Cell Phones In The Backcountry

Backcountry Essentials: Stash the technology in your pack

When to use a cell phone: To document debris from a slide crashing into a hotel. This one from 2008, whan an avalanche hit the Bridger Gondola restaurant. PHOTO: Christopher Bezamat Photography

When to use a cell phone: To document debris from a slide crashing into a hotel. This one from 2008, whan an avalanche hit the Bridger Gondola restaurant. PHOTO: Christopher Bezamat Photography

Sean Zimmerman-Wall is a full-time ski patrolman at Snowbird, an avalanche educator, and an Andean mountain guide. Check in on Tuesdays for resources and education that will help you have a safe and good season exploring terrain beyond the boundary line.

Leaving your cell phone at home has become one of those things that is just simply hard to do. We live in a world that is addicted to technology. And it’s become the norm to post an Instagram from the top of every tour, giving all your followers and friends and fans another case of FOMO. Hashtags aside, the backcountry isn’t a place for social media. However, your smartphone is still a valuable tool if used sparingly and at the right times. Remember how phones used to be use just to call people? That’s when a phone in the backcountry should be used. Cell phones can assist travelers when they need to call in an emergency or let loved ones know they will be a bit delayed because the skiing warrants an extra lap.

Various apps have been created that allow users to track a variety of things. The Utah Avalanche Center has an app that makes submitting field observations easy and the daily bulletin is close at hand. Other apps from companies like Mammut incorporate clinometers for determining slope angle. Depending on where you live, it is even possible to receive tweets about recent avalanche activity in the backcountry.

Simply putting your phone in your pack is the best way to abstain from needless interruptions. It has been shown that smart phones can cause harmful interference to beacons in search or receive mode. A minimum separation of 30 centimeters (around one foot) is recommended to combat this issue. Wi-Fi-enabled cameras and certain GPS devices can cause similar problems and should be stored away from beacons. By placing your phone in airplane mode, you can also cut down on the interference from the antenna. Having your phone in this standby mode also saves battery life and allows access to apps. The key is being thoughtful about using the device and to share your opinions with your partners. Perhaps the best answer is to just put the phone away and enjoy the great outdoors.

  Last week’s backcountry tip: Who skis first?

Add a comment

  • Rob Full

    In a search and rescue situation at night a smart phone face can be seen for miles by Night Vision Goggles.
    They’ll also give a fairly accurate global position. Lat/long, even with no reception. If someone is in need of EMS or rescue, starting off with an accurate position can save tons of critical time.

  • Michelle

    Hi Sean, After reading your article “Cell Phones in the Back Country”, I wanted to point out that often times in the back country cell phone service can be extremely limited, if not completely out of service. Getting “off the grid” is part of the fun of outdoor adventure, but it can come with safety concerns. I work with DeLorme with their inReach 2-way satellite communicator which provides service anywhere on the globe. In addition to sending and receiving 160-character text messages, inReach provides GPS tracking and interactive SOS features, using the Iridium satellite network for 100% global coverage without any black-out zones or fringe areas. inReach also pairs with popular smartphones and tablets to access topographic maps from DeLorme and NOAA charts.

    If you are ever interested in trying out a unit, let me know.

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