There’s a viral post going around advising that if you are ever lost while hiking or in a stranded car, you should change your voicemail to alert people to your predicament. The post wording may vary somewhat, but it is along the lines of:
"If you are ever lost while hiking, get stranded with a broken down car, etc and you notice your cell phone is either low on juice or has no signal, here is a tip that very well may save your life. Change the voicemail on your phone to a message that gives your approximate location, the time, the date, your situation (lost, out of gas, car broken down, injured, etc) and any special instructions such as you are staying with the car, you are walking toward a town, etc…. The best part of this is that even if your cell phone dies or stops working, voicemail still works, so anyone calling your phone looking for you will hear the message and know where to find or where to send help."
Let’s be clear: this is terrible advice from both a technical and safety perspective. If you’re ever in a situation where you are lost, there are far better options for alerting authorities and friends/family.
First, to even consider the option of changing your voicemail, you would need cellphone service. Without it, you would not be able to update your voicemail on any carrier. Second, it would require someone to try to call you to learn that you’re in trouble – no calls, no help. Third, if you’re lost, don’t go wandering around searching for a town. Instead, follow the advice of The American Hiking Society to stay where you are:
“If you’re unable to locate yourself on your map and you’ve calmly attempted to retrace your steps a little, and you are genuinely lost, stay put. Rescuers will be looking for you where they know you’ve been hiking. Don’t put yourself in more danger by wandering further from a known location. If you do so, you will also be putting rescuers in greater danger as they will have to cover more ground and use more time to locate you. The only time to not stay put, would be if there is a safety issue staying where you are, perhaps due to flooding or avalanche potential.”
What you should do when lost
Instead of following the meme’s advice, the very first thing you should do is get your exact location using Google Maps. Simply open Google Maps, click on the red pin that shows your current location. Google Maps will show your exact longitude and latitude that you can provide to authorities and friends/family. If there is no red pin or you will be moving to a new location (e.g., to seek shelter), click on that area of the map to see the location information. You don’t need a cell or data signal for GPS coordinates to work since it is fed directly from satellite data.
Then, if you have service, you are far better off using your limited battery to call 911 directly. Dialing 911 will connect you to local authorities who are familiar with the region, can provide expert situational advice, and get a search and rescue plan started.
The second thing you can do is to text friends or family (especially those who are aware of your trip and may be able to provide location information to authorities), providing as much information as you can about your situation, including your GPS coordinates. Text messaging uses very little power and will work whenever you have a signal. Text messages also have the advantage that you can create one even when you don’t have a signal. Then it will automatically send when you get a connection, even for a few seconds (signals may pop in and out based on atmospheric conditions or even as you move around your general area).
If your battery is low, turn on battery-saving mode in your iPhone or Android phone settings. Some phones, like those from Samsung, have an “Ultra power saving mode” or "Emergency Mode" that only allows the most basic functions to run. Samsung phones will automatically send a message with your location to contacts you've chosen when "Emergency Mode" is activated. These low-power modes will maximize the life of your battery, giving rescuers the ability to contact you directly if needed. Just don’t ignore the calls thinking they are spam!
[Image credit: car on side of road via BigStockPhoto]