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How to stay safe on a hike

  • November 1, 2021

How to stay safe on a hike (hint: it’s not changing your voicemail)

Last week, there was viral advice floating around all the social platforms that said,  “If you’re lost on a hike and your phone is about to die, change your voicemail message. Let people know where you are and what you’re doing (like waiting by the river) so if they try to call, they know how to find you even if your phone is dead.”

Upon first glance, this sounded like decent advice. Except, what if you don’t have cell phone service? (You can’t update your voicemail greeting without it.) And if you have just a tiny bit of battery left,  shouldn’t you call… 911? Search and rescue? Someone with the resources to coordinate actual assistance? 

I hike alone a lot, often 10-15 miles at a time in remote areas, and I take a lot of steps to stay safe. Here’s how I prepare. (Note, this isn’t about what to pack or wear—see my other hiking guides for that.)

Before the hike

First, well before you leave your house, download your trail using the AllTrails app (Pro account, see below), the National Park Service app if you’re in a park, or bring a paper map of the area with you. Yes, I said a paper map. There was zero cell service throughout Yosemite, and we ended up using paper maps to guide our road trips and hikes. If you’re using AllTrails, you can still navigate even without cell coverage, which helps you stay on the trail and go back the same way you came in.’

I always text someone where I’m going (Big Cottonwood Canyon), the trail I’m going to do (Mill D North to Desolation Lake), what time I’m starting (8 AM), how long it is (it’s about 7 miles RT, 10 miles if I get spicy and detour to Dog Lake on the way back), what time I should text them again, given how much time I might want to hang out at my destination (1 PM), and what time they should call the authorities if I’m not back (3 PM). I make sure I text this info, because at 7 AM I don’t expect my husband to remember the specific name of the trail I’m on

If I change locations on the fly due to trail closure or how busy it is, I will find cell service and text the change of plans before I go up. If I know I’m going to a canyon with zero service, I’ll say, “I’m planning on hitting Big Water Trail to Dog Lake, but if parking is full I’ll head back down to Birch Hollow.” The point is, I make sure someone knows where I am ahead of time, even on my local trails.

If there’s a trailhead log-book, sign it neatly with the date and time. If there’s a ranger station, check in and share your plans. If you’re based at a hotel, tell the front desk person where you are headed and all of the above information. If you pass a gas station on your way to a remote trail, go buy something and talk to the clerk so they remember you. (I don’t listen to True Crime podcasts but it rubs off.) The point is, give yourself some accountability somewhere; ideally with multiple people.’

During the hike

There are a few apps that can help you stay safe, but only if you have cell phone service. NEVER COUNT ON CELL PHONE SERVICE. If there’s one thing I want to impress upon you, it’s that.

Still, keep your phone handy and pay attention in case you randomly get a bar or two mid-hike. You can use those opportunities to text a check-in or update your emergency contacts with your location using an app. Once I lose service, I keep notifications and volume ON (I don’t put it in airplane mode or DND). If I pop into service at some point on the trail, my phone blows up with missed alerts, and I can stop to send a check-in text to my husband or sister. Also, be on the lookout for service specifically on peaks, as you can often pick up a few bars up high.

All Trails: With a Pro subscription ($30 a year), you can designate up to 5 contacts using their LifeLine feature, and share your planned start and finish time and date, your planned starting and ending location, and your real-time location on a map plotted against your planned route. If you experience data connectivity or GPS issues, however, your updates will be delayed until you’re back in service.

Strava: Their Beacon service is free if you’re using their mobile app (paid if you’re using a Garmin or Apple Watch). Share real-time location info with your contacts via text, updated every 15 seconds or so. Again, if you experience data connectivity or GPS issues, your updates will be delayed until you’re back in service.

What3Words: While most Search and Rescue teams don’t recommend using What3Words for emergency services (as your phone’s GPS can help them coordinate far better), this is a great one to use with friends and family if you need to give them directions to your trailhead or parking area. The key words make it easy to tell anyone exactly where you are anywhere in the world using three unique key words. (It’s way easier to say “classmate kennels benchmarks” than “like, part of the way up this lake trail?”) The app is free to download, but (again) you have to have cell phone service to tell someone where you are using your keywords.

There are other apps (including Google Maps) that share location and status in real-time with selected contacts, but again, cell phone service is a requirement, and (is this horse dead yet?) you just can’t count on that.

Emergency comms

The ultimate emergency communication for camping, hiking, road trips, and any other situation in which you might not have cell coverage is a satellite communicator. These can be pricey, but if you travel alone often (or with your kids) it can be a literal life-saver.

Garmin InReach Mini: This is what I have. It’s about $350 with an inexpensive monthly subscription (starting around $12 a month). You can pre-program texts or emails to emergency contacts (“still on track” or “delayed by an hour but doing OK”), you can communicate two-way (so they can text you back), and if needed, you have a big SOS button that WILL send the helicopters and SAR team. Push only in cases of emergency because that shit is expensive, but if you need it, you’ve got it. (There are many options for satellite communicators, and cheaper one-way communicator options exist.)

Personal Location Beacon: For folks who just wantthe SOS button. Most of these don’t require a subscription but are ONLY used in case of emergency, and have no two-way communication. (So you push it and pray.) But it should alert authorities to within 100 meters of your position, and some have a battery life of over 24 hours, so you may continually broadcast your location to rescuers if you’re moving. Probably a bit too intense for your average day-hiker, but if you fly a glider or mountaineer, this might be fitting.

I pray none of you (or me) ever needs these kinds of emergency services, but it’s better to be prepared, as even experienced hikers can find themselves lost, in a jam, or injured. Do you have tips, apps,  or other resources you’d like to share for solo hikers? Email me your responses.


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