what3words - what is it and how can it be used by the outdoor enthusiast?

what3words -

what3words - what is it and how can it be used by the outdoor enthusiast?

what3words is a system that divides the world into a grid of 3m x 3m squares, each identified by a unique combination of three words.

It provides a precise way to identify and communicate locations, but what are the pros and cons of what3words?

In this article we look at these.

If you have had your personal experiences of using what3words, please do leave a comment in the comment box below.

Overview of the key features of what3words and the benefits and how it can be used in the hills/ outdoors.

Key Features:

  1. Precision: Every 3m x 3m square on the planet has a unique three-word address, allowing for exact pinpointing of locations.
  2. Ease of Use: Using three simple words makes it easy to remember and share.
  3. Language Support: Available in multiple languages, ensuring accessibility for outdoor enthusiasts from different regions.
  4. Offline Capability: Can be used without an internet connection, which is crucial for remote locations where connectivity is limited.

    But the key thing is to bear in mind, if you then do want to share your what3words with someone you will need a mobile phone connection.

In the video below Andrew certainly gives a great insight into the pros and cons of what3words when out on the hill.

In the video Andrew has to interesting points, at the bottom of this page are some supporting documents to support the claims he makes in the video.

What should you do if you do not have a two-way satellite communicator? Register to text 999

Some good advice for UK readers is to register your phone to text 999 in case you find yourself with too little signal for calls or internet, but just enough to send a text.

Using the service only works if you register your phone (which takes a matter of moments). Once registered it allows you to text 999 in any emergency situation where you are unable to speak aloud.

In the hills and remote areas of the UK there can often be very poor phone signal. This means making a phone call can be very difficult. The call may constantly drop and the line may be bad making passing on information difficult. Add wind to this and the operator will have even more difficulty taking down quick and accurate details of your situation . This can result in delaying help.

Whereas, once you send a text & your phone shows it has gone through, you know that the emergency services have received the information about your situation and should start organising help for you. You should receive a reply to confirm your text has been received and they may subsequently ask for more information . However in poor signal remember there is a chance these may not come through.

Below is a step-by-step guide to the quick process of registering your phone and some key details you should consider passing on in an emergency.

How to register your phone for the text 999 service

  1. Send the word 'register' in an SMS message to 999

  2. You will receive a reply about the service asking you to confirm that you want to register

  3. When you have read these SMS messages reply by sending 'yes'

  4. You will receive a message telling you that your mobile phone is registered or if there is a problem with your registration

Supporting documents/ further reading on what3words

1. The use of confusing language by what3words - a great BBC article on vocabulary size

2. The problem with what3words creating confusing addresses.

- Andrew Tierney’s detailed blog, Why what3words is not suitable for safety critical applications- read that here

- Rescuers question what3words’ use in emergencies - BBC article, more here

3. what3words can easily offend people.

This comment is a seemingly genuine complaint about the word ‘midgets’ being over someone’s home

4. what3words overlooks the vertical height of any location - more here

FAQ about how to deal with buildings with multiple floors https://support.what3words.com/en/art...

5. what3words ignores any earth movement.

- Movement of different parts of Japan after the 2011 earthquake

- Australian Plate movement

- Interesting article looking at the Australian plate movement and if it could happen here in the UK

6. Is what3words the meanest company ever?

- What’s going on with WhatFreeWords?

- Request to Twitter that it delete tweets referencing WhatFreeWords - request in writing here

- Legal threat to security researcher Aaron Toponce in 2021

A good general source of information on what3words if you want to research it further is the OpenStreetMap Wiki entry.


  • Catharine

    Interesting and sensible suggestions, I hope discussion and improvement follows.

  • Dick Murton

    We used W3W in Morocco when one of our group smashed the front wheel of his motorbike on a rock, in miles from anywhere in the desert, but with a 4G phone signal!!. We had GPS with us, so could have used Lat/Long, but W3W (presumably English word version – I didn’t make the phone call) allowed the French speaking hire company to bring a replacement wheel out to us within a few hours. Since there are a number of variations of Lat/long used, using a different format to the one the hire company were used to might have created bigger problems than W3W.

  • Kevin Cheeseman

    I was an early adopter of w3w and I’ve recommended it to so many friends and family members that they probably think I’m on commission. We have found it very useful for non-emergency situations such as meeting someone at a hard-to-find car park on Dartmoor or helping out a delivery driver. In those situations, you are most likely to share the w3w address by sending it from the app rather than saying it, so there is simply no issue of the address being misheard or even mistyped. In a non-emergency situation, you can also take your time to choose a particular square that has a simpler or more appealing w3w address – I could choose from up to 50 that would locate to sufficiently accurately to my house to allow someone to find (and, no, it’s not huge).
    But it is clear that w3w has significant weaknesses in an emergency situation and anytime you need to communicate the address verbally. Andrew makes this and other compelling points in his excellent video (I admit I fast-forwarded through the maths bit!). I was very surprised at the examples of very similar addresses being confusingly close to each other. Most disappointing is w3w’s response to criticism, which seems to be to deny there are any problems and to close down discussion rather than learn and improve. That attitude seems unlikely to help the company survive.

  • Mike Unstead-Joss

    Hi Jon – members of our walking group have used it on two occasions:
    1) horse found stuck in a ditch – fire brigade were pleased that we could give them a W3W location & horse was rescued.
    2) one of our walkers fainted on a walk & Ambulance crew could use W3W to get her.
    Yes, the problem of tectonic plate movement might be a problem in 100 years or so, but not in my lifetime. I think it an excellent system and on both the above situations Post Codes or addresses were not possible to be used!
    Kind regards
    PS – very many thanks for your continued podcasts and weekly guidance – I always read it and it is invariably useful and interesting.

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