Cell Phones in the Wilderness

For several years a debate has raged between two camps of people: Those who feel cell phones should be left home, and those who feel they should come on wilderness trips.

People in the anti-phone camp cite everything from distraction from the trip, to a simple annoyance, or even a lack of respect and common courtesy. They go to extremes to make any philosophical point that they can to make sure cell phones stay out of the woods.

The pro-phone camp cite many reasons to carry them, but it seems the biggest justification they use for cell phones in the woods is that they add safety to the trip. They say that if something goes wrong, you can use the phone to call for help and receiving help faster can be the difference between life and death.

Personally, I fall into the anti-phone camp. I find that to me cell phones are a distraction, and having them along steals from me the reason I go on trips, that is to get away from my normal life. By having a cell phone along on the trip, I feel I remain connected to my life at home and that important break is gone. Because the break is gone, I feel like my recharge of my spiritual, emotional, and physical health is fragmented. I feel sort of like a battery taken from the charger before it finished refilling.

Can they be useful? You bet! If you’re paddling in a location that they work, they’re a great tool to bring along, and I’ve used them this way for many years (They especially prove handy when you’re trying to met up with friends to head out paddling and you’re all coming from different locations). Otherwise, it’s just like adding a rock to your pack, it’s not going to do you much good.

Disclaimer: Please, note that this article is only addressing cell phone reception in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in the areas that I tested. For this trip, I paddled the entire border of Canada and Minnesota from Crane Lake to Lake Superior until the Grand Portage. There I hiked down the portage and away from the border. I’ve also tested most entry points from the Sawbill to the Arrowhead.

Disclaimer:This article does not address the ethics of carrying a cell phone or the philosophical reasons for doing so. That sort of thing really doesn’t interest me – I just wanted to know if they work where I paddle to see if they would be worth the extra weight for me. The reason I stated my view above is to clarify to the reader my biases.

Bryan Hansel eats noodles in the BWCA.
Bryan Hansel eats noodles in the BWCA.

Testing Cell Phones in Wilderness

Well, I wanted to test how well cell phones would work for me in the Boundary Waters Wilderness Area, maninly because family members (Who can argue with their mom, right?) expressed concern that I should be carrying a phone with me on my solo trips, so on my last trip I brought one with me. If it worked, it would become standard gear in my pack (My Gear List).

If you’ve never been to the BWCAW before you should understand what exactly it is. It is over one million acres of woodland, big lakes (miles long and wide), and small lakes (hardly worth putting a canoe in). These lakes are connected by streams or by footpaths that you portage your canoe over. Not only is the BWCAW huge, but it also connects to Canada’s Quetico Provincial Park. Canada’s Quetico adds about another million acres to the wilderness area. These waters form about 200 miles of the border between Canada and the United States in Northern Minnesota and is the premier destination for paddling in the U.S.

This area is also remote and is the essence of wilderness. The closest big city is Duluth, which is two hours away, or Thunder Bay, which is about one and a half hours away. The two main cities, Grand Marais and Ely, that service the BWCAW are small, but in both towns you can receive cell phone service. I checked. The BWCA is part of and surrounded by the Superior National Forest, which adds considerably to the remoteness of this area. And as an example of how far things are away from civilization, you can leave Grand Marais and drive 45 minutes up the Gunflint Trail and still not reach the end of the BWCAW.

For my trip, I started on the western end of the Boundary Waters in Voyager National Park, and I paddled the border of the U.S.A. and Canada until I hit Lake Superior (around 230 miles). Each night at camp, I checked for a cell phone signal, and I’d also check at special locations. These locations were where I’d pass a remote Native American village, like that on Lac La Criox, or near a Canadian Customs office, like those on Saganaga and Basswood. In addition, I tested the lakes I paddled that were not in the BWCAW, most notably Gunflint Lake, which is just a stone throw from the Gunflint Trail – the main road servicing all the outfitters and homeowners in the eastern section of the BWCA. I tested in four locations on the Gunflint just make sure.

The Results of a Wilderness Cell Phone Test

My results even shocked me. I thought that cell phone service in the BWCA would be spotty at best, but I did not once get a cell signal in the BWCAW. I managed once to get what I thought was a fleeting signal on Lac La Croix, but it turned out to be trying to use the phone too quickly (see note below).

I suggest that regardless of what camp you fall into, if you want a reliable way to contact the outside world while paddling in the Boundary Waters that you carry something else.

Is There Technology That Works For Rescue?

Because cell phones are out as a reliable source of communication for the BWCAW traveler, we must look elsewhere to see if there is a technology that will work. The good news for those worried is that there is. Emergency Personal Locator Beacons are now available with built in GPS units and reliable battery systems. These systems are lightweight, easy to use, and they work.

The second technology that you could take with you is a satellite phone. The two providers have a large range of coverage, the coverage is reliable. The disadvantages of these phones are that they are very expensive and the service is also expensive, plus they are heavy. But, the good news is that many outfitters servicing the BWCAW now rent sat phones inexpensively. For me, the extra weight is worth knowing that you have a communication device that works.

Looking at a BWCA map.
Looking at a BWCA map.


If you’re planning on carrying a cell phone into the BWCA as a way to prepare for emergencies, don’t count on it working. Check with local authorities and the Forest Service if this is your plan. But if you want something reliable bring a lightweight EPLB just for emergency evacuations, or a sat phone for fulling more communication needs.

Learn More

To learn more about EPLBs, EPIRBs, and ELTs, please, visit theNOAA Satellite and Information Service. And if you’re interested in learning more about cell phones and how the cell phone system works, please, vist Verizon.

Clarifications – October 20th, 2005

Above I noted that I received a fleeting signal on Lac La Croix. I should state here that the Canadian side of Lac La Croix is not in the wilderness. There is actually a First Nations village and Seaport there. But after a new lesson in the cell phone I used, I realized that there actually was no signal. When the phone I used powers up it searches for a signal, and it doesn’t show “No Signal” until after searching for a signal and not finding one. This takes longer than a few seconds. I turned it on looked at the face and dialed almost immediately after I turned the phone on. The phone looked for a signal and eventually displayed the text “No Service.” So, actually, there was no signal.

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  • Did you ever consider trying a satellite phone? The new Iridium units are very small.

    • No, I haven’t, but that’s the point of the article isn’t it. Use something that will work when you need it.

  • This is a useful article and I strongly endorse the writer’s suggestions. I’ll add that the penetration of cell coverage into the BWCAW in the Ely area has shrunk over the years. A decade ago an analog phone on Verizon could get a scratchy but usable signal on Snowbank Lake, presumably off their immense tower in Ely, as long as you weren’t right on the south or west shores, blocked from the signal by the hills. Verizon doesn’t even claim anything within several miles of Snowbank today. Today, even Moose Lake is mostly no good as well and it used to be manageable as long as you weren’t down in a hollow by one of the outfitters on the south shore of the lake.

    The digital phones simply don’t have the power and the range of the old analog ones, but I think Verizon has also retuned their signal somewhat to focus capacity on where the people are — i.e., in Ely. It’s not as though they have much competition either. Cellular One — now AT&T — was always hopeless for rural coverage even in the analog days, with their Ely tower situated some 200 feet lower than Verizon’s, and now with the added handicap of the shorter range inherent in GSM. You also have a number of strategically located towers up there that aren’t even used by the cell phone companies, for example Frontier’s relay at Slate Lake on Highway 1, which feeds a landline fiber optic network for that area with voice and DSL but carries no mobile repeater even though it’s 20 miles from the nearest tower.

    I do think it’s a potential issue for safety. There are enough people in the BWCAW — thousands on some summer nights — that there’s a case for conventional cell coverage. And there have been instances in which people have used it in the past. In the analog days you could get a call off from Basswood Falls. Good luck doing that with today’s facilities. On the other hand, coverage on the highways, with the glaring exception of the Tower-Soudan area, is generally better than it was, perhaps lending more weight to the idea that the carriers are refocusing their signals where the people are.

    As I recall, AirTouch, Verizon’s predecessor, had big plans for more towers in this area, but they’ve never been followed through. It’s easy to imagine one up the end of the Fernberg Road, perhaps another part way up the Echo Trail, and of course both those locations would significantly penetrate the wilderness with signal. The practical reality, however, is that some of the highway dead spots like Tower-Soudan are a higher priority than the BWCAW will ever be for this kind of coverage.

    By the way there never has been any coverage up the Gunflint Trail or anywhere else in Cook County MN away from the big lake. It goes up to the summit over Grand Marais and that’s it.

  • Thanks for the well-written comment and historical perspective.

    I wrote this originally in 2005. That same year, a cell tower was erected just outside of Lutsen. This tower has extended service to the Sawbill entry point and campground. It is spotty on the drive up the Sawbill Trail, but I actually checked messages at the outfitters last week. I have friends who live on The Grade near Cascade Lake. They receive coverage and 3G service at their place, so I wouldn’t be surprised if this tower extends service to Eagle Mountain. I doubt it reaches the Brule Entry Point.

    During the Ham Lake Fire, we had cell service hooked up to help the firefighters. This service continued on the Gunflint until landlines were reconnected–the capability is there.

    I’ve certainly gotten a signal as far up the Trail as Devil’s Track and Mink Lake, but nowhere near the end of the Gunflint, but by looking at the Canadian coverage maps, areas at the end of the Arrowhead Trail, like Moose, N. and S. Fowl and Mountain may now have service.

  • tOTAlly AGREE!

  • […] The last time I dipped into a modern technology in the wilderness discussion, I inspired an almost book-length response — both public and private — from […]

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