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Every year we read stories about people getting lost in a forest or in the mountains, with no way of calling for help. Sometimes this is due to a lack of experience, sometimes due to accidents, sometimes due to unexpected bad weather, etc.

So why isn't it considered best practice (by the mountaineering/outdoors community) to carry a satellite phone any time one travels to a region where it's possible to get lost? I understand that satellite phones used to be too bulky to lug around, but nowadays one can get the equivalent of Iridium 9555 which weighs less than 300 grams. I also understand that it's expensive (especially since you have to pay for a subscription), but shouldn't safety trump any financial aspects?

  • By mandatory do you mean part of the rules and regulations to access certain areas or do you mean that everybody should naturally want to carry it? – Gabriel C. Dec 16 '19 at 19:23
  • @GabrielC. could be both – JonathanReez Dec 16 '19 at 19:25
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    @JonathanReezSupportsMonica With satellite phones this would never happen This is a gross blanket statement and I challenge you to provide evidence that it would indeed never happen. – Gabriel C. Dec 16 '19 at 20:31
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    Depending on who uses the satphone, it is most certainly not the ultimate device. A panicked "geographically illiterate" person won't suddenly know how coordinates work. There's a reason why PLBs have as few buttons as possible. – Dynat Dec 17 '19 at 7:22
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    "doesn't safety trump any financial aspects?". This is something people love to say, but pretty much never put into practice. – DJClayworth Dec 18 '19 at 15:04
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There is one thing to bear in mind about making safety equipment mandatory and that is the effect of risk compensation. Basically it means whenever you make something safer, a certain group of people tends to use the perceived gain in safety to take additional risk. Often the additional risk may be bigger than the safety gain introduced by the equipment and yield a negative effect.

For a satellite telephone there are some ingredients that make this likely. A phone in itself is not going to rescue anybody, you need a proper rescue infrastructure for this. Even if you have both, bad weather can still make it impossible to fly a helicopter for days or carry out a rescue on ground. Therefore the premise that a satellite telephone will certainly prevent incidents is severely faulted.

Additional difficulty would be to enforce the rule. It is not only about what constitutes a remote region but also what a "satellite telephone" is. There are at the moment 4 popular systems that differ by covered region and type of satellite orbit which will affect whether and how you will get connection at a certain place.

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You can take a satellite phone if you want. But you can also decide to take the risk to go without one. Satellite phones cannot prevent all kinds of accidents, just like any technical equipment cannot achieve that either. If you want to make sure that nobody gets hurt or even takes the risk of being hurt you would have to prohibit life in general. People have the freedom to take risks. The fact that the proposed rule does not exist indicates that there is a social consensus about this.

And as mentioned in a comment by @bob1, a rule needs to be enforced, and that seems to be impossible in remote regions.

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That would be a mandate. We don't like those.

Telling people they must expend resources to exercise a right they do possess is generally not permitted, and certainly not politically acceptable. Saying they must have a smartphone to vote would be a poll tax. The healthcare mandate was tossed out last year.

So telling people they need a sat phone to use public lands would be a nonstarter.

On the other hand, there's the mandate of basic intelligence

Do you really want to be caught dead being unnecessarily stupid? Look at what happened to James Kim. People cut Kim for ribbons for being careless, exhibiting bad navigation and bad outdoorsmanship. Everyone else can do it better, right?

Sat phones suck. You want the thing jetliners have.

With a Sat Phone, first, you probably ran the battery down posting questions on outdoors.se and other useless non-rescue uses. But if you still have battery... Then you hope you can hit satellites long enough to hold a signal, and you call people. If you're fortunate, you reach 9-1-1 and if you're very, very lucky, coarse GPS is picked up by 9-1-1. But prepare for them not receiving the GPS signal for a variety of reasons. Now you're down to describing what you know about your location.

Jetliners, on the other hand, have a system that is highly bulletproof. It hits a satellite network that is specifically made for SAR. The system sends transmitter serial number and GPS location if available; transmitters are registered which gives them your name/address/cellphone. The system also warbles on the 121.5 civil emergency frequency, which is monitored by many aircraft, and Civil Air Patrol regularly trains on triangulating locations on it.

Commercial ships also have this system, as do many pleasure craft, as do many small planes, and it can be acquired as a handheld/portable device for about $400. "Monthly fees" don't exist, but you do need to register the unit for best effect.

A typical scenario:

The battery is not dead, because this device is not used for anything else. It's a primary "one-shot" battery with a long shelf life.

The satellites pick up the 406 MHz emergency beacon. It is transmitting GPS coords, but the canyon walls enshadow too many GPS satellites for a precise fix. The registered owner's phone is called, because usually, this reveals an "all's well / accidental trip" answer.

The daughter says "My parents went out hiking in Yosemite" (the beacon is in Yosemite). Local authorities are notified, including Civil Air Patrol. Redundantly, airliners are hearing the 121.5 MHz signal and report it with very coarse location, jibing with earlier data.

CAP heads to the coarse location and does their thing, triangulating on the 121.5 MHz signal. They've got it down to within about a 200' area in a canyon. Rescue successful.

The 406 MHz + 121.5 backup pretty much leaves nothing to chance. If the GPS fails utterly, the SARSAT satellites have a coarse sense of where the signal is coming from; enough to get aircraft in the right zones to hunt down the 121.5 signal. This is state-actor geolocation. And it's accessible to citizens. Why not use it.

  • I mean, the state already charges fees to access public lands. I need to pay to access National Parks. And I need a permit for anything beyond mere hiking - e.g. Yosemite mandates a permit for overnight hikes. Otherwise upvoted. – JonathanReez Dec 18 '19 at 21:28
  • @JonathanReez A $15 fee is one thing. But a $300 + $50/month device weighs disproportionately on those of limited means, which raises serious questions about classism. – Harper - Reinstate Monica Dec 18 '19 at 21:38
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OP has qualified his question to be specific for mountaineering, and has clarified to mean 'best practice' instead of 'required by law or guild'

In mountains many mishaps are close to instant, or are weather related. A communication device may just mean that people get the unpleasant news sooner.

If something happens, being able to call for help is not as useful as you might think.

  • The flight ceiling for most helicopters is about 12,000 feet. Many pilots are not comfortable at landing with low power reserves except in perfect weather. They also need a reasonably flat spot to land.

  • A surface based rescue party has to deal with the conditions that the original party did.

  • It's really hard to get lost on a mountain. Oh, you might not know for sure which ridge you are on in a white out.

  • Mountaineering folks may make mistakes, but generally they will have had enough experience from other outdoor activities that getting lost is not one of them.

So the first part of this answer is, "It doesn't help much"

That said, while getting lost may not be likely, mishaps happen. So some form of emergency communication is prudent, and for anything more rigorous that a walk up, recommended.

And while a mishap at 14,000 feet may require being dealt with using only your own resources, you very likely have spend considerable time on the approach, where rescue is actually possible.

In my original answer, below, I mentioned costs. I'm not up to date on these, but I suspect that they are still in line with current high end cell phone costs, with significant plan costs.

So the second part of this answer is, "They are expensive"

The third part: What are other alternatives?

A: PLB This a location beacon that has a test button, and an auto/on/off button. The test button verifies it's working. In Auto it turns on automatically if it's hit hard enough. You crashed your plane. In On, it beeps. Off, I leave as an exercise for the student.

B: SPOT This device allows a "I'm ok, checking in, and perhaps with the latest version, one of a small number of pre-canned messages.

C: InReach. This device allows what amounts to text messages. The device has built in GPS, and includes coordinates with each message. You can also set it up to send an "I'm at x,y" breadcrumb at intervals. The low end service is about 30 bucks a month, and you can put your plan on standby for $3/month.

I went with this option as being the best tradeoff between expense and flexibility.


Original answer

When I worked for a school that did lots of outdoor stuff, we did carry sat phones. At the time, they cost several thousand dollars, rented for $200/month (and a month was the minimum period even if you only needed it for a weekend.)

In order to be familiar with their limitations we phoned home daily. Air time was $2.50 per minute.

In general we found that we were successful about 85% of the time.

You needed a clear view of a reasonable amount of sky. Vegetation didn't seem to matter much. Mountains, especailly ones to the south did.

Dense fog seemed to interfere with the signal.

The early ones were very fragile. The wrong knock would turn them into a paperweight.


Now suppose you have one, and you have gotten lost. That you are lost means that you probably don't have a map, or don't know how to read it. And you don't have a working GPS. So with your phone, what do you say to the person at the other end?

It's been years since I worked at that school. Doubtless by now they have a GPS built in.


One of the reasons I go into the wilderness is to get away from the Nanny State.

The last thing I want is a bunch of regulations saying what I have to take into the wilderness. I already have given up on Canada's beautiful national parks because they are so over regulated.

I do carry an InReach communicator. Essentially I can send text messages from the wilderness to tell my spouse that the dog and I are still alive. But I do that by choice, not because some bureaucrat tells me to.


  • By "mandatory" I was referring to "the mountaineering community will think you're an idiot if you don't", rather than "the nanny state will enforce it". – JonathanReez Dec 31 '19 at 3:49
  • Fair enough. You may wish to clarify your question in terms of changing mandatory to 'best practice' You may also want to clarify that you were referring to the mountaineering community, and not the more general back country community. – Sherwood Botsford Dec 31 '19 at 4:05
  • Fair point, question updated – JonathanReez Dec 31 '19 at 4:11

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