Introduction: How to Turn Your Mobile Phone Into a Survival Tool

Picture of How to Turn Your Mobile Phone Into a Survival Tool

So you’ve embarked across the unknown to reach Alaska!—the land of mystery and intrigue. Your mind is racing full of Jack London adventure novels and various wildlife scenes from the dozens of National Geographic episodes you consumed months leading up to the trip. You find yourself looking out the window of a small, yet reliable Cessna 127 as it soars delicately through the wild blue sky. Below a thin layer of misty cloud, you’re able to see a bit of lush Alaskan tundra—truly a modern day Eden. If all goes well you’ll catch a glimpse of a pack of majestic grey wolves in search of their next prey; or perhaps a herd of the noble Bull Moose standing confidently in a field of indigo wild flowers. 

Everyone on the plane is ecstatic, conjuring a bit of that excited nervousness one feels just before touching down in a new and strange land. Little do these passengers know that in ten minutes time this very plane will be nothing more than scraps of bloody metal littering the landscape. The beauty and destruction posing as complete paradox. The Bull Moose with their grand antlers will look on indifferently…

You are the only survivor.

You find yourself a little bruised, having received only a few cuts, but to your surprise, relatively unharmed. After the shock, you experience sheer panic, then an unusual sort of level headedness. One question permeates your thoughts: “What now?”

There’s nothing left. Everything is charred and burned beyond recognition, all except the cellphone in your pocket. The screen is cracked and it won’t turn on. It’s broken, yet not useless. It simply needs to be pried open…

Here’s how you can turn your cellphone into a survival tool.

Note: In this demonstration an Android phone is used, however, I've also done the exact same experiment with the T-Mobile Blackberry 10 phone. The parts may vary from phone to phone, but the core concepts remain the same.

Useful Parts

-LCD Screen
-Metal Divider
-Circuit Board

Step 1: Fire Starting

Picture of Fire Starting

Items Needed:

-Wires (See arrows)
-Kindling from environment


This process is quick so have all components close at hand. First, touch the wire to the positive and negative nodes on the battery. Almost instantly, the wire will become hot. This is when you’ll add the kindling. By touching these materials together the kindling should ignite. However, you should be warned, the wire is likely to disintegrate in only a matter of seconds so you will only have one shot per wire (a Brillo pad works really well too, so keep one in your backpack). Watch this video for addition instruction.

Step 2: Cutting Tools

Picture of Cutting Tools

Items needed:

-Circuit board
-Metal divider
-Rock from environment


Take one edge of the circuit board and sharpen it against a stone. Break off the metal mount by folding it back and forth while creasing it with the rock. These items can then be used as rudimentary cutting tools.

Step 3: Signal Mirror

Picture of Signal Mirror

Items needed:

-LCD Screen


Every phone screen is comprised of multiple mirror-like layers. To use the mirror as a signaling device, hold it up just below your eyes with one hand and with the other hold out a peace sign.

You’ll then line up the mirror so that it’s reflecting light onto your two fingers. While keeping the light on your fingers, align the rescue craft (plane, vehicle, train, etc.) between them.

Step 4: Creating a Compass

Picture of Creating a Compass

Items needed:

-Steel wire (or a needle, or a seconds hand from a watch)
-Leaf from environment
-Puddle of water from environment


Extract the magnet from the speaker. Straighten the wire (needle, seconds hand, etc.) and rub one end against the magnet for a few seconds. This end of the wire is no magnetized.

You’ll then place the wire on the leaf making sure it’s able to float in a puddle of water. The wire and the leaf will align so that the end you rubbed will point north.

Step 5: Survival of the Fittest

Picture of Survival of the Fittest

Feel like an Eagle Scout yet? Now that you’re essentially MacGyver of the Alaskan wilderness with merely a phone, a few rocks and a leaf, your chances of surviving are much greater. Safe travels and don’t forget your phone at home…you never know!

Credit: This instructable article was inspired by an infographic found here


tunnelrat1 (author)2016-01-17

Very fine steel wool works great and one pad can start up to a dozen fires.

tigerbomb8 (author)2014-04-23

Be very careful doing this.. Most phones use Lithium polymer batteries which have a tendency to burst in to flames if use improperly..

bertwert (author)tigerbomb82015-09-10

You might want that, to start a fire...

tigerbomb8 (author)bertwert2015-09-11

Yes, but there is big difference between a campfire and a bushfire..

Onixgato (author)tigerbomb82015-11-29

This is the best answer.

bertwert (author)tigerbomb82015-09-11


jtmax24 (author)2014-03-06

great tips. i guess i have a few questions on survival with a broken smartphone. if you find a sharp enough environment object to pry open the phone, couldn't you use that as a cutting tool instead of the phone? also, most Android phones' batteries aren't sealed in so really you just have to find some metal wires which even though 'the plane' is burned there will most likely be some sort of wiring to use?

ParaGunner1324 (author)2014-01-08

Good post!

dflynn5 (author)2013-08-04

Excellent post. Love the way you think!

dboat (author)2013-03-14

Good info... However, you do not cover the part about which items to tape in between your knuckles to fight the wolf.

jstark84 (author)dboat2013-03-14

;) Definitely my favorite comment so far.

dboat (author)jstark842013-03-26


kretzlord (author)jstark842013-03-15


M40 (author)dboat2013-03-17

Outside of Hollywood's overly vivid imagination, wolves avoid people. A wolf attack is probably the LAST thing you should ever concern yourself with. Wolf attacks on humans are so rare, that you are far more likely to be struck by lightning. There have been only two documented cases of fatal wolf attacks... in all of US history. A wolf attacking a human is almost always the result of rabies.

In any case, if you're still worried about wolves, then here's the solution. If the phone has a smashed screen, but is still somewhat operable, then do NOT disassemble it.

Wolves have sensitive hearing, and will run away howling when exposed to painfully awful noises. Do your best to navigate to your music selection and have one of the following ready to play:
- Justin Bieber, Michael Bolton, Miley Cyrus, Celine Dion, Ashlee Simpson, Britney Spears, Avril Lavigne... or any similarly awful 'music'. I can think of at least a hundred 'artists' that would be suitable.

dboat (author)M402013-03-26

I think that they would hang around for some Lonely Island & Michael Bolton singing some Captain Jack Sparrow, the only Bolton song on my phone.

wb7ptr (author)M402013-03-17

Just play some gangsta rap. That would definitely send them howling off into the wilderness!

MartijnD (author)wb7ptr2013-03-18

Maybe wolves might be into Snoop Dog Doggystyle...

dagob (author)M402013-03-17


Advar (author)2013-03-14

If there's a try- to- survive contest, I'm voting for you.

wb7ptr (author)Advar2013-03-17

I'm a filmmaker. Great idea for a reality show ... "High Tech Survival in the Twenty First Century: Episode One, Cell Phone Survivalists" :)

Advar (author)wb7ptr2013-03-17

LOL! Go for it, I'd watch it!

wb7ptr (author)Advar2013-03-17

Wanna help me :)
Actually, my filmmaking is documentary stuff, not reality shows ... but there are a few reality shows that I think ARE worth watching. Ever seen "The Colony" ... about surviving after a viral outbreak. It's pretty interesting. Not sure how much of it is impromptu and how much is acting ... but the skills the show teaches are worthwhile. It's on The Discovery Channel I believe, if it's still being produced.

Advar (author)wb7ptr2013-03-25

Wouldn't mind lending a hand, but I'd have to be the "Don't do this" guy :)
Anyway, thank for the info, I'll look for it.

bdempsey1 (author)2013-03-19

I'd wait until the battery was dead before destroying my smart phone. You can load so much survival knowledge onto the hard drive it would be shame to be out there anywhere without the info. Put a good solar charger in with your gear & you can keep the battery fresh. Assuming you did not parachute in you should a vehicle of some kind that you can make the other stuff from. Make your cutting tools and fire kit from flint & a sun compass from the info you loaded onto the phone.

tim_n (author)2013-03-19

When you find kindling, it's likely to be damp. To ensure that it is properly dry, bundle up and stick under your arm very close to your armpit. Your bodyheat will help dry it. If you've only got one chance, make sure you use it properly!

Biggest mistake is once you've lit your fire you don't have anything to put on it. Make sure you've got 10x the wood you think you'll need to get it going and do your best to make sure as much of it as possible is dry. Stuff hanging in the trees is much drier than that on the ground.

Cold wet wood takes much longer to dry before catching light, it's wasted energy. Keep wood as dry as possible.

Practice firelighting before you get in a survival situation. Experience is light and easily carried.

Remember, stay by your plane, don't try and walk out of the disaster zone :)

Don't eat snow, melt it first. Never eat the yellow snow...

sibu (author)2013-03-18

If you see a herd of moose, you should call Ripley's! Moose are solitary animals. :)

wilgubeast (author)2013-03-15

I smell a reboot of Gary Paulsen's "Hatchet." Any day now.

wb7ptr (author)wilgubeast2013-03-17

I'm a screenwriter. Can I steal your idea :) ... Just kidding. I'll let YOU write it then offer to film it for you ....

wilgubeast (author)wb7ptr2013-03-18

Steal it!

oldngrumpy (author)2013-03-18

If you are heading into Alaska and the most useful item in your possession is your phone, just lie down and accept your inevitable fate. It's natural selection. Don't fight it. You'll only prolong your suffering.

Robnelson (author)2013-03-18

also, you have to pee on the phone parts to mark them as your own - otherwise the wolf will view them as his and take them from you back to the pack!

carlozousa (author)2013-03-17

I think you forgot to mention that you need a precision tool to open up the cell phone?

jstark84 (author)carlozousa2013-03-17

In one experiment I used a rock and a pocket knife. It was a bit messier but I was in fact able to disassemble the pieces.

A small screwdriver from a glass repair kit would be ideal, however.

-A-N-D-Y- (author)jstark842013-03-18

use your pocket knife to open the phone to use the parts to make a knife?

Hansj3 (author)2013-03-17

good 'ible, but please change cessna 127 to 172

jstark84 (author)2013-03-14

Thanks for the uplifting comments guys... Next month I'll tell you how to kill bear with a guitar pick and a tooth brush :)

wb7ptr (author)jstark842013-03-17

Interesting ... I'll have to look for that one. Be careful though. PETA is lurking :)

artemff (author)2013-03-15

using LiIon batteries for starting the fire is a good idea, but there is a caveat. Usually, these batteries have a small chip mounted under the plastic body. This chip measures voltage and current to prevent deep discharge, overcharge, short-circuiting, or overheating. So, the trick may not work (the chip will break the circuit after the first attempt) and one will have to disassemble the battery to find "real" terminals.

wb7ptr (author)artemff2013-03-17

I'd be hesitant to use a lithium ion battery to start a fire as well. They also have a tendency to explode if overheated too quickly. There have been several recalls of Lithium Ion batteries because of this. Be careful ...

dutado (author)artemff2013-03-15

That's true. On the other hand, the older ones without protection were likely to catch fire or explode when overloaded or overcharged. Not likely to find one of those in new phone, but if you have more than 5 years old cell phone, be careful.
However, the other tips are nice ideas.

pmann1 (author)2013-03-17

I'm not knowledgeable about the physics of magnetism but wouldn't the WHOLE needle be magnetised? If this is the case, you may want to head South (warmer climes, etc.) but could you be guaranteed that you weren't heading North? Slap me down if I'm talking nonsense - like I say, I'm not au fait with magnetism but I would have thought the field would spread throughout the whole needle, not just one end.
Great ideas, though. Amazing the things you can do with the simplest of objects in a survival situation.

wb7ptr (author)pmann12013-03-17

Magnets have a north and south pole, which can be used to align with the Earth's magnetic field. That's how a compass works. Not going to slap you down :) That's a very good question.

wb7ptr (author)2013-03-17

I hope this is a defective phone you're doing this with. Blackberries are expensive! Great peice of information though :) I guess if you're stranded out in the middle of nowhere ... it probably doesn't matter though.

mirakin (author)2013-03-17

The only thing missing from this is tips how to open the phone without tools. Also perhaps instead of sharpening the fiber glass motherboard you could use the battery cover as a handle of sorts for a piece of your plane sharpened.

And as well as some of that would do you would be best off trying as hard as you could to get it to turn on to be used as a locator beacon sure macguver would have repaired the phone enough to make a phone call the GPS tracking in there phone would be better than nothing.

jstark84 (author)mirakin2013-03-17

Perhaps, you should write a follow-up article detailing your very clever GPS idea..

Chopper Rob (author)2013-03-17

Re Carlozousa:
in the backcountry a precision tool is called a rock. I thought this was great

Steven M (author)2013-03-17

But hopefully you'll be lucky and your phone will turn on and somehow connect to wireless so you can call for help. ;)

mecuestasonreir (author)2013-03-16

habemus papa

azharz (author)2013-03-15

Wowtically Awesome!

Matt428 (author)2013-03-14

PUT THIS IN THE MACGYVER CONTEST!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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