Face it, you really don’t go anywhere without your smartphone. The cold glow of its screen is likely the first thing you see in the morning, and the last thing you see at night. Our phones are with us at work, at play and, if we’re all honest, in some places than they probably shouldn’t be. The one place where it could pay to have your phone ready to go? Anytime you head outside and — heaven forbid — find yourself in a survival situation. Then, there’s a chance it may turn into a lifesaver.
Light the way
This may seem like a no-brainer, but most phones these days have a built-in flash with the camera, that doubles as a surprisingly bright flashlight. Some Android phones might still require an app to make this work, so make sure you check how easy it is to turn it on before heading out. On the iPhone, a button to activate the flashlight is found in the menu pulled up from the bottom of the screen.
Don’t pass it off as something you’ll only need at night, or to check caves for bears, either. “This light can not only be used in low-light conditions,” Stewart says, “but also as a nighttime rescue signal that can be seen for many miles.”
Fire in the hole
Desperate times call for desperate measures. If you’re facing both, you might just be able to start a fire by short-circuiting the battery in your phone. According to Stewart, it’s possible to remove the battery and run a wire (pulled from the phone’s innards) between the two terminals to short-circuit it. Once the wire is red hot, it’s ideal for stoking up some wood shavings or steel wool, should you have that on hand.
Make sure you have your tinder ready to go before going all Macgyver though, and ensure you don’t expect to need your phone again, as it’s almost certainly going to be a one-shot deal.
Case in point
If your phone is safely ensconced in a protective case, Stewart suggests making good use of the space inside between it and the phone. It’s ideal for hiding away some very handy items. For example, slide in some fishing hooks and line, a razor blade, a credit card sized magnifying glass for starting fires or even some simple fire tinder like an alcohol swab. Just don’t forget they’re in there next time you go through airport security. The Worst Case
Load it up
There’s no shortage of great apps that will help out if you find yourself in a bind. For basic first aid assistance, try the Red Cross First Aid app ( for iOS) or the Army First Aid app ( for iOS). The Army also has a solid survival app ( for iOS) that covers everything from fire starters to dislocated shoulders. Other good apps to consider include those that help identify edible wild plants, such as Wild Edibles, which is out for iOS and Android. Also, an alarm app like Cairn ( for iOS) can help alert searchers to your location, tells you where you can find mobile signals and, more importantly, lets you leave an itinerary with friends. If you don’t make it back on time, they get an alert, complete with your latest location on data.
Your phone is no good in the wilderness, no matter how full of survival and first aid apps it is, if you run out of charge. If you know you’re going to be out for more than a day, bring an extended battery pack to keep your phone at the ready. In addition, conserve battery power by closing out of apps you’re not using, shifting to airplane mode or shutting your phone off altogether until you really need it. Oh, and don’t play to while away the time until help arrives. Pokémon Go Goal Zero
Mirrors and spears
To find out just what a smartphone could be used for in a survival situation, if things are really bleak, Stewart disassembled a few to come up with some hardcore tools to get you through. You’ll be surprised at what can be salvaged from inside, so provided you definitely won’t need the phone again, smashing it apart with a big rock may yield some crucial parts.
Here’s just a few uses for the insides of what’s now your ex-phone. The metallic material behind screens can easily double as a reflector for attracting attention, hard circuit boards can be fashioned into crude cutting tools or even spearheads, while wires and parts could become fishing lures. The point is, get creative.
You might not be able to call your mom for help if you're out of range, but that doesn’t mean that you’re out of luck. Phones continually talk to nearby towers as they try to find a signal, and that can help rescuers identify your location. If you’re trying to conserve battery power, simply turning your phone on every 30 minutes or so should be enough to send out a ping. Likewise, text messages often have a better chance of getting through than full-on calls, so if your call fails, try texting.
Find your way
Most smartphones these days have built-in digital compasses and GPS navigation that can help determine your location and direction of travel. Combined with online and offline maps, these can be powerful tools to get you back on track. Make sure you’re prepared ahead of time by downloading relevant sections of maps while you have a data connection. These can be large files, so Wi-Fi is the best choice. Google Maps offers this functionality, and the app is available for iOS and Android.
However, don’t forget that although your phone has GPS, it requires a data connection to accurately triangulate location. If you’re lost in the wilderness and No Service is frustratingly showing on the phone’s display, you’re going to be out of luck. Stewart looks ahead to the future here, saying, “Integrating satellite location technology with cell phones will be a game-changer, as once satellite location is possible, a phone can be a literal homing beacon for a lost survivor.”
Until that day comes offline maps and the digital compass will be your friend
“Survival is all about using the resources at one’s disposal to meet basic human survival needs,” says Creek Stewart, survival expert, and lead instructor at
Willow Haven, his outdoor survival school in Anderson, Ind. “When you carry something everywhere you go, it’s foolish to not consider it as a survival resource.”
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From smart survival and navigation apps to fire-starting, mirror-signaling and even a makeshift spearhead, there are plenty of ways a smartphone can help out if you find yourself in a tight situation outside. To make sure you’re properly prepared, here are eight ways your phone can help you out of a bind in the great outdoors.
That’s all the advice we’ve got for would be survivalists with nothing but a phone for company. While many of the tips will mean the phone won’t survive the experience, they may mean you will, and that’s what matters.