The Hiker’s Handbook: Are Cell Phones the Eleventh Essential?

Recently, I wrote a post breaking down the Ten Essentials, and there was some feedback about including cell phones on this list. To recap, the Ten Essentials are items that you need to have on you when you’re hiking to ensure a safe situation AND protect you in case of most emergencies. They should be a part of every hiker’s pack; otherwise, hikers may find themselves vulnerable to any number of potential challenges.

Like nearly every other aspect of life, hiking applications for navigation and information have become deeply interwoven into nearly every aspect of hiking – for better and for worse. Given their omnipresence, it seems like elevating cell phones into the realm of “essential” is a slam dunk. In order to really make that determination, we must first determine if cell phones are so effective at any given skill set or need outlined in the Ten Essentials that they are thus the preferable, even superior method of meeting those needs or utilizing those skills.

We can rule a few Ten Essential items out off the bat simply because cell phones don’t apply: Water, Shelter, Food, Clothing, Sun Protection, Fire, Knife, and First-Aid. Sorry. There’s no app for those. Cell phones do have apps for Navigation and Headlamp. They also have application in search and rescue concerns. And since I’ve already concluded that knowledge/preparation are the true Eleventh Essential, I include a cell phone’s ability to address that as well.


Hikers use applications like AllTrails, Gaia, and Guthook as a means of finding their way on trails. Hikers can download GPS tracks into the apps, and those tracks can direct hikers on a given route. GPS tracks allow people to bypass the skills of traditional navigation by map and compass, thus opening up hiking experiences that they would otherwise be unable to complete. 

The ability to hike without relying on navigation skills has been revolutionary, and I suspect it’s a primary driver behind hiking’s dramatic increase in popularity. Hiking into more remote areas is no longer the province of experience hikers with specific skills, as all one needs is to follow the GPS track. This usability undoubtedly has its positives, as it has opened up a world of experiences for people who previously never had a chance to experience the wilderness before.

Conversely, like anything on a handheld device, the use and functionality is not 100% reliable. Being able to follow a GPS track gives us the sense that we won’t get lost, yet people get lost by using cell phone apps all the time – sometimes with catastrophic consequences. Cell phone apps can fail. GPS trackers stop working correctly under tree cover. Batteries die, and recharging mechanisms may not always work. Many of these apps rely on GPS tracks created by users, which means that unverified information can inadvertently get you lost, lead you across sensitive habitat, or cause you to trespass.. If any one of these things happen, and you have no other way of navigating, you’ve now created a problem.

Traditional navigation skills are not full-proof, especially since it’s a skill that people need to learn. However, if people don’t have a requisite skill needed for a hike, and there’s no easy shortcut (nav apps), they may also be less likely to take risks and thus stick to safer hiking routes. Furthermore, the development of navigation skills (which reliance on nav apps tends to erode) creates a greater sense of self-reliance that can allow people to think through dangerous situations and emerge safely.


I’ve seen a number of people using their phone lights to hike in the dark. Since the light tends to drain batteries, you’d be unwise to use it for any extended period of time. A headlamp can allow you the use of both hands, and by using lithium batteries with a spare set in your pack will be far more reliable, not to mention less awkward than holding a phone for miles on end.


Many people regard cell phones as a method of securing help should something happen on a trail. This is undoubtedly a great method, but ONLY if you’re in a place where there’s reception. A cell phone is of absolutely no use to anybody as a means of getting help if there’s no reception.

In fact, all you need to do to hammer this point home is to read the story of Geraldine Largay to understand exactly what can go wrong if you’re expecting your cell phone to bail you out of a jam. You’ll be fine if there’s reception, but without it, nobody is going to find you.


Cell phones provide access to information that had previously been available only through print media. You can pull up AllTrails and find basic information on just about any hiking route within a radius from your current location. This is incredibly convenient, and there is a LOT of trail info available through this method. Furthermore, apps also allow users to provide first-hand observations on trail conditions, which is a feature that print media cannot offer. Nav apps have opened a lot of new experiences up to people precisely through this system, and this has been overwhelmingly positive for many people.

And yet, the information that you get from navigation apps is often deeply flawed. Much of this information is crowd-sourced, which means that you don’t know who wrote it or whether they bothered to research and verify correctly. Additionally, the maps used by most applications are derived from OpenSourceMap, which utilizes GPS data crowd-sourced from users. This GPS data often includes illegal routes and tracks that trespass onto private property, which would be unthinkable in a print publication. Finally, apps don’t usually provide information on rules, regulations, safety, trail etiquette, and other considerations like culturally sensitive sites and how you behave around them. People who hike without that knowledge are more likely to inadvertently harm habitats, hurt themselves,  and damage trails through lack of awareness.

You can also use an app to access more evolved and accurate resources like hiking websites, eBooks, and topographic maps. Those are much better sources of information, and if you’re savvy enough to know what resource is reliable, this is much less of a concern. However, with the exception of eBooks and scanned topographic maps, even those resources may have less reliability than official sources and published sources, which are all subject to a lot of scrutiny.


The final judgment on whether cell phones should be considered an essential rests on the answer to a single question: does the use of a cell phone fulfill the needs described by the Ten Essentials more effectively than existing methods?

In terms of Navigation, no. Cell phones are not more effective, nor are they safer than traditional navigation skills, provided that the skills are appropriately learned and applied. Yes, if you don’t have those skills, a cell phone app IS more effective, but given that an app can fail, it creates a false sense of security. The more responsible approach would be to avoid doing anything that you don’t have skills that are dependent on something that can fail.

Cell phones aren’t superior to headlamps, if only because you can use headlamps while keeping your hands free. This is convenient if it’s a casual hike, and essential if you’re lost in the dark.

Cell phones do provide useful information, but all of that information exists in print, which is often more reliable. Online information can supplement print information very effectively, but a cell phone is not essential if it’s best use is supplementary.

Cell phones are useful tools that when used correctly can augment, supplement, and improve the outdoor experience in significant ways. I use them extensively for a number of purposes in conjunction with professionally designed print maps, published resources, and official resources like park websites and park rangers. Through the use of all of those resources, I get to live a rich hiking life, and so can you. However, you can still do all of these things, and often do them better, without a phone. Therefore, a cell phone is NOT an essential, useful though it may be.

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