By Amy Harff
When was the last time that you went somewhere without your cell phone?
In an era when we are constantly connected to technology, phones and apps are increasingly designed to meet our every need and want. For many of us, they offer a sense of security and the convenience of immediate answers to our questions. But for those who venture into the backcountry, phones can be less reliable due to limited cell service or battery life. Yet, many day hikers rely on phones in the backcountry and some even consider phones to be one of the “10 essentials” for day hikes.
According to the National Park Service, the essentials are: navigation, sun protection, food, illumination, insulation, first-aid supplies, repair kit and tools, matches and fire starters, hydration and emergency shelter. Phones don’t make the list, but perhaps they should.
With a GPS, flashlight, compass, camera and ability for emergency communication, smartphones are equipped with many of the essentials for day hikes. Integrated apps can help provide direction, document hazards and accidents. The alarm can be used to wake people up from naps and even to scare or distract animals and signal rescuers. GPS capabilities do not require cell service as long as you’ve preloaded the map while connected, and map apps such as AllTrails, REI’s Hiking Project and Gaia GPS can keep you on the trail. Trail apps, however, do not replace the need to bring a map and compass.
In an emergency, a downloaded digital Medical Emergency Guidebook could save lives. If you have cell coverage and are subscribed to weather alerts, you could receive advanced warning of dangerous conditions.
“You should bring a cell phone,” says Joe Dadey, cofounder of the trek-promoting nonprofit program Adirondack Hamlets to Huts. “Instead of sending someone out to go contact a ranger, you can contact the (Department of Environmental Conservation) dispatch and rangers from the top of the mountain. (It’s a good idea to preload the number in your contacts.)
“Bring your phone because you may save time, people power, ranger resources and money—and maybe even a life.”
Dadey also warns that phones can’t replace the need to plan ahead. “Accidents happen, so be prepared for a self-rescue.”
Savannah Doviak from ROOST—the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism—says no one should sacrifice anything else from the Park Service list to make room for a phone. “But could it be an 11th essential?” she said. “Maybe.”
Neil Woodworth, executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club, cautions that “many people rely too much on cell-phones, which leads to minimizing the pre-hike preparations and sometimes leads to people not bringing the rest of the items on the list.”
Some people aren’t prepared to self-rescue, so they call for help, he says. “Phones can fail when you need them most.” For those who bring one, he suggests using airplane mode to conserve the battery, and bringing a backup charger.
Safety aside, phones in the backcountry present the additional challenge of interfering with our experience of nature. Loud phone calls or music can detract from other people’s experiences, and our desire to get Instagram-worthy pictures can lead us into dangerous situations, such as a hiker who fell off a cliff while taking a selfie in Yosemite. Photographs on social media have increased awareness about the Adirondack Park, which has led to a surge of hikers in the High Peaks region.
Sometimes, Dadey says, “People ‘click and go,’ as opposed to really experiencing nature.” While he still encourages his Hamlets to Huts trekkers to bring a phone, he encourages them to use them appropriately, if at all.
“Don’t let technology take you away from the here and now,” Dadey says, “and from the full sensory experience in the Adirondacks.” ■
I think that cell phones give unprepared hikers a false sense of security.
Steve S says
I bring my smart phone for convenience, but I have a map and compass along with a GPS for reliable navigation. I find my handheld GPS much more reliable over a wide range of temperatures, it provides long battery life, and it has survived drops onto rocks from a substantial height. I don’t trust my phone to keep working in challenging conditions.
Katharine Preston says
And then there are those of us who do not have cell phones….
There are some of us who plan our trip, make preparations and rely on ourselves. Is not this essence of our back country experience?
John Blaser says
I carry the digital (PDF) version of the American Red Cross Wilderness and Remote First Aid Emergency Reference Guide on my phone. I find it covers all the basics.