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No, you shouldn’t update your voicemail when lost or stranded

A call to 911 or a text message to family is more likely to get through a weak signal and use less phone battery than a voicemail would.

A message meant as advice for people lost or stranded spread around social media in October with thousands of shares across Facebook, Twitter and Reddit. While many reposts of the message were deleted, the message even reached the Facebook page of a local police department.

The message tells people that if they are lost while hiking or stranded in a broken down car, and if their phone battery is low and they have no phone signal, then after calling 911 they should try to change their voicemail to contain important information.

“The best part of this is that even if your cell phone dies or stops working, voicemail still works,” the message explains. “So anyone calling your phone looking for you will hear the message and know where to find you or where to send help.”

THE QUESTION

Should you change your voicemail if you’re lost or stranded?

THE SOURCES

THE ANSWER

This is false.

No, especially not if you have a low phone battery or no signal. Voicemail uses more of your battery than a text would and will not update if you don’t have a signal. An emergency text is far more effective.

WHAT WE FOUND

Alpine Rescue Team, a search and rescue team based in the Rocky Mountains, explained in its own Facebook post why trying to change your voicemail is a bad idea: you can’t change your voicemail without a signal, a call to 911 is more likely to get through, a text message is even more likely to get through and you can search around for a signal with a text message because it will automatically retry sending the message if it fails to send.

“Save battery life and have ‘location services’ turned on before calling 9-1-1,” Alpine Rescue Team adds on its website. “Texting 9-1-1 also works, and uses less battery! No matter your carrier, a call or text to 9-1-1 will be picked up by any carrier who has service in that area for emergencies.”

The FCC requires cell phone carriers to transmit 911 calls or texts, so it’s possible that a call or text to emergency services will get through even if you have no signal because you may be in range of another provider’s service area. The FCC warns not every location supports texts to 911.

Skamania County Sheriff's Office Search and Rescue, which is based in a mostly forested county in Washington state that includes the volcanic Mount St. Helens, said in a Facebook post that a detailed text message uses a fraction of the data a voice message uses. That means it can transmit on a much weaker signal than a voice message and is more likely to go through when your signal is spotty.

Instead of updating your voicemail, the Skamania County Sheriff’s Office recommends turning off your phone’s Wi-Fi and Bluetooth and setting it to airplane mode while you write up a text message meant for all of your trusted contacts. Describe your condition, where you are as best you can and any relevant information for locating you without using any images in the text message. When your text message is complete, take your phone back off of airplane mode and send the text. You can move a little to try to find a signal, but you should try to keep to the immediate area and stay near a road, trail or your vehicle.

Your best protection from getting lost specifically while hiking or entering the wilderness is to prepare for getting lost in advance. Both the U.S. Forest Service and the Save the Redwoods League say you should pack a compass and a paper map so you don’t have to rely on a phone because service isn’t guaranteed in the wilderness. They also both recommend you tell someone close to you where you’re going, the trails you’ll take and when you expect to return before you actually head out.

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