Six ways to pinpoint your location

Posted by Sarah Stirling on 30/09/2019

Can you find north and estimate your latitude using the stars? Do you know how to find your location in order to explain it to the Mountain Rescue in an emergency? Do you know how to take a grid reference and a bearing? What communication device could you take with you when going into the hills alone, in case of an emergency outside phone reception? There's something for everyone in this skills article.

1 Find north and estimate your latitude using the stars

Renowned 'Natural Navigator' Tristan Gooley says: "If you called a friend who was a few thousand miles away, and asked them to name the star that was directly over their head, you could then find that star in the night sky and the point on the horizon directly below that would be their exact direction from you at that moment.

Unfortunately, a few minutes later that star would have moved. There is one important star that does not appear to move: the North Star. The easiest method to find it is by locating the constellation known as the ‘Plough’ (or 'the saucepan'!)

Next you find the ‘pointer’ stars - the two stars in the 'saucepan' that a liquid would run off if you tipped it up. The North Star will always be five times the distance between these two pointers in the direction that they point. The Plough rotates about the North Star, however its relationship with it never changes so it will always dependably point the way to it.

The reason the North Star is so crucial is that it sits directly over the North Pole, so it indicates true north. Something that people forget is that whenever you are trying to find true north, you are actually trying to find the direction of the North Pole from wherever you are.

Having found the North Star, there is something about its height above the horizon that is well worth knowing. Wherever you are in the northern hemisphere, the North Star will be the same angle above the horizon as your latitude. This can be measured accurately using a sextant, but an estimate can be made using an outstretched fist. An outstretched fist makes an angle of close to 10 degrees for most people. In under a minute you can now find north and estimate your latitude."

Find out how to find east and west using stars on Tristan's website:

Locating the North Star. Image: Tristan Gooley


2 Three of the best navigation apps

Disclaimer: don't rely solely on your mobile phone: always bring a map, compass and the skills to use them. 

Gridpoint GB is a beautifully simple and free app which shows you exactly where you are in a map grid, along with the grid reference. Brilliant for when practicing navigation, so you can check yourself against a paper map. It works offline using GPS signal. 

Peak Scanner Simply hold it up and, using augmented reality, it will tell you what peaks are around you. Works in the UK and abroad. Press the camera button to take a photo and move the skyline on the app to match the peaks that you see (see below).

Viewranger is one of the best fully-featured navigation apps out there. You need to buy maps once inside the app and can then plan, follow and record routes on these maps, find out your location, altitude, and benefit from loads of other useful features.

Using Peak Scanner. Photo: Sarah Stirling


3 Brush up on the basics with a map and compass

In the videos below, one of the world’s most respected experts on long-distance walking and backpacking, BMC Ambassador Chris Townsend, explains the basics of using a map and compass. 

WATCH Chris Townsend explains how to take a grid reference:

WATCH Chris explains how to take a compass bearing:


4 How to give Mountain Rescue your location in an emergency

If you have an emergency in the British hills or crags — for example you are injured, lost or 'crag-fast' (too scared to continue), then dial 999, ask for ‘Police’, and then ‘Mountain Rescue’.

If you have a smart phone and enough signal and battery, the team will send you a SARLOC or PhoneFind link by text message. Invented by Ogwen Valley Mountain Rescue, and first successfully used on rescues in 2011, these two apps work in a similar way to interrogate your phone and relay your exact GPS back to the Mountain Rescue.

If this option doesn't work, you will need to give the team your grid reference. If you don't have a way to find your grid reference, Llanberis Mountain Resuce Team spokesman, Miles Hill, says, "Learn where latitude and longitude is displayed on your phone. For example the iPhone's standard Compass app gives it [see bottom of photo below]. It looks complicated, but we can convert this into a grid reference."

Failing those two options, you will need to give the Mountain Rescue as much verbal information about your location as you can.


5 Wilderness communication devices 

If you had an emergency somewhere without phone signal, what would you do? There are three main types of communication device that work outside phone reception. These are: personal locator beacons, satellite phones and satellite messengers.

Because PLBs only allow you to communicate an emergency and sat phones are expensive, sat messengers are currently the best option for those who don't need to be able to relay lots of information from the wilderness, but do want to be able to say 'I'm OK' to loved ones as well as, 'I'm in trouble' to emergency services. Two things to note: they don't work everywhere, so check covered locations before buying. And: they typically require monthly or annual subscription.

The original sat messenger is the SPOT Tracker, but other devices have now caught up with it, and Outdoor Gear Lab have recently declared the Garmin inReach Mini best in test: 

“Overall, the Mini scores on top of the heap among satellite messengers and personal locator beacons. It literally does all the important things that any device on the market does and is one of the smallest products available. It only makes a few battery life and usability compromises. It is the same size as the Best Buy OceanSignal PLB1 and works basically the same as the three-times-larger (and former Editors Choice winning) Garmin InReach Explorer+. 

The Mini is so small that you need a real good reason to leave it behind on any sort of remote adventure. For even the shortest trail runs in the wild, the tiny size and minimal bulk of the Mini are easily justified. In a nod to the power of miniaturisation, the Mini is smaller than just the batteries of the satellite communication options 15 years ago. And the Mini does more than those outdated bricks ever dreamed of doing.”

This device is currently on sale in the Ordnance Survey shop for £265.


Garmin InReach Mini


6 What3words

If you've not come across this app and website, it's a clever idea worth checking out. what3words has assigned each 3m square in the world a unique 3 word address that will never change. For example, the summit shelter on Ben Nevis is hairspray.hardening.blazed. The benefit is that these are much easier to say than a grid ref or GPS co-ordinates, but just as accurate. It's useful for a range of things from finding a tent at Glastonbury to navigating to a crag and it works offline. Find out more here:



Get all the info on crags with the RAD (Regional Access Database) app from the BMC! Available now for Android and iOS, it's free and comes with a host of new features like navigation and parking, weather and tidal updates, and of course information on restrictions or notes on access advice. Get it here now!

DOWNLOAD: The RAD app for Android

DOWNLOAD: The RAD app for iOS

RAD is community led and your comments help keep it up to date so don’t be afraid to add any relevant information after a crag visit which might be useful for other visitors – anything from conditions on the crag, favourite routes or reports of rockfall/other recent changes to the crag are all useful for other climbers visiting.

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Anonymous User
You should check Echo112
Free app that will send an emergency text message to the local rescue services, with your GPS location, in whatever country in the world you are in.
Anonymous User
Could you please remove item 6. This is not helpful, inappropriate words and phrases are suggested for some locations and it is completely useless.
Anonymous User
At times when in remote locations you'll find you have limited phone signal, so, there is an alternative to making a call. There's the 999 emergency SMS service. You do need to register your number for this, it's free to register here;
Anonymous User
Can I suggest registering with text messaging for 999 calls via text. Means you can call MR in the absence of a decent signal.
Anonymous User
Re. navigation apps: I already have ViewRanger on my phone and pleased with it. However, I've just searched for Gridpoint GB and also Peak Scanner on Google Store and neither is listed although my phone has Android 9 installed.
Anonymous User
What Three Words works well alongside Viewranger, for example. If you are sent a three word location and you have the WTW app then select DIRECTIONS on the app, a range of map apps will appear, select Viewranger, in this example, and their location will appear, centred on the Viewranger screen along with a 10 figure grid reference.
Anonymous User
OS Locate is a pretty handy app for finding your grid reference without needing mobile coverage, as long as your phone has battery! Helpful to have a map so you can check where you are if you use this!
Anonymous User
Gridpoint GB and Peak Scanner do not appear in the Play Store.
Can you advise of app names for Android please
Anonymous User
How about OA Locate?
Anonymous User
Couldn't find Gridpoint GB in the App store. Installed Grid Reference instead by Google and Ad free. Uninstalled What3Words because it's huge and my phone was beginning to not work due to lack of memory.
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