How to get cell signal in an emergency

Since rivers always run along the lowest possible elevation lines in an area and since cell phone reception is line of sight from towers that are usually placed on the tallest hills in an area, then it stands to reason that on-the-river is always going to be the worst possible place to get a cell phone signal. Yet, surprisingly, most of the rivers in my area have pretty good reception, even in the more wilderness areas. Maybe that’s because we don’t have many big hills around, just gently rolling ones.

But still, there are times and places where I don’t have reception. What if I have an emergency while canoeing and I don’t happen to have a signal at the time? What can I do to try to get one?

One thing I know is to climb any hill that’s nearby, of course. If there’s not a hill, then I suppose the next best thing is just to move around randomly and keep trying.

One thing I’m not sure about is how much effect tree cover has. What if I’m on the edge of a little lake-like open area when the emergency hits, with good sized trees on shore. Is it better to climb 20-30 feet up into a tree (and be encased in thick leaves and branches) or to paddle out in the lake to a spot well away from all trees and other possible interference? (I’m guessing climbing the tree is better, since I can often get a signal inside buildings.)

Along the same lines, are there any phones that let you plug in an external antenna for better reception? And is it possible to look up the location of your carrier’s cell phone towers in a given area so you know what you are aiming at?

external ant.
There are models that will accept an external antenna (last I checked). I have one that’s not too old. I haven’t seen any ext ant that was “directional” - I think they are all omnidirectional - so tower direction wouldn’t be an issue.

Hmm…another reason to have a 12’ pole in the boat?

Beyond that, you might look into a portable Amateur (HAM) Radio (w/license, of course) - like we all need another hobby :wink:

Friends of mine who are using them are telling me that it is the only way to go. Easy test, cheap license, ability to dial into the phone system, and (at least around here) almost no place that can’t be reached by one relay tower or another. I’m looking into it seriously for myself and intend to pursue it over next winter.

All the volunteer search&rescue folks that I know around here rely on it.

middle of the water
might give you a signal.

In the summer with leaves on the trees the only way I can get a signal on my cell phone is to go paddle into the middle of the lake.

Hanging out the second story window only works in winter.

My house is surrounded by hills about 1000 feet above the lake.

So if I have an emergency I have to not have too bad an emergency to go make that paddle.

paddle downstream to signal
The other thing to think of if you get out of your boat, climb a tree, walk up some hills, waving your phone around trying to get reception, you’re wasting alot of time and energy which might be better used just paddling farther downstream untill you hit reception or get to more habited parts of the river. This will depend on the river of course.

I’ve used these with good results in a car, but they probably need a conductive ground plane to work properly:

to the closest pay phone and call AAA :wink:

A Fast Find PLB is on my short list…

It can be obstructed but not as easily as a cell tower…

Right now I can contact the CG on a waterproof VHF…

even last year I took a dangerous fall off a bike trail…

Oh Help me Help me
… and what are you expecting them to do once you call?

Cell Phones Poor Safety Item

– Last Updated: Jun-10-09 10:14 AM EST –

Rather than learning techniques to increase cell phone reception ( a skill with limited value), you might be better off learning First Aid. It comes in handy when your emergency involves your cell phone falling in the drink.

Have to agree that a cell isn’t
much of a safety item and is often unreliable at best. Several creeks I really like to paddle are in the middle of a large wilderness area that has zero cell coverage and that’s one of the best things about those trips. You never see a guy kayaking along with his cell phone stuck to his face.

Obviously be as prepared as you can for the likely scenarios. First aid supplies and some training are good. Some knowledge of self rescue is needed in many remote areas and it’s always a positive thing to be ready to help others when it doesn’t put you in danger. The guys at the other in of the 911 call may be hours from helping.

Having said all that, almost any clearing will be your best shot. If you are already on the water, paddle away from shore a bit. If you are already on land, look for a nearby clearing or a hill with a clearing. Knowing if there are roads near the shore can also be helpful. Even if you can’t get a signal, you might flag someone down or get them to make a call for you.


Signal Yes, Then Signal No
I was using my cell phone at my campsite and on the water where I was camping and kayaking this past Sun-Tues. My husband & I always check out the area we’re camping and kayaking in to see if we get a signal.

I have to say, one minute it can work and the next, not, so if you do get a signal, know that you may not always get it in an emergency.

We do have a marine radio also, plus those walkie talkie things for keeping in touch since we don’t kayak near each other.


You’ll have the same problem with
a Ham rig as with a cell phone. I’m a Ham and a member of the county Search and Rescue. Basically, you need to have line of sight or you won’t get your signal out. Our SAR frequency is in the 2 meter band and we need to position members on hill tops to keep in touch with members searching in isolated valleys. Also, in more isolated places, the 2 meter Ham band isn’t very active so you might not have anyone listening. It’s easy to find the lists of repeaters on the 2 or 70cm meter bands run by Hams, but chances are that if you can hit them, then you can use the cell phone since both antennas are located in places too provide the most coverage.

One of the SAR Ham members carries a QRP (5 watt), CW, HF rig that he built so he could communicate with his wife while backpacking. HF doesn’t need line of sight but you’re talking quite an investment in time. Maybe, I’ll get my rusty CW skills back up to snuff and give that a try. Would be fun setting up remote comm sites when backpacking or paddling.

Text, don’t call
If you have a weak or intermittent signal then send a text message rather than trying to make a call.

Probably regional differences
From what you’re saying, Yaknot, I suspect that the abundance of HAM relays is different in different areas. Local operators around here tell me that in this state there is virtually no place except within the larger designated wilderness areas (admittedly, that’s a large area) that is not accessible by some 2 meter relay. Additionally - they tell me that most, if not all, of these relay sites are automated and will accommodate dialing out without any other participation.

Professional back country guides around here tend to use satellite phones for emergencies (HAM can’t be used for business). The cost isn’t really bad if you restrict them to such use.