Foley: Cell phones for backcountry emergencies |

Foley: Cell phones for backcountry emergencies

Greg Foley
Mountain Rescue
The location information that can be shared by text with rescuers using Google Maps. The marker is at the summit of Byers Peak.
Photo Courtesy of Greg Foley |

Cellphones have changed the way search and rescue gets notified of backcountry emergencies. It used to be that someone would have to hike out to the trailhead, get in their car and then drive to the nearest landline phone. Now, with most carrying their cellphone with them beyond the trailhead, cellphone 911 notifications are extremely common. In some areas (not Grand County) you could actually have the ability to send a text to 911.

There are a few things you need to know before counting on a cellphone for your primary emergency rescue plan.

A cellphone cannot provide warmth, water, food or shelter. Your phone should be a backup to standard backcountry precautions. Even if you are able to place an emergency call, it takes time for SAR volunteers to mobilize and respond. That said, your cell phone can be a valuable asset.

One issue that I have seen too many times is the situation where someone is trying to get help, but their cellphone is near dead. If you are traveling in the backcountry either put your phone in airplane mode, power saving mode or turn it off to conserve battery. Keep the location service off until you need it. Searching for cell service, Wi-Fi or satellites burns battery power. Keep your phone in a warm place, not an outside pocket.

I recently worked on a search for a gentleman who had been missing for a week down in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. On the second day of his trip he was planning to climb Fluted Peak and was texting his progress to his girlfriend. Then the texts stopped, he had taken a fatal fall. But since he didn’t let anyone know his trip plan, and was traveling alone, it was like a needle in a haystack. Luckily we were able to piece together some clues from the texts and find him after one day of searching. The takeaway: if you get into serious trouble you may not be physically able to use your cellphone.

If you are able to call 911 there is a good chance that the dispatcher will get an accurate GPS location, but this depends on a lot of factors and is not guaranteed.

In many areas there is limited or no service. If there is no service try changing your location, ridgetops and summits usually have a better “view” of cell towers. When there is limited service, you may be able to send a text, even if you can’t make a call. You could try sending a text to a friend or family member and ask them to call for help. It’s best to keep the message simple and short. Make sure to include an accurate location description, GPS coordinates are best.

GPS coordinates on your phone

Do you know how to get GPS coordinates from your phone? If you have the coordinates, you could simply text them to a friend or the search and rescue staffer. GPS coordinates, which describe a unique location, will enable search and rescue to come directly to you.

Coordinates are a pair of numbers separated by a coma that give your location in latitude (north) and longitude (west). There are several different coordinate formats that you may see depending on your phone and settings. For example, the top of Byers Peak can be defined by any of the following coordinate pairs:

Degrees, Minutes, Seconds 39* 51’ 52.68” N,

-105* 56’ 49.85” W

Degrees, Minutes, Decimal Minutes

39* 51.87801’ N,

-105* 56.83083’ W

Degrees, Decimal Degrees 39.8643620* N,

-105.9472372* W

Here is what I know works, there are undoubtedly other methods.


If you have an iPhone you can find your coordinates with the Compass app. Of course your location service has to be turned on. Better yet, download a free GPS app so you to cut and paste the coordinates into a text or email.


With an Android phone, and if you have cell service, you can get the coordinates from the info for a dropped pin in Google Maps. You can share the map location by text. Once again, Google Maps only works when you have good cell service. The work around is to download a dedicated GPS coordinate app which allows you share the coordinates by text or cut and paste the coordinates into a text.

Take a few minutes and download a GPS app today so you will have the ability to determine your location coordinates should you have the need. Make sure you practice with it a few times so the process is streamlined for emergency use.

And don’t forget to tell someone where you are going and when you plan to return, just in case your phone doesn’t work.

Greg Foley is a member of Grand County Search and Rescue and has been a mountain rescue volunteer for 36 years. He can be reached by email at The GCSAR website can be found at or on Facebook/GCSAR.

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