The Lane County SAR recreated the man's setup and took a photo. (Photo: Lane County SAR)

A Stranded Motorist Tied His Phone to a Drone and Got Rescued

SAR crews in Oregon discovered the trapped motorist after he used his ingenuity to send an SOS signal


Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

Move over MacGyver, ingenuity has a new champion.

On March 5, search and rescue crews in Lane County, Oregon, published the tale of a stranded motorist who used rope, his cell phone, and an aerial drone to send an SOS message that ultimately led to his rescue. The incident occurred on January 30. Authorities have not released the man’s name.

The man was driving along rural backroads in Willamette National Forest when his pickup truck became stuck in deep snow. He was not alone—a woman approached him from a nearby minivan who had been trapped the previous day. A photo released by authorities shows the vehicles stranded next to the Box Canyon horse camp, which is located approximately 70 miles from Eugene on the eastern slope of the Cascades.

There was no cell reception in the area, and both motorists faced a dire situation: neither had told anyone about their respective outings.

“It would have been a while before somebody came across that road and found them,” Jason Bowman, the SAR supervisor with the Lane County sheriffs office told Outside. “Their situation was dangerous.”

The two spent the night in the wilderness—Bowman said they had food, water, and gasoline to keep the truck’s heater going.

The man was traveling with an aerial drone. The following day, he tied his cellphone to the drone and typed out a text message to a friend that explained his ordeal and location. The man then flew the drone several hundred feet into the air with the phone attached.

“The increased elevation allowed his phone to connect to a tower and send the message, which resulted in our teams being deployed and assisting him out of his situation,” the report said.

Crews found them later that day. Rescuers said they were healthy and in good condition.

Cellphone coverage is infamously spotty in mountainous areas, however reception often improves as hikers walk uphill. This is because hillsides and trees block the signal from far away towers and create reception shadows in gulleys and valleys. Climbing to higher elevations—or flying your phone into the sky with a drone—improves the chances of the device entering the line-of-sight of a tower.

Bowman said he had never seen or heard of a rescue occurring this way. But he said the man was not alone in his ordeal—dozens of motorists have become stranded in the Cascades this winter, Bowman said. Drivers often use dirt roads crossing the mountains as shortcuts between the towns of Oakridge and McKenzie Bridge. Others enter the region hoping to get to the popular Terwilliger Hot Springs. Many of the region’s roads are left unmaintained by crews during the winter.

“It’s been nearly a daily occurrence the last few months—we’ve never had this many people getting stuck in the snow before,” Bowman said. “We’re seeing more people going outdoors who aren’t prepared and don’t know what conditions are like.”

Storms have dumped record snowfall in Northern California and parts of Oregon, transforming rural roads into impassable snowfields. Lane County’s volunteer rescuers have been working day and night to handle the uptick in calls, Bowman said.

“We have people burning vacation time with their day jobs and driving their personal vehicles around in the snow to save people,” he said.

In his Facebook report, Bowman told travelers to always tell friends or family about a trip before departing. He also reminded them that 4×4 vehicles cannot traverse the drifts in many areas.

Lead Photo: Lane County SAR