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A call to be better prepared

Reliance on smartphones is leaving hikers in a bind

The N.H. Fish and Game Department oversees 150 to 180 rescues each year. (John Hansen/Pemigewasset Valley) The N.H. Fish and Game Department oversees 150 to 180 rescues each year.
By Billy Baker
Globe Staff / June 25, 2012
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It was getting dark. They were lost atop Mount Lafayette in the White Mountains. And Analia Oliva and her boyfriend, Cory Robertson, out for a day hike with their dog, were not prepared for a night in the woods.

The only tool they had with them was Oliva’s iPhone. Except that they had no reception, and Robertson, 25, and Oliva, 20, had used up much of the battery taking photos. The New Hampshire couple eventually found the right trail, scrambled down the mountain, hoping to get a signal, but it was too late. They could not see where they were walking, and there were no bars on the phone. When it died, they settled into the reality of a night on the mountain.

That is when a minor miracle happened: They were rescued, accidentally, by crews out looking for another lost hiker.

Increasingly, smartphones are creating problems in the backcountry, particularly in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, where, officials say, more hikers are skipping basic gear — particularly a map, compass, and flashlight – and relying too heavily on phones with GPS and a slew of gear-like apps, including compasses and trail maps, to bail them out of a jam.

“Being prepared for a hike does not mean having your cellphone charged,” said Major Kevin Jordan from the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department, which oversees 150 to 180 rescues each year.

“To find people with a map and compass is just incredibly rare. It boggles my mind. But when we rescue someone, I hear a lot of regret, a lot of people saying, ‘I should have brought more than my phone, but everywhere I go at home I have cellphone coverage.’ ”

The department publishes a list of 10 essentials every hiker should bring, on the website hikesafe.com, and a phone is not one of them. The mountains are notoriously bad for cellphone reception.

Jordan said the agency actually switched positions a few years ago and started recommending hikers bring a phone – it is of no value sitting in the glove box – but they suggest it be switched off and saved only for emergencies, carried at the bottom of a pack, “below the flashlight and maps and all the other things that are going to keep you alive.”

Jason Stevenson, the author of the “Complete Idiot’s Guide to Backpacking and Hiking,” said hikers going into the woods unprepared is not a new phenomenon. “People have been getting over their heads forever,” he said. “But the cellphone adds a new twist to it. There are so many things you can do with it, you think of it as a wonder device, that you’re safe as long as you have it.”

But, he said, an iPhone will not keep you warm or start a fire. It’s no Swiss Army knife. It does not even have a toothpick.

There are certainly many instances when a cellphone was a lifesaver, Stevenson said. One lost hiker in Baxter State Park in Maine was unable to get a signal strong enough to make a call, but every time he turned his phone on and off, rescuers tracking him could tell he was alive, and intensified the search.

“And we’re just starting to get into the details of how cellphones influence lost-person behavior,” Stevenson said.

Officials worry that people panic and climb to higher altitudes to find a signal. Standard advice is to sit tight if people are looking for you, or to head down the mountain, where temperatures are generally warmer, you are less exposed, and the chances of finding a road improve.

But should emergency strike — which it does for even the most experienced and prepared hikers – specialists say there are some things to know about your phone that could greatly aid rescuers.

First, if you are able to get a signal, calling 911 is generally the best practice because 911 technology can show the general location of the call. In areas with poor reception, batteries burn down quicker, so it is best to keep the phone off when it’s not in use. If the phone is low on power, a text message uses less energy than a call, so texting a friend to initiate the rescue can be an option.

But those are last-ditch efforts, and specialists still give the same advice they always have. Let someone know your plan and the time you are expected back. Leave a note on your car at the trailhead with your itinerary. And, most important, be prepared for any situation.

For a day hike, hikesafe.com lists the 10 essentials as a map, compass, warm clothing, extra food and water, flashlight, matches, first-aid kit, whistle, rain gear, and pocketknife. Overnight and cold-weather hikes require considerably more gear.

“You always need to be prepared to spend a night out, even if you’re not planning on spending a night out,” said Rob Burbank, a spokesman for the Appalachian Mountain Club, whose members assist in many rescues.

The State of New Hampshire has the power to bill people for the cost of a rescue if it is determined the hiker was negligent, which can mean not having adequate gear or venturing out despite weather warnings. Julie Horgan, an experienced hiker from Milton, was billed $7,000 when she was rescued atop Mount Jackson last March after losing her way when blowing snow covered the trail. Horgan, who is in her early 60s, was dressed appropriately and was able to survive a night in zero-degree temperatures and 50-mile-an-hourwinds near the 4,000-foot summit.

In Manchester, where she is a student at Manchester Community College, Oliva said she has become a minor celebrity, thanks to media accounts of her rescue. And she has used her embarrassment to become a spokeswoman for being better prepared.

“I rely too much on my phone,” she said. “But I think everyone is like that.”

When she and Robertson went on an overnight camping trip last week, they were prepared for anything. “We learned our lesson,” she said.

And this time, Robertson did not leave his phone in the car.

Billy Baker can be reached at billybaker@globe.com.

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