Sparsely Populated Areas are perceived as regions with the least human impact but the greatest potential for change. For some decades, the human geography of sparsely populated areas has attracted studies seeking to explain and differentiate their economic and demographic polarization in comparison to respective national averages. Evaluation of the economic, demographic and social progression of these sparsely populated areas is however obfuscated by the absence of globally agreed definitions on the qualifying criteria and, concurrently, inconsistent nomenclature to identify such regions internationally. Therefore, the aim of this study is to demonstrate the capacity for a globally consistent typology to identify the economic and demographic patterns in common, but within very different environmental constraints and institutional frameworks. To do so we focus on first-tier subnational geographical units with extremely low population densities and apply multivariable typology to understand and differentiate the key demographic and economic issues for sparsely populated areas. Using multivariable typology we identify three types of demographic and economic patterns as ‘marginal’, ‘semi’ and ‘very remote’ sparsely populated areas. The results emphasize the diversity of circumstances among these areas as a result of their past economic and demographic trajectories, but also as functions of institutional and political constraints.