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Hiking and Backpacking With a Cell Phone


The last time I hiked to the top of one of the 14ers in Colorado (mountains over 14,000 feet), I arrived to find a dozen people talking on their cell phones. The last time I went camping in Canada with a friend we had our wilderness experience interrupted numerous times by calls from home. I'm not thrilled about the idea of having phones along for a hike or backpacking trip, but this isn't going to be a rant about preserving the silence and peace in the wilderness. Instead this is my take on how to properly use a phone when hiking or camping.

You see, one thing is certain. Cell phones save lives. Recently three hikers' lives were saved by a cell phone when they faced a wind chill temperature of minus twenty degrees and didn't make it to the shelter they were planning on hiking to in the Smoky Mountains. Rangers were able to get to them before the hypothermia they were suffering from killed them. If you type "cell phone saved their lives" into Google you'll find many instances of backpackers, hikers and others out in the wilderness being saved by their cell phones.

It makes sense to bring a cell phone when you're hiking or backpacking. And there are other reasons to have that cell phone besides for emergency calls.

Let's face it; sometimes you might only be able to make a hike or a backpacking trip if you can do a little business along the way. I'm not thrilled by the interruptions that come with carrying a phone into the woods, but if that's what makes the trip possible for some people, well... why not? And then there are the other practical uses. Suppose you lose your map or aren't sure where you are on it? You could call a friend who could check online to see what landmarks you might watch for, or which way to go at an intersection of trails.

So, yes, cell phones have their place in the wilderness. But you should be careful to use them correctly. To start, you should leave the phone off until you need to make a call, to preserve both the peace and the battery. Keeping the phone in a zippered plastic bag is a good idea as well, especially if you are planning to hike in wet weather or cross large streams or rivers.

Using a Cell Phone for Wilderness Emergencies

Before you leave on your trip activate your phone's automatic location setting if it has one (most do). Search for the "location" option in the tools or settings menu and turn it on. This makes it easier for rescuers to determine your location if you need to make an emergency call. Although the phone battery life is preserved by keeping the phone off, you should turn it on once daily for a few minutes. It will ping nearby towers, creating a daily marking of your locations, even if the signal is not strong enough to actually make a call. Let your at-home emergency contact person know what service you use for your phone, so (if necessary) searchers can quickly contact the service provider to help locate you.

What if you need help? You can generally call 911 to get help anywhere in the United States if you have reception. Going to high ground can help, as does holding the phone away from your body and turning around, so you don't block the signal. If your battery is weak you can text to use less power, but you can't text 911, so you'll have to count on the person you text to call for help. For subsequent calls after your first emergency call, return to the same place if possible. Your phone will already know where the nearest tower is and so connect more quickly.

Rescuers, if you are able to contact them, will generally tell you what information they need. Of course it helps if you recall any landmarks you recently passed near. If it will be a helicopter or plane-assisted rescue try to get to an open area and call again from there. If battery life is an issue you'll have to turn the phone off. Schedule future calls or times when you'll turn the phone back on so you can be called.

Even if you never turn it on (my preference) you should always bring your cell phone on any hiking or backpacking trip.


The Ultralight Backpacking Site | Hiking With a Cell Phone