Cell Phones and Safety in the Wilderness
by Wes Kisting
Cell phones have become an ubiquitous presence in the modern world. It is now fair to say that virtually everyone carries a cell phone, even many self-professed technophobes and young children. They show up in schools, in offices, in shopping malls, in parks, and yessometimes they even show up in remote areas of wilderness. In fact, it's safe to say that, no matter where you go, if you expect to run into people, you can reasonably expect to run into a cell phone.
In an urban environment, cell phones are now so common that they rarely attract attention, let alone cause a stir. If we become conscious of them, it is in the times when their presence feels intrusive: in the middle of a movie theater, a church, a library, a classroomany of the thousand locations where we consider it an "obligatory courtesy" or "proper etiquette" to silence them. Perhaps for this reason, cell phones are also sometimes considered to be an intrusive, irritating, or offensive presence. Most people know at least a half dozen stories about cell phones ringing at inopportune or inappropriate times: in the middle of a music recital, at a funeral, during an important public speech, in the middle of sex... Chances are you're already beginning to recall some "annoying cell phone" stories of your own. Even so, the ample irritations of cell phones are publicly tolerated for the sake of their undeniable convenience and utility. However much they get on our nerves, we continue to accept them as a fact of life almost everywhere we go.
Almost everywhere, but not quite...
There are still a few places where raising the topic of cell phones can land you in the middle of a heated controversy, or what I call "The Great Cell Phone Debate." It's a debate that emerges again and again among outdoorsmen, animating the conversation around a campfire or shattering the stillness on an otherwise tranquil lake. In its most common form, The Great Cell Phone Debate involves the clash of two strongly opposing viewpoints which I refer to as "the purists" (anti-phone) and "the pragmatists" (pro-phone).
Purists: "Leave Your Phone at Home"
The purist argument is, by far, the most romantic and, in its most extreme form, it appears to be a relic of the 1960s "hippie-generation" philosophy which you still find among many outdoors-folk. The purist argument champions the profound importance of a pure and unmediated experience with the wilderness over and against more practical, utilitarian considerations. In essence, die-hard purists argue that to carry a cell phone in the wilderness is a grave violation of, and impediment to, their desire to commune with nature on an intimate, pure level. To take a cell phone along on a trip would (much like Ike McCaslin's gun, watch, and compass do in Faulkner's story "The Bear") seriously hinder a person's ability to "leave the world behind" and "renounce civilization" for the purer, more primitive, and therefore "more authentic" experience of going naked into the woods (metaphorically speaking). Put simply, technology is an obstacle to the simplicity, isolation, and self-reliance which they consider to be the heart of any legitimate, extended encounter with Mother Nature.
What is most difficult to reconcile about the purist mentality is the pick-and-choose attitude it involves. Very few purists would insist that a lifejacket, a spare paddle, a first-aid kit, snack foods, or pyrotechnic devices (flares, strobe lights, and even EPIRB locator beacons) "taint" the purity of a paddling expedition. Yet, in a strange mental balancing act, the same purists can be easily coaxed into hyperbolic condemnations of the "evils" and "profound harms" of cell phones. Often, their aversion to cell phones goes beyond personal preference to become full-blown polemic. Fellow paddler and devoted outdoorsman Bryan Hansel remarks on his website:
Notice that the conclusion of his quote ("you're just deceiving yourself") refutes his opening premise ("everyone is welcome to their own opinion"). Worse, he arrives at this conclusion after only one cell-phone-equipped foray into the wilderness. After recounting his decidedly non-scientific "test" of a cell phone's usefulness during his recent, extended trip through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA), he matter-of-factly concludes:
Faulty logic is not the only reason for this specious conclusion. It's also the purist mentality, which you can detect in Hansel's use of words like "intrusive," "annoyance," and "respect" when talking about cell phones. For the purist, bringing a cell phone not only intrudes on your own experience, but blatantly disrespects others by jeopardizing the purity of their experience tooeven, it seems, when you're in the middle of nowhere with no one else around and no cellular signal to be had. If we are to take this logic seriously, the mere presence of the object (the cell phone itself) somehow offendsindeed, offends so greatly as to require its total abolishment, rather than the far more practical solution of simply turning the phone off when it's not needed. But Hansel's own report betrays the persuasiveness of his conclusion: He admits to acquiring a "fleeting signal on Lac La Croix" which "disappeared quickly"disappeared, perhaps, but was there for a moment nonetheless. Treating this detail as if it were insignificant, he concludes that not only is a cell phone not his cup of tea, but you, too, should "leave yours at home." "And really, just admit it," he quips, "you just wanted to carry the phone so you could call home at any chance you had."
This last remark"you just wanted to carry the phone so you could call home at any chance you had"is a stereotypical pot-shot at the "machisimo" of those paddlers who choose to carry a cell phone. Purists love this argument because, besides their underlying (but inconsistently applied) thesis that "less technology equals a purer experience," they also gloat over the self-aggrandizing implication that "less technology also equals a more rugged, manly, tough experience." The implication is clear: cell phone proponents ought to hang their heads in shame and awe before the superior, more "manly" experience of those noble few who shun cell phones to face the great and unforgiving face of the wilderness unarmed... well, almost unarmedexcept (apparently) for the "EPLBs, sat phones, and... two-way repeater systems" which Hansel inexplicably recommends as "more reliable and less intrusive" alternatives to cell phones. But considering that a satellite phone, in particular, weighs more, costs more to purchase, costs more to operate, and shares the same purist "disadvantages" of a cell phone (namely, contact with the outside worldand, comparatively more of it), we cannot help but ask: Less intrusive how?
Pragmatists: "Keep Your Safety Options Open"
Pragmatists, as their name implies, adopt the more practical, less romantic approach to The Great Cell Phone Debate. Their main argument stems from the observation that, under certain circumstances, cell phones can serve as an extremely useful (perhaps even life-saving) tool. Does this mean you can depend on a cell phone to save your life? No. No more than you can depend on your paddle not to break. No more than you can depend on your boat not to sink. No more than you can depend on your tent not to collapse. No more than... well, you get the idea. The point is simple: Pragmatists are realists, and there is a demonstrable, practical advantage to having a cell phone.
All of the pragmatists I know (and I know many) freely admit that cell phones have certain disadvantages. But most of these disadvantages can be negated. Where purists object that cell phones are intrusive and disrespectful to others, pragmatists reply: "Turn the phone off when you're not using it. Nobody else even has to know you're carrying it." Where purists object that cell phones are just an excuse to cling to your ingrained dependance upon civilization and technology (instead of developing purer wilderness skills), pragmatists object that (as Hansel himself notes) there will be plenty of times on "remote wilderness trips" when you won't get a signal anyway. Thus, even if the temptation is there to "phone home" and cling to the world you left behind, it will not always be possible to do so. But even if purists may call us wimps for asking: What is the harm, after all, of calling home to hear a loving word or to let anxious loved ones know that you're okay? Used in moderation, this is one of the greatest benefits and comforts a cell phone affordsnot just for the expeditioner, but for the anxious and worried people back home.
It's almost too simple to say, but obviously endorsing the cell phone as a potential safety tool is not the same as telling people to run loose in the woods offending others with their annoying ring tones and other "cool" features. Moderation is key, and the definition of "moderate" cell phone use depends on both your geographic location and the kind of wilderness experience you seek. If you're on an urban trip and isolation is not the goal, go ahead and use your phone whenever convenience or desire dictatesbut be respectful of those around you. Silence the ringer and, for the sake of purists, try to keep the phone hidden from plain view, where it might tempt them (sweet danger!) to abandon their purist principles and call home. On the other hand, if you're on a remote wilderness expedition and isolation is your goal, pack the phone at the bottom of a dry bag and don't take it out unless you really, really need itlike when an emergency strikes or it's time to call someone to arrange for a pick up at the end of a long trip. It's not rocket science. It's just good discipline and prudent preparationworthy skills to spend time honing in the wilderness.
Admittedly, there is one drawback to a cell phone that cannot be negated: the weight of the phone itself. No matter how hard you try, no matter how cleverly you pack it, you will never escape the indomitable fact that the cell phone weighs a whopping 3 or 4 ounces. It's a matter of gravity. Don't try to fight it. But does this constitute damning evidence against the utility of the cell phone? Of course not. Excepting trips in ultra-remote locations like the Arctic Circle or a third-world country, I would argue that for its weight, the cell phone offers the greatest potential boost to your safety possiblenot counting standard safety gear like your PFD, strobe light, and other basic safety aids. Before I get misunderstood, let me qualify: Certainly, as Hansel suggests, a satellite phone or an EPIRB personal locator beacon offers a "more reliable" safety factor than a cell phone. But here's the significant point: Many people cannot afford a satellite phone, a subscription to a satellite phone service, an EPIRB personal locator beacon, or the hefty search-and-rescue bill that comes when you activate such a beacon. But many paddlers (I dare say most paddlers) already own a cell phone with roaming coverage in at least some of the areas they are likely to paddle. Given the reality that someone who ventures out on a trip tomorrow probably won't purchase a satellite phone or an EPIRB, why not at least take along the cell phone they already own? More importantly, why feed the ridiculous logic that it is somehow "foolish," "inauthentic," or "wimpish" to do so? Cell phones can, and do, provide a significant boost to safetyeven in comparatively remote areas where service is "spotty" or almost nonexistent. Let's consider why.
Suppose you are paddling a remote river more than 40 miles from the nearest town. If you injure your arm too badly to paddle, or break your paddle, or seriously damage the hull of your boat, or simply take ill from contaminated drinking water (a constant threat to paddlers), what would you do? Without a cell phone, you would have to hike those 40 miles to the nearest town for help, assuming you are physically able to do so and familiar enough with the area to find your way there by land. With a cell phone, you might be able to get a signal and call for help right where you are. "But what if you don't get a signal?" purists will object. Well, then you are no worse off. You start hiking to town and hope to get a signal somewhere along the way. At best, the cell phone will acquire a signal well before you reach town, saving you many miles of walking. At worst, it will never get a signal (a rarity if you're near a town of even moderately appreciable size) and you'll still have to walk 40 miles. But for the price of an extra three or four ounces of packing weight, you have a significantly better chance of improving your circumstances in some way.
Suppose you or a partner gets injured or sick in a very remote paddling location where, as Hansel reports of the BWCA, there appears to be absolutely no cell service whatsoever. Well, having a cell phone along certainly does not make the situation any worse. But it does dramatically improve your chances of finding help. Why? Because now while you wander around looking for help, you can also keep an eye on your cell phone and hope to find "a fleeting signal" of the kind which Hansel admits finding on Lac La Croix. If you do get a fleeting signal, you can try to use the phone to call for help. If you don't, you haven't been slowed down in any way, nor (purists take note) has the phone compromised any of your "purer" wilderness skills. You've simply increased your chances of survival because in addition to seeking out the help of another human being, you can settle (if necessary) for "a fleeting signal" that allows you to call for help.
The Cell Phone Advantage
How frequently or easily you can obtain a cell phone signal in the wilderness is, I admit, an unknowable and unreliable factor. Regardless, this does not make it a "fact" that cell phones are completely useless in the remote wilderness; nor does it suggest that those who choose to tote one along are only deluding themselves. Yes, a signal is a rarity. Yes, other types of safety aids can be "more reliable," though not necessarily "less intrusive." But during those infrequent occasions when you do get a signal, a cell phone suddenly becomes a far more effective emergency tool than just about any alternative you can carry, including a satellite phone (which is far more costly to use). Flares and strobe lights can go unseen or unheeded, especially in most "remote wilderness" scenarios. VHF, FRS, and GMRS handheld radios are rarely effective beyond "line-of-sight" transmission. Signaling mirrors, air horns, and safety whistles are only helpful when others are near enough to notice them. But with a signal, a cell phone becomes an instant link to medical advice, storm forecasts, travel advisories, brush-fire warnings, emergency rescue services, and just about anything else you would like to access. Even better, a cell phone allows you to convey specific, detailed information about your location and your circumstances. In place of launching flares at regular intervals or wearing a strobe light (both generally ineffective during daylight hours), you can verbally report your position from a map, notify authorities about the nature of your injury or illness, and advise them which direction you are headed as you make your way back to civilization for help. Then, if you like, you can hang up and go back to depending on your own self-reliance and wilderness skills, but with the supreme comfort of knowing that others will be coming for you and will know (generally) where to look for you when they arrive.
Perhaps best of all, a cell phone with a signal can save an enjoyable trip from a premature end by allowing you to seek advice for dealing with any of the ten thousand unpredictable, non-emergency issues which might otherwise turn serious and force an end to your plansadvice about how to treat an infected finger, or how to repair a damaged hull, or which direction to paddle to stay clear of an encroaching forest fire, or where to arrange an alternative pick up when your original destination turns out to be unreachable. Sure, you may (and should) already possess the skills to handle many of these situations on your own. But every realist knows that you simply can't prepare for everything. Just think how many ridiculous problems might pop up to ruin an expeditionsituations you might never have dreamed of facing, such as needing to call your boss to arrange for an extra day off work, or stumbling across a whole troop of boy scounts struck ill with a serious case of Giardia. For those times, a cell phone with a signal can be worth a hundred times its weight in gold. Unless, of course, you're foolish enough to believe that it would be a "purer" and "more authentic" wilderness experience to carry all those boy scouts back to civilization on your back.
A General Disclaimer and My Advice to Purists
At this point, a clarification is warranted. Obviously, I consider myself firmly within the camp of "pragmatists" who believe that a cell phone can provide an invaluable boost to safety under the right circumstances. But like any safety tool, a cell phone is only an aid to your safety, not a guarantee. It is not a substitute, in other words, for good wilderness skills and sufficient know-how to guide yourself and others through whatever sort of trip you might plan. Don't thrust yourself into an expedition which exceeds your skills and trust in the cell phone to "bail you out." Hansel is right to note that cell phones do not usually get signals when you want them to. You have to hunt for a signal in a remote location. But the need to hunt for a signal fits wonderfully well with your need to find help in any form. As you search for help, you can also search for a signal, and then avail yourself of whatever form help arrives in firstbe it cell phone signal or human encounter.
As a pragmatist, I won't tell you that you must carry a cell phone. I won't even call you a "reckless idiot" if you don't. I certainly won't appeal to strong rhetoric about how your aversion to cell phones shows your contemptible lack of evolution from primitive times. Honestly, speaking to all purists, it's your prerogative to avoid cell phones if you really feel that passionately against them. What really upsets me is the active recommendation that many purists make to others, advising them not to carry cell phones. This, I think, is not only irresponsible but downright unethical. When you insult someone for carrying a cell phone into the wilderness, you're pressuring that person to leave behind a device which could, under the right circumstances, save their life. I consider it to be as unethical as telling someone they have no business carrying a strobe light (which might accidentally flash brightly and annoy others), or a VHF weather radio (which ruins the spontaneity of nature by making it possible to hear the forecast for an approaching storm), or a compass (which compromises the primitive joy of navigating by testosterone because it unfairly reminds the bearer which way is North). What, after all, is the grave harm of a cell phone? If you happen to be a purist and you find yourself annoyed by a paddling partner in possession of a cell phone, suck up a little nerve and politely ask that person to please minimize their use of the phone. Tell them (courteously) that you prefer the cell phone not become a conspicuous "intrusion" on your trip. But don't try to preemptively advise, intimidate, or bully other paddlers not to take the phone along.
A final analogy will suffice to drive the point home. Pretend you are paddling in a remote area with a very good friend. Now pretend your friend gets seriously injured and needs immediate medical attention. Suppose it is 30 miles to the nearest town. Now suppose, by some impossible stroke of luck, that an ambulance happens to drive by on a nearby country road. Would you tell the ambulance: "No thanks, go ahead and leave us here. I want to use my wilderness skills to get us out of this situation"? Of course you wouldn'tnot if you care about your friend's survival. What if you agree to let the ambulance drive you and your injured friend straight to the nearest hospital: Would you secretly wish that the ambulance had never come by, or resent the ambulance for interfering with the "purer" experience of relying upon your own skills and self-reliance to save your friend? For your friend's sake, I hope you're not that selfish. I think any reasonable and true friend would simply feel grateful that the ambulance happened to be there when it was needed. Now hold that thought, and consider the following:
Sure there is no guarantee that an ambulance will happen by just at the precise moment when an emergency strikes. It's far less likely, in fact, than the chances of turning on your cell phone to find that you have a good, strong cell signal right where you stand.
Sure it's profoundly unlikely that you will find an ambulance anywhere nearby, even if you go in search of one. It's far less likely, in fact, than the chances you will find a cell phone signal somewhere nearby if you search for one.
Sure there is no guarantee you will find an ambulance before you've carried your friend all the way back to civilization. It's far less likely, in fact, than the chances you will find a cell phone signal sometime before you make it back to the nearest town.
But if you would happily welcome the the appearance of an ambulance at any moment during this survival scenario, why wouldn't you welcome the far more likely presence of a cell phone signal?
Remember, the significant time saved by making a phone call could mean the difference between life or death for your injured friend. So why not leave open the possibility of making that phone call by carrying a cell phone? I'm not saying the cell phone provides a guarantee of survival. I'm not even claiming a cell phone offers a reliable connection to safety under most circumstances. But a cell phone does increase your safety factor by dramatically increasing your chances of contacting the outside world when needed. Even better, it is an affordable and readily-available device which most paddlers already own. It weighs only a few ounces, it can be stored "out of sight, out of mind" during an entire trip, and it might, under the right circumstances, save a life. Why anyone would ever criticize or reject the idea of taking one along is, to me, beyond comprehension.
My opinion? If you have a cell phone, take it with you on every trip. Cell phone coverage is always expanding, so even if you're going places where there was no coverage before, you might find that coverage exists now. If you're concerned about the "purity" of your experience in the wilderness, turn off the phone and pack it at the bottom of your gear bag. (You need to do so anyway to conserve the battery.) Forget you even brought the phone along. Refuse to take it out until an emergency arises, or until you need to arrange to be picked up at the end of a trip. But for Pete's sake (especially if Pete is the name of your paddling partner), don't set yourself up to discover that a cell phone "could have prevented a serious tragedyif only I had brought it along." In my mind, that's three ounces you can't afford to cut.
[Editor's Note: Read Hansel's opposing argument in his full article, "Cell Phones in the Wilderness," at www.nessmuking.com/cellphones.htm. All quotes cited in this article were quoted from Hansel's article as it appeared on October 11, 2005. Hansel has since substantially revised portions of his article. This article has remained unchanged; however, on October 16, 2005, Kisting appended the section below.]
A Reply to Misperception (appended, October 16, 2005)
Shortly after I published the article above, readers notified me of a spirited rebuttal posted on Nessmuking.com by editor Bryan Hansel, who I quoted in the piece. The appended paragraphsentitled "Afterthoughts on October 14" and "One Last and Final Thought on the Afternoon of the 14th," respectivelyidentify themselves as direct replies to my article and, in particular, my support for the "pragmatist" side of The Great Cell Phone Debate. Despite my meticulous qualifications of the pragmatist viewpoint (see the section entitled "A General Disclaimer and My Advice to Purists," above), Hansel's response seriously misrepresents the pragmatist argument. To prevent further confusion, I would like to respond to Hansel's assumptions and reiterate the major points which were addressed in the original article.
After a brief summary of the pragmatist view which he rejects, Hansel admits that he neglected to qualify the scope of his conclusions or to clarify the extremely specific region of "wilderness" to which his cell-phone test applies. Next, he mentions several other wilderness locales with little or no cell phone coverage (specifically, "the BWCAW, Quetico, the Kenai Peninsula, Northern Maine, and... many of the best places to paddle in Canada") in an attempt to reassert his central premise that there is no utility or added safety advantage to carrying a cell phone in such areas. Clarifying that his article wasn't meant to address "urban locations or urbanized states, like Iowa," he still ventures to add: "But even in those states, like Iowa, with outstanding cell phone coverage, there are locations where it will be spotty. I'd be more likely able to recommend cell phones as safety devices in locations where they actually work and there is actually coverage -- which doesn't exist in the Wilderness" (Hansel, October 16, 2005, www.nessmuking.com/cellphones.htm). It is here that Hansel's rebuttal returns to fallacy.
Apparently, Hansel only includes the BWCA or equally remote areas under the inclusive term "Wilderness." I don't know whether he intended to spell wilderness with a capital letter "W", but I consider it an extremely telling detail. Either Hansel fails to realize that literally thousands of areas of popular wilderness fall within adequate range of a cellular signal (in which case his assertion that a signal "doesn't exist in the Wilderness" is patently false), or he believes the only "true" wilderness ("Wilderness" with a capital "W") is that which lies comfortably beyond the reach of technology and the less venturous "backyard traveler" this supposition would dismiss. Of course, by the latter definition, many of the greatest National Parks would be disqualified as "wilderness" because of the decidedly non-wild intrusion of cellphone signals. Moreover, his view ignores the significant reality that cellphone coverage is constantly expanding. Signals that we lack today may appear tomorrowyes, even in the capital "W" Wilderness.
More importantly, however, all of these arguments are beside the point. The real point, which Hansel clouds, is that pragmatists suggest that a cell phone may serve an extremely valuable function as a safety tool under the right circumstances. As realists, however, pragmatists also admit that it is not necessarily true a cell phone will work exactly when you need it to. This is radically different from advocating cell phones as an adequate replacement for other safety tools, which Hansel erroneously accuses pragmatists (and my article specifically) of doing. Thus, in the conclusion to his appended materials, Hansel remarks:
Such remarks demonstrate Hansel's decidedly poor grasp of the pragmatist argument. He supposes that (1) pragmatists actively recommend against satellite phones and EPIRB/EPLB personal locator beacons; (2) pragmatists advocate cell phones as a worthy and reliable substitute to these devices; and (3) pragmatists believe vital wilderness skills like first aid need not be known or practiced if a cell phone is present. None of these suppositions are true and, in fact, they are so meticulously guarded against in my original article that I must conclude Hansel did not carefully read the article he claims to be rebutting. So let me clarify the pragmatist view and the claims of my article in the event any other readers overlooked the conspicuous "General Disclaimer" section above. Here's the break-down of pragmatism's major, logical suppositions:
I hope this clarification of the supporting logic for the pragmatist view of cell phones will help to contain the confusion which Hansel's reply invites. Unfortunately, Hansel's ill-considered rebuttal only contributes further evidence of the volatility of the issue and the extent to which some purists let their admirable ideals prevent any reasonable acceptance of the cell phone's deserved place as one of many limited, but potentially useful safety tools a wilderness traveler might carry.
[Editor's Note: All quotes cited in the appended portion of this article were quoted from Hansel's article as it appeared on October 16, 2005. Hansel has since retracted many of the above-cited comments.]
What is Purism?
© 2006, Wesley Kisting