What phone can keep me in touch while I'm on the trail?

My wife keeps bugging me about getting a phone so I can keep in touch with her when I'm out backpacking for several days. Is there something light and somewhat affordable available? Peter San Carlos, CA

Sep 17, 2004
Outside Magazine

The Motorola Iridium 9500

A: Of course, five years ago it seemed fairly certain that by now we'd all be carrying handy little phones that linked directly to overhead satellites, rendering the concept of wireless-phone "dead spots" all but obsolete. Call someone from somewhere in the heart of the Rockies? No problem at all.

But that dream pretty much died. Wireless phones got so good that the market for such a phone pretty much dried up. Then Motorola made some serious mistakes with its satellite-based Iridium phones, and the concept never really took off. In fact, a few years ago Motorola was close to letting all of its satellites burn up in the atmosphere, but they're still up there. Anyway, that's what you need—a satellite phone. A wireless phone will give you occasional contact from remote locales, but not much.

Choices? You've got a few, but don't expect the deals you find from wireless-phone providers. Shop around and you can land a satellite phone such as the Qualcomm GSP-1600 (www.qualcomm.com) for around $600 or so. The Motorola Iridium 9500 (www.motorola.com) is really steep—around $1,000. For occasional use, calling plans run $2 a minute or more. So these aren't cheap units. From what I understand, service quality is generally good but not perfect—you may have to move yourself around and adjust the antenna to get the best reception.

So I guess you have to ask yourself: Is this worth it? I mean, sure, there are people like Aron Ralston who get themselves in tight spots and have to cut an arm off to escape. But each day, tens of thousands of people hike, climb, and backpack in the wilderness without incident. I honestly believe that people are safer when they lack instant communications. Why? Because they're more apt to think twice before trying something they realize may pose some risk. And that's really what exploring the backcountry is all about—that sense of isolation, of being on your own. I think that's worth more than being able to phone home very day at six just to say, "I'm OK!"

Check out our March 2004 article, "Can You Hear Me Now?", which delves into the questionable advantages of keeping in contact while out in the wild.

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