Using your Phone for Emergencies in the Mountains

Your mobile phone is your best friend if things go wrong in a remote place. But to make it truly effective, you need to know what to do with it before you head out and what to do in the event of an emergency.

Register 999

For reasons there’s no point going into here, if you are out in the wilds, a text message / SMS to the emergency services (999 or 112) is likely to get through when a phone call isn’t. ‘Police – broken leg – NY 165 106’ is simple and clear. However to text 999 you need to register first with the emergency services, and this must be done before you leave home. It couldn’t be easier – just text the message ‘register’ to 999. You’ll then receive a message to confirm that you want to register. You click yes, and that’s it.


So, you’re not sure where you are, it’s getting dark, and you’ve sprained your ankle. You have mobile reception and decide to call 999. You get through without any problems, but are unable to say where you are. You have an internet connection, so the person you’re talking to says they’ll send you an SMS. They ask you to click on the link, and within seconds your phone has sent back to them your location, to an accuracy of about 50m. This system is called Sarloc, and was invented by Russ Hore from Ogwen Mountain Rescue in north Wales, and is now being rolled out across the world.

Power Bank

Many people use their phones to navigate, unaware of the speed at which GPS navigation drains the battery. Calls to Mountain Rescue increase hugely around 3pm (that’s when you’re tired and most likely to trip), and an alarming number of those calls are made with phones which only have 5% or less battery power. So pack a power bank and a connection lead. Alternatively, if there is more than one of you in the party, make sure that one phone is fully charged and set aside for emergency calls.

OS Locate & What3words

OS Locate is a free app from Ordnance Survey. Its main purpose is to give you a six figure grid reference, locating you within a 100m square anywhere in Great Britain. So if you call the emergency services and give them the grid reference, they will know pretty much exactly where you are. You might already have another location system called What3words on your phone and wonder why you need to bother with technology from the last century. For anyone not familiar with What3word, it is a system which divides the world up into 3 metre squares, each one of which has a unique 3 word combination. You might think this beats grid references hands down, but there are several problems with it. Firstly, there are many places in Britain where similar word combinations designate different places. Secondly, when there’s a howling gale where you are, ‘friend’ and ‘defend’, for example, can sound very similar. But thirdly, look at it from the point of view of a mountain rescue team. Imagine a call coming in that someone is injured in the Lake District at waistcoat/wacky/prospered. You might know the Lake District like the back of your hand, but as you head out, you have no idea where you need to get to. But if you are told to go to NY 166 153, you can be confident that you need to head to the west side of Buttermere, and may have an inkling that the problem is near BleaberryTarn below Red Pike. It’s all a question of speed, and in an emergency, speed is of the essence. (Incidentally, if you do use What3words, the confusion over similar words can be eliminated if you give one word combination, walk a few metres, then give another. But the professionals use grid references.)