Emergency Communication in the Wilderness

I found a new paper on wilderness communications via a post on Clarke Green’s blog. It is a good resource, but it just doesn’t address the real situations I’ve experienced on treks. It seems to be written from the viewpoint of a professional rescuer, which leaves out a whole range of emergency situations that don’t involve rescue.

Paul Petzoldt didn’t include “wilderness survival” The Wilderness Handbook, but he did cover avoiding survival situations. Similarly, my preference is to avoid rescue situations, and reliable communication can help me do that.

I’ve also been in a lot of backcountry situations that require communication, but don’t require rescue. Here is a list of those, plus a few that have happened to people I know.

  • Reporting a wildfire
  • Cutting a trip short because of illness (early pickup at trailhead)
  • Cutting a trip short because a crew member lost a boot in a river crossing
  • Evaluating an evacuation because of a hernia (my dad self-reduced it after talking with a ranger and continued the trek)
  • Self-evacuation to a different trailhead (considered, didn’t do)
  • Self-evacuation of part of a crew due to altitude sickness
  • Walking out a crew member because of a death in the family
  • Pickup driver hours late because a logging truck slid half off the road and blocked it
  • Car keys lost in the snow

This list might make you think twice about going camping with me! Rest assured, it has taken decades of outings to collect this experience.

You can extend this to include hypothetical situations like impassible stream crossings, gear failures, evacuation from fire or flood, required medication left at the trailhead, and so on.

Choosing Radios

I’ve been thinking about this for a few years and here are my criteria for reliable wilderness communication.

  • Two-way communication
  • Useable by more than one person in the crew, in case the knowledgeable or licensed operator is injured
  • Someone must be listening on the other end
  • Radio wave propagation must fit the terrain

Why do I insist on two-way? If you want your drivers to pick you up at at different trailhead, you won’t know they got the message until you get there. With a difficult medical problem, you can report symptoms, but the remote doctor might not be able to diagnose the problem if you send the wrong information. You need two-way communication to arrange an air evacuation. If locations are garbled, you need to repeat or send more info.

Let’s go down the options, including a couple that weren’t listed in the paper.

PLB with GPS: Great for true rescue situations, but not two-way. Originally designed for ocean emergencies when rescue is the only option. In a non-rescue situation, a vessel will have a functioning two-way radio. If you carry a PLB, you should also have a two-way radio.

Cellular Telephone: Always carry a fully charged phone. In a group, carry two phones that use different carriers. You can make cell calls from surprising places, like the summit of Mount Phillips in Philmont. And a cell phone is exactly what you want when you have to evac to a different trailhead.

Citizens Band: I don’t know how widely channel 9 is monitored these days, but this might be the right choice for some areas, especially if local hunters, jeepers, and other outdoorsman use them. A 4 Watt handheld runs about $70. The range is vastly increased with a better antenna, like chunk of leftover Ethernet coax connected to an 34 foot long half-wave dipole. Or you could get an end-fed half-wave for 12m and shorten it for 11m. The radio with antenna would weigh about a pound. I’d be glad to talk you through building a dipole and how to string it from trees and rocks. It is probably worth looking up a REACT group in your area to see if CB is actively monitored.

FRS/GRMS: I can’t believe these are recommended in the paper. They are low power, blocked by the smallest hill, and no one is listening because there is is no designated emergency channel and no organized public service group. Might be useful for communicating between groups on the trail, but they aren’t even very good for that.

VHF amateur radio: Also called “2 meter” and “ham radio”. Higher power than FRS/GMRS on similar frequencies and people are listening (see the wilderness protocol) but still easily blocked by terrain. I carried my radio on a trek in the Sierras and couldn’t even hear NOAA weather radio, let alone work any other amateurs. Only take if you are traveling in area where you know you have line of sight to a town or a repeater. Very useful for communicating between groups on the trail.

HF (shortwave) amateur radio: This option requires some experience to use well, but it is effective and there are people listening on designated emergency frequencies. If you do have capable operators, consider participating in Summits on the Air to make it worth carrying the gear every time. Radios that only send Morse code are much lighter, but you’d better have two good Morse operators!

Satellite phone: The most straightforward and the most expensive solution. This is what was used to report the wildfire we helped extinguish. If you are going a couple of days from the trailhead, seriously consider renting a satphone. Be sure to bring the right phone numbers for emergency response where you are going—911 is not going to work.

SPOT Connect: SPOT makes several satellite tracking/messaging products, but the only one with sufficient flexibility is SPOT Connect. It allows one-way text messaging with GPS location. If you are willing to configure the SPOT Connect and your (fully-charged) smart phone, and train more than one person in your crew to use it, this could be a good option. But remember, it is one-way.

Radio 2-way? Usability? Listeners? Propagation?
PLB+GPS F A A A
Cell Phone A A A C
CB A B C C
FRS/GMRS A B F F
2m ham A B A D
HF ham A C A A
Sat Phone A A A A
SPOT D C B A

I’m inclined to calculate a grade point average, but risk management doesn’t work like that. When managing risk, a single failure is a total failure. For me, any column that scores less than a “B” needs to be managed as another risk. The only radio that passes all the criteria is a satellite phone.

Using Radios

GMRS and amateur radios require licenses, but according to my understanding of the FCC regulations, an unlicensed operator can operate them in an emergency situation. For idle chit-chat, you’ll need more than one licensed operator in your crew. An amateur license is really not that hard to get, you should be able to pass the test with a book from the library and an exam practice web site. Many places offer a one day class, a “ham cram”, for the Technician license. A General license is required for HF.

It helps to understand how radio waves work in the terrain you will be traveling through. Most radios need a direct path (“line of sight”) between the transmitter and receiver. When both are on the ground, the signal will be blocked by ridges or the curvature of the earth. When one end is a satellite, ridges don’t matter. Trees and leaves can block the frequencies used by FRS/GMRS and by satellites. HF radio waves bounce off the ionosphere and are not blocked by ridges or attenuated by foliage, but the best frequency varies from day to night.

The Sierras have lots of valleys that run parallel to the range, so you usually have a tall ridge or two between you and civilization blocking radio. Other mountain ranges have valleys that open out towards the plains. If you can see city lights, you can probably use a cell phone or a VHF ham radio. If you can’t, you may need to climb up to where you have line of sight. A satellite phone needs a clear space overhead, preferably without heavy forest cover.

Ask the rangers. At Philmont in 2010, they told us that VHF ham gear wouldn’t be useful because no one was listening in the area, but strongly encouraged us to carry two fully-charged cell phones on different carriers and they wrote the emergency number on our map. A local venture crew trekking in British Columbia had near continuous contact on VHF ham frequencies, mostly with loggers.

Learn how to make emergency calls. You do not say “SOS”. You start and end the message with “Mayday” repeated three times. You give your ID, your location, and describe your emergency. If you don’t get a response, you repeat. Make notes about what you send once you get a connection. Repeating information wastes time and battery.

Finally, practice. If you want radio to work in an emergency, use it regularly. Call in a daily report. Participate in transmitter hunting or radio orienteering. Use FRS radios when the patrols spread out across a camporee. A local venture crew only allows split hiking if each group has a ham radio operator. Have a search and rescue outing. Hike up mountains and score points for Summits on the Air. Practice sending emergency calls (preferably with the radio turned off). Practice with FRS radios, then get a ham license.

What do I carry?

I carry a cell phone and a 2m ham radio for trips that are a few hours from the trailhead. After doing this analysis, I’ll be looking at satellite phones for longer treks. A ten-day rental is between $80 and $120, plus $2/minute for calls. With a ten-person crew, that is about a dollar a day. Also, there is a particular portable HF amateur radio I have my eye on…