How to choose the best backcountry communication device for your next adventure

Backcountry-Communication-DeviceWhen you’re out in the wild and need to call for help, don’t be surprised if your cellphone reads “No Service.”

Victims of severe trauma or acute medical emergencies have the greatest chance of survival if they are delivered to a level-one trauma center within an hour of the onset condition. Bob Amick, a Red Cross Wilderness First Aid instructor-trainer and vice president of young adult programs in the Western Colorado Council, calls this the “golden hour.”

To respond swiftly to a backcountry emergency, leaders and Scouts must:

Information Is Power
In the event of an emergency in the wild, you or another leader in your group needs to gather information prior to calling for help. This ensures that you “make the most out of battery life and limited signal,” says Nate Lay, chief of medical services at Philmont Scout Ranch.

Lay recommends writing the following information down before calling for help:

  • Your location using UTMs, if possible
  • Nature of the emergency/what happened
  • Treatment already given to patient
  • Available phone or radio battery life. Consider setting up a pre-arranged call-back time and turning the device off until then to safe battery life.
  • Current weather
  • Equipment, water and food that the group has currently

Calling for Help
Amick recommends that leaders consider carrying one (or more) of the following devices to serve as a backup to your phone in an emergency. Choose the right device that will work best where you’re traveling, and get comfortable using the device properly before your trip. Be sure to carry extra batteries or a solar charging panel.


What: A handheld phone, such as the Iridium 9555, that taps into a mobile satellite communications network.

Pros: You can dial your nearest public safety answering point and describe the emergency fully, without the constraint of text characters.

Cons: Dense vegetation or canyons can prevent connection; you must know the number of the nearest public safety answering point — you can’t just dial 911; bulky; expensive (device alone can cost $1,000 or more and require additional service fees); limited battery power

Tips: You can rent a satellite phone for short-term use. Some high-adventure bases like Northern Tier provide these devices to groups traveling in the Boundary Waters.


What: A radio that can be used by a licensed amateur radio operator to call for help using emergency frequencies in a range of about 100 miles.

Pros: Reliable and relatively easy to use once you are licensed; not limited to character text constraints to describe situation; considerably more affordable versus other options (starting at about $100 for a radio device)

Cons: You must be licensed to use these radios; bulky; limited battery power

Tips: Ask a local amateur radio operator to help train your unit. Also, be sure to check with local park rangers or wilderness experts about the available repeater networks and local terrain in the area where you will be exploring.


What: A compact device that sends a one-way emergency message via satellite to alert rescue teams of your location

Pros: Small; lightweight; easy to use once properly trained; some models, such as the ResQLink PLB ($279.99), require no subscription fees; battery lasts up to five years

Cons: Responders only know your GPS location and that there is an emergency —  no additional information is provided to help aid the rescue; one-way device does not provide any feedback to the sender, so you don’t know if your message was received

Tip: Be sure you and the members of your group know how to use the device, as false “triggers” have occurred.


What: A compact device that allows two-way satellite messaging with rescue teams or family members at home. Some versions even let you post updates to your social media accounts.

Pros: Two-way messaging means you can be sure your 160-word message was received; allows you to text non-emergency updates to family members at home; device like the DeLorme InReach SE ($299.95) uses Bluetooth to pair with an app on your smartphone for easy message viewing; very reliable messaging under clear skies/little vegetation; “tracking” mode allows at-home viewers to follow your steps

Cons: Requires a subscription service at an additional cost; limited battery power

Tip: Be sure to educate parents before your trip on what to expect when tracking your progress with the SEND devices. “If they don’t know what to expect, they may alert rescue teams when they are not needed,” Lay says.

Has your troop or crew used a backcountry communications device during an outing? Which device did you choose and why? Share your feedback below.


  1. Amateur radio is the way to go. Earn the radio merit badge and participate in Jamboree On The Air. Radios available for $35 on Amazon. Solar rechargeable batteries available. Pass a 35 question test to get licensed. One day classes available..

    • emergency use of telecommunications equipment normally requiring an fcc license is permitted by non licensed personnel to save life and property. However routine use without required fcc licensing would be a violation of the fcc rules.

  2. back country communications devices should always be used with a GPS [geosynchronous positioning satellite] receiver to provide exact latitude and longitude coordinates to expedite an accurate and rapid response by mountain rescue and/or aeromedical helicopters.

    it is also advisable to carry an automatic external defibrillator [AED] on back country treks. These devices are now small, sturdy, and lightweight enough to carry in a backpack. Sudden Cardiac Arrest [SCA] is the leading cause of death [more than 300,000 annually] in the nation affecting all ages. Only AED’s can correct cardiac disrhythmias and restore normal heartbeat. CPR alone will not do that. For every minute a victim is in cardiac arrest, survival probability goes down by ten percent. Only seven percent of SCA victims suivive on average. Grants for AED’s are available from philanthropic foundations and service organizations.

    • I personally have suffered from Sudden Cardiac Arrest brought on by an Arrhythmia. They are no joke. No one going back country in a group of more than 2 people should be without one. The extra pack weight can mean the difference between life and death. I was 24 when mine occurred. I now have an IED in my chest permanently. I am on my 2nd Generation currently. I was fine and healthy one day 10 days later I was brought out of an induced coma.

  3. The comment about carrying a GPS in the backcountry is good information. However, to provide the best information for Search and Rescue, the GPS should be set to provide US National Grid coordinates ( This standard to locate points on a map and the ground has been adopted by FEMA for its emergency response and many SAR groups are shifting to this standard (many already used the UTM grid system).

    The GPS should also be set to the WGS84 datum to ensure that the coordinates mark the right place on the map/earth.

    If an emergency response by SAR is needed and a 911 call is possible, give the location coordinates as individual numbers 17S NB 5188 2045 (as opposed to saying “fifty one eighty eight twenty forty five”) to avoid confusion. The 911 dispatcher may not know exactly what to do with the numbers, but if passed on to the SAR responders, they will know exactly where to find you.

  4. Here is my personal experience with a rescue I was involved in. I am a Ham radio operator – KE7GVL.

    I always carry my HT (Handy Talky) any time I am in the back country. Cell service was not connecting even though we could see the Salt Lake Valley.

    By Anne Blankenship, KC7RAG
    It was Saturday, Aug. 14, 2010 – Here is a rough draft of an even rougher log of the event:
    ll:00 a.m. (actually more like 10:56 – my watch is fast) — KE7GVL called for anyone listening who could
    help with an emergency.
    KE7IJU (Aaron Hadley, North Salt Lake) answered and asked what was the nature of the emergency.
    KE7GVL: (Verle Skidmore, Clearfield) – we have a female who is in and out of consciousness – she is at the
    base of the falls but did not fall. We are going to need help to get her out.
    KE7IJU: what is your location? Which waterfall?
    KE7GVL: We are at the base of the falls up Adams Canyon. The fainting may be caused by a low sugal level,
    but the patient is not diabetic.
    KE7IJU: I have dispatch on the line, the dispatcher is not
    familiar with Adams Canyon — can you give a better
    KE7GVL: Adams Canyon is East of Layton Surf and
    Swim water tower on Hwy. 89.
    911 (relayed): What age is the patient? (Ans. 50-55)
    Is the patient alone? (Ans. There are people with her —
    her daughter and her husband.) Do not give the patient
    anything to eat or drink as there is a possibility of
    choking if she loses consciousness. (Ans. Will relay the
    11:10 Dispatch reported (by relay) that there were two
    paramedic deputies at the trailhead and asked about the
    distance to the falls.
    KE7GVL Reported the distance was three miles and
    reiterated that a litter or some means of transport was
    likely to be necessary. Dispatch reported that the deputies
    had been considering what equipment to bring and that
    they were now headed up the trail.
    KE7GVL then asked if dispatch needed any further
    information. If not, he would climb down off the rock he
    had climbed to get a good path to the repeater, but would
    remain on scene to relay any further traffic as needed.
    KE7IJU likewise promised to monitor in case of further
    11:15 traffic completed.
    I went on QRZ to look up the operators. KE7GVL, the
    hiker, was listed as Verle Skidmore, of Clearfield.

    Note: 2 paramedics came as well as search and rescue. These guys were amazing. They ended up using a helicopter to lift her off the mountain. We had our 11 yr old scouts there and they witnessed the whole thing. It was good to help out!!

  5. If you are routinely getting contacts 100 miles away with a handheld 2 meter amateur radio, you should be winning a lot of contests.

    I’ve made one long distance 2m contact. We were both on mountain peaks and it was a bit over 50 miles.

    Carry a sat phone. Seriously. Troops should have one and hand it out for every outing.

    • Some backcountry or wilderness regions such as the Colorado Rockies have extensive two meter amateur radio repeater networks with patching capabilities that by using dtmf signalling you can reach the desired contact point which can exceed several hundred miles away from your location..

      You are correct that unit to unit or simplex communications with five watt hand held radios probably will not provide long distance communication, but again, two meter repeater networks will very effectively do so. Moreover the two meter radios provide quality communications between members of the trek in most situations for logistics and coordination.

      As i noted in the Scouting magazine article, satellite phones are always a first choice if available but two meter amateur radio is certainly an excellent backup, especially where having more than one means of obtaining emergency assistance is exemplary of due diligence and risk management planning for backcountry treks.

  6. These articles always focus on big emergencies. What about the Scout who has an intestinal virus and needs to walk out to a different trailhead? Or altitude sickness? Or losing a boot while crossing a stream?

    First, think about the risks. Then make a communication plan. That will almost always require two-way communication with an arbitrary person. That means carrying a satellite phone. Period.

    Hey, here’s an idea. The BSA could make a deal with a sat phone provider for Scout units. That would be useful.

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