News broke last week of a lost hiker in Colorado who ignored repeated calls from search and rescue officers trying to locate him because they did not recognize the number. Meanwhile, a viral post started to circulate on social networks, urging people who may need a backcountry rescue to update their phone’s voicemail with their location details. It’s a good time to learn: if you’re lost, don’t do any of these things. A cell phone can be an invaluable tool in a search and rescue scenario, if used correctly.
I spoke to Rory Edwards, a search and rescue volunteer in Madison Valley, Montana. At first he laughed, but after reassuring him that people were really advising lost hikers to update voicemail messages with location details, he got serious. “No, you shouldn’t be changing your voicemail,” Edwards says. “If your phone works, you should try calling 911. If you can’t reach, try texting 911.”
Edwards says all mobile carriers are required to forward 911 calls, regardless of the network. So even if your phone is not receiving any reception from your regular carrier, you may still be able to reach 911. In addition, most parts of the country now support 911 SMS. A text data packet is very small. and your phone will continuously try to send it if it fails the first time. This can allow a message to go out, even when a call fails to connect.
Why is it better to call 911 than to change your voicemail to include your location details? In addition to actively alerting authorities that you need help, it also sets in motion other systems that may not be obvious at first. First responders will receive details of your phone’s general location when you make that first call or text. They can then continue to ping the phone for more precise location details while they try to find you. Even if your phone’s location services are turned off, connecting to 911 will automatically turn them on. Rescuers can find your phone by using its connection to GPS satellites and triangulating its signal between cell phone towers.
Edwards shares another crucial piece of advice: “If you’re lost, stay where you are. “
This is a mistake the Colorado hiker made. Rescuers were forced to repeatedly try to contact him by phone because when he realized he was lost he continued to walk. Staying in one place will make it easier for first responders to locate your phone, make any physical search easier for them, and use significantly fewer man hours. This is especially important if you are with a vehicle when you get lost. Not only will your car potentially provide shelter, but it will also be easier to spot from a distance and reduce the areas you might be in to places vehicles are able to access.
Arizona hiker Karen Klein made headlines five years ago after hiking 26 miles in the snow, drinking her own urine and eating twigs to survive to find help for her stranded family . But before she could find help, her husband simply walked up the hill their car was stuck on and managed to find enough signal to connect to 911. If it’s safe and you can. , it may be wise to use your knowledge of how a cell-phone signal travels through remote areas to find a connection without traveling very far. The radio waves your phone uses to connect to a cell phone tower travel in a straight line, so moving up a hill or moving away from an obstacle can provide a connection.
If you are lost, do not hesitate to ask for help. You don’t bother anyone, waste their time, or be alarmist. Rescue workers would rather have an easy rescue and laugh with you afterward rather than spending hours working in potentially dangerous conditions to find your corpse. Calling 911 will ultimately use less search and rescue resources – it’s the responsible thing to do. “We want to hear from you,” Edwards says.
And don’t forget to be proactive before you go. “Leaving travel plans to a responsible person is still a proven method,” says Edwards. Let someone know where you are going and when you will be back. If they haven’t heard from you, ask them to call 911. This way you can be sure that your location and these instructions are already in the hands of someone they trust, without someone else. ‘one is trying to leave you a voicemail message. before they find out you’re lost.
This is what prompted Search and Rescue to launch a search for this lost hiker in Colorado. If he had stayed in one spot, rather than hiking off trail all night, he would have been found quickly. Or he could have just picked up the damn phone.