Cheerful explorer walking in woods in winter in orange jacket and looking for the direction to the North on the map. Image taken with Nikon D800 and 24-70 lens, developed from RAW in XXXL size

Camping and nature hacks are an essential part of camping. Whether you’re MacGyvering a few extra parts to seal a leaky tent or you’re starting a fire with a flashlight, getting things done in a pinch and without the right parts is a skill set that not only keeps you safe but keeps you moving forward on an exciting adventure. If you’re out in a federal park or state campgrounds, make sure you know what to do when your phone isn’t getting a signal:

What happens if you don’t have a signal?

Cell phones are a constant in our lives. They help us find the right route to our destinations, plug into our cars so we can call or listen to the media we choose, and they let us communicate with anyone and everyone 24/7. In the United States, the range of coverage is growing so that, no matter what town you find yourself in, you have a signal so you can get help or get information. But the cell service doesn’t extend across the country yet.

Campgrounds and state or national parks don’t have fast connections or, in many areas, any coverage at all. If you plan on relying exclusively on your cell phone on your next camping trip, make sure you have contingencies in place.

If you’re camping far from the beaten path, you might be entering a no man’s land of little to no cell phone service. This can strike in remote areas far from cell phone towers or if you are in a particularly hilly or mountainous area. While smartphones offer countless advantages for hikers and campers, it’s important to always be prepared for safe camping without a signal. Here’s what you can do:

Switch your cell phone to airplane mode, especially if you don’t have access to a power source.

If your phone is constantly searching for a signal, that puts a strain on your battery. Instead, turn off that function so you can continue to use your cell phone as a flashlight and as a database for any maps you previously downloaded. You can turn your cellular data back on to check for reception every few miles or every couple of hours.

Consider bringing along a separate GPS and radio.

Even though your cell phone is an all-in-one device, most of its functionality is dependent on a connection. Even the compass relies on a satellite and complex calculations to show you what direction you’re traveling in. A radio can keep you informed about changes in the weather and any safety alerts for the area.

This can be a real lifesaver if you’re camping during the winter when weather patterns are unpredictable and knowing when to set up camp is essential to staying safe. Many camping-specific radios also include channels so you can reach out to nearby camping centers or an emergency line.

Download critical information ahead of time.

Most smartphones don’t download and save PDFs. Instead, they download enough information for you to temporarily view the information, and the connection is often reset every time you open the file. Instead of relying on online documents, be sure to download them ahead of time. You should download:

  • The safety information and overview sheet of the park you’re visiting. Almost every campground across the United States has a web page with safety information, recent changes to parks, any weather- or animal-related alerts, and maps. Federal and state parks are particularly diligent about making sure information is available.
  • Trail maps. Downloading the copies from the official park sites is a must, but getting more detailed maps from trail sites, forums, and crowd-sourced projects is also important. They often have more detail about specific trails, secret finds, and must-see spots, and what campers have found to be challenging.
  • Step-by-step guides. If this is one of your first times camping, download instructions for how to build your tent or make a fire. Also download overviews of what to do if you see a mountain lion, a bear, or even a skunk. It’s better to have more information than not enough, especially because downloads don’t weigh you down.

Traveler young woman searching direction with a compass on background of map in the forest

Make sure someone knows where you are.

This is one of the most important rules of camping, whether or not you have a cell phone signal. Always let someone know what campground you’re going to, what trails you plan on taking, and an estimated timeline for your return home. Having a schedule is even better, but that’s not always practical.

Telling someone approximately where you’ll be, not only helps your family relax, especially if you’re new to camping or you’re taking a particularly long or difficult hike, but it keeps you safe in the event of an accident or extreme weather. Rangers and campground staff are also more likely to be aware of what portions of a given trail tend to not have service, so if you get lost or hurt they can more easily find your location.

Enjoy the experience.

We have cell phones and a connection to the Internet world 24/7, and that can often keep us from enjoying the smaller world around us. An increasing number of psychology and physiology studies are pointing out the benefits of enjoying nature without being glued to a cell phone or tablet. If you’re camping, make sure you can fully enjoy every second of the trip by making technology an occasional tool instead of a constant source of entertainment.

Planning to take a trip without using your cell phone is even better than just making the best of it when service isn’t available: if you download (or get hard copies of) the information you need, let people know they won’t be able to get ahold of you and are adequately prepared, then you can relax instead of panicking or feeling frustrated by the sudden disconnect.

Camping should never be scary. It should help you experience new things, include small adventures, and give you an opportunity to relax and see nature. So instead of being caught off guard if you go camping and suddenly find yourself without a connection, make sure you can enjoy the rest of your trip by preparing in advance.

More information is always good information because you never know when a good trick can keep you safe and comfortable, or when one hack can be merged with another to find a unique solution. If you want to keep reading about camping and RVing hacks, you can find more here.