More and more people are relying on cellphones and smartphone applications for safety and navigation in wilderness areas. People seem to push themselves beyond their comfort zone using a cellphone and 3G or LTE driven navigation programs like googlemaps. Once applications like this lose connection to the network they are useless. Additionally, the accuracy and availability of map data for even the more popular trail leave something to be desired. There are some programs for both Android and iPhone that offer both accuracy and offline modes (no cellphone connection required) like OruxMaps for android and Motion X for iPhone. Beyond that, battery life of the phone raises concern. According to Tom’s Guide, the average for smartphones is 8 hours 27 minutes. You can mitigate some of this by carrying a backup battery for your phone and keeping it on airplane mode when it’s not in use; but there is still a risk in relying on something that is that battery intensive.
Tucson and the Catalina Mountains have fairly decent coverage and due to the terrain you can get line of sight to an antenna most anywhere. There are towers located on both Mount Bigelow and Mount Lemmon on Radio Ridge. Additionally, there are some towers located on Swan Road that have decent line of sight into the canyons. However if you are in a dip or around a bend don’t expect anything. Another consideration is distance to the towers. Just because you can see Oro Valley, Tucson or even San Manuel doesn’t mean you will be able to use those towers. In populated areas towers generally use less power to make up their cells and limit the number of users per tower and then the power level of your cellphone may not be able to reach all the way to those towers.
So how do you avoid these aggravations and navigate reliably in the wilderness? Get a map. Get a simple compass. Then practice using them and make sure they are in your bag when you go hiking or mountain biking. I’m not saying don’t use cellphones at all, they’re great tools and very convenient; just don’t go out and do something that you wouldn’t do without a cellphone.
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