Posted by: davepidgeon | April 27, 2009

Cell phones in the backcountry

Backpacker, phone home! That is if the news out of Yellowstone National Park – where cell phone service is about to expand – is to be believed. From the Associated Press:

The (Yellowstone) plan includes a limited expansion of cell phone service, restrictions on wireless Internet at historic lodges and rules for new scientific monitoring stations.

“Not all potential services are appropriate in all areas,” park spokesman Al Nash said Monday. “It really is about an expectation that visitors have of a certain experience in Yellowstone, whether it’s in historic lodging or in the backcountry. This plan recognizes technological change but works to protect the experience people seek in Yellowstone.”

The plan restricts cell towers in the backcountry, in campgrounds and along park road corridors. While cell service won’t be available in the vast majority of the park, the plan allows continued cell phone service in developed areas and the addition of service at Fishing Bridge/Lake Village area.

I used to be that kind of backpacker who would roll his eyes if I overheard someone chatting on a cellphone while in the backcountry. I mean, c’mon, can’t we just leave it all at home for a while? Would make me wanna slam a trekking pole against an oak tree.

I’ve mellowed some recently. During a recent winter trip in Shenandoah National Park, a friend and I camped by ourselves on the Blue Ridge and so, since we figured we were having a better time than another guy we knew, we called to brag. Then I phoned my future wife to let her know all was well in the chilled woods. No one was around in Shenandoah to be bothered. No one could overhear us. Knowing my friend and myself, had we shared the campsite with other backpackers, we wouldn’t have bothered to use the cell phone.

I believe today cell phone use in parks and forests may not be so bad after all. Here’s what I mean:

I draw a distinction between having the ability to use a cell phone in the backcountry for emergency purposes or and chatting uselessly into your mobile device while sharing a shelter with a few other backpackers.I have no problem if while tenting solo in some remote spot you just want to hear the reassuring voice of a spouse. I do have a problem if your conversation is intruding on someone else’s enjoyment of wilderness.

I believe cell phone service is an inevitablility in the remote parts of the national park system because all it will take is one lawsuit. One backpacker who becomes seriously injured – or worse – and could have been saved if he or she had a cell phone, and it’s discovered the NPS could have implemented emergency cellular service in the area, then the inevitable slope is to descend to cellular service in the backcountry. Perhaps there will be a way for cellular service in remote parts of national parks to be setup in such a way to allow only emergency phone calls.

We might as well begin preaching discretion and tact now. One of these days, the NPS is likely to determine that saving one life will make implementing cellular service in the backcountry worth the price and effort. And if we include proper cellphone use in the unwritten but respected backpacker code of conduct, the better off we will be when the time comes.



  1. I’m with you, chatting for the sake of chatting has no appeal. For people like me who have health issues that can crop up unexpectedly, having a cell phone could make all the difference, so I do like the idea of having one that I can use in case of an emergency.

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