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.
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.
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.
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.