Smartphones won’t always save you in the wilderness

By V. Paul Reynolds

Once, before the age of iPhones, most responsible hikers took to the woods with a few basic essentials: compass, map, matches, flashlight, water and a couple of energy bars.

Not anymore. Increasingly, hikers hit the trail with just their iPhones and a pocketful of high expectations. After all, an iPhone imbues confidence and a sense of security, right? Get lost or twist an ankle? Just dial 911. They’ll all come to find you. Game wardens, state troopers, fire departments, search and rescue units. They’ll all come. 

In New Hampshire this summer, state conservation officers have found or rescued more than 20 missing hikers. A couple hikers came back in body bags.

On August 4, a 66-year-old Texas man, Jimmy Doug Simpson, got lost trying to summit Mt. Washington. Trying to navigate with an iPhone app he took a wrong turn and wound up off a trail at dark in a tough spot, where he could neither go up or down. He had no map, no compass and no source of light.

The hiker was stuck below a headwall in the Great Gulf Wilderness, which presented a formidable two-fold challenge for his rescuers: 1) Locating his position  2) Getting him back on a trail without climbing up the headwall.

Fortunately, Simpson did have an emergency locator beacon, which he activated. This allowed his rescuers to pinpoint his position soon after first light. (In Maine this spring two capsized canoeists were located on Chamberlain  Lake in a big blow thanks to an emergency locator beacon.) According to a press release, the Androscoggin Valley Search and Rescue Team stood by above the headwall with ropes and harnesses in case the Warden  and Simpson were unable to traverse the slope back to the Great Gulf Trail.

But by early afternoon the warden managed to escort Simpson around the headwall and safely back to the Great Gulf Trail.

All is well that ends well, but according to the press release “because of his lack of essential items and poor choices throughout the entirety of Simpson’s hike, it has been recommended that he be billed for the expenses associated with the rescue.”

This is as it should be. In Maine, there is a provision in state law that allows the Maine Warden Service to bill rescued hikers if it can be shown that the hiker acted irresponsibly or failed to prepare properly for an outdoor adventure. (So far this year, the Maine Warden Service has responded to 81 incidents of missing hikers.)  Insofar as we know, Maine has never invoked this option. Perhaps it should.

Climbing a mountain or taking an extended hike in the wilderness with only a cell phone is unwise and personally irresponsible. 


 The author is editor of the “Northwoods Sporting Journal.” He is also a Maine guide and host of a weekly radio program — “Maine Outdoors” — heard Sundays at 7 p.m. on “The Voice of Maine News – Talk Network.” He has authored three books; online purchase information is available at www.maineoutdoorpublications.com. or www.sportingjournal.com. Contact email — vpaulr@tds.net.

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