The use of cell phones in the wilderness is a controversial topic.  Many people believe that having a phone available leads to a false sense of comfort and undue risk taking.  Reception can also be spotty in the outdoors impacting a person’s ability to contact help.  Whatever your opinion cell phones are the most common way of initiating rescue, and most search and rescue teams endorse their use in rescues.  With worldwide coverage increasing cell phones are going to play a bigger part in wilderness emergencies.  Here are some tips for making a 911 call in the wilderness:

You should turn off your cell phone or radio (if you have one) to conserve batteries until you’re ready to use it. In cold environments you should warm up the battery before turning on the device so you don’t drain it.

Most new phones automatically fix your location when you make an emergency call, this isn’t always guaranteed and you can take a few steps to help.

a. Before your trip activate your phone’s automatic location setting which enables E911 to calculate your position.

b. Turn on your phone once a day for about 5 minutes when out in the field. Powered up phones check in with the nearest tower(s). Even if there’s not enough signal to make a call, it can be enough to leave an electronic trail.

c. Most devices work from line-of-site meaning land features such as hills or heavy tree cover can block the signal. Satellite phones need an unobstructed view of the sky. To make an emergency call, higher locations provide the best signal, hold your phone at arm’s length and rotate around to find the best reception. Once you find the best spot, return to that spot for future calls.

Aj © Jennifer Baptist

If you can’t get a call out with low reception you might still be able get a text out.  Text a reliable person you know with a simple message and your location.

Before calling for help take a few deep breaths, calm yourself, and think about your location and what you will say in the first few seconds. When a 911 operator answers state your location, cell phone number, identify yourself, and briefly state the emergency.  The best information for giving a location is your coordinates, if you don’t have them describing land features, miles from trailhead, elevation, and prominent points will help.  Also mention the types of signal devices you have, tent color, and what group members are wearing.  Answer the operator’s questions quickly and concisely.

If the operator doesn’t prompt you, schedule times for future contacts, like 5 minutes before and after the top of every hour, especially if the rescue might take some time.  This allows you to shut off the phone to conserve batteries.  For more tips check out this article on Signaling and Rescue.

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