Fact Check: Can You Change Your Voicemail If Lost In The Wilderness With No Cell Service?

Rule one of getting lost in the wilderness: don't start arguing with strangers online about the finer points of Destiel lore, no matter how wrong they are. Image: UfaBizPhoto/Shutterstock.com

Picture the scene: you’re out in the wilderness, your car has broken down, your phone is nearly out of battery, and you haven’t had cell service in miles. Luckily, you checked social media before you left, so you know exactly what to do – you grab your phone, press a few buttons, and … change your voicemail?

It’s a piece of Internet “advice” that’s been around in various guises for a few years now, but the latest incarnation to go viral goes like this: if you find yourself in a dire situation, with low phone battery or no service, you should change your voicemail to include the time and your general location. The idea is that anybody trying to reach you would then hear the message and come to your rescue – but according to experts, it’s a really bad idea.

“Every once in a while we see trends going around social media that we need to address,” wrote Nova Scotia’s Halifax Search and Rescue on their Facebook page. “The latest is the idea about changing your voicemail if you’re lost.”

As the organization points out, there’s a major problem with the advice straight off the bat: changing your voicemail almost always requires cell signal. That’s because the message is stored on servers held by your carrier – if you can’t dial in to those servers, then you can’t update the message.

Now, it’s true that if you don’t have signal, you can use a landline “or a data connection of some sort (like wi-fi),” spokespeople from AT&T and Verizon told Snopes. But if you’re stranded or in an emergency, it’s pretty unlikely you’d have either.

“To be blunt. Wasting time changing your voicemail could be the last thing you do,” warned Halifax Search and Rescue. “If you don't call for help, and you didn’t leave a trip plan, NOBODY IS COMING TO GET YOU.”

So what should you really do in a dire situation? The answer isn’t that surprising: dial 911. This has multiple benefits: first, you can do it even without service, and second, it actually initiates a rescue there and then – you know, rather than just kind of hoping somebody needs to phone you in the near future.

If you’re super low on battery, you can even text the emergency services, advised the search and rescue department of a Washington State-based Sherriff’s Office via Facebook.

“If you have any battery life, send a text message. It only takes a fraction of a second of data reception to get that message out,” they wrote. “This has a much better chance to make it through than updating your voice mail.”

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Finally, experts say, it’s a good idea to try to conserve battery life – so no doomscrolling on social media while you wait. Many phones have a battery saver or even a super battery saver mode that switches off unnecessary power drains, and if you’re seriously low you may even be asked to switch your phone off for a little while, explained Alpine Search and Rescue via Facebook.

“Conserve your cell battery. If your battery is low, remember that text messages take far less battery to transmit,” cautioned Halifax Search and Rescue. “Halifax Search and Rescue may attempt to connect with you via text if we know your battery is low.”

“Stay off your phone except to speak with Police,” they added. “Don’t call your friends and family while you’re waiting for rescue.”

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