Mobile phones for communications in the bush

Mobile phones can often be used for communications in the bush and other remote areas.  It is recommended that parties carry at least one mobile phone.

All mobiles are not equal.  Do some research to determine which mobile phone will be the best for the places you are likely to use it.

Some points to consider are:

  • Check the rating for good reception (e.g. Telstra's "blue tick")
  • A phone that can take an external antenna (there are a few) can get improved reception
  • Check the rated battery life of the phone - both standby and talk time.  A phone battery that only lasts a day is a major limitation
  • Choose a phone with inbuilt GPS and/or location services.  These can be used for reporting your location, and in some cases for emergency services to track your phone.
  • A waterproof or splashproof phone is desirable for outdoors use.  Some example are a Sonim (GSM) and a Motorola Defy (Next G).
  • Phones with resistive touch screens can be difficult to operate if your fingers get sweaty

 

Networks and carriers

  • A phone without network coverage is useless.   Several network operators service mainly cities and urban areas and have poor or non-existent coverage in remote areas.
  • In general, the Telstra NextG network has the best coverage, although call rates and data charges are often higher than competitors
  • Some operators such as Three (now merged with Vodafone) have roaming agreements with Telstra, however they may not get the full coverage or services offered by Telstra's NextG network.
  • Check the coverage offered by network providers carefully before you select one.  Look for coverage maps rather than relying on "% of the population covered" statistics.
  • Satellite phones have the best network coverage, but these are expensive to buy and use.  While in theory these phones can be used anywhere, they are dependent on their particular satellite network for coverage.  On occasions, some satellite phones do not have access to their network.   

 

Phone usage

  •  Keep the phone turned off when its not needed. Mobiles operating outside of network coverage will keep "polling" for a base station and will use more power.  You can also put the phone into "flight mode" which turns of the network connection.
  • Store the phone in a waterproof pouch that it can be also be used in, or buy a waterproof phone.
  • Turn off Bluetooth, WiFi and GPS functions if they are not needed - they consume extra power. 
  • The GPS in some phones relies on the mobile network to render maps, while some phones have maps stored inside them.  
  • Most maps in phones are not ideal for bushwalking as they don't have enough detail.
  • You can often get reception from high ground.  If you don't have reception, it is worth walking onto a ridge, or further onto a summit.
  • SMS messages use much less power than talking; if you are running low send information via SMS
  • You can ICE your phone to store emergency contact information so it that can be easily located.
  • If you are lost and/or in an emergency situation, call 000 and ask for Police.  See Triplezero.gov.au for more information.

 

Smart phone applications

While smart phones such as iPhones and Android-based phones often use more power and are more bulky than conventional mobile phones, can run useful applications.   Some applications that may be useful include:

Android

  • Inserty:   Insert current GPS coordinates in an SMS or email
  • My Tracks:  Record track logs and upload to Google maps
  • CoordTransform: Convert between Lat Lon to UTM coordinates
  • GPS Tracker: Track the location of the phone (requires network coverage)

iOS

 

In summary

Remember, there is no guarantee that a mobile phone will work, so they should not be relied upon for safety or communications.   A mobile phone is no substitute for navigation skills, a map, compass, GPS and Personal Locator Beacon.  However, with network coverage they can be a useful addition to your safety gear.

 

See also