Cell phones are great for use in many backcountry hiking areas, especially near populated areas (e.g., on the East and West Coasts). Going further back into the wilderness is another matter. Even though cell phones do not work reliably in most wilderness areas, many hikers take them anyway. I take my cell phone on most trips into the backcountry just in case. To give oneself the best chance of communicating in emergencies using a cell phone, it is important to understand their operation and to learn how to maximize their capabilities. This article is designed to do just that.
Beyond the Basics of Cell Phone Operation
To not overload the carrier’s system, standard cellular phones are purposely designed as short distance communication devices. The standard transmitting power is 0.3 watts, a level that is satisfactory if the unit is a mile or less from a cell tower. Under perfect conditions, a line of sight communication with a cell tower might occur up to 50 miles or more. However, the transmissions must be two-way. It is common in rural or backcountry areas to receive a strong signal from a cell tower, but not have enough handset power to make a voice connection. Voice communications with a cell tower over long distances can occur under the following conditions: (1) calling from a high point; (2) connecting with a cell tower near a major highway or popular National Park where they are designed to be more sensitive; (3) using a phone with either a more sensitive internal antenna or hooking to an external antenna.
The first two conditions turned out to be in operation in the summer of 2002 when a member of our party needed rescuing from a 6200-foot ridge deep in Washington’s North Cascades. The person had suffered a broken leg and ankle in a freak fall. A member of another party in our vicinity (none in our party were carrying cell phones) was able to connect, after several tries, with a 911 operator about 80 direct line miles away. The cavalry (in the form of a U.S. Navy helicopter from Whidbey Island Naval Air Station) arrived five hours later to winch the injured person aboard for a trip to the emergency room.
Additional Cell Phone Features Relevant to Hikers
There are several other notable features of cell phone technology that are important for hikers and backpackers in wilderness areas:
[Acknowledgement: Thanks to Chris, an experienced two-way radio and cellular phone technician, for sharing his knowledge about cell phone operation and researching other issues relevant to this article.]
Conserving Battery Power
Assuming that a voice data connection can be maintained, conserving battery power in an emergency is an overriding concern. To conserve batteries, consider the following:
Noise Canceling Headsets
One notable enhancement for cell phone use in the backcountry should be considered: a lightweight headset with a background “noise canceling” feature. This enhancement would be especially useful in windy conditions with a weak signal. The headset will also enable you to hold the phone away from your body, which can block signals. I have tried my own headset in the field under windy conditions and it seems to work quite well. It could make all the difference.
Essentials Regarding Cell Use in Wilderness Emergencies
Here are the essentials as I understand current cell phone technology (summarized from the above information):
1. Always carry at least one cell phone into the backcountry and preferably two or more with different carriers.
2. Be persistent even if you always see “Failed Connection” messages.
3. Send 911 emergency text messages to multiple individuals.
4. Move to different locations at different times when attempting to connect.
5. Leave your phone off most of the time to conserve battery power and keep it in a warm place.
Alternatives to Cell Phones for Wilderness Emergencies
Here is an in-depth article on this subject: Wilderness Emergency Communication Devices.