How to Survive Without a Cell Phone Signal


Two paths diverged in yellow wood. Sorry she could not travel both, the hiker grabbed her phone to check the map—only to find zero bars of service. Now what?

Well, if she properly anticipated this scenario, she’d just grab a paper map from her backpack and ponder it over a handful of trail mix. But if she didn’t plan for the possibility of getting lost without cell service, she could find herself in a life or death situation.

If you’re heading out anywhere into nature, or along remote roads, for safety and comfort’s sake assume that you will lose cell service. Pack a paper road atlas and trail map, preferably one with topographic lines to help you locate helpful landmarks like mountains and streams.

“Paper maps are also a great reminder of your trip, and often contain valuable information and interesting facts about a place,” says Erin Kirkland, Alaska-based travel journalist and author. “My other top tip is always book your place to stay ahead of time and carry some other form of payment other than your phone apps, like cash and credit cards.”

Also, pack basic survival gear, including a compass or handheld GPS, a couple of lighters, a small first aid kit, water, snacks, a flashlight or headlamp, a pocket knife, toilet paper, and extra clothes—think warm hat, thermals, and a rain jacket—in case the weather changes or you get stuck out overnight.

As you head out into the wild, keep an eye on your phone to see where you lose the signal—you'll know how far you might have to backtrack to make a call in an emergency.
As you head out into the wild, keep an eye on your phone to see where you lose the signal—you’ll know how far you might have to backtrack to make a call in an emergency.

Before you leave, check the weather forecast, and always let someone know where you’re going and when you plan on being back. Then, as you drive to your campsite or the trailhead, keep an eye on your phone for where the service ends, so you know how far you’ll have to backtrack in case of an emergency. Also, note the nearest business, such as a gas station or convenience store, in case you need more supplies.

Once you are out of range, turn your phone to airplane mode, so it doesn’t drain its battery searching for a signal. Consider bringing along a portable power bank to recharge it as well.

If you’re meeting friends, designate a place in advance to leave written messages, such as a campground bulletin board or a junction in the road. Permanent marker on a paper plate works well for this. Don’t forget tape, string or thumb tacks, and a clear plastic bag in case of rain.

Even if you think you’ll have cell service, or have had it at that campground before, it’s smart to prepare as if you won’t.

“Do not put all of your eggs in the technology basket,” says survival instructor Cody Lundin. “Cell phones are mechanical devices filled with hundreds of moving parts that can fail, plus they can become lost or damaged.”

Once you’re on the trail, turn around every so often to note what it will look like on your return trip. Notice landmarks, such as unusual trees or rock formations, that can help reassure you that you’re on the right path.

If by chance you do get lost in the backcountry, the first rule is try not to freak out. “It’s hard because you’re scared, obviously,” says outdoor enthusiast and author Emanuel Rose. “But that’s where intentional breathing is your friend.”

Conserve your water and energy, and keep an eye on the weather. If you think you might be stuck out overnight, prioritize shelter, water, fire, and food, says Rose. Try to think clearly about whether people will find you. If they might, it’s best to stay put. If you think they won’t, then it might be wise to try to work your way back to civilization.

Getting lost is the worst-case scenario, but it’s more likely your tribulations will come from the boredom that sets in once you’ve got camp all set up and realize Words With Friends doesn’t work without cell service. If this sounds like you, you’re definitely not alone.

“We’ve all heard that being out in nature is good for you, but it can feel unfamiliar at best, and downright frightening at worst,” says Kirkland. “Our phones help us feel more secure and connected to the familiar.”

Many campgrounds have bulletin boards that can serve as designated meeting points or places to leave a message about your planned route and return time.
Many campgrounds have bulletin boards that can serve as designated meeting points or places to leave a message about your planned route and return time.

To ease the pain of disconnecting, start by practicing unplugging at home for an hour, or even just five minutes. Create some technology boundaries, like no phones in the bedroom, which can help you get used to being alone with yourself.

“This is just like training a muscle, like going to the gym,” says Sebastian Slovin, cofounder and director at Nature Unplugged. “Start small and work your way up. Remember it’s okay to be uncomfortable and to be bored in nature. If you can make it through that initial discomfort, it can lead to some wonderful discoveries and creative insights.”

It can also help to find a replacement focal point for your brain, like birding or plant identification. Try proactively engaging in nature by touching rocks, smelling flowers, or even briefly going barefoot. Unlike phones, which are always in your face and vying for your attention, nature is more subtle, says Slovin. It will take time to fully appreciate the sound of the wind through the trees or to notice that blue jay spying on you.

While camping, it also helps to bring activities to occupy your brain, including books, word games, a sketch pad, or a nature journal. And be patient; it takes some time to fully unplug. In the case of Lundin’s survival students, it’s about three days. Then “their shoulders drop, they become more content and they experience a calm peace that is missing in a hectic world,” he says. Turns out planning is the key to surviving nature signal-free, whatever the scenario.





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