Random Tech Tidbits if the Lights (or Router) Goes Out

I count myself lucky to live in a pretty stable and safe part of the world. The last three years or so might have been slightly less so, but still in the scheme of things I certainly haven’t seen the worst of it. But hey, this year is as good of any to think about useful ways to utilize your electronics, specifically your phone, if the power goes out or something similar happens.

And it doesn’t have to be specific to the chaos of the last few years or potential future chaos. A lot of times I find this sort of stuff handy on a hike without cell service, broken down on the side of a road with a nearly dead cell phone, or just out and about but not wanting to use my pre-paid data. So below I thought I would have a few handy tidbits in bullet point fashion that might be helpful in any sort of situation when you’re stuck without power or internet, or if parts of the internet are unreachable.

Emergency Services

By (US) law every phone needs to be able to call emergency services, which means that you can call them from any device using any towers. This means that your old phone in a drawer can still make emergency calls without being on a plan if your personal device is out of battery, lost, or broken.

Further, you can sometimes reach emergency services even if it looks like you don’t have cell service. Your phone may be able to reach other cell towers even if it can’t reach any cell towers on your network, so even if you’re in an area with limited/no coverage from your network and it’s showing no service you still might get reception calling 911.

Last, 911 gets priority over other cell traffic, so it might go through even when the networks are congested and not working for normal calls.

Charging your Device

Knowing my luck next time the power goes out my phone is going to be just about out of charge. Or, like happened to me recently, it was decently charged when I broke down on the side of the road and I decided to listen to music in between calls to numerous towing companies, but then ended up sitting around for 6 hours and drained the battery.

I like to keep a power brick in my backpack I usually have with me, which has been really useful on occasion, and it’s definitely a good way to make sure I can always have a full charge if I need it - as long as I have the charging cables on hand as well.

Similarly, a car cigarette lighter adapter is also handy to keep around, and I have one stashed in my backpack. I also had a separate one stashed in my car until my aforementioned car trouble when I replaced my car with one that has an extra-fancy built-in USB charger.

You can also always charge a phone with a laptop or something similar, and since phones use way less power you’ll get a lot more use out of it than a laptop even if you’re running both at the same time to charge one.

I’ve also got this mini crank radio that can charge a device via USB while you crank it. My arms would probably fall off before I get a full charge, but it could still come in handy. Similarly, there are also USB power bricks with built-in solar panels that sell for pretty cheap.

Useful apps

There’s a lot of apps that can be really useful to use when you don’t have access to the internet. Though it’s not exhaustive, or in any particular order, I have a few currently on my phone worth bringing up:

OSMand: An offline maps app that works really good for hiking and fine as a general GPS app. I’ve always liked it for hiking since it does a great job with trails and has a lot of utilities like trip recording, terrain, and custom map markers.

But importantly, unlike some maps apps like Google Maps, its offline maps don’t expire. It would be a real pain to want or need to use a maps app offline, only to find that the maps are expired and the app is forcing you to update the offline copy before you use it. But since GPS itself doesn’t require an internet connection and OSMand is meant to function offline it can come in handy in a situation like that.

Equate: Equate converts just about anything. Measurements, energy units, currency? It can do it all. Aside from the fact values like currency could be out of date if it never pulled the latest rates recently, it works offline and is really handy if you’re like me used to just using an internet search for conversions instead of -gasp- doing math.

Trail Sense: Trail Sense is an app full of 30 random tools that are handy in a hiking type of situation, but could potentially be useful in any situation where the power is out or there’s no cell service. Some of them are pretty mundane like a whistle sound button, some are pretty hiking-centric like displaying your phone’s built-in compass or delivering the sunrise/sunset times using your GPS location, and some are really creative like leveraging phone sensors to act as a metal detector.

Kiwix & Ebooks: Kiwix is an app that allows you to download archives of data to use offline, mostly things like an offline copy of wikis. This includes parts (or all) of Wikipedia, various medical or other informational wikis, as well as other random archives of any kind that people created.

Similarly, you can always stash ebooks on a device as well (my favorite reader is Librera - free on FDroid/Github - but any will do). Ebooks are small and you can stash a whole heck of a lot on a single device, to the tune of thousands or hundreds of thousands. I doubt you or I can get through hundreds of thousands of ebooks in a lifetime, but ebooks as a source of entertainment or useful knowledge could be handy.

GreenPass: GreenPass keeps a copy of PDF documents in an easy way to pull up (e.g. insurance cards), and having a copy of various documents on your phone and potentially organized with something like GreenPass could be handy.

Survival Manual: Survival Manual is basically an ebook in app form that has a bunch of info for emergencies (first aid, water purification, fire making, etc). It also gave me a chuckle the first time I read it since it had a very serious warning to not apply a tourniquet to somebody’s neck.

It’s pretty small (~14 MB) so it doesn’t hurt to throw it on a device to sit in case you want that info offline or to scroll through when you’re bored.

Less Demanding Services

It’s also worth bringing up that some services would work a lot better than others if connections are spotty. Texts take up a lot less bandwidth than calls, and similarly, emails or instant messages sent from an app take up a lot less than trying to do something within a web browser. You can also sometimes text 911 which might go through even if a call won’t.

Similarly, with texts and messages sent within email/messaging apps, there’s also the bonus of being able to compose them in-app and then have your device continue to try to send them until a connection works. They might time out after a while, depending on the app, but unlike a call or website which will drop as soon as you lose connection apps often would work a lot better if connections aren’t consistent.

Multiple Services

If things go down, say with a big cyber attack, it never hurts to have multiple different services to use. For example, keeping a few dollars in Paypal in case your bank has issues, or having multiple ways to contact people (if your phone is like mine with everything from SMS to IRC that won’t be a problem).

Bonus Radio

In addition to your usual stuff, a handful of phones also have some extra neat radio capabilities that could come in handy. First, some phones come with built-in FM radio capabilities, which allow you to pick up standard FM radio on your phone without going through the internet.

Secondly, some new iPhones come with satellite emergency services, which allow you to send your location and a short message to emergency services through a satellite instead of cell towers.

If your phone has either (or if an older device does too, since neither requires a cellular plan), it might be handy to take note of.

Some Bonus Stuff

  • If you’re thinking about power outages, or if you’re in a situation where you can’t charge your phone, something else that also fulfills a particular purpose might be useful. A flashlight comes to mind, and since I work nights I’ve usually got one plus a few extra batteries lying around. It’s a good way to avoid burning through phone battery using the flashlight feature.
  • I’ve actually used a watch to fix the time on my phone when it got inaccurate and I didn’t have cell service to sync the time to get a 2FA code. Further, a way to tell time, set alarms, and time things without using phone battery might not hurt. Those $15 Casio watches with a 10-year battery life come to mind, and might be handy if you’re conserving phone battery.
  • I have a habit of keeping some offline entertainment on phones/computers (games, videos, books/audiobooks) in case I don’t have internet access. First-world problems, I know, but it’s nice when I’ve got no other way to entertain myself.
  • Decentralized messengers like Briar or Tox allow would work through the internet if you have internet access but services are down/blocked/cyber-attacked. Briar can also create chats with a mesh network through Bluetooth or LAN.