If You Get Lost in the Woods, Don’t Change Your Voicemail – Do This Instead to Get Help

By Rachel Puryear

Recently, viral social media posts have circulated offering well-meaning, but misguided advice for lost and distressed wilderness hikers. Such posts have suggested that people needing help, but who are having trouble getting a phone signal or have a dying phone battery, should change their voicemail to alert people of their situation and location – in the hopes that someone will call them and listen to their voicemail, and then arrange for the person’s rescue.

It’s clever and well-meaning, to be sure – but it’s bad advice, and is unlikely to lead to a timely rescue. Here’s what someone in need of rescue in the wilderness should do instead.

A hand holding out a compass, with a blurred green forest in the background.

Reach Out Directly to Search and Rescue Teams for Help

Changing your voicemail is not a likely way to relay information quickly – after all, how often do you listen to someone’s entire voicemail if you call and they don’t pick up? Besides, updating voicemail requires battery power and a consistent signal, neither of which you likely have to spare.

However, you might still be able to call 911 without a signal – per federal law, all providers must carry emergency calls. If the call is dropped or your battery runs out, the dispatcher might be able to determine your location. Nonetheless, conveying where you are (as best you can) and that you need rescue is the first thing to say before you perhaps lose the call.

911 and other emergency services should be the only ones you use precious battery power to call. If they know your battery is low, they can continue the conversation by text after you establish initial contact with them.

For Loved Ones, Send Text Messages If You Cannot Reach Out to Emergency Services

If you’re really low on battery power in addition to having a sketchy signal, you might not be able to make a phone call. However, you might still be able to send a text to a loved one, asking them to call for help for you. Sending a text in this situation is a better bet than calling them – as it will use less battery power, and will transmit as soon as there is a moment of signal. Plus, you won’t have the issue of a garbled phone call.

However, texting loved ones should be done only after reaching out to 911 and search and rescue teams, or if for some reason you cannot do so.

If You Get a Call From an Unknown Number Out There, Answer It – It Could Be Help Calling

I know that many of us don’t like to answer calls from unknown numbers. The amount of spam calls nowadays is ridiculous.

However, if you’re lost in the wilderness and need help, answer your phone if someone calls you – it could be someone calling you to offer you rescue and help. Even if you are actually okay and know the way back, but are simply out longer than you told others you would be; it could still be a search and rescue team trying to confirm that you are all right. Letting them know if you don’t need help could save them a lot of time and resources.

Young woman from behind, wearing a black backpack and pink jacket around her waist, walking through a wooded forest with lots of tall trees, and a thick carpet of orange leaves.

Preserve Battery Life

If you’re running low on battery power, there are steps you can take to conserve your power. Put it on low power mode, turn off push notifications, and turn on Bluetooth and WiFi. Keep the phone warm, too – cold temperatures will wear down the battery faster. Close out open apps. And of course, charge up fully before you go, and it’s a good idea to have an extra battery pack with you if you will be out for a while.

For that matter, bring a paper map and a hand-held compass with you. If you will be hiking a trail, print a copy and bring it – using GPS for a while will use up a lot of battery power. Bring plenty of water. Bring a jacket if temperatures might drop later, even if it’s warm now.

And of course, always let someone else know where you are going, and when you expect to return. That way, if you don’t check in with that person when they expected you to, they can contact search and rescue teams for you.


Thank you, dear readers, for reading, following, and sharing. Here’s to fun, and prepared exploration of the wilderness.

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