What to Do In an Emergency When Your Phone Is Dying

What to Do In an Emergency When Your Phone Is Dying
Photo: Fast Speeds Imagery, Shutterstock

If you’re lost while hiking, or your car has broken down and you’re stranded on the side of the road, the obvious thing to do is call for help. But what if your battery is low? Please don’t listen to any of those viral posts screaming that you should change your voicemail message. Text a friend instead.

According to the “change your voicemail” posts, which pop up during storm season or just circulate on their own as advice for hikers, voicemail can be accessed anywhere, anytime, and you can leave a message with your location and safety information so as to get the word out to anybody who might call you. There are a few assumptions here that are only half true, and in any case, you should prioritise about a dozen other things before changing your voicemail.

Not only are safety experts begging you not to listen to this advice, I’ve been in a similar situation and run through all the options when they actually matter. As I wrote before, I got lost while hiking. It got dark, and I had almost no battery left. To make matters worse, I had almost no cell signal. In hindsight, I did all the right things — and no, changing my voicemail was not one of them.

Send a text

Texts require very little battery to send, and very little cell signal to get through. They’ll also keep retrying for a few minutes, even if you didn’t have signal at the exact moment you hit “send.”

If you know your battery could die any second, your first priority should be to send a quick text to a trusted friend with your location and any pertinent details. If you know your GPS coordinates, include them. Don’t include images or attachments; we’re trying to send a text-only text.

You can also text 000 in many areas, but this isn’t available everywhere. (Calls can give more information and get you better and quicker help, so if you have enough juice to call 000, you should call.)

And please note, I do mean a text. Not a Signal message or a DM on social media, and not even an iMessage. From the iPhone’s Messages app, if you try to send a text and it appears in blue, long-press your message and select “send as text message.” Regular SMS texts will appear in green.

Save battery

If you’re not in an extreme emergency, you might want to turn your attention next to your battery. (Otherwise, skip to the next step and call 000.) While you wait for a text back, turn on power-saving mode. Turn your screen’s brightness all the way down, and if the situation allows, consider putting your phone into aeroplane mode temporarily. Definitely don’t answer unnecessary calls or use your phone for anything you don’t absolutely need.

To get through a long stretch of time without a charger, you can fully power off your phone and then turn it back on periodically to check your texts.

Oh, and if you’re stranded with your car? Charge your phone!

Call 000 if you possibly can

If you’re in the kind of situation where a 000 call would help, try to call 000. This call may go through even if other calls don’t, since mobile providers are required to route 000 calls no matter what. Maybe your provider doesn’t have coverage in this part of the woods, but there might be a tower nearby from another provider that does.

When you call, make sure to say the important information first, in case you get cut off. That includes your location (as precisely as you know it), the reason you’re calling, and your name. After that, you can let them know your phone is dying.

Stay put

One of the dumbest things you can do in an emergency is the most tempting: trying to move or travel. Stay where you are, especially if you’ve just told 911 or your girlfriend back home where to find you. There’s no point in sending the search-and-rescue team to the place you used to be.

Why not change your voicemail, too?

When I was lost in the woods, I did all the steps above, save calling 000. I turned down my brightness, found GPS coordinates in my phone, and texted my husband to say I am lost but I’m right here. And as much as I hated the spot where I had found some reception — it was swampy and full of spiders — I stayed there until I heard back from him. He was able to tell me how to get to the road, and I told him I’d follow the route he described while he drove out to meet me. Disaster averted.

If that hadn’t worked, would I have changed my voicemail? Heck no! It takes more battery to call voicemail than to send a text, so I’d rather save the juice. There’s also the question of who is even going to listen to my voicemail, since a message is only useful if it gets through to somebody who can act on it. My husband doesn’t listen to my voicemail messages, ever; if I don’t pick up my phone he texts me. The same is probably true of your friends and family. The only people who ever get my voicemail are robots trying to get in touch with me about my car’s extended warranty.

And anyway, if you don’t have signal, you won’t be able to change your voicemail. It’s true that your voicemail message lives with the carrier, so people can hear the message even if your phone is dead, but that doesn’t help you if you can’t reach the carrier in the first place to change it.

Some carriers allow you to update your voicemail from another phone or a landline, so in theory this is something you could do, but there are very few scenarios where it would actually help you. Maybe your phone has died and you’ve found somebody else who has a phone but still somehow can’t help you charge yours? And you can’t text or call any of your emergency contacts but you’re ok with waiting a while for somebody to listen to your voicemail? It’s just getting pretty farfetched. Text your contacts instead, and call 000 if it’s an emergency.