Waterproof Cell Phones — Hardening Your Backup

Survival Quality Phones

Now that most people in the world carry cell phones, the pocket phone has become our most familiar emergency backup system. If there’s trouble we call friends, family, towing services, or 9-1-1. Many hikers carry phones on the trail and consider them primary emergency tools even in the back country. That can get you into trouble, because cell phone coverage isn’t universal as yet. You may be lucky and have a problem while hiking a long thin national park surrounded by civilization and cell towers — or you may be on a well-traveled trail too deep in the real wilderness to catch a signal.

Traveling by myself, I’m still old-fashioned and I leave the phone at home, but in a different situation — for example if you were guiding a hunting or fishing party or leading a scout troop — the responsibility for the safety of the party is largely yours and you take the phone whether you want it or not. If the cell phone is part of your backup plan you need to take some extra precautions to make sure it works.

Cell Phone Tips for the Trail

  1. Buy a rugged waterproof phone.
  2. Add a cell phone coverage area map to your gear.
  3. Weatherproof and shockproof your regular phone if it’s all you have.

Choosing one of the toughest phones in the world eliminates a lot of potential problems. The Sonim XP3 GSM Phone isn’t the cheapest option (around $500 on Amazon), but if you need something dependable it’s one of the best. Unconditionally guaranteed for three years, the waterproof and shockproof phone survives immersion in water (to one meter depth for 30 minutes) and impacts of all sorts. Elephants step on them, trucks run over them, and people hit them with hammers to demonstrate how tough these phones are. The operating temperature range is far better than that of the usual cellphone. Most personal electronics devices work from just below freezing to just above 100 degrees F. Temperatures outside that range may damage electronic components. Sonim’s XP3 B2100 works from -4 F to 131 F, meaning that with ordinary care your phone will survive most weather extremes. The XP3 meets MIL-810F military standards, which include testing for environmental hazards including fog, humidity and salt. Shock resistance also passes military testing — the XP3 will survive a drop from 2 meters onto concrete, even if it lands on a corner.

As with most military quality gear, convenience features of the Sonim XP3 aren’t state of the art. The XP3 won’t match the performance level of an iPhone, although it does offer internet access through the Opera browser package and includes a wide range of extra functions. If it’s soaking wet that will temporarily affect the quality of the audio, and the software provided with the phone may be frustrating to use. Although advertised as a GPS enabled cell phone, that actually means that through the GPS option users can check the time and get an accurate position reading. There’s no onboard GPS mapping or route-charting system but it’s still an extremely handy feature. Instead of doing internet tricks, the Sonim XP3 excels at the basics of being a tough weatherproof phone. If you do manage to break it within 3 years of purchase, you get a new one, with no questions asked.

An excellent second choice, the Samsung B2100 Xplorer meets those same military standards but offers only half the battery life — nine hours of talk-time compared to 18 for the Sonim XP-3. The Samsung B2100 lacks even the basic GPS location system of the XP-3. Resolution of the camera doesn’t match the XP-3, and the B2100 doesn’t offer as many onboard features, but the price is certainly much more affordable (about $150) and for many users that will make all the difference.

If money’s the primary concern and all you can afford is a $20 phone, take some simple preventive measures to give it the best chance of working when you need it. Don’t carry it in a pocket or a waist-belt case where it could take some hard hits during normal travel. Wrap some bubble wrap around it and tuck it away in a protected part of your pack. Make it part of your personal survival kit — a belt pouch of essentials you always take with you if you wander away from base camp. Waterproofing could be as simple as a ziploc baggie, but consider something stouter like the Dry CASE DC13 Waterproof Cell Phone Case.

map of yellowstone

Yellowstone is wild and beautiful, very public and well traveled, with excellent back country trails.

The Essential Cell Coverage Map

If you do get into trouble and need to figure a way out, having a cell phone could mean a much shorter walk — to within range of the nearest cell tower instead of the nearest road. If that’s your backup plan, download a map of cell coverage in the area where you’re headed. Lots of the country still has no bars. Take a look at the map of Yellowstone, for example. If you hike the back country there, a cell phone is just extra weight in many areas. If you have a problem, it’s good to know the shortest route to help. As yet, USGS maps — still the best topographic maps for the hiker — don’t show cell coverage although on some the locations of cell towers might be marked. If you know the country and you can read the terrain, you may be able to spot the best vantage point through common sense, but having a map improves your chances. Download one before you leave home.

att cell map of yellowstone

It's not surprising that cell coverage in Yellowstone is pretty limited.

The old advice is still the first option you should take — if you’re lost, stay where you are and make yourself noticeable. Then wait. If people know your plans, someone will come looking when you don’t come home on time. Cell phones only open up another option, and wandering the country looking for a signal might just get you into deeper trouble. Stay on the trail and head for the nearest coverage area it leads to. Trails are fast.

Links of Interest:

Samsung B2100 Manual
Sonim XP3 Quest Manual
AT&T Coverage Map

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About JTHats

Avid backpacker and outdoorsman with old skills and interests in old ways of doing things; equally fascinated by electronics, from the days of Sputnik, to the Zilog Z80A, to the present day of black box circuitry. Sixty years of experience with growing my own food and living simply. Certified electronics technician, professional woodturner, woodcarver, and graduate of two military survival courses — Arctic and Jungle.

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