Learn Skills Navigation: Pinpoint Your Location

Navigation: Pinpoint Your Location


Pinpointing your exact location is one of the most basic and important skills when hill walking. It will help you find your way, avoid getting lost, and might be needed for rescuers to find you in the worst-case scenario. This article outlines a number of ways to pinpoint your location:

Map & Compass

It’s a fundamental principle of hill walking to carry a map and compass - and know how to use them, since there’s always a risk that electronic devices can fail or run out of battery. Using a series of vertical and horizontal grid lines identified by numbers or letters, national grid references are used to accurately pinpoint your location on an Ordnance Survey map. But how do you convert your location into a string of letters and numbers like 'GR 712164'? Chris Townsend takes us through how to understand them in this BMC TV video: How To Take A Grid Reference.

In reality most people use a combination of map and compass, apps and GPS devices. There’s a fair bit of debate about which of these is best to use in an emergency, but they are all useful tools available to hill walkers. It’s important to note Mountain Rescue’s advice that a phone should only be used for the purpose it’s intended for, so that it is available to make calls in an emergency.

Location apps

OS Locate

If you just need to know exactly where you are, OS Locate provides a grid reference which, used alongside an Ordnance Survey map, provides a fast and highly accurate means of pinpointing your exact location on the map, anywhere in Great Britain.


Every 3 metre square of the world has been given a unique combination of three words, for example, the summit shelter on Ben Nevis is hairspray.hardening.blazed. Used for e-commerce and delivery, navigation, emergencies and more, the benefit is that these are much easier to say than a grid ref or GPS coordinates, but just as accurate.

Navigation apps

There are a range of route planning apps available, and they change over time. Most allow users to plot a route on a map in advance, providing information about the length of the route, amount of ascent/descent, and estimated time taken. Once on the route, the app will show your location in real time on the map (providing you have enough battery and phone reception). Bear in mind that not all apps work when there is no phone signal/reception, and using an app can quickly drain the phone battery, potentially leaving you with no map to follow. Phone batteries can suddenly die in cold weather, so consider packing a power bank so you can charge it on the move, and remember to always carry a map and compass as a back-up.

BMC members get a discount with OS Maps.

GPS Device & Sports Watches

There are a variety of specialist devices that can show maps and track your location, for example sports watches, or a GPS device. Most allow you to plot your route in advance, so you can upload it and follow in real time while walking the route. Although high end sports watches have an ultra-long battery life and GPS devices use batteries which can be replaced enroute, it’s still vital to carry a map and compass, and know how to use it.