Cell phones have become the most important safety item that people take into the wilderness. Many people feel that if anything goes wrong, the cell phone will allow them to contact help, and they will be rescued. This is not always the case.
Be aware that you need "line of sight" to a cell tower, and enough power in your cell phone to reach the tower in order to make a successful call. Also, if you have a digital phone and you are far enough away from the tower, the phone will take a LOT of power just to maintain contact with the network. This means that your digital phone will run out of batteries in just a few hours even if you never make a call.
When calling for help with a cellular phone, remember the following tips:
- Turn off the phone when you are not using it.
- When you need help, dial 911 and make sure to let them know you are in a wilderness area, and you are lost. The call is being recorded so tell them concisely what area you are in, where you started from, and any other information on your position you can gather.
- The emergency operator should tell you to turn your phone off to conserve power, and to turn it on again at a certain time. Be sure to follow these directions since SAR personnel will contact you for more information.
- Do not call friends and family! The police will do that and you are using valuable power.
- When SAR members are closing on your position, they ma call you to alert you or to ask you from what direction their voices are coming from. Also be alert for flares.
- Contrary to many news articles and TV Shows, most cell phone do not contain a GPS (Global Positioning System) device or any kind of beacon. The phone company can tell SAR Teams the general area that a call came from from computer logs, but often this information takes a long time to gather (because of privacy issues), and may be of very low accuracy if you are in the wilderness.
There are many locations in the wilderness where cell phones do not work, so please do not rely on them alone for safety. Take the 10 essentials, be prepared for your chosen sport, plans for the changes in weather , know where you are going and tell someone where and when you will be back, these are the most important elements of wilderness safety.