14ers smartphone

Climbing 14ers: How To Outsmart Your Smartphone

If you’re an avid hiker or someone looking to explore the world of mountaineering, you may have heard of “14ers” – mountain peaks that exceed 14,000 feet in elevation. These awe-inspiring giants offer breathtaking views and unforgettable experiences, but they also present unique challenges and potential dangers. As you prepare to embark on your high-altitude adventure, you might be tempted to use your trusty smartphone as your primary navigation and communication tool. However, we’re here to explain why relying on a cell phone for these purposes is not the best idea, and offer some more reliable alternatives to ensure your safety and enjoyment on the trail.

Table of Contents

Introduction to Route-Finding and Navigation on 14ers

Route-finding is the process of identifying and following a safe and efficient path through the terrain, whether that be on an established trail or in a more remote, off-trail setting. On 14ers, effective route-finding is crucial for both your safety and the preservation of the fragile alpine environment. Navigating these high-altitude landscapes can be particularly challenging due to the rugged terrain, inconsistent trail markings, and the presence of unofficial trails marked by cairns. Developing solid route-finding skills will not only enhance your mountaineering experience but also help you stay on course and avoid potential hazards.

Rugged Terrain

One of the primary challenges of navigating a 14er is the rugged nature of the terrain. High-altitude landscapes often feature steep slopes, loose scree, and large boulders that can make it difficult to discern the best path forward. Additionally, snowfields, glaciers, and rapidly changing weather conditions can further complicate navigation efforts. In these situations, a firm grasp of route-finding techniques, along with the ability to read a topographic map and use a compass or GPS device, is essential for staying on track.

Trail Markings and Maintenance

On 14ers, trails can be harder to mark and maintain due to the remote location, harsh weather conditions, and limited resources available to land management agencies. As a result, you may encounter sections of trail that are faint, overgrown, or washed out. In these instances, it’s important to rely on your route-finding skills, as well as your map and compass, to stay on course and avoid becoming disoriented.

Cairns and Unofficial Social Trails

Cairns, or small stacks of rocks, are often used as trail markers in alpine environments. However, on 14ers, it’s not uncommon to find cairns marking unofficial social trails created by hikers who have veered off the main path. Following these unofficial trails can lead you into dangerous or environmentally sensitive areas, making it all the more important to be proficient in route-finding and to use a map and compass or GPS device to verify your location.

Visibility Challenges

Navigating a 14er can also be challenging due to reduced visibility, whether from fog, clouds, or even the terrain itself. In these situations, it can be difficult to see where to go next or to identify distant landmarks for orientation purposes. This is another reason why honing your route-finding skills and having a reliable navigation tool, like a map and compass or GPS device, is essential for a safe and successful high-altitude adventure.

Limitations of Cell Phones for Navigation

It is important to account for these unique navigational challenges when planning a 14er hike or climb. Here are some of the reasons why your cell phone is limited in meeting your needs in the mountains.

Signal and Battery Life

One of the primary reasons not to rely on your cell phone for navigation is the inconsistent and often nonexistent cellular signal at high altitudes. As you ascend a 14er, you’ll likely encounter areas where cell service is spotty or altogether unavailable. In these situations, your phone’s GPS function may not work effectively, leaving you with an inaccurate or incomplete picture of your surroundings.

Additionally, cold weather and high elevations can significantly drain your phone’s battery life. While most smartphones can last a day or two with normal use, the combination of cold temperatures and continuous GPS usage can deplete your battery much faster than expected.

Screen Glare and Fragility

Smartphone screens are notoriously difficult to read in bright sunlight, which is a common occurrence on the exposed slopes of a 14er. In this environment, you’ll need a navigation tool that is easily readable under all lighting conditions.

Moreover, smartphones are fragile devices that can easily crack or break if dropped. When you’re traversing rugged terrain, the risk of damaging your phone is much higher, rendering it useless as a navigation tool when you need it most.

Limitations of Cell Phones for Communication

While you might think smartphones are still a good way to communicate on a 14er, they are also lacking in this respect.

Connectivity Issues

As mentioned earlier, cell service on a 14er can be unreliable or nonexistent, making your phone an unreliable communication tool in emergencies. Even if you do manage to find a signal, the connection might be weak or unstable, hindering your ability to communicate clearly.

Cell phones rely on an extensive network of towers and infrastructure to function. In remote areas, this infrastructure may be sparse or nonexistent, leaving you without a means of communication. Furthermore, during natural disasters or other emergencies, cell networks can become overloaded, rendering your phone useless when you need it most.

What Can Go Wrong? Four Examples

These things are not just hypothetical situations – Search and Rescue teams respond to dozens of calls each year stemming from improper use of 14ers with smartphones. Here are four examples of what can go wrong in the field.

Lost in a Whiteout

Imagine you’re ascending a 14er when suddenly, a thick fog rolls in, reducing visibility to near zero. With your smartphone as your only navigation tool, you struggle to determine your location and direction due to the weak GPS signal and screen glare. As the temperature drops and your phone’s battery life quickly dwindles, you find yourself disoriented and at risk of hypothermia or even wandering into hazardous terrain.

Unexpected Weather Change

While hiking a 14er, a sudden storm catches you off guard, bringing heavy rain and lightning. In the chaos, you accidentally drop your smartphone, shattering the screen and rendering it useless. Without a backup navigation tool, such as a map and compass, you’re left stranded with no way to navigate safely back to the trailhead.

Injury and Unreliable Communication

You’re hiking a remote 14er trail when you slip on a patch of ice and badly sprain your ankle. Unable to continue, you attempt to call for help, but your cell phone can’t establish a connection due to spotty service. As the sun sets and the temperature plummets, your situation becomes increasingly dire, with no way to reach emergency services or communicate your predicament to others.

Misleading Cairns

You’re following what appears to be the main trail on a 14er, guided by a series of cairns. However, unbeknownst to you, these cairns mark an unofficial social trail created by previous hikers who veered off course. Relying on your smartphone’s GPS for navigation, you don’t notice that you’re straying further from the true path. Eventually, you find yourself on a precarious ledge with no clear route forward or back, illustrating the importance of route-finding skills and reliable navigation tools.

More Reliable Navigation and Communication Tools

Here are some better tools and options for mountain navigation and communication aid, including maps and compasses, GPS units, personal locator beacons and satellite messenger devices.

Navigation: Map and Compass

A topographic map and compass remain the gold standard for backcountry navigation. Not only are they lightweight and durable, but they also function independently of electronic devices and cellular networks. By learning to read a topo map and use a compass, you’ll be better equipped to navigate the wilderness, even when technology fails you.

Click here to learn to use a map and compass.

Navigation: GPS Devices

While smartphones may not be the best choice for GPS navigation in the backcountry, dedicated GPS devices offer a more reliable option. These devices are designed specifically for outdoor use and can function independently of cell service. Many are also water-resistant and have extended battery life, making them a more durable and dependable choice for high-altitude adventures.

Communication: Satellite Devices

When it comes to communication in remote areas, satellite devices are your best bet. Options such as satellite phones or two-way satellite messengers provide a reliable means of communication regardless of cell service availability. These devices can also send emergency SOS messages, ensuring that you can get help if needed.

Click here to see my personal recommendations.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

A: To improve your route-finding skills, start by studying topographic maps and learning to identify key features such as ridgelines, valleys, and drainages. Practice your navigation skills on familiar trails, gradually increasing the difficulty and complexity of the terrain. Taking a navigation course or joining a local hiking or mountaineering group can also provide valuable opportunities to learn from experienced outdoorspeople and practice your route-finding skills in a safe and supportive environment.

A: If you come across a cairn marking an unofficial social trail, consult your map and compass or GPS device to determine your location and the correct route. It’s important not to blindly follow cairns, as they may lead you off course or into dangerous terrain. Do not deconstruct cairns unless you are a land manager of the area or have official permission to do so.

A: Anticipating potential hazards is an essential aspect of route-finding. To do so, familiarize yourself with the terrain and conditions of your intended route by studying topographic maps and consulting guidebooks or online resources. Pay close attention to potential dangers such as steep slopes, loose rock, and areas prone to avalanches or rockfall. Additionally, regularly assess the weather conditions and adjust your plans accordingly, as poor visibility, rain, or snow can exacerbate existing hazards or create new ones. By being proactive and prepared, you can minimize risks and make informed decisions while navigating a 14er.

A: Practicing Leave No Trace principles while route-finding on a 14er involves minimizing your impact on the fragile alpine environment. Stick to established trails whenever possible, and avoid trampling on delicate vegetation or disturbing wildlife. In off-trail situations, choose the most durable surfaces to travel on, such as rock, sand, or snow. Always pack out any trash, and avoid building cairns or other markers that may confuse other hikers. By adhering to these principles, you can help preserve the natural beauty of these high-altitude landscapes for future generations to enjoy.

14ers and Smartphones: Now You Know

While your smartphone can be a valuable tool in many aspects of daily life, relying on it as your primary navigation and communication device on a 14er can be risky. By understanding the limitations of cell phones in these environments and equipping yourself with more reliable alternatives, you’ll be better prepared for a safe and successful high-altitude adventure. Remember, the mountains demand respect, and part of that respect includes being prepared with the right tools and knowledge to face the challenges they present. Happy hiking!

Alex Derr, Founder of The Next Summit

Alex Derr is an Eagle Scout, climber, and environmental policy expert located in Denver, Colorado. He created The Next Summit to help others stay safe exploring the mountains and advocate to preserve the peaks for the future. Follow him on Linkedin or Twitter or click here to contact him.

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Hi, I'm Alex!

In 2018, I watched in disbelief as dozens of people hiked into a storm on Longs Peak, unaware of the extreme danger. Soon after, I started The Next Summit to educate and empower the public to safely and responsibly explore America's mountains.

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