On the cusp of a new Appalachian Trail Thru Hiking Season I find myself receiving a lot of questions regarding the use of cell phones on the trail. I put up a post before my thru hike attempt last season and decided to update my findings from the experiences I had.
It seemed that a number of carriers provide pretty decent service along the trail with my experience being one of the exceptions. I chose to go with a "Pay as you Go" phone from Verizon. This unfortunately was a very big mistake!!! Initially I went to a local Verizon dealer and grilled them on the coverage that the phone would provide being very detailed and explicit to my usage along the trail and where I would be needing coverage. I know I must have annoyed the salesman because I asked the same question multiple times: "Would I have the same coverage as all Verizon customers along the duration of the Appalachian Trail?". The response was YES!! on all occurrences. At the time the store did not have any of the prepaid phones in stock so I was directed to Best Buy where they had plenty available. Again I asked multiple times if the phone would suit my needs and provide the coverage that I needed (I am a little OCD and anal when it comes to subjects like this :) ). I once again received the same response....Yes sir, you will get the same coverage as all Verizon Customers!!!
The truth of the matter is that you do not get the same coverage as all Verizon customers. For the most part I got very poor coverage along the trail with the Pay-As-You-Go phones. While I was surrounded by multiple people who had a regular contract with Verizon and multiple "Bars" talking to there friends and family I would be sitting with nothing more than a paper weight. When I reached Hot Springs, NC I used a hiking friends Sprint phone to contact Verizon (because I didn't have service). I was unfortunately the victim of either poor dealer training or just a bad situation all around. They notified me that I was not on the same Tower system as all Verizon customers and that there was no way they would be willing to make the situation right leaving me extremely discouraged.
OK....now that I've gotten my rant out of the way and before I droan on about my bad experience let's get down to the nitty gritty. Verizon (full service customers) and Sprint customers have good reception in most areas of the trail as I can attest to. You may have to stand on one leg, hold your hands in a certain ritualistic position while balancing on your head, but you will get a bar or two even in some remote locations. This is not to say there are some dead spots no matter what carrier you have, but it is amazing how far technology has come and that you can communicate with loved ones from so many locations along the trail. I had also heard about other carriers providing decent service, but I can't personally attest to them as I did not utilize them.
In short I would have to say that Verizon (FULL CUSTOMER CONTRACTS) would be the way to go if you are looking for reliable coverage along the Appalachian Trail. Sprint also provided very good coverage as my hiking buddy Hill Hiker used his very reliably through his entire adventure to Katahdin.
To all 2013 Appalachian Trail Thru Hikers.....I wish you the best, Happy Trails and enjoy the memories, friends and the Journey!!!!! Maybe I'll run into a few of you during my trips to the mountains this year!!