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Whether Skiing or Hiking, Know the Rules of Remote Safety

February 20, 2014


I’ve been to Austria, and drove the alpine mountain passes long before the days when cell phones were common. So when I saw recent news that T-Mobile Austria has contracted with NetScout (News - Alert) to develop their LTE network, I wondered how coverage has changed in places like the middle of Europe, where mountains are even more impressive than most of the US. Today even in the desert west of the United States there are stretches of Interstate where you can’t get a good cellular signal. But hike a few miles along the road and you’ll probably pick up enough reception to call AAA. In mountains ranges all across the US though there are still patches of complete radio silence, and for summer hikers or winter skiers it’s important to know how that will impact you in an emergency.

Most importantly, understand how cell signals work. According to, in the ideal situation you call 911 and are routed to the nearest public safety answering point right away. The operator already has an estimate of your location good to a few hundred feet thanks to cellular GPS chips or signal telemetry. The operator can pass that information along to police or search and rescue and they can find you.

But what if you turn on your phone and show no bars? Most of us would turn it off to save battery – which is smart – but did you know that in those few seconds that it’s on it could still transmit life-saving information? Every time turn your phone on it will try and connect with a tower whether you initiate a call or not. It’s a digital handshake that can transmit with extremely low power, in hostile terrain, and across carrier networks. This won’t alert 911 that you’re in trouble, which is why it’s still important to let someone know when you leave and when to expect you back. What is does mean is that you’re leaving a digital trail of signature spots that search and rescue can follow even if you can’t connect a call.

That’s what made me wonder about the cell service in Austria, which is cut through with a high and lovely mountain range that is not somewhere you’d want to have tire trouble. As it turns out, European residents are even more concerned with consistent service than we are in the US and willing to pay more for reliable connections. Europeans text more, as a whole, to save on the cost of minutes, but their usage has paid for strong networks connected across countries, and they demand reliable service. Austria and Switzerland are even testing grounds for cellular technology improvement because of their varied and extreme terrain.

So this summer, whether you’re hiking in the Rockies or the Alps remember that you may leaving more breadcrumbs than you think. And let your friends at home know that search and rescue teams (usually volunteer) have many things to learn; terrain, first aid, technical climbing or mountaineering and a host of other things I can’t even being to imagine, so if they haven’t brought up cellular technology tracking you shouldn’t be afraid to mention it. Not everyone is versed on what can be done with technology, and in the case of a rescue operation you may have to connect with different people who can get the information that will help the rescue personnel.

The improvements, research, and growth of LTE (News - Alert) networks will continue to make life faster, yes, but also safer all across the world for those who stoke the home fires and those who explore.

Edited by Cassandra Tucker