Since you have gotten micro-technical, you even have the number of total states wrong. True, in common vernacular we refer to the 50 states, but that is not true. There are only 46 states. Kentucky, Virginia, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania are technically commonwealths. It doesn’t really matter much to what you are saying, but I figure if you are going to get down to the real technical level of states, you might want to get that part in check, too.

    Steven - September 25th, 2008
  2. Actually, those commonwealths are still “states”. The fact that they refer to themselves as commonwealths does not change their status as states in the United States of America. See any of their government websites where they refer to themselves as both commonwealths and states.

    Allen - October 13th, 2008
  3. Actually, that is reversed. To paraphrase my friend above, the fact they refer to themselves as States does not change their individual constitutional statuses as commonwealths, not states. I agree, in common vernacular they are referred to as “states”. They are commonwealths nonetheless. Common American usage would agree with you. However, when you are studying the constitutions of the aforementioned locations, I am certain you will discover they are technically Commonwealths. Since this got down to a quite involved review of terminology, I was merely hoping to make sure that the correct information was distributed, common parlance aside.

    Steven - October 13th, 2008
  4. Steven, which State do you live in?

    Tim - October 13th, 2008
  5. The Great State of Texas.

    Steven - October 13th, 2008
  6. I spent quite a few hours reading up on this today. I had a really long answer written, but I’ll forgo all of it and just say this.

    I found no reference to an official “status” that makes a commonwealth not a state. Yet I found lots of references that say a commonwealth is a state. They merely have a different official title than other states. There is no state with the name “Florida”, there is the “State of Florida”. There is no Massachusetts, there is the “Commonwealth of Massachusetts”.

    The fact that four decided not to use the word “state” in their title doesn’t mean that they are not technically a “state”. Their title does not change their status as a state. They can call themselves whatever they would like.

    I disagree that it would be technically incorrect to say there are only 46 states. To quote the US Government Printing Office: “There is no difference between a commonwealth and a state in the U.S. […] they merely took the old form of state in their title.

    But unless someone wants to get back to the original topic… I’m going to close down comments on this thread as there are plenty of other places on the net to debate this issue.

    Tim - October 13th, 2008

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