In an emergency, first determine your location as best you are able and then call 911 and report your location and the emergency.
In an emergency
- Call 911 (If you have a phone and can get a signal). Tell the dispatcher you are an A.T. hiker, and provide your location (include name and approximate distance of nearest town and road if possible). A.T. maps and guidebooks often list other numbers in case 911 does not work.
- If you don’t have cell service, activate an SOS call on your satellite messenger or personal locator beacon, if you are carrying one.
- If you don’t have a phone or can’t get a signal, the standard call of distress consists of three short calls, audible or visible, repeated at regular intervals. A whistle, which should be a standard piece of gear for any hiker, is particularly good for audible signals. Visible signals may include, in daytime, light flashed with a mirror and, at night, a flashlight. Anyone recognizing such a signal should acknowledge with two calls—if possible by the same method—then go to the distressed person to determine the nature of the emergency. Arrange for additional aid if necessary.
Carry a map so you can describe your location
- In an emergency, assistance may be delayed if you cannot describe your location in detail. A map will help you describe surrounding landmarks to rescuers or law enforcement (who may be unfamiliar with the A.T.), show access points and routes, and provide you with the names of the nearest town and the county in which you are located. ATC-published maps aspire to show the area within three miles of the footpath.
- Keep in mind that, while cell phones and apps can be useful navigation tools, they cannot be relied on exclusively in the backcountry. Not only is cell phone reception spotty, but batteries can be drained within hours or minutes. Cell phones have limited or no functionality in cold weather and rainy or snowy conditions and in bright sunlight can also be hard to use. All hikers should carry an updated map and a compass and know how to use them together, so you are not reliant on charged batteries or cell phone reception if you get lost. Learn more about what 10 Essentials every hiker should carry here.
- A variety of satellite- and GPS-guided messenger devices (SPOT, Garmin’s InReach, other personal locator devices) are an alternative for long-distance hikers, because they do not require a cell signal to either reassure family of your location for the night or alert law enforcement by pushing the SOS button. Keep in mind that even GPS signals may fail along the Trail’s most remote sections such as in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and northern Maine.
Don’t panic if you’re lost or injured
- Most of the A.T. is well-enough traveled during times of popular use that, if you are injured, you can expect to be found. However, if an area is remote and the weather is bad, fewer hikers will be on the Trail, especially after dark.
- Keep your pack with you. If it is necessary to leave a heavy pack behind, be sure to take essentials in case your rescue is delayed.
- Don’t leave marked trails and try to “bushwhack” out. You will be harder to find and are more likely to encounter dangerous terrain: yet another reason why a hiking map is an essential safety tool.
- Afterward, when everyone is safe and accounted for, follow up by filing an A.T. incident report and a report with local law enforcement.
Know your cell phone’s capability
- Cell-phone reception on the A.T. is unpredictable and varies significantly with service providers. Mobile phone companies have online maps showing their area of coverage. Reception is best on ridgelines or peaks and may be poor or nonexistent in gaps, hollows, and narrow valleys. Trail shelters and campsites are often located in areas without service. Do NOT seek the high ground during storms; shelter as best you can until the storm passes.
- Remote areas such as Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee/North Carolina, Mt. Rogers National Recreation Area in southwest Virginia, and most of the Trail in Maine in particular are areas you may not find service for extended periods. Keep in mind you’ll need to conserve your batteries. Be sure to tell folks back home in advance you may not be able to call as frequently as you have been.
If you’re able to submit an incident report once everyone is safe, please do so.