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What is the best cell phone for the backcountry?
Use your common digital cell phone for backcountry and mountaineering!

'There is no denying the sense of cell'
By Robert Speik
This article was Commissioned by The Mountaineers, (a Club of 10,500 people, "formed to enrich the community of the Pacific North West") and Published on the front page of their June 2009 issue of their monthly magazine.

For 10 days in December 2006, the world’s media focused on the plight of three experienced mountain climbers missing in a heavy snowstorm near the summit of Mt. Hood. Two had died in a probable catastrophic fall. Stranded in a snow cave, a hypothermic Kelly James called his home in Texas using his digital cell phone to say goodbye, triggering the massive failed rescue effort. He did not call 911 for rescue.

In November 2006, James Kim, his wife and their two small children had become stranded on a southern Oregon byway while driving toward home in San Francisco. The media headlined the search efforts as many days passed. Cell phone engineers, volunteering their un-sought expertise, offered Searchers the general location of the Kim’s car, based on pings from a single tower to their listening digital cell phone. Shortly thereafter, Kim's wife and children were rescued and James was found the following day. James Kim had died of hypothermia one day before his family’s rescue while on an heroic quest to save his family.

In September 2007, more than a week after failing to return home from work, Maple Valley resident Tanya Rider was found quickly after Washington authorities finally asked her cell phone provider for the coordinates of her listening digital cell phone. She was still alive but dehydrated and injured, hanging in her seat belt in her car at the bottom of a steep ravine in the Seattle suburb.

The cited incidents serve to remind backcountry travelers that cell phones can communicate from urban-facing slopes or summits. They can also help locate an injured stranded traveler.

Currently, the case is been made for the inclusion of the common digital cell phone as Essential backcountry safety gear because of such incidents as those in Oregon and Maple Valley. In the mountaineering world, the controversy over possible excessive use of cell phones to trigger expensive search and rescue missions still simmers. But the fact is that climbing rescues actually comprise a minor percentage of rescue responses. According to Oregon State records, climbing accounts for just 3.4 percent of all rescues—slightly higher than mushroom harvesting—while hiking accounts for 13.8 percent. Vehicles, including ATVs and snowmobiles, top the list at 20.5 percent.

The basic responsibilities of backcountry travelers include the designation of a Responsible Person to call 911 if the traveler does not return by a specific time. Searchers will want to know the details of the car, the planned trailhead, the traveler’s proposed route or routes from the trailhead, and when other participants are involved, their preparations and experience as well. Searchers will ask for all of their cell phone numbers.

Backcountry rescue is not initiated until a request is made through a call to 911. When backcountry travelers become stranded due to illness or injury, or if they become lost and are forced to stay overnight, it may be better to call for help at that time, rather than waiting for the designated person to call 911 hours or days later.

This is what makes a cell phone most valuable. The common digital phone allows a stranded backcountry traveler to provide Rescuers with their specific coordinates using the traveler’s topo map and GPS receiver, and the details of their problem, their condition, their plans and more. This clearly assists the search and rescue effort.

Personally, I have an “emergency cell phone plan.” My regular three ounce digital cell phone was “free” and my simple service costs just $10 per month, including some free minutes and just pennies for possible additional minutes. I have up-loaded the cell numbers of my responsible person, my family, friends and companions and the local land managers.

Most of my companions have common digital cell phones and they carry them shut off in their packs to provide back-up cell phone battery power. We may check the connection quality from time to time as we hike so that we have a sense of where we can connect to one or more cell towers.

Cell phone buyers should note that few units contain an actual internal GPS radio signal receiver that tracks Department of Defense satellites. Even expensive cell phone navigation plans that give you turn-by-turn highway directions use cell tower “triangulation” and not GPS generated coordinates, according to my provider, Verizon. FCC E911 Requirements for Providing Mobile Phone Geographic Locations.

A "smart phone" does not replace the map, compass and GPS together. The smart phone map is planimetric, socialized and only detailed enough for a motor home. There is no accurate compass. There is no real GPS function. Sales advisors seldom hike and have never seen a USGS Quad topo map, a declination adjusted base plate compass or a hand held GPS receiver -- they "know not that they know not".

Other communication options:
A $35 pair of walkie-talkie (FRS) radios may help keep your group together and may help contact nearby searchers, but someone within range of a few miles must be listening on your Channel, selected from several options. Not a good option.

My wife and I are FCC licensed General class amateur radio operators. My handheld amateur radio is pretty heavy and it eats special batteries. There are newer options.

I have a friend who rents an expensive satellite phone for his really big trips.

A personal locator beacon (PLB) only calls to initiate an actual rescue and at $600 and up, it is costly. It depends on the dedicated international rescue COSPAS-SARSAT nine satellite system to send out a distress signal but unlike other options, it cannot be lawfully field tested.

In the absence of known cell tower coverage, I use the technology of the new “SPOT Personal Satellite Messenger” (now SPOT-2) -costing about $149 plus a $100 annual unlimited satellite phone connection charge. Three replaceable Lithium AA batteries from any store, power this new device. SPOT satellite communications can be tested unlimited times in all your usual personal travel locations, sending pre-written, changeable and trip specific email messages with your lat-lon coordinates pin pointed on an attached adjustable Google map, to family and to friends. If these free satellite/email messages get through, so would an emergency request for help to 911/SAR.

Your personal cell phone call to 911, coupled with USGS topo map, declination adjusted baseplate compass, a basic GPS and some simple skills, can provide rescuers with your exact geographic coordinates and your personal description of the problem, the current conditions, your plan of action and much more. Your cell phone could take the “search” out of search and rescue.

Bottom line: Add your common digital cell phone to your Essential Systems when traveling or climbing in the backcountry.
Copyright©, 2009-2012 by Robert Speik. All Rights Reserved.

Robert Speik writes for his website,, and provides instruction in mountaineering. He has written many Reports for the annual journal, “Accidents in North American Mountaineering.”


The rest of the story

Deschutes County Sheriffs Search and Rescue Volunteer Coordinator Al Hornish, a 12 year veteran of DCSAR, stated the following in an interview published on January 26, 2012 in the Bend Oregon Source Weekly: "We have grown a lot over the past decade. The nature of missions has changed as well." "There are more Rescues and less Searches, mostly because of the better technology available." Read More. --Robert Speik

FCC E911 Requirements for Providing Mobile Phone Geographic Locations: Read More about the latest facts. --Robert Speik, 2012

Wednesday, July 7, 2010, or nearly four months since my fall off Mount Temple. After so much time, there is much to dwell on. The negatives: the pain of so many fractures, the sleeplessness, the drugs and the messed up things they do to you. It’s easy to get stuck in the negative; yet some part of me is drawn there by some morbid fascination.

How big am I then? Not very. I made a mistake, a pretty small mistake. Or more honestly, I made a series of pretty small mistakes. I almost died for these transgressions. I would have died if it had not been for a cell phone and the chain of events it was able to put into motion. (I’ve owned a cell phone for barely six years.) I might not have died that very day, March 25, 2010, but from where we were, we were a long, long way from the medical care my injuries demanded: a trained trauma surgeon in an Emergency Room. Perhaps I would have lasted one night. Maybe not. It changes my perspective about what a day means. Carpe diem no longer seems some frat-boy cry to party. Today, means everything. --Steve House



Here are some Basic suggestions for all backcountry travelers

1. Practice the Four Basic Responsibilities of the Backcountry Traveler. They work!  Basic Responsibilities

2. Carry the new Ten Essential Systems, sized for the forecast weather and the adventure in a light day pack. This includes a map, compass and GPS and the skills to use them. In the winter, this includes enough extra insulation and waterproof clothing to keep you dry and warm if you become stranded. In snow, you must have a shovel and insulating pad and the skills to make a shelter in the snow to avoid hypothermia and frost bite damage. It works!  Essential Systems

3. Carry a means of emergency communication. Carry a fully charged common digital cell phone and periodically check where it can communicate with any cell towers to assist authorities to triangulate your position from cell tower pings. (Most cell providers do not use cell phone "GPS signals" to locate customers under FCC E911 regulations - they use cell tower triangulation). Cold disables batteries. If the weather is cold, carry the cell phone in a pants pocket near the femoral artery. Use common AA Lithium batteries in headlamps, flashlights, GPS receivers, etc.. Call 911 and report your UTM NAD27 coordinates, your condition, the conditions where you are and discuss your plans with SAR.  Ordinary Cell Phones   If you may be out of cell tower range, carry a "SPOT".  SPOT-2 Satellite Messenger

4. Always stay found on your topo map and be aware of major land features. If visibility starts to wane, reconfirm your bearings with your map, compass and GPS and quickly return to a known location. A GPS is the only practical way for a trained individual to navigate in a whiteout or blowing snow.  Lost Mt Hood Climbers

A suggested minimum standard media advisory for all backcountry travelers

"We would like to take this opportunity to ask our visitors to the backcountry of Central Oregon to plan for the unexpected.  Each person should dress for the forecast weather and take minimum extra clothing protection from a drop in temperature and possible rain or storm or an unexpected cold wet night out and insulation from the wet ground or snow, high carbohydrate snacks, quarts of water, a map and compass and optional inexpensive GPS and the skills to use them. Each person should carry the new personal "Ten Essential Systems" including a charged common digital cell phone, and an optional SPOT-2 Satellite Messenger in a day pack sized for the season and the forecast weather. This gear should weigh only four to six pounds depending on the season and the trip.

Visitors are reminded to tell a Responsible Person where they are going, where they plan to park, when they will be back and to make sure that person understands that they are relied upon to call 911 at a certain time if the backcountry traveler has not returned."




"To provide information and instruction about world-wide basic to advanced alpine mountain climbing safety skills and gear, on and off trail hiking, scrambling and light and fast Leave No Trace backpacking techniques based on the foundation of an appreciation for the Stewardship of the Land, all illustrated through photographs and accounts of actual shared mountaineering adventures."

TraditionalMountaineering is founded on the premise that "He who knows naught, knows not that he knows naught", that exploring the hills and summitting peaks have dangers that are hidden to the un-informed and that these inherent risks can be IN PART, identified and mitigated by mentoring: information, training, wonderful gear, and knowledge gained through the experiences of others.

The value of TraditionalMountaineering to our Friends and Subscribers is the selectivity of the information we provide, and its relevance to introducing folks to informed hiking on the trail, exploring off the trail, mountain travel and Leave-no-Trace light-weight bivy and backpacking, technical travel over steep snow, rock and ice, technical glacier travel and a little technical rock climbing on the way to the summit. Whatever your capabilities and interests, there is a place for everyone in traditional alpine mountaineering.




Mountain climbing has inherent dangers that can, only in part, be mitigated

Read more . . .
Whoops: GPS locator switches on, sparks search - what happened?
Yuppie 911 devices can take the search out of search and rescue
Gear grist, an article written for The Mountaineer, the monthly magazine of The Mountaineers
Robert Speik writes: "There is no denying the sense of cell" for The Mountaineer
FCC requirements for providing mobile phone geographic locations
Four lost in forecast storm on Mt. Rainier
Mt. Rainier snowshoe leader falls, rescued after two days
Legal requirements learned from lost and found climbers on Mt. Hood
Snowboarder lost overnight near Mount Bachelor, rescued by SAR 
Expert skier lost five days in North Cascades without Essentials, map and compass
Woman leaves car stuck in snow near Klamath Falls, dies from exposure
Man rescued from crevasse just off South Sister climber's trail
Climbing South Sister: A Prospectus and a Labor Day near disaster
Trail runner survives fall on ice with cell phone call
Once again, hypothermia kills stranded Oregon driver
Lessons learned from the latest lost Mt. Hood climbers
Lessons learned from the latest lost Christmas tree hunters
How do digital mobile phones assist mountaineering and backcountry rescues?
Clinic on Real Survival Strategies and Staying Found with Map, Compass and GPS together
Lithium batteries recommended for GPS backcountry use
What do you carry in your winter day and summit pack?
Why is the digital cell phone best for backcountry and mountaineering?
Why are "Snow Caves" dangerous?
Why are "Space Blankets" dangerous?
Why are "Emergency Kits" dangerous?
How can you avoid Hypothermia?
Missing climbers on Mount Hood, one dies of exposure, two believed killed in fall
Missing California family found, dad dies from exposure and hypothermia
Missing man survives two weeks trapped in snow-covered car
Missing snowmobile riders found, Roger Rouse dies from hypothermia
Olympic Champion Rulon Gardner lost on snowmobile!
Lost Olympic hockey player looses feet to cold injury

Expert skier lost five days near resort in North Cascades without map, compass, gps or cell phone
Mount Hood - The Episcopal School Tragedy
Mount Hood - experienced climbers rescued from snow cave
How can you learn the skills of snow camping?   Prospectus

Lost and Found
Three climbers missing on Mt. Hood, all perish
Missing California family found, dad dies from exposure and hypothermia
Missing man survives two weeks trapped in snow-covered car
Missing snowmobile riders found, Roger Rouse dies from hypothermia
Lost climber hikes 6.5 miles from South Sister Trail to Elk Lake
Hiking couple lost three nights in San Jacinto Wilderness find abandoned gear
Expert skier lost five days in North Cascades without Essentials, map and compass
Climber disappears on the steep snow slopes of Mount McLaughlin
Hiker lost five days in freezing weather on Mount Hood
Professor and son elude search and rescue volunteers
Found person becomes lost and eludes rescuers for five days
Teens, lost on South Sister, use cell phone with Search and Rescue
Lost man walks 27 miles to the highway from Elk Lake Oregon
Snowboarder Found After Week in Wilderness
Searchers rescue hiker at Smith Rock, find lost climbers on North Sister
Girl Found In Lane County After Lost On Hiking Trip
Search and rescue finds young girls lost from family group
Portland athlete lost on Mt. Hood
Rescues after the recent snows
Novice couple lost in the woods
Broken Top remains confirmed as missing climber
Ollalie Trail - OSU Trip - Lost, No Map, Inadequate Clothing

 Your Essential Light Day Pack
What are the new Ten Essential Systems?
What does experience tell us about Light and Fast climbing?
What is the best traditional alpine mountaineering summit pack?
What is Light and Fast alpine climbing?
What do you carry in your day pack?      Photos?    
What do you carry in your winter day pack?       Photos?    
What should I know about "space blankets"?
Where can I get a personal and a group first aid kit?      Photos?

 Carboration and Hydration
Is running the Western States 100 part of "traditional mountaineering"?
What's wrong with GORP?    Answers to the quiz!
Why do I need to count carbohydrate calories?
What should I know about having a big freeze-dried dinner?
What about carbo-ration and fluid replacement during traditional alpine climbing?   4 pages in pdf  
What should I eat before a day of alpine climbing?

  About Alpine Mountaineering:
  The Sport of Alpine Mountaineering
  Climbing Together
  Following the Leader
  The Mountaineers' Rope
  Basic Responsibilities       Cuatro Responsabiliades Basicas de Quienes Salen al Campo
  The Ten Essentials         Los Diez Sistemas Esenciales

  Our Leader's Guidelines:
  Our Volunteer Leader Guidelines
  Sign-in Agreements, Waivers and Prospectus     This pdf form will need to be signed by you at the trail head
  Sample Prospectus    Make sure every leader tells you what the group is going to do; print a copy for your "responsible person"
  Participant Information Form    This pdf form can be printed and mailed or handed to the Leader if requested or required
  Emergency and Incident Report Form    Copy and print this form. Carry two copies with your Essentials 
  Participant and Group First Aid Kit   
Print this form. Make up your own first aid essentials (kits) 

  About our World Wide Website:

  Map, Compass and GPS
Map, compass and GPS navigation training Noodle in The Badlands
BLM guidelines for Geocaching on public lands
Geocaching on Federal Forest Lands
OpEd - Geocaching should not be banned in the Badlands
Winter hiking in The Badlands WSA just east of Bend
Searching for the perfect gift
Geocaching: What's the cache?
Geocaching into the Canyon of the Deschutes
Can you catch the geocache?
Z21 covers Geocaching
Tour The Badlands with ONDA 
The art of not getting lost
Geocaching: the thrill of the hunt!
GPS in the news
A GPS and other outdoor gadgets make prized gifts
Wanna play?  Maps show you the way
Cooking the "navigation noodle"