A+ A A-

Cell Phones and Rescue

Cell phones (or mobile 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.

In fact, most of the areas SAR responds to are very close to “civilization”, and yet have no cell coverage.  We see this a lot in Kentucky.

When a mobile phone is turned on it uses power. When you go out of range of a cell tower, it continues to use power, and in some cases uses even more than usual trying to connect to the cellular network.

In the case of a “smart” phone, many people believe that if they use Facebook or Twitter this uses less power that placing a call. This is not true because for even the newest smart phones, the biggest use of power is to light the screen. Even typing an SMS or posting to Facebook uses power.



Modern smart phones have a GPS receiver. This allows the phone to tell you where you are, and if you are connected to the data network you can use online mapping software to navigate. However, once you are out of range you can’t access these maps. You would have to install software that uses “offline” maps prior to leaving home.

The public also believes that SAR can locate you by using your smart phone, and to a certain extent this is true, as long as you have a signal.

When you call 911 for help, that system can figure out your “rough” location. This is good when you are in an urban area with lots of cellular towers nearby, but in the wilderness the accuracy decreases greatly, and we can only tell the general area. If you have no cell contact we can’t tell anything.


While a smart phone with a GPS can be used to navigate in the wilderness, they have serious limitations

  • Use a lot of power.
  • Battery life is short.
  • Cannot change batteries.
  • GPS accuracy on smart phones half as good as a wilderness GPS.
  • Smart phones are fragile, and not built for backcountry conditions.

It is possible to mitigate these failings with special cases, and external battery packs, but a specialized wilderness GPS is more durable, lighter, takes the same batteries as most flashlights, and is extremely accurate.


Facts about cell phones

  • Cell phones use power when you are not using them.
  • Cell phones use a lot of power to turn on the screen.
  • Texting and Social Media use a lot of power because the screen is on.
  • Using the phone to navigate uses a lot of power.
  • The GPS on a smart phone is not as accurate as a wilderness GPS.
  • 911 operators can only get your “rough” network location.
  • In the wilderness, the accuracy of the location is very low, and almost useless.
  • We can sometimes locate you with the GPS on your smart phone.
  • We cannot locate you with the phone when it is out of range or out of power.


Our recommendations


If you are hiking with your cell phone, remember the following tips:


  • Turn off the phone when you are not using it.
    We cannot stress this enough.
  • Do NOT use your phone for navigation!
    Use a GPS, a map and a compass. If you get lost, the phone is how you call for help.
  • Call for help as soon as you know you are lost
    Delaying the call wastes time and daylight, making it harder to find you.
  • When you need help, dial 911
    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.
  • Once you have called for help, conserve power!
    Answer calls from Search and Rescue.
  • We may tell you to turn off the phone and to turn it on at specific times.
  • When SAR members are closing on your position, they may call you to alert you or to ask you from what direction their voices are coming from.


Subscribe to this RSS feed