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Should You Carry a Cell Phone on Backpacking Trips?

“I’ll never take my cell phone hiking or backpacking,” I said about 10 years ago. Famous last words. I now carry a Smartphone wherever I go, in part, because you can’t find a phone anywhere in the United States, Canada, or the UK, unless you carry your own. Look around. Phone booths have all but disappeared from the face of the earth.

But there’s a bigger reason to carry a phone on hikes and backpacking trips having to do with emergency communication. While you can contact search and rescue with a 2-Way Satellite Communicator like the Garmin inReach Explorer+, inReach Mini, or SPOT X, and even send your lat/lon coordinates to them, emergency responders prefer that people contact them by dialing 911 (or the in-state SMS emergency number) if you have cell network service, because you’ll be in touch with *their* call center, their trained staff, and their network of SAR responders faster with fewer inter-agency handoffs.

Speaking on a cell phone is also a much richer form of communication than pecking away at the messaging keyboard of a two-way satellite communicator. It’s very helpful to search and rescue if you can provide them with information about your gear and current condition, so they can give you advice and prioritize the people and equipment they need to respond. That kind of information is much more efficient to convey by voice than text.

But there’s no guarantee that you’ll have cell network access in the backcountry, so it makes sense to have at least one cell phone and one satellite communication device in your group, at least on remote trips, where aid may be needed.

While I carry a smartphone and a satellite communicator on all of my day hikes and backpacking trips, I don’t think of my smartphone as a “classic phone” anymore, because since I rarely call anyone and most of my phone calls (robocalls) go to voicemail. In the past 5 years, Smartphones have transcended voice communication and become hand-held computers. I use my Smartphone to get driving directions to trailheads, to navigate on and off trail, to take photos and notes, respond to blog comments, text my friends, send emails, and even write blog posts if the muse visits.

But if you can get a cell phone signal in the backcountry, 911 can’t be beat. Try it before you try your Satellite Messenger or Personal Locator Beacon.

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