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This is the transcript of a recent conversation I had with a friend after posting this picture from Crete to Instagram. His name is also Brian, but he’s not The Points Guy Brian. It seems like moms didn’t make it too many pages into those baby name books in the early ’80s.

I don
I don’t know that I could ever get sick of playing in waterfalls.

Brian: Brian! I’ll be in Crete in two weeks.
Me: Hey Brian! That’s awesome.
Brian: Great picture! I want to go there. Where exactly is this?
Me: unamused.swooshed.divergence
Brian: Awesome. Thanks!

what3words

I wasn’t speaking a secret language that only Brians understand. I was referencing what3words, a geocoding tool that has mapped the entire planet into three- meter-by -three-meter squares using three-word addresses. I had recorded the location of these falls in the what3words app, and now I could share the precise location of these falls with Brian using three easy words.

You can see the location of .. lies in the middle of the pool at the base of the falls.
You can see the location of unamused.swooshed.divergence lies in the middle of the pool at the base of the falls.

How Is This Different From GPS?

In one way, it’s not. what3words is built on top of the GPS coordinates of each 3m x 3m square. My initial reaction when my friend Patrick introduced me to the app was “Why not just use GPS coordinates?” But after playing with the app, I realized the answer to my own question — “Because I haven’t already been using GPS coordinates.” GPS technology has been available to the public for two decades, but the long string of numbers or confusing coordinate system has been enough to keep me, and many others, from using coordinates to mark and share locations. Which of these descriptions of the falls’ location do you find least confusing:

  • unamused.swooshed.divergence
  • 35.185116, 25.986458
  • 35°11.1069′N, 025°59.1875′E
  • 35°11′06″N, 025°59′11″E

Dropped pins seem to accomplish the same thing as well, but those are often dependent on everyone using the same maps app. Pin locations are also not as easy to share as three-word addresses.

So, in summary, what3words works better than any other geocoding method because it is simple and universal.

How Does It Work?

The design was pretty straightforward. The planet was divided into about 57 trillion 3m x 3m squares. Making three-word combinations of 40,000 words gives us 40,000^3 combinations, or 64 trillion. Each square was then assigned a unique three word “address,” leaving about 7 trillion combinations unused.

Applications for Travel

I’ve only been using this app for a couple months, but I’m excited about its potential especially because it’s usable offline. I’ve used it to mark hidden spots, but it could also mark a favorite view point, urban oasis or tree to relax under. I think it has the best potential in hiking though and could seriously reduce the likelihood of getting lost. Imagine a hike that goes like this:

Park at reduced.foggy.clerical
Trail head at district.personifies.float
Left turn at optic.forest.parse
Right turn at helmet.righteous.sturdy

…and so on. Don’t try to follow this hike though — I just looked up my random word combos and these directions would take you to three different oceans and Nigeria.

The applications of what3words can be stretched as far as your imagination will take it. When this article posts, I will be off the grid at Burning Man. The “open playa” is spotted with amazing art that can be very tough to find in the absence of addresses, directions or reference points. It can be difficult to return to my favorite works and even tougher to share those locations with others. Maybe this is cheating, but my friends and I will be using what3words to mark and share our favorite art pieces. Burning Man is the only event I know of where you can attend the entire thing and still have crippling FOMO. what3words may reduce that just a smidge.

I never did find this theater again. what3words would have been useful this year.
I never did find this theater again. what3words would have been useful this year.

If We Had what3words Then….

I remember driving the road to Hana in Maui a few years ago and missing out on some hikes because I couldn’t find a trailhead or missed a turnoff onto a path. If I had what3words then, I would have been able to jump off even more waterfalls.

Waterfalls like this one are hidden alongside the road to Hana and what3words would make them much easier to find.

The creators of what3words actually had much greater plans than making sure I can save my favorite travel spots, as founder Chris Sheldrick describes in this TED Talk. 75% of the world lives with poor addressing, and what3words holds the potential to fix that. In developing nations, what3words is already being used for emergency services, post offices, disaster zone locationing, and even pizza delivery. And the app isn’t limited to English speakers; it’s available in 26 languages and growing.

Chris summed up the potential of what3words in his closing statement, “For billions of people, [poor addressing] is a huge business inefficiency, severely hampers their infrastructure growth, and can cost lives. We’re on a mission to change that, three words at time.” And while they’re at it, they’ll keep us from getting lost on hikes, too.

The Points & Miles Backpacker is a weekly column appearing every Monday. TPG Contributor Brian Biros, who has backpacked the globe for the past 15 years, discusses how to fund this adventurous, budgeted and increasingly popular form of travel with points and miles. He’ll also explore all things backpacking-related. Read his story here and his high-level approach here.

If you’re looking to back that pack up and get some guidance, send your questions to backpacker@thepointsguy.com !

Feature image of sunken.psyches.fatter courtesy of the author

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