Communications in the BackCountry w/o cell coverage

11:23 a.m. on June 27, 2010 (EDT)
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I've been an avid day hiker for the last few years. In my "pre-career/pre-kid" days I was an avid hiker and back-country camper. I've been slowly moving beyond my day trips and getting back into some overnight and weekend trips but unfortunately my wife has also been getting more nervous about not being able to contact me in cases of emergency and its really limited me to just overnighters. In July I'm going to be heading out for 4-5 days in western NC and I'm getting a lot of pushback from the wife as I'm pretty sure there will be no cell phone coverage. I've considered picking up a spot to make her feel better that I'm safe but it doesn't address her being able to contact me. With small children and some health issues with some family members her concern isn't unreasonable for being gone for several days but yet I would really like to spend some more time in the back country. Day hikes are becoming just a big tease! Now I'm not talking about long conversations - probably/hopefully none at all, even text messaging would be sufficient. I've looking into maybe renting a satellite phone for the week but that looks like it could get pricey after a few trips. About 20 years ago I used to have my FCC\Amateur radio license and we did some interesting things with patching calls through cell towers but with no towers to patch through I'm thinking thats probably out as well.

Anyone have any thoughts/suggestions?


12:01 p.m. on June 27, 2010 (EDT)
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Josh take you cell with you turn it OFF put it in a zip-lock bag and stuff it in your pack. Now tell her this way you have it just encase and you will call her only if needed. Other members and myself go solo all the time tell her to chill out and relax its no big deal chances are you will run across people on the trail here and there.

You cant live your life worrying about the out come of possibilities that may never happen, you will miss so much.

2:53 p.m. on June 27, 2010 (EDT)
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There are several ways to get messages out, but a limited set that let you get messages in to the backcountry. Two examples of coming out of the backcountry to discover world-changing events - My inlaws and a group of their friends had gone backcountry skiing a way back into the Sierra in December 1941. On the way back to LA, the group stopped for gas in Mojave. One of the group spotted the headlines on the paper on the news stand that WWII had started. Car radios being what they were in those days, they had not heard the news even on their drive from the trailhead to the gas station.

Two friends and I were climbing in Yosemite backcountry in early September 2001. I headed home late evening on the 10th, and woke up the next morning to 9/11 in progress. My partners stayed a couple days longer and did not discover 9/11 until their return home 9/13.

The methods of getting messages out are these -

Ham radio, as you mention, works to some extent. Sometimes you are in range of a repeater and can get a message out. There are handhelds that can operate on 6 and 10 meters, so you can get some ionospheric bounce under some conditions. And if you are really into it, you can carry a tiny rig and some wire to string a solar-powered HF rig. The weight can be under 10 pounds. Still, that's a lot to be carrying.

Sat phones can be purchased for around $500, buying the message service according to a short term usage (like cell phones for which you buy so many minutes rather than the "unlimited" plans. They still are not cheap, though if you use the digital service only, the cost is a lot lower. Iridium is the most dependable of the two available services. GlobalStar seems to have too many dropped calls and outages, based on my observations of people using various satphones in the US. Take a good look at the coverage maps compared to where you are planning to go, though, to be sure your areas are covered. Iridium is available over the entire Earth surface, while GlobalStar is limited mostly the continents (and not parts of a couple continents at that) and ocean areas fairly close to the continental edges.

Cell phones, as you said, lack coverage in many wilderness areas, though sometimes you can get up to a hilltop. For example, on Denali, we could get coverage at the 14k and 17k camps on the West Buttress route. Texting still requires getting into a cell tower, so it isn't much better availability than voice.

SPOT allows several pre-programmed messages in its SPOT 2 version - OK, tracking (via its SHARE function) and a custom message, plus the Help and 911 messages. Delorme and SPOT have announced, but not yet released, a new combination of devices, the PN-60 GPS receiver from Delorme and the SPOT Communicator from SPOT. According to the ads running in Outside and Backpacker among other places, you can send pre-programmed OK messages (about a dozen or so different ones to choose from) and a free-form message that you compose on the GPSR, plus the Help and 911 calls that SPOT has had with the SPOT 1 and SPOT 2. Again, these are out-going messages only. Your wife can't send a "come home, the kid broke her arm" message to you.

There is also the old method of leaving a contact number of the nearest ranger station. In a real emergency, the rangers will seek you out to tell you that you have a disaster at home and need to get home immediately.

Good thing this isn't the 19th Century or earlier, when people would head out for a couple years with little or no contact with the folks back home. Shackleton and crew were gone a couple years with no way of contacting home, with most of WWI fought in their absence.

As for advice, I could be nasty and say that you need to trade your wife in on a new model who isn't so dependent on your presence (sounds like she would not have survived being the wife of a soldier or sailor, much less an adventurer or explorer earlier than the mid-20th Century). You could reassure her that she is a big girl now and you have full confidence in her handling any problems that come up while you are gone for the weekend (then train her on dealing with your absence during 3-day, then 4-day, then week-long, and ultimately several month trips).

Yeah, I am being mean, harsh, and just don't understand. But that's what comes of having a wife who is woodsy, too, and who grew up in a woodsy family, just as I did. Course, that causes another problem - Barb always wants to go on the same Grand Adventures with me. When Young Son was growing up, we just took him along.

1:02 a.m. on June 28, 2010 (EDT)
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I tend to carry a handheld (HT) HAM radio, but like Bill mentioned, hitting a repeater might be problematic in the way-backcountry. But even if you could, you'll still need to know the tone code needed to access, or call up, the repeater. Without it you'd be able to listen, but not broadcast. Most (all) HTs have a way to capture this tone while listening into a conversation, which you could then enter into the HT's memory so you can broadcast. But the problem with this is that you'll have to wait until someone starts talking, which might take a while. Not something you want to have to wait for in an emergency situation.

You could always look up the repeaters in the area you'll be visiting before you go and plug in the needed info into the HT so you'll be ready, which is what I do.

And if all else fails, there is a National Call Frequency on all HAM radio bands. You'd be pretty unlucky not reaching someone in the Lower 48 States on said frequency. These emergency frequencies operate in "simplex", which is communicating directly to another radio without using a repeater. Think "walkie talkies" here.

The problem with all of this, though, is that you might be able to get a call out, but you'd most likely never be able to receive an incoming one.

7:44 a.m. on June 28, 2010 (EDT)
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I appreciate everyone's feedback, both the equipment and the relationship advice :) . It can be frustrating at times working to compromise with the wife to give her a comfort level high enough so as not to interfere with my comfort level on my outings lol. She really does enjoy the outdoors as long as she can come back to the camper every night if you get my drift. I'm a software developer for a living so I sit on my butt in front of a computer all day so the last thing I want to do is haul around a bunch of communications equipment - one of the reasons I enjoy the outdoors is that "disconnection" I feel - I rarely even turn on the GPS. Long term I don't think this will be a concern for me, I agree that she'll get comfortable with my trips as time goes on and this will become less of an issue.

It really sounds like the radio option won't work - as much as refreshing my license has some appeal for me.

It sounds like my real only short term option is a satalite phone. Bill you had mentioned Iridium and Globalstar so I started doing some research. I'm really only in North America and it looks like Globalstar equipment and packaged minutes are significantly cheaper then Iridium and they have OK coverage in CONUS (although I'm still trying to figure out if they do pre-paid minutes like the Iridium does). I suspect the lack of world wide coverage and the occasional poor service for the price difference. I've read reports of dropped calls and such as well but I think if I can at least turn it on and look for an sms message or check some voice mail every couple days that should be sufficient. I have some more research to do but I like the idea of just buying an inexpensive or used phone, buying some minutes for a year, and just throwing it in the pack for the rare time I'll use it. I'll consider the 1/2 pound of weight the cost of doing business with the wife lol.

Thanks again for the feedback guys and not ribbing me too much on my over protective wife :)


10:52 a.m. on June 28, 2010 (EDT)
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I feel your (wifely) pain! :-)

On another note, since I usually go on all my trips solo, my wife and I have developed a text message code system. I've noticed that I can often get a fast text message in or out when a phone call is impossible.

111 - not urgent, just call if you can

222 - all OK, no response needed

555 - important, call home asap

999 - emergency!

This worked really well in Death Valley this past winter. I sent a 222 text message daily, and even if I have no service at that time, it only took a second to try to resend it every little bit.

BTW, you should renew your license!
73 de W9JIM

12:51 p.m. on June 28, 2010 (EDT)
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I tend to carry a handheld (HT) HAM radio, but like Bill mentioned, hitting a repeater might be problematic in the way-backcountry. But even if you could, you'll still need to know the tone code needed to access, or call up, the repeater.

As with JimDoss and Bill S these are your best bets in the back country (SPOT and handheld CB) I have 2 links for you 1 is for SPOT the other is for repeaters, SAR, Ranger station, fire and rescue ext...ext... frequencies and repeaters numbers I program my handheld for the repeaters, ranger stations, SAR and Guard channel just in case I need them, I also carry a small cell that I turn on only at night and send a text to the wife very basic usually just "OK" and give my coordinates. Hope this helps


1:48 p.m. on June 28, 2010 (EDT)
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Thanks! I just gotta say you guys have been really helpful. I'm actually going to open up another thread on radios on the gear list. About 20 years ago I got my Novice(do they still call it that?) FCC license when I was in the Civil Air Patrol. I never really made much use of it unless we were out on a SARCAP (kind of like a search and rescue exercise) and I never had my own radios. I have to say the hardest part of the exam was memorizing the damn morris code but with my renewed interest in extended back country camping and my certification in progress to take cubscouts\boyscouts out camping I'm starting to think of a more practical use for it outside the "party" lines it became when I was younger. Also the more I researched sat-phones the more I've found that outside renting them occasionally its more then I want to spend unless I make it out a lot more then every few months which I'm averaging now.



3:25 p.m. on June 28, 2010 (EDT)
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In consideration for the wonderful wife that I have and being comfortable in my own skin, I purchased a spot for her peace of mind. I send a I'm OK signal once in the morning, a few times during the day, and once before turning it off for the night. She can track what I'm doing on a google map.

7:23 p.m. on June 28, 2010 (EDT)
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Josh, you've already gotten tons of technical advice, and I'm usually smart enough not to dish out unwanted relationship advice, but, as one of the few females (and wives) posting around here I felt obligated to chime in.

First, I think your issue is probably a major consideration for a lot of other people. While some of us may be blessed with equally outdoorsy spouses/partners, that's not always the case. And even if it is, you and your family may have other obligations that come into play (little kids, medical concerns, etc.). Even then, not everyone always gets to go out with their spouse on the same trip at the same time. It may only be possible for one parent to leave on a trip at a time due to family and work commitments.

So, here are my thoughts on making your wife comfortable with the process:

First, and most important, find out what your wife's specific concerns are and address each one as best possible. Is she mainly concerned about your safety or equally concerned about contacting you due to a pressing medical concern in the family that may be looming?

Think about each concern and how realistic each of those concerns are and address them accordingly. (Will she feel better knowing you're on well traveled trails? Have taken a wilderness first aid course? Have a SPOT on you?)

Prepare her for the least amount of communication you can provide, then meet and, if possible, exceed that. Under-promise and over-deliver.

Give her more info than she could ever want before you leave (route info, where you'll stay each night) and don't deviate from it, if possible. Also, give her multiple methods of contacting you in a true emergency (ex. ranger or forest service contacts, etc.) and definite rules about when you would want her to contact anyone.

I agree that she will probably become more comfortable with you being gone for days if you do the groundwork and prep now and meet and exceed all of your promises from the beginning. (I like JimDoss's text system above.)

(Okay, now this starts to border on relationship advice...sorry.) Whatever time she feels comfortable with you being away for, make sure you reimburse her with a similar amount of time away doing whatever she wants. Then be just as (or more) encouraging of her time alone (or doing whatever she'd enjoy).

As fellow parents of small kids, I know it can be tough to have one spouse off having fun for days while the other one is at home taking care of the responsibilities. So, it's important to make sure everyone gets equal time to pursue their interests, even if they're not identical to our own interests.

If your wife sees how your time backpacking makes you a better spouse and parent, that may make it easier for her to let you get away in the future.

Hope that helps!

7:23 p.m. on June 28, 2010 (EDT)
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...Globalstar equipment and packaged minutes are significantly cheaper then Iridium and they have OK coverage in CONUS (although I'm still trying to figure out if they do pre-paid minutes like the Iridium does)....

The package and pre-paid minutes mean basically the same thing. The two options are to purchase a package of minutes, then quit when you run out, or have your credit card automatically or by your sending an authorization get charged for the next bundle. You can't really buy an "unlimited" plan like you can with most cell phone companies, unless you are a corporation with lots of satphones or a governmental organization. Some bundles have an expiration date, though, if you don't use all your minutes.

As ambersdad notes, if you only need to get an occasional "OK" message out, SPOT works well enough. You can set things up to do continuous tracking (10 minute intervals, not really continuous). SPOT 2 is fairly cheap, given its capabilities, and the pending Delorme/SPOT combination does allow short free-form messages. The Delorme people have been showing this combination for a few months. I included a comment on it in the Winter OR Show blog here on Trailspace. The expected Spring release has obviously been delayed a bit, but Delorme has been sending reps around the country to demonstrate it (or a prototype). One of the reps was at my local REI a couple months ago showing some of the features.

I have been testing a SPOT 2 and will post a review of it in a month or so. It is a big improvement over the original SPOT - much better under canopy (even under redwoods, the bane of GPS receivers), and the messages seem to get through quickly. The SPOT 2 allows a bit more in messaging than the old SPOT 1, but not like the ads say the Delorme/SPOT combination will allow. Hopefully, Trailspace will get one of the combination setups to test soon after it is released to market (by the OR Show in August???).

9:43 p.m. on June 28, 2010 (EDT)
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Josh, have you considered renting a Sat phone? I just googled it and came up with some results I say give that a try.

9:39 p.m. on June 29, 2010 (EDT)
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I so feel your pain!
You have one fine conundrum here! Having been in your position, and know more than a few other married campers who had this problem, I hazard to say this subject has more to do with matrimonial politics, power, and empowerment, than merely you being there or in contact. I won’t go into any great depth of analysis - and it probably isn’t welcome anyway - but if it is ok for you to be away for a weekend, what logic precludes an extended trip? Last time I checked, emergencies are apt to happen randomly, as likely to occur when you are home, or out for the day, or week.

One reason people get married is so they have the support of someone else. This is probably fundamental to your wife’s position. But at some juncture that need must be tempered in the light of your needs too. She needs to understand your request for an occasional week trip is a small price to pay to have you “on call” the rest of the year. It is selfish or insecure to consider otherwise.

In my and my friends’ instances no technology acquiesced our spouse’s demands. The bottom line was married men belong at home, not out getting drunk in the woods (or something to that effect). Some of our spouses eventually granted “permission” to their outdoors spouse, some outdoors spouses incrementally crossed the line (as you are doing with the weekend trips) until multi daytrips crept back into their life, and a few just plainly had to call BS on their non-hiking spouse’s insecurities and controlling politics, letting the demanding spouse determine the consequences when they went camping. Note this doesn’t always have a happy ending, if you believe this is part of a pattern of a deeper struggle, you may want to consider a third party mediator (counselor) if this is really important to your personal well being.

Good luck, Ed

2:53 p.m. on July 9, 2010 (EDT)
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My Spot 1 is fantastic with a clear unobstructed view of the sky. But Bill makes a good point about under a heavy canopy. Or for that matter deep canyons. Under those conditions with it set to send a signal in 10 minute intervals it was very spotty. Pun intended. In one locale it sent 4 signals in a 5 hour time frame.

8:09 p.m. on July 9, 2010 (EDT)
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I pose a question for some of the ol' timers here...How did you do it before all this Techno-stuff was around?

2:35 a.m. on July 10, 2010 (EDT)
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I pose a question for some of the ol' timers here...How did you do it before all this Techno-stuff was around?

Same question 100 years ago: How did you survive without the telegraph?

And 50 years ago: How could anyone live without airconditioning and the microwave?

I imagine this same question 50 years from now: how did you ever get by before supersonavison?
I still do it the same way. I don't own any electronic camping stuff, no car GPS, no wireless anything; I don't even own a cell phone. I find too many toys forces you to spend too much time keeping track of them and charging/repairing/upgrading/researching/shopping and genarally missing life as it plays out in front of you.

6:24 a.m. on July 10, 2010 (EDT)
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Before cell-phones, SPOTs, and PLBs we got ourselves out of the backcountry... or we didn't. Getting messages in was usually only for serious matters. For example, in 1972 when my father died unexpectedly, I was living in the woods. A family member contacted the Mounties saying that they believed that I was in the province. After some old-fashioned detective work, the Mounties tracked me to my general area and left a note for me tacked to a cabin on the only road in - I happened to see the note three days later as I was walking by.

I'm not a Luddite, but I don't/won't own a cell-phone. I had one of the earliest models and I carried one for years as a part of my job; but I've since found that there is nothing in my life that can't wait until I get home to communicate : ) IMO, the modern obsessive need to be constantly tied to others, dilutes and ultimately destroys the art of communication while simultaneously repelling the myriad joys of solitude and thought.

We used to have a phrase "Getting away from it all." This thread by its implicit assumption of an electronic umbilical cord into the backcountry invalidates that phrase.


7:20 a.m. on July 10, 2010 (EDT)
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I have my Will and financial stuff worked out and my son will have exactly two more pennies to rub together upon my demise.

I hike and ride a dirt bike alone much of the time and figure if anything happens that leads me to perish then that was how I was meant to go.

(Though I do try and mitigate the risk of that happening for the moment.)

Do not have a land phone anymore and just a cell and laptop.

Maybe I could revert to smoke signals?

8:27 a.m. on July 10, 2010 (EDT)
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in most situations, i manage to get a text out now and then. it eats up your battery when the phone constantly searches for a connection, though. sat phone rental is a reasonable compromise, worth the expense in my book if it makes one's spouse less nervous.

i'm with Alicia on the balancing act. you won't find my wife on a mountaintop or deep in the woods - give her credit, she tried it a few times, just not her thing. we had a good laugh once when she and a friend drove up mt. washington so we could have lunch together on the summit (i took the scenic route). because i get my occasional jaunts, i'll work from home a few days & take care of our family so she can head to new york city, see old friends, eat good food, shop, whatever. one thing i know - her happy post-trip vibe is every bit as good as mine, and i think we're both better for it.

2:07 a.m. on July 12, 2010 (EDT)
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I used to fly ultralights, and they hardly ever had radios. I am not married, and for what its worth I would love the problem you have. That is simply that you have someone that cares about you and needs you. From some people's point of view, your wife should give you your space which I guess is true, but I bet when you get home it is great to see her. I know that when I go hiking, the trees look great, the scenery too, but after four days...I practically kiss the car when I walk up to it. But having a lady at home waiting for me...well that would be awesome.

Tell her that you understand her concerns, and that if the role was reversed, you would be just as concerned. But I think that you should paint the picture in a more realistic way. The married guys that I flew with would always speak of the same problems, the same whether you are flying or hiking, that being that there are inherent dangers and difficulty in communication. I will tell you what I told them.

Tell her that if you are two days out, it will take the same time to get back. So even if you can get a message through to me, understand that not matter what, it will be two days minimum before I can get back. So if it is a four day backpack, unless it is a dire emergency and we could have a plane fly in to get me, would it not be better to just let the trip run its course? Then give her a big hug and say, "I will see many beautiful things while I am gone...but I will be thinking of you all the time."

You're a lucky guy Josh.


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