AT Hiking and Cell Service: Pay-as-you-go cell phones

On the trail, cell phones come in handy. They can be used to stay in touch with other hikers, to make calls to family and friends, putting in reservations at a hostel, contact emergency personnel if someone gets hurt, or to arrange shuttles. After my first section hike down in central Virginia, where my AT&T phone became a useless brick (but my friend’s Verizon phone did just fine), I did some research into getting a Verizon pay-as-you-go phone. I didn’t need anything fancy; I just needed it to be able to make phone calls.

Person in a hat on a mountain top holding their cell phone up into the sky

Photo thanks to Flickr

In my section hikes, I’ve had occasional issues with cell service with my AT&T phone, but for the most part, I had excellent service on the AT in the northeast. However, once I hit central Virginia going south, AT&T didn’t have cell service except on some mountaintops and occasionally in town (Damascus didn’t have any AT&T service to speak of). Down south, Verizon gets cell service at most roads and many shelters and campsites. However, Verizon in New England isn’t great; AT&T has better coverage and cheaper rates. So I knew I didn’t want to change my regular cell phone carrier. My conclusion was, I needed to find a Verizon pay-as-you-go phone.

 

In my search for a solution, I found this article from a few years ago which details the process of figuring out which service the phone in question uses. Using these guidelines, I searched around Amazon and narrowed down my options. I ended up settling on an LG 236C flip phone for only $15. It offered lifetime doubling of all minutes added. The battery life, as with all those old school phones, has proven to be generous.

For not-smart phones, if the model number ends in a “C,” it’s a Verizon phone; if the model number ends in a “G,” it’s an AT&T or T-Mobile phone.

For purchasing minutes, I went with Pay as You Go airtime since that made the most sense for my needs; they do offer monthly plans. I bought the minutes directly from TracFone, taking advantage of one of their frequent holiday sales to snag some extra minutes. I searched online and couldn’t find any better prices; it seems like airtime isn’t available for cheaper than TracFone’s baseline pricing. When you activate the phone, you get 10 minutes of airtime; if you activate online, you get a few extra minutes of airtime.

They offer many options:

  • 30 minutes/30 service days/$10
  • 60 minutes/90 service days/$20
  • 120 minutes/90 service days/$30
  • 200 minutes/90 service days/$40
  • 450 minutes/90 service days/$80
You can buy minutes online and get a code, or you can purchase more minutes via text. This would be a useful feature to set up for those who might need more minutes while they’re on trail and want to simplify that process.

Person standing on a rock trying to get cell service, with blue sky and white clouds in the background

I had no trouble following the directions to activate the flip phone and add minutes. When asked at what zip code I would be using my phone, I used the zip code for Hot Springs since it is an area that is covered by Verizon, not AT&T, so there was no chance of TracFone telling me Verizon doesn’t provide service to my area. Hot Springs was also the start point of one of my section hikes and roughly in the middle of the southerly AT section where there is no AT&T service. So in the end, my phone number registers as out of Hot Springs, NC.

The phone was worth the trouble for sure, since during my 2.5 week hike this past fall, I had AT&T cell service at my overnight sites and road crossings maybe half a dozen times. The flip phone gave me service more often than not; there were only 3-4 overnight spots where I didn’t have service enough to make a phone call. I would not have been able to contact hostels or set up shuttles with my AT&T phone. The little pay-as-you-go flip phone did its job admirably and offered decent call quality. If you find yourself in need of either Verizon (which is favored in the south) or AT&T (which tends to be the dominant carrier up north), TracFones may be the way to go!

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Comments 3

  • David : Feb 22nd

    Good write up and an often overlooked topic. Tracfone “dumb/feature” phones get voice & txt roaming, making them exactly the same as the true verizon postpaid map. Verizon tracfone model numbers have a “C” in the name, as opposed to “G” for At&t compatible tracfones. Also, if you get any sort of tracfone Smartphone you do not get roaming… you are on the Verizon “native/prepaid” map only. The two other verizon mvno’s (resellers) that offer full voice & txt roaming are Selectel wireless and Boom wireless (theyou are new, but look great!). Thanks for addressing this topic.

    Reply
  • Adam : Feb 24th

    This is an incredibly helpful post.

    Reply
  • scott herndon : Feb 24th

    great posts i started using the trac phone while living in Montana got much more consistent service in even pretty remote areas.

    Reply

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