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Phones for prepping

Phones are a communication tool that can be used to save someone’s life. But are they reliable enough to be trusted in an emergency situation?

 I think important considerations should be:

– Repairability
Phones are so complicated and so often used that breakdowns are inevitable. But electronic circuits are not designed to be repairable, and so have to be replaced when they fail. 
Whether you’re choosing a new phone or sticking with one you’ve got, try to find (and later stock up on) replacement parts – especially the screen and battery, which need to be replaced most often. That way, you can take your phone to be repaired by a specialist (or do so yourself if you have the skills) even once the phone and spare parts are no longer being sold.

However, some phones are much more repairable than others. On one side of the extreme, some phone manufacturers actively design to reduce repairability (often citing tenuous security or safety concerns) by gluing parts together or serialising individual parts so that the phone will refuse to work with new ones. 
On the other side of the spectrum, a few rare phones are made with repairability as an express goal. They’re known as “modular” phones and are designed to be taken apart by their owners using simple tools. The companies producing these phones may even be happy to sell you spare parts.
 A (non-comprehensive) list of phones and their repairability can be found on iFixit, a website dedicated to making electronics repair accessible to consumers.

– Battery life
The difficult truth (for my generation at least) is that “dumb” phones are most certainly better in this regard. Even with a battery bank, you can only extend the life of a typical smartphone for a few days of normal use (compared to the month’s battery life of a dumbphone), and this brings with it extra storage requirements and greater vulnerability to any one piece of equipment breaking. Not to mention the stress of worrying whether it is sufficiently charged, or having to remember to charge it regularly. In an emergency situation, this is one thing you don’t need on your mind.

A dumbphone is far more practical and reliable in the case of, say, a flood, where you may not be safely able to charge your phone for an unknown period of time.
 And if you can swap out the batteries, you can also carry around a spare so that you don’t need to charge immediately. Fewer charging cycles also means that the batteries will get worn down more slowly and will last much longer.

This does bring up an interesting point: according to Sane Prepper Rules, preps shouldn’t make life harder for ourselves now. Which begs an interesting question: do smartphones make our lives better? They make us better connected and easily entertained, but do they make us happier? They provide a lot of utility, but could we find that same utility elsewhere?

– Ruggedness
It’s all well and good being repairable, but just as important to not need repairing in the first place.
Beware that just because a phone is marketed as rugged, or has “active”, “tough” or similar words in the name doesn’t mean that it will actually last (I write this from experience). Look for real-world tests that put the phone through its paces. I note here the lack of manufacturers rating their devices for impact resistance.

The most fragile part of a phone is the screen, and the bigger the screen, the more prone to breaking it will be and hence another advantage of dumbphones. For smartphones, a screen protector and case that provides a “lip” that extends above the screen should be a bare minimum.

Water/dust resistance: the IP (Ingress Protection) scale gives two numbers to indicate a phone’s dust and water resistance, e.g: a phone rated IP68 is rated a 6 for dust protection and 8 for water protection. To find out what each number means, look it up in an IP code table. Two things to note here: these are tested in labaratory conditions and your phone may react differently to, say, salt water as opposed to pure water, and secondly, resistance to the elements is not a permanent condition and can become less effective over time.

(Credit due to PCMag for a lot of the info about IP ratings.)

– Your considerations
I’ve only given 3 suggestions. What considerations do you think preppers should have when choosing a phone (smart or dumb)?

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  • Comments (24)

    • 4

      Recharging capability is paramount. I have several means – powerbanks, some with integral solar panels, some of which are capable lights – all handy in an emergency.

    • 6

      >>A dumbphone is far more practical and reliable in the case of, say, a flood, where you may not be safely able to charge your phone for an unknown period of time.

      […]

      do smartphones make our lives better? They make us better connected and easily entertained, but do they make us happier? They provide a lot of utility, but could we find that same utility elsewhere?

      It sounds like you have a very different threat model than I do. I would say that SIM cards are the first thing to go when paring a smartphone down to its most practical essentials, not the last. I bought my first cell plan *several years* *after* buying my first smartphone.

      I would say that a smartphone is, at its core, not a means of connection but a portable computer. A smartphone is a file backup, a camera and audio recorder, an MP3 player and ebook reader, a document scanner, an alarm clock, a calendar, an FM radio (if you get the right model, and yes, I’ve saved an FM news channel to my presets), a calculator, a translator, maps and routing software (GPS is a nice bonus there, but the maps and even the routing can be used without it), a copy of Wikipedia. I’ve oriented everything about my smartphone setup around needing as little Internet access or other connectivity as possible. I have a 250 MB data plan, and I never max it out.

      (I don’t keep social-media apps on my phone: the social-media services I do use, I access only through my laptop (the interface is much nicer there anyway: I could type a six-hundred-word comment on a touchscreen, but I’d far rather use a keyboard). There are occasions–such as waiting rooms–where I want to while away a few minutes with a smartphone, but that’s what sudoku apps are for.)

      I distrust the cell network’s reliability, especially in disaster situations, and keep an eye on the developing mesh-based communication methods. So far the only one that’s currently usable is Bridgefy, but I have some hopes for Berty and Matrix, and it’s still possible that Briar or even Serval will eventually get their acts together.

      As for hardware and firmware, I’m quite fond of my Teracube. The design is aligned pretty well with my needs and values regarding self-sufficiency, and after the nightmare that was dealing with LG, it’s so nice to have a developer team that isn’t actively hostile towards its users.

      I agree with hikermor about solar power banks. I do also have the recommended Ryno Tuff (which, in my limited experience, can keep several phones charged if you rotate them out regularly), but if I’m caught with only my everyday carry, it’s nice to have the integrated solar panel as a backup.

      • 3

        You know, I’d never considered this at all! Setting up a phone for as little connectivity as possible is a radical idea to me, but it makes perfect sense. Thanks for sharing 😀

      • 1

        Phone minimalism is a growing trend right now. In the early days of smartphones, everyone was downloading as many cool apps as possible, because these devices are pretty amazing.

        But we are starting to get tired of the constant notification barrage and the big time suck these devices are as well.

        Do a factory reset of your phone and only install the most necessary apps you need. Maps is a good example of something to keep, whereas you probably don’t need the Facebook app. YOU tell Facebook when you want to look at it by viewing it on a laptop or on your phone’s web browser. Don’t let IT tell you with a hundred notifications when to look at it.

    • 2

      My wife and I once needed to evacuate an unstable building and walk about 2 miles through heavy rain and flooding to reach our car. I was pleasantly surprised that my iPhone still worked (including GPS) while soaked.

      My iPhone is an excellent survival tool. I wouldn’t recommend buying it just for that, since it’s rather expensive. But if you’ve got one anyway for personal reasons, yes, it’s very reliable.

      Also, the latest iPhone model has some great new features that are relevant for emergencies. It allows you to use satellite communication for emergency messages. It also automatically calls emergency services if you’re in a car crash.

      • 1

        Glad you got through that OK, and glad your phone helped!

      • 1

        This gives me the idea of folding up a sandwich bag and putting it in my wallet. I then can place that wallet or phone in the sandwich bag if I were ever in a situation where I needed to battle the elements and wanted to protect things.

      • 2

        “I then can place that wallet or phone in the sandwich bag if I were ever in a situation where I needed to battle the elements and wanted to protect things.”

        In this situation, that would not have helped me. When the fire department said we needed to get out immediately, had no idea how much time we had. We didn’t pause for a second. And that heavy rain felt like having buckets of water dumped on us. The phone in my pocket was drenched instantly. As we walked out that door, I assumed that phone would never work again.

         I’m grateful that my phone still worked in the middle of this emergency. For any electronics you expect to use in an emergency, water resistance is a big deal. So is shock resistance. You can’t assume that an emergency will start in a calm, orderly manner.

      • 1

        That is true, you probably don’t have time to get it out of your wallet during an emergency.

    • 4

      @Anthony Corless, really good topic.

      I see my risks with cellphones like this:

      1. All utilities and services in my area are up but I am having an emergency (car accident, lost in the woods or house fire)

      I need to notify people of my situation and request assistance. I do not anticipate a long duration emergency but need reliable comms now. My phone should be fully charged or I have my Anker powerbank.

      2. Electricity is down in my area (someone hit the light pole on the corner, a fire in a nearby electrical substation, a ‘normal’ hurricane, tornado or blizzard). Normal stuff.

      Many people in my area are affected but it is still reasonable to expect utility Disaster Response activities to be ongoing and effective i.e., cell tower diesel generators will be supplied additional fuel as needed. Ambulance and Police are available but busy and therefore prioritized. Power on my street may be out 1-10 days but I can walk or drive to the town hall or armory for access to emergency power (they have diesel backup). I can also charge my phone, laptop, etc. using my car and an inverter or DC charger. Cell towers are functional but bandwidth is tight.

      3. Electricity and other utilities are down regionally (huge storm, ice, cascading power generation failure, enemy conventional attack, cyber attack…)

      This starts out like the previous scenario but as time goes on fuel for diesel backup is limited causing cell towers to be up/down, cell towers may be damaged significantly and Medical/Police services are stressed to the max and it’s difficult to reach them. Or this may go on for 14-30 days. This is NOT an EMP attack or other nuclear attack. Think Hurricane Katrina, Harvey, Sandy or 2021 Texas freeze/power crisis.

      If my access to Emergency Services and electricity is severely limited and I cannot recharge on my car then I am energy poor but my risk profile for untreated medical emergencies or a home fire has increased dramatically. My immediate neighbors will help but I need comms to bring emergency services or somehow go to them for help. Comms are critical to request or coordinate assistance.

      In this extended and increasing personal risk situation, my 12 hour iPhone is not going to cut it. I may have a charged power bank but that only extends my phone to ~36 hours. My risk timeline is undefined but the risk of a medical problem is increasing. I need to maximize my comms for as long as possible. At this point, I take my nano SIM out of my iPhone and put it in my backup dumb phone. I now have +12 hours talk time and up to 30 days standby capacity. I am still at increased medical risk but I have a much greater likelihood of establishing comms with emergency response personnel.

      Phones like the Nokia 800 Tough, CAT B35, AGM M6 and others can do this. They can cost a bit but I don’t see a simple alternative if the chips are down and it’s not clear when power will be restored.

      I am not discussing ham radio because it’s not in scope for this post.

    • 4

      Howdy everyone.   My take on phones:

      2003 Cedars Fire in Southern California.    Didn’t have a cell phone.   Even if I did, there were no towers in the rural part of San Diego County.  Everything burned including:  land line phone lines, any cell phone towers.    Zero communication for civilians.    Spotty, random, communication for all emergency responders: police, fire, ambulances, gas & electric, etc.

      September 8, 2011 Southwest Blackout.  Had a cell phone AND a landline.  Neither one worked–either because of the total electricity blackout or because of overloaded lines on both land line and cell networks.  The only news available from car radios, but since nobody actually knew what was going on for about 12 hours, even that was useless.   

      2011 forward:   Several prolonged medical emergencies for a couple of close family members.  During the calls to let people know about family member crisis, cel phones were dying right and left because the emergency was so intense nobody thought about charging a phone, or having cables to charge, or having a car or electricity charger plug in.  (Bad) Bonus:   Since most people had begun to get rid of land lines, nobody remembered actual phone numbers, just the quick button dial on their smartphones.     When the cell phone dies, so does the cell phone memory with the actual phone numbers.

      Various emergencies in past 12 years:  “My phone’s dead.”   “Does your phone have any bars?”   “Does anybody have a (android)/(iphone) charging cord?”  “Does anybody have a wall/auto charger?”   

      My preps regarding phones:

      1.  I have purchased multiple external batteries, multiple android cables, multiple iphone cables, multiple car chargers, and multiple wall chargers.  Each external battery pack is fully charged.   I put a piece of painter’s tape on it and write the date it is fully charged.  1-2 years later, I fully charge again and write the new date on the painter’s tape.

      2.  I gave each family member 1 or 2 sets of an external battery, android cable, iphone cable, car charger, and wall charger.    Each packet was placed in a ziploc baggie and they were told/threatened to keep in their car at all times or I would kill them!    (Note that teens and other supposedly mature people have managed to use and/or lose each packet.  Teens are the worst!    This results in buying more supplies for more packets with more threats.)

      3.   In an emergency situation, shut off all power-sucking apps and TEXT.    Have an emergency out-of-state phone contact in case local lines are flooded with calls.

      • 3

        I strongly recommend not keeping phone batteries in a car long-term: after enough days baking in the summer heat, the battery will swell up and become a fire hazard. My father once burned through (thankfully not literally) three batteries in two years that way.

        (If you find yourself with a swollen battery, bury it in a container of sand or kitty litter and bring the container to your local swollen-battery disposal site (which may not be the same as the disposal site for non-swollen batteries!). My local dump has a Household Hazardous Waste kiosk where people can go to drop off swollen batteries, old paint cans, fluorescent lightbulbs, and a few other things.)

      • 2

        “I strongly recommend not keeping phone batteries in a car long-term: after enough days baking in the summer heat, the battery will swell up and become a fire hazard.”

        Alternatively, tint your windows so you don’t have a hot car. More detailed discussion in this post:

        https://theprepared.com/forum/thread/can-a-carport-help-me-protect-my-car-from-the-heat/

      • 3

        >>Alternatively, tint your windows so you don’t have a hot car.

        Link: >>I paid $700 in 2019 for their most expensive “ultimate” package.

        …ah, I see from your account profile that you live in Florida: I suppose it’s a higher priority in that climate. I live up in Canada and have a very low income, and there are many things I would rather spend a month’s wages on than tinting our car windows. (Like home insulation!)

        (I did, however, spend ~$30 on three lifeboat rations designed to handle being in a hot vehicle for years on end. They’re in the trunk’s underfloor compartment.)

      • 2

        @Ivy B–It’s a trade-off for us.  Although keeping external batteries in a car trunk/glove box/soft-sided cooler; out of direct sunlight, in a car isn’t recommended for battery life longevity, it’s worth it for communications when phones are out of juice.  I prefer Anker or Lenovo external batteries and they have held a sufficient charge (2-3 lights out of 4) when checked on an annual basis.    (Similar to storing gasoline in the shed with Sta-Bil, there are a lot of caveats and we need to mitigate as much as possible for safety.)

      • 0

        I’m not sure why your response to me focuses mostly on battery life when I never said anything about battery life.

        I also don’t risk storing gasoline in the shed, so perhaps it says more about me than it does about flammability.

      • 2

        @Ivy B,

        Your smart phone use case is interesting but also unique; most of us plan to use a cellphone in an emergency for communication first and foremost. Our concern is that we will lose comms in an extended disaster due to the loss of electricity and what we can do to extend the useful life of our phones/telephony.

        Repairability / Battery Life / Ruggedness were the focus.

        The risk of cooking external batteries is similar to the risk of ruining granola/chocolate/candy/water/meds in other kits in our vehicles. I have posted in the past that I avoid this risk by keeping those perishables in a small bag and taking them into work in the morning and our home at night. I only keep them in the car when shopping – in a cooler.

        What risks do you foresee if you cannot use your smartphone once the batteries run out and you can’t recharge it?

    • 2

      Breaking out a new sub-topic into a new sub-thread:

      You don’t need a SIM card to call 911. Any phone hardware compatible with modern cellular networks will do (as long as the cell network itself is up).

      It’s good knowledge to have: if you need to call 911 and can’t use your primary phone for whatever reason, you may have an old phone lying around that will do the trick. (Corollary: don’t let kids play with old phones unless they’re mature enough not to dial 911 on a whim.)

      (To be clear: while that article is from Canada, SIM-less 911 does also work in the United States.)

      • 3

        I don’t like selling or giving away my old phones when I upgrade. First off I don’t want some hacker to get it and harvest any old remaining data on there, and second I like having them as backups for the bug out bag, get home bag, or just in the glove compartment of my car. 

        Wipe it clean, only leave the minimum on there, and a nice thing about old android phones is that they have removable batteries that you can take out so the phone doesn’t drain as much while just sitting there in storage.

        Like you said, even a phone without an active SIM card can still call 911, and even navigate using GPS and predownloaded maps.

    • 2

      I’ve replaced broken screens and old batteries in phones before and at least for an iPhone, it wasn’t that hard with the included kit which had all the tools I needed and an instructional video. YouTube videos are awesome on top of the recommended iFixit. Do a Google search for “download youtube video” and save repair videos for your devices offline so you can always reference them. 

      I like to buy “popular” phones like iPhones, Samsung Galaxy, or Google Pixel. These main phones have easily available cases, screen protectors, repair videos, and parts. Much more than some discount Samsung Fit 382090XP2 (just made that up…).

      I’ve bought a rugged phone before that was supposed to be shock resistant and waterproof. Thing didn’t last that long and I wasn’t even rough on it. I’d stay away from those and instead invest in a very rugged lifeproof case.

      • 2

        “…I’ve bought a rugged phone before that was supposed to be shock resistant and waterproof. Thing didn’t last that long and I wasn’t even rough on it. I’d stay away from those and instead invest in a very rugged lifeproof case…”

        @supersonic, thanks for posting this experience. I have been looking at CAT phones but I have also used Otter Defender cases. Defender’s are nice but you have to get used to the size and I have found them a pain to take apart and clean. Taking them off and on always leads to a looser fit and less and less protection.

      • 1

        I’ve seen those CAT phones and am curious how good they are. You’ll have to let me know if you end up trying it. The “rugged phone” that I had was a Samsung and don’t recommend it.

      • 1

        Same here!