British Columbia

Viral hiking post spreading life-threatening misinformation, SAR manager says

The social media survival tip advises hikers who become lost to change their voicemail message instead of calling 911 immediately.

Survival tip being shared widely on social media could cause real harm, says Michael Coyle of Coquitlam SAR

A search and rescue near Eagle Mountain in Coquitlam, B.C., Aug. 25, 2020. Coquitlam SAR manager Michael Coyle says a bad survival tip that's gone viral could end in a costly mistake. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

A manager with Coquitlam Search and Rescue wants to get the word out about a social media post that has been shared tens of thousands of times despite containing potentially life-threatening misinformation.

Michael Coyle has watched in dismay as the survival tip —  which encourages hikers who get lost to change their voicemail message instead of calling 911—  continues to be reposted by friends and numerous outdoor and hiking groups. 

"This needs correcting," said Coyle. "It has the possibility of really causing some harm."

The viral post begins: "If you are ever lost while hiking, get stranded with a broken down car, etc... and you notice your cellphone is either low on juice or has no signal, here is a tip that very well may save your life. Change the voicemail on your phone to a message that gives your approximate location, the time, the date ..."

On the Coquitlam SAR Facebook page, Coyle used all caps to emphasize what seems like an obvious point.

"DO NOT WASTE TIME trying to change your voicemail, call 911 immediately," he wrote. "If you use up the last of your battery changing your voicemail, nobody is going to know you need help." 

Coyle said even with a weak signal or no signal at all, you should still try the emergency call because phones can access any available network to call 911.

He also noted it's impossible to change your voice message in the middle of the wilderness without a cell signal. 

Coquitlam Search and Rescue say a survival tip that's gone viral is dishing out very bad advice. (facebook)

Karl Woll, an avid hiker and editor of Outdoor Vancouver says he understands how the advice to change voicemail messages sounds good — but echoes Coyle's message that it's not.

"Once you start to think about it, especially if you're talking to or giving that advice to someone who's maybe not an experienced hiker, you're giving them the wrong impression in terms of preparing for a hike," he said. 

Preparation before a hike is key; Woll says, leaving a trip plan with someone trustworthy, outlining where you plan to go, when you expect to be back and what gear you have with you is much more helpful when it comes to helping rescuers find you should things go sideways. 

Coyle suggests using the AdventureSmart trip planning app and following the Three Ts: trip planning, training and taking the essentials when preparing for outdoor adventures.

Coyle doesn't doubt the original poster had good intentions, but laments how thoroughly the bad information has spread.

"Once it becomes viral, then people want to get in on it — some people seeking notoriety are posting it for likes, or whatever," he said."I read that it even went around during hurricane season in the U.S., so there are articles from the southern U.S. debunking this as well."

Finally, Coyle hopes people will stop spreading the post.

"Politely let your friends and contacts know that this post, while well meaning, is not good information and should not be shared," he wrote.

With files from Courtney Dickson

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