Cell Phones in Wilderness Areas

No Cell Zone : Photo IllustrationI've been wondering recently whether cell phones should be included as an "essential" in the backpack when hiking in the wilderness backcountry. There have been two recent stories involving cell phones inside our National Parks which have sparked this recent curiosity.

Earlier this month along the coast in Olympic National Park a solo hiker fell unnoticed off a cliff. Three days later a volunteer with the park happened to find her. She had a broken leg, a hurt back and was dehydrated. The volunteer used his cell phone to call for help. The woman was airlifted to a hospital and will probably make a full recovery.

Also within the month, PEER had discovered that Yellowstone National Park was in talks with commercial cell phone service providers to expand the cell coverage within the park.

I don't really have a problem with cell phone use in areas considered "front-country" within parks. It is convenient to have a cell phone for use in the campground. It is also convenient to have a cell phone in the car to call ahead and make hotel reservations or something. I don't think it is necessary for the NPS to build up a network of cell towers for this visitor convenience, but if there happens to be service in the area, it is nice.

The wilderness backcountry is different. No roads, no buildings, not even many trail signs. Just you and your thoughts in the great wide open. Seem like an environment for a cell phone? To see what others thought on the subject, I hit Google with "cell phones wilderness" and found this piece that appears to be from an online course on Wilderness Management. The article has a fictitious conversation between two land managers discussing whether there should be a cell phone policy for wilderness. The article is long, but it is really worth the read. The dialog between the characters covers two sides of the issue very well and is actually pretty thought provoking. The reader is allowed to make their own conclusion about what is appropriate use of cell phones in the wilderness.

Sample dialog from the article:
"Let me get this straight," said Paul. "You're saying that cell phones affect the wilderness experience by jeopardizing opportunities for solitude, affect the resource, and are generally incompatible with the idea of Wilderness?"

"Yes."

"Okay, but if this technology is incompatible, where do you draw the line? Is all technology incompatible? What about gas stoves and Gore-Tex jackets? Don't they make you feel safer and help you go farther?"

"Well," said Cindy, "Bill Worf said that if it changes how you interact with the environment, then it doesn't belong in Wilderness. I think it's an issue of communication and it comes back to the idea of solitude. A phone allows you to operate beyond the boundaries of Wilderness. A Gore-Tex jacket may help you be more comfortable, but it doesn't allow you to transcend the boundaries, or transcend the experience."
I've read the article twice now, and enjoyed reading the thoughtful discussion both times. So, what is my opinion? I see it as a visitor safety issue. Turn off the power to your cell phone, throw it in your pack next to your ten essentials. If an emergency comes up (like falling off a cliff and breaking a leg) find the phone, turn it on and hope that you can get service. It could save your life. What are your thoughts about this?
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Comments

Jerry, I see your point about tossing the phone in for safety, but my concern, and there are rangers out there who no doubt would agree, is that these instill a false sense of confidence in people who don't have all the skills they need to be in the backcountry. That no doubt is a purist's viewpoint, and I suppose if some day I find myself with broken leg in the backcountry miles from nowhere I might wish I had my cell.

Having horse packed into wilderness areas for 35 years and survived numerous accidents including having a mule killed by lightning while I sat on her, I continue to cling to the concept that the root word of wilderness is wild. Venturing into a wilderness area carries certain risks which need to be accepted or one needs to hold closer to civilization. Much of the purpose of a wilderness area is to provide a connection with the past that is lost when modern technology is present. Certain skills need to be honed if one is to have a true wilderness experience and if we can't take the time to develop them we best go someplace those skills aren't needed.

A true test of your outdoor skills comes with prudent, practical and rational thinking with experience. To hone down on these skills can even be better served and perfected when knowing you have less high tech garbage to haul with you in the back country. The cell phone is another example of crying and whining for help to mama when something go wrong. Ranger Sharsmith, Norman Clyde and Ansel Adams (and his huge camera tripod) did the back country woods with the primitive tools of camping but had the stout hardiest of a true backpacker. I can now hear them laughing about those cell phone cry babies when they get lost.

going with the technology is incompatible, where do you draw the line? No GPS, compass, watch, etc. Seems to be going WAY overboard to mt thinking

You already know my answer. Even though I doubt if I would have "coverage" in the backcountry, I wouldn't think of hiking without my "silent-mode" cellphone any more than I would go hiking without my concealed pistol. It's common sense: alone and in need of assistance.

Besides, it would be tragic to have ugly cellphone towers ruining our view in our beautiful parks.

Fred, your not afraid of your shadow are you? If you are... stay out of the woods!

There is a huge difference between "paranoia" and "preparation". Just as you would never think of hiking without matches and other emergency equipment, I think of my pistol and my signaling device as "emergency equipment". I hope I never need to use them but would never travel without.

Fred, how about panic attacks when things don't go right for you in the backwoods. Having a "signaling device" for protection in my estimation borders on a bit of irrational fear...then panic! Try some backpack trips alone for a while without the "signaling device" and see if the cold sweats subside. To each his own but I wish you luck!