“Can you hear me now?” Cellphones are the poster child for love/hate relationships. But no matter the feelings they dredge up, most of us carry them with us when heading off piste. My iPhone has a better camera lens than the three actual cameras I own. My work phone is forwarded to my cell phone, so I can receive calls on the fly. The map program on my phone exceeds my old GPS. And, with the latest apps, I can even get up-to-date snow conditions. Given the range of possibilities cells phones offer, what are the best and safest ways to use them when headed out of bounds?
Find out more about current conditions
Crowd sourcing is a powerful tool (and one that Rachel Reich explores in “Social Media vs. Snow Safety”). If folks who have headed out earlier in the day get snow to collapse around their skis as they break trail, it’s nice to know about it ahead of time. With new apps like Mountain Hub, you can learn this information in the field and read real-time observations and trip reports—it’s a powerful tool if used well. If used poorly, you can lose situational awareness. So how do we find a balance between looking at our screens and looking at the landscape?
Subscribing to avalanche center tweets and app observations that alert you of avalanche activity can be helpful but should be done from home, before a day in the field. When you’re out and about, it’s important to pay attention to your physical surroundings. Use the tools available to you, but don’t forget to look around, dig pits and make decisions as a team.
Stay in communication with group members
I make sure I have everyone’s phone number in my touring party before we leave the trailhead. If we get separated, it’s one way I can attempt to find them. While I’m out on a tour, I like to leave my phone in airplane mode (if not off), so I won’t be distracted with outside communication. I have my phone available for outside help in case of emergency, provided I have cell service. And if I don’t, I’m prepared with another form of communication, like an InReach or Spot locator device. If I need to communicate with my partners in the field, I use the BCA Links or other handheld radios that are not dependent on cell reception.
Use as a navigational tool
Phone apps like Mountain Hub, TopoMaps or Gaia offer backcountry navigation that can outwork old GPSs. I use Mountain Hub to enter waypoints as I’m planning my route at home, and while in the field, I use Mountain Hub and/or TopoMaps to assist navigation. That being said, don’t forget to look up—waypoints on the phone should never put you into a terrain trap in the field.
Deal with electronic interference
Cell phones can interfere with transceivers, as can helmet cams and heated gloves. The current recommendation is to keep cell phones (and all electronics) at least 20 cm from a transmitting beacon and 50 cm from a receiving beacon.
Bottom line: keep your electronics far from your beacon. Think about what pocket you put your phone in. Even better, turn your phone off and store it in your pack. This is not a limit you want to test.
Record observational data
Recording observations has never been easier. You can take a photo or video and send it to the forecast center or a friend. Or, you can shoot video when working in a data-recording application like Mountain Hub and share it instantly. If you’re using your phone to record data, bring a backup battery. The cold can suck the life out of your phone in a flash.
Bottom Line: Be mindful of how you use technology in the backcountry. Having current conditions at your fingertips can be a blessing. But, if the phone interferes with your ability to pay attention and move through terrain safely and efficiently, don’t use it. Find a balance of using your phone to navigate, record observations, share data and communicate with being present and having good situational awareness. And, don’t forget, cell phones interfere with transceivers, so save your Instagram posting till you get home.
Sarah Carpenter is the co-owner of the American Avalanche Institute and an AMGA-certified ski guide. Her first job out of college was ski patrolling at Bridger Bowl, Mont., and she’s been working in the snow and avalanche industry ever since as a patroller, ski guide and avalanche educator.