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Backpacker Magazine – Online Exclusive

Prof. Hike: Rely on Yourself, Not on Your Phone

Join the effort to make mobile phones safer for the trail.

by: Jason Stevenson, author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Backpacking and Hiking


If I was a savvy investor I’d buy stock in companies that make stretchers, gauze, and splints. That’s because search and rescue season is heating up. Every spring, as more hikers and campers head outdoors, the number of calls to wilderness SAR teams surges. Should you follow the Wall Street adage to ‘sell in May and go away?’ Not when the market for human calamity is so bullish.

Take Drew Lancaster. On Sunday, May 8th the 24-year-old student went for a day-hike near Berthoud Pass, Colorado. Wearing tennis shoes and unprepared for the steep, snow-covered terrain, Lancaster got lost, tired, and thirsty before twisting his ankle. Although he spotted highway U.S. 40 hugging the mountainside 500 above him, he couldn’t reach it. So he dialed 911 on his smartphone. Despite poor cellular reception, Lancaster contacted police via text message, took bearings of a nearby peak using his phone’s compass app, and sent texts to direct rescuers to his location where he was evacuated by stretcher.

That fact that Lancaster got rescued is a good thing. But there’s another point to make. Lancaster’s phone was clever enough to send text messages and take compass bearings, yet he didn’t know enough to wear hiking boots, check trail conditions, or bring a map. And his scenario is hardly unique. As with many backcountry rescues initiated by 911 calls, the phones seem smarter than the people using them.

This summer thousands of panicked hikers will dial 911 on cell phones. Not convinced? Type “lost hiker cell phone” into Google and start scrolling. Thankfully, most of those stories have positive outcomes. But underlying the happy trailhead reunions is a dangerous trend—the over-reliance of cell phones as hiking lifelines.

The origin of this trend is understandable. People who use smartphones to locate wine bistros or comparison shop for flatscreen TVs believe these magical devices will just as easily save their butts in the woods. And they are mostly right. Mobile phones are amazing and versatile search and rescue tools with capabilities that continue to grow. Of course, the downside of paying $10 too much for a plasma TV is small. But when you’re lost on a mountain and can’t find the trail as the sun sets and the temperature plummets, the risks are much graver. And that’s usually when you drop your cell phone in a stream.

So what can we do to stop hikers from packing a cell phone but forgetting a map? The same thing the outdoor community did to reduce trailside litter and protect wildlife. We need new rules for cell phones that match the simple elegance of the Leave No Trace principles. Like rules for a kindergarten classroom, these guidelines should avoid complicated words and negative phrasing (ie. “Always Walk…” instead of “No Running…”). They should be concise, easy to remember, and promote safe outdoor practices. And they should encourage hikers to change their risky behaviors.

I’ll start this list below, but I won’t finish it. We need Backpacker readers to edit these rules and contribute their own. What cellular snafus have you witnessed? Which arguments are most convincing? If you could write the “Leave No Trace” principles for cell phone use, what would you include? The goal is to create new rules that might actually save lives.

Rely on Yourself, Not on Your Phone

(1) Carry your cell phone turned off
(2) Depend on your skills and gear instead of cellular reception
(3) Preserve digital silence on trails and summits
(4) Save 911 for real emergencies
(5) Give your cell number to your emergency contact
(5) Everything electronic is breakable
(6) …

Add to the list above by posting a comment or sending an email (just don’t do it from a trail…) to profhike@backpacker.com. —Jason Stevenson



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READERS COMMENTS

Star Star Star Star Star
Stephen
Jul 21, 2013

Like anything, be prepared, first and foremost. As a couple of people have said: nothing wrong with using some technology to your advantage if used in a wise manner. I prefer to use a separate Garmin outdoor GPS and my Nikon waterproof camera and keep the iPhone off and just there for emergency; but apps like Backpacker and AllTrails are pretty cool - and if some people want to use them, no problem with that. Where we need to be careful here - and this article did a good job of this - is not speaking with disdain for people who aren't necessarily trail savvy. We don't own the trails. Anyone can use them so don't think of throwing someone's cell phone off the cliff. There's a chance they might send you after it (in that case, carry a parachute yourself...)

Star Star Star Star Star
Stephen
Jul 21, 2013

Like anything, be prepared, first and foremost. As a couple of people have said: nothing wrong with using some technology to your advantage if used in a wise manner. I prefer to use a separate Garmin outdoor GPS and my Nikon waterproof camera and keep the iPhone off and just there for emergency; but apps like Backpacker and AllTrails are pretty cool - and if some people want to use them, no problem with that. Where we need to be careful here - and this article did a good job of this - is not speaking with disdain for people who aren't necessarily trail savvy. We don't own the trails. Anyone can use them so don't think of throwing someone's cell phone off the cliff. There's a chance they might send you after it (in that case, carry a parachute yourself...)

Cal 20 Sailor
Mar 26, 2012

Once upon a time, people went into the wilderness WITHOUT electronic devices...even without cell phones...and they lived to tell about their trip! As with any activity involving skill and risk, knowledge is the key. People could cut the "electronic lifeline" by leaving the phone home, or at least off, and develop the skills and knowledge needed to get by away from the familiar comforts of civilization.

Ian
Dec 10, 2011

First off, are we communist? If people wish to use there phones to aid them, why can't they? Yes I agree that people to to learn about the risks and be prepared, but who is totally prepared? Of course there are going to be people who venture out unprepared but this happen long before smart phones. Why is it that when there is a situation like this I talked about people's first response is, these people are stupid, I don't like them, I think they shouldn't even be on the trail. Why didn't you just write an article on HOW TO RELY LESS ON YOUR SMARTPHONE. My point is why all the bashing if your not doing something positive to change the situation.

Chuck
Aug 14, 2011

The only reason I carry my cellphone on the trail is to use it as an alarm clock. I've spent many mornings sleeping in. Know what you're doing and your abilities.

JoshuaKun
Jul 25, 2011

First, that's great it helped save his life. Second, his life wouldn't have needed saving if he'd been as smart as his phone and been prepared.

(7) 2 is 1, 1 is none. Bring a map because your smartphone will eventually become dumb.(8) Mr. Murphy says what can go wrong will go wrong and at the worst possible moment. Don't rely on technology.

Tim
Jul 10, 2011

You're preaching to the Choir here (the prepared outdoorsy folks). Totally agree in principle, but I hate the idea of rules and regulations. Stupid people will always exist. The guy with the cell phone will still be unprepared. At least that is saving their hides. 10 or 12 years ago he would be dead or close to it when someone finally found him. That is why they have a Darwin award winner every year. Again, totally agree folks need to develop skills and be ready for the worst, but average Joe acident waiting to happen will still be out there trail rules or not.

Gershon
Jul 04, 2011

I carry a SPOT transmitter and give someone the link to monitor my progress. Transmission isn't perfect in the mountains, but it does leave digital breadcrumbs which could be given to a search team.

Keep in mind, search team members put their lives at risk to save us. The shorter we can make a potential search, the better.

Personally, I always pack enough for a few days even on a day hike. That way, if I sprain an ankle or something, I can send an OK message on the SPOT and then just wait a day or two until it feels better.

TM
Jun 09, 2011

What boggles me is when I hit the trail it's usually to escape the reliance on cell phones. Sure my iPhone has a great camera, however I don't even want to turn the thing on because heaven forbid I might have service. People assume too much and as a society in general; technology has become a crutch to existence. It is the last and most epic slap on the face to Darwinism.

Lastly, it's a great "Shit hits the fan" piece of gear, however let's be honest. When the shit really hits the fan your cellphone is going to be one more object that weighs too much.

Nothing beats common sense and the knowledge of survival.

Sorry for the rant, but my girlfriend is tired of me being belligerent to people who walk and use iPads at the same time.

Jeff Fabiszewski
May 27, 2011

Trail tweets are for the birds not your thumbs.

BSA4USAtom
May 25, 2011

Nothing replaces Plan Ahead and Prepare. Remember - the world does NOT OWE YOU A RESCUE. Use your head. Also remember that the people you may be summoning are VOLUNTEERS. Don't waste their time or risk their lives due to your POOR PLANNING. Take responsibilities for your actions. I'm an LNT Master Educator and I fight this kind of thinking all the time. Don't bet your life on 'an app.' Engage your brain instead ! Happy Trails !

Erik
May 25, 2011

Cell phone as camera: check
Cell phone as EMERGENCY backup or GPS aid: check.
Everything else -- keep it in your pack or your pocket and keep it turned off.

Sam
May 25, 2011

You come into the wilderness to escape everyday life -- to experience things a little differently. The same goes for cell phones -- bring them into the backcountry, use their cameras and awesome apps, but don't use them the same way you do when you're at home. Think about them differently -- as a luxury, as a toy to enhance your experience, but certainly not as a life-saving or even reliable device. In the backcountry, your phone is entirely disposable (water, dead battery, no reception) and your survival needs to be indifferent to that fact.

Jonanderson
May 25, 2011

8. It is ok to carry a cell phone, but make sure you know the terrain and weather conditions well. Get a map of the area you will be hiking in. Do not rely solely on any smartphone, always have a backup.

Jonanderson
May 25, 2011

8. It is ok to carry a cell phone, but make sure you know the terrain and weather conditions well. Get a map of the area you will be hiking in. Do not rely solely on any smartphone, always have a backup.

Ben
May 24, 2011

While I do agree that people should be prepared I wouldn't blame technology. It's not technologies fault that "Bob" goes hiking with sandals and a 20oz water and nothing else. I've done tremendous testing of various apps and products and a smartphone (specifically iPhone) can and has been a HUGE aid and tool in hiking. There are great GPS apps (accuterra), can be used as a camera to cut back on extra weight, and there are many cases that are extremely durable (otterbox). I would agree not to 100% rely on it but it's foolish to not use it to your advantage.

Lochbain
May 23, 2011

6. If it s only upon a phone upon which you rely, it is clinging to your phone you will be when you die.
7. If I hear your phone ring as I summit a peak miles from civilization we will see how far the drop off the side of the cliff really is. (I don't think any phone is smart enough to deploy a parachute.)

chipwhich
May 23, 2011

Skills and common sense instead of Tech and Data streams. Think of your compass as a Caveman Cell phone.

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