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Should You Carry a Cell Phone on Backpacking Trips?

Cell Phone on Backpacking Trips

“I’ll never take my cell phone hiking or backpacking,” I said about 10 years ago. Famous last words. I now carry a Smartphone wherever I go, in part, because you can’t find a phone anywhere in the United States, Canada, or the UK, unless you carry your own. Look around. Phone booths have all but disappeared from the face of the earth.

But there’s a bigger reason to carry a phone on hikes and backpacking trips having to do with emergency communication. While you can contact search and rescue with a 2-Way Satellite Communicator like the Garmin inReach Explorer+, inReach Mini, or SPOT X, and even send your lat/lon coordinates to them, emergency responders prefer that people contact them by dialing 911 (or the in-state SMS emergency number) if you have cell network service, because you’ll be in touch with *their* call center, their trained staff, and their network of SAR responders faster with fewer inter-agency handoffs.

Speaking on a cell phone is also a much richer form of communication than pecking away at the messaging keyboard of a two-way satellite communicator. It’s very helpful to search and rescue if you can provide them with information about your gear and current condition, so they can give you advice and prioritize the people and equipment they need to respond. That kind of information is much more efficient to convey by voice than text.

But there’s no guarantee that you’ll have cell network access in the backcountry, so it makes sense to have at least one cell phone and one satellite communication device in your group, at least on remote trips, where aid may be needed.

While I carry a smartphone and a satellite communicator on all of my day hikes and backpacking trips, I don’t think of my smartphone as a “classic phone” anymore, because since I rarely call anyone and most of my phone calls (robocalls) go to voicemail. In the past 5 years, Smartphones have transcended voice communication and become hand-held computers. I use my Smartphone to get driving directions to trailheads, to navigate on and off trail, to take photos and notes, respond to blog comments, text my friends, send emails, and even write blog posts if the muse visits.

But if you can get a cell phone signal in the backcountry, 911 can’t be beat. Try it before you try your Satellite Messenger or Personal Locator Beacon.

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29 comments

  1. Last trail head I was at had a sign that said in case of emergency if calling 911 didn’t work text 911.

    • Yes, texts can sometimes get through when voice cannot. Text is also convenient for reassuring loved ones you are okay. In my part of the country, you can often get a signal on mountain tops but not in valleys. Navigation apps using GPS signal don’t need a cell signal, but I still consider them a back-up to a paper map and compass. Phone nav apps are getting as good or better than dedicated GPS units. If you are forced off the trail by injury or sickness (short of med evac) a cell phone can be vital to obtaining care or just a place to rest. Cameras on smart phones are getting really good and you can now get interchangeable lens attachments , eliminating the need to carry a separate camera. Pay extra for lots of on-board data storage capacity if you are using lots of apps, since cloud-based services won’t work. I try to minimize cell phone use when backpacking, though, since I’m trying to “get away from it all.”

    • Last trailhead I was at had a sign that said “This is a wilderness area. We do not guarantee your enjoyment or your return.”

  2. Cell phones can also be the “library” for those who like to take a book on a hike.

    One of the things I always enjoyed about Big Bend National Park was the lack of connectedness with the outside world. I often joked that a nuclear war could have been fought while we were there and we wouldn’t know it except for the pretty sunsets, which would be hard to distinguish from the normal ones anyway. My thinking changed after a car breakdown and a couple backcountry emergencies in areas with spotty cell coverage at best. Emory peak is the high point of the park and has a number of antennas for the park radio system. Adding a cell antenna set there wouldn’t be noticed and would certainly enhance public safety, especially in the most used part of the park, an area without any cell coverage. A conversation with the rangers let me know they felt the same way and I was told a cell antenna was to be installed on Emory this summer. I look forward to checking it all out on my next trip there.

  3. Ten years ago I didn’t have a cell phone. Now I have it w/ me all the time. It is my main mode of communication. I like having it to communicate w/ my wife. I always tell her before hand where I will be and that cell coverage will be spotty. I leave a map and itinerary w/ her and go over it. When I have service I text her w/ an update. My only hope is that my switch from AT&T to Verizon actually provides me w/ better coverage. Locally, the coverage has not been as good, but maybe it’ll be better on the AT and in the remote areas of Pennsylvania.

    • I live in Central Pa and have hiked alot pretty much all ove the state. I have Verizon service. That being said I can almost always get cell service by hiking up to a peak, often anywhere else. Sometimes Texting works even when voice will not or is gargled. I carry a spot Gen. 3 as a back up.

  4. What is the most economical satellite communications option (other than borrowing someone’s : ) ?

  5. Just comes to show why SAR missions to find lost hikers have reached epidemic levels..
    If your plan of survival is your phone it should be closed and in a zip lock not used to navigate and take pictures.

    • I tried to find some statistics on the number of SAR missions for the last decade. It’s hard to find any information. Do you have any stats to back up your “epidemic levels” statement.

      I think having cell phones helps SAR when there is a signal.

      I agree that if you’re counting on your phone being useful for rescue you should protect it well, however, it doesn’t mean you have to be paranoid about using it for anything else.

    • Any device with a battery or microchip can fail, even if you are carrying an auxiliary battery charger. It would therefore be a fair point that relying too much on a cell phone for navigation or communication could lead to complacency and failure to develop needed backcountry skills for newbie backpackers. A major portion of SectionHiker.com is devoted to discussing such skills. The point of this post is that a smart phone has become extremely valuable for experienced outdoorsmen like Phillip and Grandpa, as well as for more moderately-experienced backpackers like myself. Accusing such people of using a phone as a “plan of survival,” on the other hand, is unreasonable.

      • It can fail… or fall. I smashed the face on my phone to pieces, protective case and all, when it squirted out of my hand and landed face down on some rocks in early January. I do not like curved faces on phones. To me, they’re more marketing gimmick than utility. Fortunately, the phone still worked but it’s awfully hard to read.

        On that hike, we ended up dealing with SAR because some of our party got separated and lost. Don’t ever tell slower ones on your crew, “Make a left at the trail fork and we’ll catch up to you after we draw water out of the creek.” They went right and we didn’t see them for 24 hours. My fault. Don’t get complacent and think your group knows the route as well as you do. Don’t get separated. Your slowest hiker sets the pace for the group.

        Another thing that can go wrong, which I learned on that hike, is to be sure to have at least two USB cables to charge your phone from a juice pack. The one I had was bad and the phone died and I couldn’t charge it back up. It would have been really useful to continue communications with SAR.

        A phone is a useful tool but shouldn’t be the only plan of survival. I’ve never known a paper map or compass to need charging.

        In my comment to Shay, I wasn’t trying to come across as harsh and I hope it wasn’t taken that way. I was curious if he had any sources about increased rescues. If there are more rescues because a greater number of people are out on the trail and the rate of incidents per hiker hasn’t gone up, then that’s great–more are enjoying the outdoors. If the number is up because people are just being stupid or careless like I was in January, then it’s bad news.

      • I agree with Grandpa. Without concrete data to back up the SAR epidemic claim then what Shay said is a typical “old-school hiking attitude” response to hikers carrying electronic devices. The levels of participation in outdoor recreation have dramatically risen in the last few decades, as evidenced by national park, national forest, and state park visitation data. Maybe the simple explanation is there are more SAR rescues because there are more hikers?

    • And in airplane mode, so the battery doesn’t drain searching for a non-existent tower. (Don’t ask how I know that.)

  6. I started backpacking around the same time you did and I also rarely carried a phone. My carrier sucked and I didn’t get much service up north anyway.

    But back then I wasn’t married and had no kids. I also carried a book, a camera and a GPS. Now I carrier a phone and a portable charger. Sometimes I bring two phones from different carriers (my work phone and personal) to improve my chances of getting a message to my family every day. Technology has changed and so have my priorities.

  7. http://www.adventurealan.com has an excellent article on using GPS software for cell phones, maximizing battery life, etc. Much more detail than just using airplane mode. Also has an article comparing InReach vs. SPOT.

  8. You missed notifying search & rescue via an ACR PLB, which communicates by military satellite to NOAA. It’s been my most important piece of gear for over ten years.

  9. Cell phones are great. I use them with map apps for the topo maps, make my trail with all the info such as speed, elevation, etc and where to go cross country when there is no trail. Great camera. Still don’t listen to music, i like to hear elk bugle, coyotes howl, birds, etc and charge it with a small goal zero solar panel and two solar batteries. Small and light to charge the cell phone

  10. I know one good reason for an emergency was in the wind rivers in wyoming there was a forest fire clise to the trail to get out one member of the group went to the top of a peak and called out to see if the fire blocked the trail. Fires out west is becoming common all summer long and start easily and spread rapidly. My backpack trip this year is the driest i have ever seen it.

  11. I don’t use my cell phone on trail for any social media, news (God forbid), or unimportant texts or calls. What it is absolutely a game changer for is the Gaia ap. By downloading maps in advance I can accurately determine my location at any time. I still take a compass and paper maps, and I carry the knowhow to use them in my head, but if I stray 100 feet off the trail in the night it is the Gaia ap that will save my bacon.

  12. This tragic story shows that a cell phone text can work and saved one life in a remote area – https://www.cnn.com/2018/09/02/us/wisconsin-family-kayaking-trnd/index.html

    Like others suggested the Gaia GPS app is fantastic and functions perfectly on my new Google Pixel 2XL w/ 6″ (IP68 too) screen. I sold my old Garmin GPS’s years ago.

    In flight mode I can use the Gaia app and take excellent photos with the 28mm phone lens for several days. I don’t both carrying any of my Panasonic Lumix M43 camera and lenses anymore. I just bought a power bank that will gice

    I still carry my compass and maps but use my phone mostly.

  13. Maybe I need to do more research, but I have tried the Gaia app several times and it’s a huge battery drain. I was hoping it wouldn’t do that in airplane mode but it does. 2 hours and my phone is down to 75%. Maybe I am missing something so while this subject is being discussed I thought I would ask. Also I found the battery packs I bought at Walmart are heavy and take hours to charge my phone. Possibly you can recommend a battery recharge pack that works well.

  14. Boring reasons to take cell phone:
    At trailhead, snap photo of trail map and of posted emergency numbers and other useful info.

    During hike when crossing “confusing” terrain without trail markers, snap frequent forward and backward photos to be referred to later when you need to retrace your steps. This last was learned on a scree field at the top of Hughes “Mountain” natural area, MO. Before I learned to do this, it would take me some time stumbling over large brick-shaped rocks and scrub to find the not-very-obvious unmarked trail entrance back to the trail head.

    • Obviously, one also takes a beacon if cell signal is expected to be nil, a hard-copy map, a compass, whistle, mirror, spare battery. Redundancy for crucial items (eg, rescue communication, maps, fire-making, lights) need not weigh much.

      Get a waterproof, shockproof case for your cell phone.

      I know the cell phone no-signal spots of the nearby day-hike parks, so I know where I can and can’t go when on call. A fair number of low spots in hilly suburban parks can’t get signal.

  15. I’m surprised no one has mentioned the cell phone “ping.” Remember the climbers on Mt. Hood, I think, a number of years ago? They were hidden inside snow caves but planes found them based on their cell phone ping. Sadly, it was too late.

    All cell phones “phone home” with a locator ping every minute or so. That’s how they find the nearest tower and vice versa. (Ever wondered how the phone service knows you are in Nepal?) If you’re lost/injured and hear planes, turn on your phone and let it send out locator pings. (You can’t actually hear them.) The search plane is probably scanning for those pings, especially if they know what your cell phone carrier is.

    (By the way, the “phone home” ping is also responsible for making many computers speakers and PA systems go crazy every 30 seconds from interference.)

    PS–Backcountry Navigator for Android. Better than Gaia in my experience. Yes, it will drain the battery if you are recording a track. Otherwise, it does not as long as you only use GPS to find your current location. You do have to download the maps before you get out of Internet signal range (which is true of all map programs).

  16. OsmAnd+ is another good Android app with offline storage. It uses OpenStreetMap data for roads and POIs with SRTM data for hillshade and topo. It also has a track recording function that doesn’t use much power. Best of all, it’s open source and available for free.

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