The modern cell phone has become an electronic Swiss army knife. With telephone, camera, GPS and internet browser, these feature-packed wonders have advanced rapidly over the last decade. But, there's a feature your cell phone carries that no salesman is likely to mention: the ability to help rescuers find you in the outdoors even if you have no reception.
When you power up your cell phone, it sends out a small but powerful signal to find the nearest cell tower. Once it locates the tower, it sends a secondary signal to establish the connection. This is known as a "handshake." Along with this handshake, the phone sends all of its information, including its current location (usually within several hundred feet).
Now, we all know that if the display on our phone indicates only a few small bars of signal strength, we have slim chances of making a successful call. However, the phone and tower are still seeing one another. To take it one step further, even if your phone shows "no service," that doesn't mean a cell tower isn't picking up the occasional "bread crumb" from your phone. It may be a tower from another provider, which will return a signal of "no coverage" (on their system anyway), but it is still seeing your phone intermittently.
So, what does all this mean?
A lot! A search and rescue team can access this information and use these "bread crumbs" to gain critical information about your location and hasten your recovery if needed.
So, how can we use this information to keep us safe?
As much as you may take to the woods to get away from the relentless chirping of cell phones, bring it along. You don't need to keep it on the entire time. But, in the event you find yourself lost, it's time to start powering up the phone and giving your rescue team some helpful clues. If your battery is getting low, kill all but the most essential functions to lengthen your battery life. Then start powering your phone off to conserve, and back on to broadcast a signal every few hours or so.
There is no piece of electronic wizardry as useful as your ability to use a map and compass. Do some online research and at least learn the rudiments.
Quick Safety Tip: This is shaping up to be a potentially ferocious season by way of snow melt. Stay clear of ravines and creek beds for camping spots. We all expect some water during inclement weather, but a very warm day, especially following a cold spell, can release a sudden and powerful flow of water. It's uncommon, but water can well up in a cavity inside the snow pack itself and release all at once. This can be catastrophic as there is no advance notice. Please be careful.
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Salt Lake City Backpacking Examiner Brian Powers is a Utah native with over 25 years of backpacking the beautiful state of Utah.
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