Scouting magazine

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

When 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:

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.


SATELLITE PHONE

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.


TWO-METER AMATEUR RADIOS

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.


PERSONAL LOCATOR BEACON (PLB)

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.


SATELLITE EMERGENCY NOTIFICATION DEVICE (SEND)

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.