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Turn on or turn off? How cell phones are weeding their way into national parks

Hikers cannot always rely on cell phones for help. Know your surroundings and be prepared.
Hikers cannot always rely on cell phones for help. Know your surroundings and be prepared.
National Park Service/Neil Blake

Everywhere you look nowadays, someone is talking on a cell phone. National parks are no exception. With more and more visitors arriving with cell phones in their pockets, backpacks, and rain jackets, it was inevitable that a cell phone etiquette would emerge for wilderness users. As use, circumstance, and opinions vary however, the challenge is knowing when to" turn on" or "turn off"?

Turn on for safety. Safety is one of the biggest arguable points with regards to cell phone use in parks. On one hand, having a cell phone for use in emergency situations is a very practical idea, provided that the area in which you are traveling has cell service available and provided that you legitimately need to be rescued. The problem with cell phones in parks and other wilderness areas lies in people's misuse and over-reliance on them as a means of obtaining help should an accident occur.

Recently, parks have been recieving calls for help from people who really don't need it. Examples include people calling becuase they saw a bear, or calling becuase they ran out of water even though a stream was nearby. These cases of misuse cost parks thousands of dollars each year and endanger the lifes of rescuers.  In addition, cell phone technology is not as good as people think it is. According to the Federal Communicaitons Commission, in remote areas the margin of error in pinpointing a person's location using GPS and cell towers is over 300 meters - or just greater than the size of three football fields-- in any direction.

This does not mean one shouldn't try to call for help, but a cell phone should not be relied upon as the sole means of getting help. Being properly prepared for any emergency means being able to rescue oneself through the use of a variety of life-saving techniques.

Turn off the chit chat. There is nothing more disturbing than being confronted with a cell phone chit chatter when out on the trail. You know, the person who leaves their phone on and answers every call that comes in and/or proceeds to call all their friends to tell them that they are at 11,000 foot base camp. Not only is this behavior preventing you from connecting to nature - which was the point in being out there in the first place -- but it is also preventing those around you from enjoying their time in nature as human voices tend to scare birds and other wildlife away and disturb ones own personal thoughts and reflections. So, be respectful of others time and desire to be outside and keep cell phones off or limit conversations to emergencies only.

Turn on for resource protection. Some parks have created ways of using cell phones to their advantage. One such park is Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, where park restoration ecologists and UCLA computer specialists teamed up to combat some of the most aggressive invasive plant species affecting the park.

Through the creation of a downloadable computer application, park visitors are able to view images of the most troubling invasive species, snap photos that will tag the location of the species, and send the information to park rangers so they can identify problem areas. This application only works with smartphones such as iPhone or Androids, whose inner workings mirror that of a mini-computer. Click here to read more about this amazing new program.

Other ways in which cell phones have proved helpful is in law enforcement. There have been a number of incidents in which hikers, having come across poachers, marijuana growers, and in a few cases bodily remains, were able to notify law enforcement and aid in the capture and/or recovery of offenders. In some cases, photos that were hastily snapped with a camera phone were submitted into evidence in criminal procedures.

As cell phone technology advances and as man pushes further and further into wilderness boundaries the role of cell phones in nature will have to be consistently redefined. For now, it's up to park personnel to educate visitors on appropriate uses of cell phones and for visitors to apply the rules of common sense and courtesy when deciding when to turn on or turn off.