An ‘L’ of a way with grid references

Despite the big changes in approaches to teaching navigation over the last decade or so, grid references will need to be introduced and used at some point to allow progression. As with a lot of the skills required for using maps to their fullest potential, most people already have some idea how the system works. Mistakes are often the result of being systematically misled by an error in their understanding of the topic or in how they are taught to remember techniques. If it is a systematic misunderstanding, it is possible to correct this with some good instruction and some alternative ways of explaining grid references.

Grid references, like many topics with numerical or mathematical content, make people nervous as there is a correct answer. So the first step is to make people aware we all make mistakes and set the conditions where it is OK not to get the right answer. No-one goes to a bouldering wall expecting to complete every problem but we do hope our session will progress our abilty. As with all skills, it is the ability to spot your error, correct and learn from the experience that is key. 

Personally, I think something of a mismatch in trying to use graphs as an analogue for map grids. Although a map grid is a coordinate system, there are differences and map grids are a need-to-know subset of the full range of nice-to-know coordinate systems. The outcome we are interested in is giving grid references, not understanding graphs.

Figure 1: A graph with four quadrants. In grid referencing, we are only really interested in helping people use the top right area in the red square (positive values on both axes).

Most graphs people are familiar with start with an origin (0, 0) in the bottom left and only have positive values, so a map grid, as opposed to a single square, can be quite unfamiliar. Until recently, nearly everyone drafted graphs on squared paper but now graphs are often done on a computer. Aesthetically, computer-generated graphs often exclude grid lines for clarity. Giving people the chance to work with graph paper or play grid-based games could be a useful introduction. Anyone for Battleships?

Moving on to our ‘sayings’ to help people remember the order they give the numbers for reading a graph or getting a grid reference. Two I am familiar with:

Saying 1: ‘Go along the corridor and up the stairs’.

Saying 2: ‘You walk before you climb’.

Both give you the clue as to the correct order to values:  horizontal axis value first then the vertical axis value. However, that is all they do and the key prior operation is to locate the bottom left (SW) corner of the 1 km grid square of interest. Here are some problems that I perceive with giving people this information and then expecting them to apply it to grid references.

Problem 1: Grids are repeated and the numbers you need to use to be precise and accurate repeat, which is quite unlike an elementary graph.

Problem 2: These approaches allow confusion about the key grid lines to pick out a 1 km square.

People can start at the wrong corner of the key 1km grid square, ‘walk’ the wrong way or be confused when there is little or no ‘walk before the climb’. If anyone knows of research into the frequency of different types errors, I’d be grateful if you could direct me to the source. Fig. 2A places the emphasis on getting the correct 1 km square by focusing on the bottom left corner.

Figure 2: Concepts to help with getting the correct starting place for giving a four- or six-figure grid reference. A) Showing the general concept of getting the bottom left or SW corner of grid squares, equivalent to the origin (0, 0) in a graph.. B) Incorporating the ‘L’ method of Pete Hawkins.

Second solution: Using the concept of a capital L (Fig 2B). I came across it when I was reviewing Pete Hawkins update to his Cicerone Pocket guide to navigation. An important distinction to make when using the idea of the ‘L’ is that this gives the key axes for the first two figures of a grid reference but a user still must apply the ‘horizontal values before vertical values’ rule. However, this gives them a better chance of getting the two key grid lines correct and starting from the SW corner of the key 1 km square. Such an approach also reduces the grid reference exercise to the simple ‘positives only’ graph that many people will recognize. Whether adding another element, such as drawing a line from the origin to the point would be useful to complete a triangle, would improve retention and offer another way of checking is debatable.


A great deal of STEM teaching involves displacing misunderstandings. Participants are not ‘empty buckets’ needing to be filled up with some grid-reference knowledge, they will already have some ideas and concepts from prior experience and learning. In this post, I’ve tried to actively identify areas where there might be misunderstandings based on my own experience. The task of the leader or instructor is to find out how to connect the new material with this prior knowledge and displace any misunderstandings in the process of teaching the topic.

Further resources

BBC Bitesize exercise with test (although this contains some debatable approaches):

OS site: Has videos and covers many more topics

Pete Hawkins Navigation Aid tool (FREE!)

Review of Pete Hawkins book on Hills of Hame. NB, Cicerone sent me a trial copy and in return I reviewed the book.

I am a palaeobiologist in my early 40's carrying out research work. I am based in Scotland.

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Posted in Mountain Training, Navigation, Trips

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Al is a Summer Mountain Leader
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