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Radios, Communication and Signaling During Survival and Disaster

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You’re on a trek in the wild and you need help? How do you get ahold of others?  Your area has been devastated by a natural disaster. How do you call for help?  Let’s talk about survival communication tools and techniques that can help you get help when things take a turn for the worse.


Let’s Address the Obvious

A good friend of mine from my time in the military was a Special Forces commo man and a good one. He was able to make commo from isolated locales halfway around the world (in the days before satellite telephones).  As he says, the modern cellular telephone is the greatest telecommunication device in the history of mankind.   We all use them every day and for a wide variety of things.   Let’s not ignore the obvious.   Use your cell phone to call for help if you can.

What happens if you don’t have coverage? That is a very real concern in remote locations. However, coverage is constantly improving. It seems obvious, but if you are in a low-lying location in the wild, try to gain elevation so you can get a signal and get a call out. Simple, but this has saved folks on more than one occasion.


Let’s Talk Radios

This is a huge topic and volumes have been written on the subject of personal use of two-way radios.  Let’s address some options available to the public:

Family Radio Service/General Mobile Radio Service (FRS/GMRS):  Ever go to a large outdoor store and see the blister packs, usually sold in pairs, of two-way radios? The vast majority of these radios are FRS/GMRS.

These radios are relatively cheap and easy to operate. FRS  radios are relatively low-powered and require no license to use. Since 2017, the FRS handheld radio can be powered by up to two watts.  Anyone can use these radios for personal use.  Their range is relatively limited however and the advertised range on the packaging is very optimistic.  Think of them as a simple line of sight radio.

GMRS radios are more powerful, have channels that are not available to those using an FRS radio, and require a license and a fee from the FCC.  If using a GMRS, current FCC regulations allow for immediate family members to operate the GMRS license holder‘s station or stations. The FCC has lowered the price of a GMRS license from 70 to 35 USD in April of 2022. There is no testing requirement. The license is good for a period of ten years and the user is assigned a call sign by the FCC and has to use it during transmissions.  See FCC regulation about this for more details.

FRS channels 1 through 7 overlap with GMRS and can be used to speak with GMRS radios.

Briefly, if you are a casual user that infrequently wants to speak with others, FRS may be the way to go. If you need to use radio more often and require longer-range communications, it may be in your best interest to acquire a GMRS license and radio.

Ham Radio: Full disclosure, I do not have a ham radio license. Many consider this the best form of amateur radio communication. There is a testing requirement and a fee as well. Amateur radio operators are very dedicated hobbyists.  It should be noted that in areas that have suffered a natural disaster, such as a hurricane, tornado, earthquake, or other events that cause widespread destruction, when all other forms of communication are down, Ham radio operators are often the only form of communications still operating.  NOTE: It is illegal to operate on ham or GMRS frequencies without the proper licensing. DON’T DO IT.

The above is just a very brief overview but can give you some idea of the options that are available to you.


Have a Commo Plan

Radios are only good if someone is listening on the other end.   Radios are great to keep track of others at your party.  You can keep radios on all the time if battery life is not an issue. If it is, developing a simple communications (commo) plan can help.   Your plan may be as simple as turning on your radio for ten minutes at the top of the hour on a designated channel or frequency to keep each other abreast of your location and status. They can be as sophisticated as whatever you can dream up. 


What if I am Alone?

You are by yourself on a hunting trip, and you fall and break your ankle. You have your handheld radio in your pack from the last trip you took with a few buddies.   Most radios have a scan feature that cycles through the available channels and stops when it picks up a transmission. If you find yourself in this situation or something similar, it may be worth it to occasionally scan through the channels to see if someone is broadcasting and if so, attempt to communicate with them to seek help, it may also be worthwhile to pick a channel and broadcast in the blind seeking help.  Others also keep their radios on scan mode and may pick up your transmissions.


Proper Prior Planning Prevents………

A huge amount of tragedies could have been avoided by leaving a simple plan with a trustworthy party consisting of 1) Where you are going and 2) When you are coming back.  This simple step can really make a huge difference.  It is a lot easier to signal for help if someone is looking for you.


I Have No Radio

You’re in the wilderness, you need help and you have no radio.  How can you signal for help?

Once again, it is always easier to signal for help if someone is already looking for you.

Fire/Smoke: The ability to make a fire and the ability to make dark, easily visible smoke is a simple technique.   If you are in a vary sparsely populated area and can make a fire, at night, this may be visible for a long distance.  During the day, wetting green foliage and putting it in a fire can produce dark, thick smoke.

Colored panel: Flashing a brightly colored piece of clothing can be seen from a great distance.  In the military, brightly colored panels are called VS-17 panels and are used for a number of uses. I kept a cut-down compact version of one in my emergency kit while in the military.  A blaze orange hunting zest can be used for this or virtually any brightly colored piece of clothing.

Strobe lights: Commonly used in the military for signaling, a bright intermittent flashing light will draw attention. Simple, lightweight, relatively inexpensive strobes are widely available. They are light and may well be worth carrying if you get your rear in a sling.

Flares/Flare guns:  Not as widely available or common. Flair guns are commonly kept and used on boats as a distress signal.  While in the military, I  was issued a pen flare kit that consisted of a compact flare gun and several flares. These were excellent signaling devices but beware, it is easy to start an unintentional fire with these.  If you signal using a flare gun and it starts a large wildfire, you will draw all sorts of attention and likely effect rescue, but the associated civil and legal actions taken against you after you burn down ten thousand acres of national forest will not be pleasant.

3 shots:  If hunting with a firearm or if you have a firearm with you, 3 shots is the universal signal for distress.

The above should give you some things to think about before you venture out into the great unknown or are getting your family ready for a natural disaster. Chance favors the prepared.  Good luck out there.

Here is a link to my Youtube Channel episode that talks about my emergency kit, which includes several signaling devices