Mobile phones in the mountains: a blessing or a curse?

Posted by Hanna Lindon on 07/10/2015
Can mobiles in the mountains do more harm than good? Photo by Michal Bednarek/ Shutterstock.

After a mountain rescue team warns against relying on mobile phones for navigation, we asked three mountain rescue team leaders around the country to share their very different opinions.

Last month, Coniston Mountain Rescue Team warned walkers not to rely too heavily on their mobiles for navigation. The team cited a spate of recent callouts involving people using battery-draining GPS mapping technology - one man who got lost near Langdale in January last year was using a photograph of a map stored on his phone. With mobile navigation increasingly being seen by walkers as a replacement for the traditional map and compass, are other mountain rescue teams concerned?

“Navigating with a mobile is a big no-no”

Willie Anderson, Team Leader, Cairngorm Mountain Rescue Team

It isn’t a huge issue here, but we certainly have had folk who have been navigating with an electric compass on their smartphone and then the battery has died - we’ve had that a few times. There have also been a few incidences of people getting lost due to using apps for navigation. In the last two years there have been perhaps four incidents like that. In one case, two guys had to spend all night out in winter because they had no map or compass and their smartphone ran out battery. The cold reduces the life of those batteries, so in winter it’s a particular issue as well as being more dangerous.

We’ve used the SARLOC software [which allows people to be located on the hill through an exchange of text messages] and that can help us find people so there are uses there. When it comes right down to it, though, navigating with a mobile is a no-no - you just can’t replace a map and compass.

“The phone is a double-edged sword”

Andy Nelson, Team Leader, Glencoe Mountain Rescue Team

Interestingly, there have been more incidences where we’ve been able to fix situations using mobile mapping technology than we’ve had problems. In June for example we had a spate of callouts - seven in one week - and three of those were people who had no map and compass with them in misty conditions. On one of those occasions I was on the phone to a father and son - the son had a smartphone and I was able to advise him to download a mapping application with a compass in it. From that, we managed to describe how to do a slope aspect and that narrowed their location down to two slopes in a kilometre-wide area. We sent the team in those two directions and found them. The phone is a double-edged sword, and on that occasion it worked really well. 

The other way in which the navigation properties of smartphones can help mountain rescue teams is through an app called SARLOC. With SARLOC, you can text somebody a message and when they text you back SARLOC locates them. That has been very useful to us. 

I don’t know of any particular issues with batteries running out, but we have had issues with people not knowing how to set their GPS so that it reads OS GB rather than lat-long. If you are intending to use a phone to navigate then the key thing is to have system that enhances the life of that technology. If it’s a mobile phone then get one of those sleeves that can give the phone another full charge - if it’s a GPS then carry spare batteries. If you’re hanging your hat on one device then you need another way of backing it up.

“I consider this technology to be of benefit to rescuers”

Chris Higgins, Team Leader, Keswick Mountain Rescue Team

The use of GPS phones has not presented a problem to us in Keswick MRT. If a mobile phone gives a lost person a grid reference or lat/ long that they can pass to a mountain rescue team then it is much quicker to find them than to have to do a ‘blanket search’ of an area. As such, I consider this technology to be of benefit to rescuers and to members of the public on the fells.

Mobile phone use in the mountains obviously also has the potential to raise the alarm much quicker than twenty years ago and undoubtedly allows for help to be dispatched sooner with the resultant benefits to casualties. Mobile phones used in this way have saved lives.”


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