Smart Survival: What Your Phone Can do for You in an Emergency
This writing was originally a work for hire project I did for Survival Dispatch's Insider Magazine. I would like to thank Angery American for generously allowing me to share this information on my website. Survival Dispatch is a comprehensive resource for survival and preparedness; please do check them out. I have also included a couple of links to my Amazon affiliate account, so if you use them, you will be helping support my efforts.
Recently a story made headlines about a hiker lost in the Colorado wilderness. What made the incident newsworthy was the fact that while searching for the trail from which she had wandered, she received calls on her cell phone. Calls which she did not answer because she did not recognize the number. The number belonged to potential rescuers trying to reach and assist her. The woman found her way back to her car, unaware that a search party spent the night searching for her. Had she answered her call (what's the worst thing that could have happened?!) rescuers would not have had to spend the night searching for her, and she could have spent the night in safety. I could not find information in any news article explaining why she didn't call for help. Perhaps she was skilled enough to know she didn't need to.
Another story that was circulating was the "advice" of leaving an outgoing message with your estimated location if you are ever lost and don't have service. The problem is, you can't do this if there is no service, so best be prepared in advance. In this article, I'll show you how.
Those of us in the preparedness community pride ourselves on having the right gear with us at all times. The reality, however, can be quite the opposite – how many of us have gone for a short walk, a hike on an easy trail, or run a quick errand with just our keys, wallet and smartphone? When we find ourselves carrying only a few items, our phone is almost always the item that comes along – just in case we need to communicate with friends or family. But if you find yourself in a tough spot, can your smartphone have survival advantages – uses beyond simply calling for help?
A couple points to consider before leaving your home: make sure you phone is fully charged and have a means to charge it while you are out. This could be a car charger, a fully charged external battery for charging, or solar charger. If you plan to travel to an area where there is no service, tell someone where you are going and your anticipated return time.(If you need GPS to get where you are going, punch it in to the phone before you lose reception as you won’t be able to use it later. Also ensure you have a reliable downloaded map application that does not need an internet connection.)
While not as decisive as a gun on your hip, having a smartphone handy may help you in the event you find yourself being approached by a threatening stranger in a secluded place. If you are in a parking garage, bus stop, lonely street, and are feeling uncomfortable, put your smartphone in your hand, and have a conversation, real if possible. Even if you are where there is no service, do it anyway, as someone intent on harm may not want to take a chance. Describe your location, and any individual concerning you as well as a license plate of their vehicle. You may want to take a picture (a selfie with them in the background), but that may result in escalating a situation if they see you. If you can do so discretely, do it. Note: when you are having this conversation, or taking a picture, even if you are just feigning to, maintain a sense of awareness and confidence. You don't want to appear to be easy prey.
The Camera Feature
The camera on your smartphone can help keep you from getting lost. If you park your vehicle, or exit a bus in an unfamiliar area, take a few photos of the place where you parked, or the area where you were dropped off, particularly if you need to find your way back to that stop. If the name of the parking sector or bus stop is posted on a sign, take a picture of that as well. These days we don't have to wait a week to get the prints back, and you can delete them when you no longer need them! You can also send your location to a someone, but that many expire after a short time, so know how that feature works on your operating system.
If you are in the wilderness and find yourself lost, and there is no service, take frequent pictures or short videos of your surroundings as you travel, particularly if you have a split in the trail or go off trail. Look behind you, take pictures from that perspective, so you will recognize a place you passed through and know you are on the right track. If you DO find yourself lost and can't recover your sense of direction, stay put until you are reoriented or receive help.
Short Message Service (SMS)
On occasion, you MAY be able to get a message out via the SMS capabilities of your phone. I was in an area with no service and my vehicle became disabled; while a call could not go out, a message sent via SMS did, and for that I was very grateful! A no service area is still covered periodically as all communications travel via radio waves which are dependent on numerous environmental factors which could enable short moments of connections long enough for an SMS to get out.
Some apps are available to assist you where there is no service, but if you know you will be traveling in unfamiliar territory, whether you are in the wilderness or driving remote highways, consider downloading or printing a map of the area where you will be. Backcountry Navigator has offline capabilities, which allow for the use of topographical maps and compass features even in remote locations. A great tool is mapme.com; you can login with FB or google and create custom maps highlighting different points of interest and emergency service areas.
Natural disasters, social unrest, or major accidents can leave you in a difficult situation, even if you are in your vehicle. You may need to find other routes to take, so have an app like Waze, MapQuest or Google Maps on your smartphone, even if you may not be able to use it offline. Again, try to have a map service you can use offline.
Weather apps can help you plan a trip or a move from one place to another if you find yourself in a tough spot. Some of us live in remote areas where it is wise to avoid travel if we are aware of pending harsh conditions. These apps will also provide alerts when there is a dangerous weather situation in your area, but because of changing conditions, you may not be able to use this app if you are in an area with no service. Weather.co.uk offers historical weather data back to 1980 that you can download.
Many radio and television stations have streaming features, so in the event of a disaster you can find out what services such as hospitals, supermarkets, or emergency centers are open. Local and even national agencies may issue alerts as well, so it is best to keep your phone on if the situation is crucial. Close or disable any app or features that run in the background, which can waste battery time.
Everyone should have a flashlight on them at all times; thanks to this feature, doing so is much easier to accomplish. Use this app to find your way, illuminate items that may need to be located and/or repaired, or for signaling. Many have strobe capabilities, and you can select the number of light pulses you want per group. “Three” is a universal signal for help, so set the strobe feature to pulse three times. Most cell phones also have a power save mode, enable that to get hours of additional use from your device. If you are in a rural area, also consider turning off WiFi as that feature continues to search for a WiFi connection and burns through battery life very quickly.
So there you have it – smartphones are not just for sending your friends pictures of your pets, drinks, dates, or meals, they can save your life if you know what features you have available and have planned ahead.
I hope you find this information useful. Please don't hesitate to reach out if you have any questions or would like to share your results. For more on preparedness please check out our podcast and book.If you would like to support our work, please consider making a donation; you can do so on the homepage of this website, or on the link to Red Hot Chilly Prepper podcast.