Your cell phone service while on the Appalachian Trail is essential for safety, meeting up with other long-distance hikers, and staying connected to the outside world. Cell phones are also great for taking pictures of all that nature has to offer.
From many hikers, over the years the best cell service is available through Verizon, and as long as you enable roaming access it is the top provider along the entire trail. The issue with the trail though is that you will still encounter areas with no service due to hills and surrounding mountains.
However, there are many misconceptions about what kind of cell service you will have on your hike. The truth is that it varies depending on which sections you hike and where along the trail you are located.
It’s important to know what type of coverage you can expect before deciding whether or not to bring your cell phone out on the trail with you.
Why Cell Coverage Matters
When you choose to explore out on the trail, local trails, National Parks, or on a 6-month thru-hike like the Appalachian Trail, you will have many needs for that little device that you may have never expected.
In addition to calls and text, it is your primary photography and video tool, GPS and weather tool, and much more.
These types of applications all require a good cell signal reception with a high cell phone coverage, and the stronger the better.
While it is a fact that you won’t have service for your entire hike, having good coverage in the areas you do hike will make your experience much more enjoyable.
Phone Calls and Text
Keeping contact with family, friends, or other hikers requires good cell phone service.
Having a way to communicate with other people while out on the trail can be very useful, but most importantly for safety purposes.
Photography and Videos
We all love the amazing images that we can capture with our phones and we have come to expect to be able to share them whether through Facebook, Instagram, and many other social apps.
Most of us use them as a replacement for point-and-shoot cameras, and depending on the type of phone you have, it may actually be better than most cheap digital cameras.
Getting our directions from our phone like a GPS device is pretty much second nature to us nowadays, and we expect that we will be able to get there with no issue.
GPS apps like Guthook, Hiiker, or Alltrails work best when you have a strong cell phone signal paired with GPS and won’t work as well in many cases without a signal.
Having the ability to get up-to-date weather reports while out on the trail is important for many reasons.
Including having a daily check for weather updates before your hike can give you an early warning or preparation to change your plans if needed.
Without these, you can put yourself in a dangerous situation with the change of weather.
What happens if you should fall and get hurt, if you don’t carry a tool like a Garmin, BivyStick, or Zoleo then this can be a life-threatening situation.
What if you encounter wildlife and get chased back to your tent? Or someone rips open your tent and gets inside it?
For safety, emergencies, and more there is only one thing that will work – having cell phone service.
With all cell phone services, there can be carrier issues. Each carrier uses a different frequency for their cell service.
The Appalachian Trail falls on Verizon’s older CDMA system. For some users, that means no phone calls or text messages can be made from their AT device at all because they do not have the latest update to properly work with the Verizon towers.
In addition, some people have specific phones that will not work on the trail at all with any cell provider.
For most people, their service along the trail is comparable to what they have in their home area. Just like you would expect calls and text messages at home, you will receive them on your hike as well.
For some hikers though, there are parts of the trail that have no cell coverage or only spotty coverage.
In some areas along the trail, hikers have been reporting better service from one provider compared to another. In those areas, Verizon seems to be the worst and AT&T is better for voice reception.
CDMA vs GSM
The signal used by the cell service providers to communicate data and voice is different, and not all smartphones can switch between the two types.
There are CDMA devices that only work with Sprint or Verizon, and there are GSM devices that only work with AT&T or T-Mobile.
GSM phones run on a 2G system whereas CDMA runs on a 3G system, LTE is the latest and most reliable type of signal service.
In areas with small towns or remote areas where hikers get off the trail, there may be a network switch from GSM to CDMA. This can cause your device’s battery life to drop dramatically while you aren’t even using it.
Luckily, modern devices will handle these changes much better than older ones did.
Some people have even reported getting 1-3 bars of service but still not be able to make or receive calls or texts, while others with the same phone in the same spot will get perfect reception.
The most common phone issues along the trail are related to reception, bars, and batteries.
Having a phone with the latest updates is important for both viruses and cell service.
Most smartphones will notify you when there is an update available so it’s best to always have your phone set up to automatically download them as they become available.
With today’s phones, there are many power options that can be adjusted to help save on battery life.
For example, setting your screen’s brightness to automatic can help you conserve battery power when you need it most.
If you use your phone for lots like images, videos, and GPS then carrying a battery pack like the Anker 10000 can be a good way to recharge on longer hikes.
Finding the right phone for your Appalachian Trail hike will take some trial and error, but you will come to find what works best for your particular needs.
There are phones that are built specifically for hikers, but if you don’t want to spend the extra cash on them then any modern smartphone will work fine too.
The most important thing is that you stay safe out there by having service with you at all times of day or night. Even without cell coverage, there are many devices available to help locate a person in emergency situations.
These services combined with good old-fashioned navigation tools like maps and compasses can allow anyone with even basic hiking knowledge to navigate safely through some very tough terrain.
Getting lost deep in the backcountry is never good news, so advance preparation before your hike will help you have a safe and enjoyable time on the trail.
No matter how prepared you are, there’s always that one guy who just has to learn his lesson the hard way.
I hope this article helped people realize what they should look for in their next smartphone purchase to help ensure they get the best service possible while out on the Appalachian Trail.