For many paddlers who know their local waterways or have lots of experience on familiar routes, it’s difficult to prioritize emergency communication as an important (much less the MOST important) aspect of their wilderness journey.
My hope is that this article will draw attention to the need for some level of preparation for emergency communications.
After more than 4 decades of paddling the waters of Northern and Central Ontario, I can offer you my best options for communicating with your family and rescue teams in a timely manner.
Table of Contents
How Do You Call For Help While Hiking, Canoeing, or Kayaking?
Smart paddlers know they need something to call for help when their plans go sideways, and options include basic smoke signals and mirrors, along with the latest in satellite phones, 2-way satellite communicators, and personal locator beacons.
Other options include FRS 2-way radios, a VHF aircraft radio, and simple basic options like a very loud emergency whistle.
Communication With a Group
If you’re traveling with a group that includes multiple canoes (especially more than 2) you could opt for some awkward communication strategies like shouting or paddle-waving, but with modern technology, there are many better options that will make us safer and will be far more efficient.
The best option for communication with a group of canoes should you get separated (either on purpose or by accident) is a long-range 2-way radio communicator.
For the price of a visit to Burger King, you can communicate with half a dozen or more canoes that are miles apart. You’ll need extra batteries, but it’s well worth the tiny bit of extra weight in your pack.
- Easy to Use
- Clear communication
- No training required
- Limited range
- Can’t be used to call for help from authorities
- Need to have spare batteries/backup power
If there are others within earshot of a very loud emergency whistle like a Fox-40 or a HyperWhistle (which has a volume of up to 142 dB), then a whistle is a valuable addition to your PFD or somewhere near at hand.
- Very affordable
- Excellent for alerting anyone within a few miles
- Easy to carry
- No maintenance
- No power requirements
- Cannot be used to contact rescue authorities
- Extremely limited range
- Cannot deliver a specific, detailed message
Smoke signals are a good, economical alternative for alerting others of your emergency, but the imprecision and questions that would arise might make this a last ditch hail Mary option.
Smoke signals won’t usually connect with anyone far away but could be used to alert part of your larger group of potential danger or the need to organize a rescue party.
- Highly visible orange smoke
- Best option for searchers in the daylight
- Short life (1 minute or so)
- Must hope that someone is watching your area at the moment you deploy the smoke
- Can’t relay a specific message
- Can’t directly reach authorities in most cases
Communication With Rescue Authorities
What Do You Do in a Backcountry Emergency?
There are many steps to take in any backcountry emergency depending on your environment, type of emergency and your current state of physical fitness.
The most important action you can take if you are in a true emergency after you’ve done everything you can do is to deploy a Personal Locator Beacon as the very strongest rescue device signal on the planet that communicates directly with government-funded rescue teams.
There are other options and here are some of the best:
NOT! Cell phones are useless for direct communication with anyone in truly remote areas. There is simply no signal. If there is a signal, then you are not in a remote location!
How Do You Use a Cell Phone in the Wilderness?
A cell phone can be used in the wilderness but usually not with a direct link to a cell tower if you are deep in the backcountry. The best way to use a cell phone for communication in the wilderness is to connect it to a satellite communicator like a Zoleo or a Garmin InReach satellite communicator.
Cell phones deserve a mention only because they can be used in conjunction with other devices I’ll mention down below a bit later (the Garmin InReach Mini or Explorer).
- You already have one so no need to buy more gear
- Can be used with other satellite communication devices
- Cannot be used on own for direct communication in remote areas
- Have a relatively short battery life – whether used or on standby
VHF Aircraft Radio
VHF Airband Transceivers (AKA “aircraft radios”) are meant typically for pilots to communicate on various channels with other pilots and control towers before departure, etc.
In the hands of a wilderness paddler, a VHF radio can contact passing planes in an emergency using the emergency frequency of 121.5 Mhz.
If you can see a plane from your location, it’s likely close enough to contact – the lower the better since a small plane may even circle your area (or land if it’s rigged with pontoons).
While a license is necessary to operate an aircraft transceiver, you’ll likely not get into any trouble if your only communication is to call for help in a life-threatening situation.
- No monthly fees
- Offers 2-Way Communication
- Need a license to use
- Need some training to use
- Relatively short distance
- Must rely on passing aircraft and even then it’s a shot in the dark!
Satellite phones are not the newest technology and most are developed using the technology of the 1980s and 90s. You won’t get any perks of a smartphone but you’ll be able to speak to a rescuer or use texting features.
- Offers 2-Way communication
- Basic (easy-ish to learn use)
- One subscription gives you access to anyone worldwide
- Needs expensive monthly subscription to work
- Older technology with few smartphone perks
- Large case to house charging equipment
- Phone size is much larger and heavier than other satellite communication devices
1-Way Satellite Communicators
Spot satellite communicators are available now in models allowing 2-way communication, but most models offer only 1-way signals. Spot offers an option to notify only your contact(s) of your emergency rather than notifying the Globalstar satellite network for a full-scale rescue operation.
Spot offers some excellent features like interval tracking of your location, the option to choose who receives your S.O.S., mapping services, and the Spot-X even has 2-way capabilities.
The unit is very small and affordable, so those issues won’t cause you to think twice, but subscription fees can nickel-and-dime you to death.
You can get multiple add-ons to your regular monthly fee and some services are as little as $2 – $3 but it can be bothersome to keep track of such fees which may get lost in the monthly budget and continue to eat away at your bottom line over the years.
- Affordable purchase price
- Offers lots of features
- Easily available (and inexpensive) batteries
- Requires Subscription fee
- Only 1 model offers 2-way communication
- Extra features require add-on subscription fees
- Relatively weak transmission signal (compared to a PLB)
- No confirmation of sent message(s)
2-Way Satellite Communicators
For many, a 2-way communicator offers the most peace of mind, the best features, and even the ability to connect with your cell phone to enable your phone’s app abilities like checking the weather or cruising the internet.
Of course, with such an apparent advantage over most of the other options listed so far, you can imagine it comes at a premium, and you’d be right.
- Offers the best and most complete communication features
- Allows your contacts to send you personal messages daily (in addition to tracking your exact location)
- Can be linked to a cell phone to access most phone app features
- Most expensive of all options over the longer term (subscription fees are the highest)
- Can’t easily change batteries
- Must keep multiple devices charged if connected to a cell phone
Personal Locator Beacon (PLB)
PLBs are becoming more and more popular in spite of their inability to offer 2-way communication or daily location tracking (or any convenient features of 2-Way communicators or cell phones).
However, the allure of having a very reliable and powerful signal to the COSPAS-SARSAT satellite system which then alerts rescue authorities – at NO COST to you, is great!
The idea of never having to change batteries for 5-7 years is also a nice touch.
Each PLB unit must be registered in your country (where you live) and it is by far the most reliable method of summoning help in an emergency.
It’s important to note that it is illegal to use the PLB unless your life is actually in jeopardy (broken arm or leg, serious fall off a rock ledge or tree, capsized boat far away from land, destroyed or lost canoe/kayak while 100’s of miles from civilization, etc.)
- No subscription fees
- Strongest satellite signal of any other satellite communicator option
- Available coverage worldwide
- Uses government-funded rescue services meaning that many/most legitimate rescues do not incur any costs on the part of the rescued party
- Registration allows authorities to contact your contact to confirm your identity and they’ll know exactly what/who they are looking for
- Fairly high purchase price
- Does not offer the option of specifying the type of emergency
- Battery replacement is so expensive, that it’s most often best to buy an entirely new unit rather than replace the battery
- No confirmation of signal being received
Some options for communicating while in the backcountry are primitive and rudimentary, and because of that, they’re usually free or very inexpensive.
Most canoeists and kayakers exploring the wilderness prefer something a little more high-tech in case of life-threatening emergencies.
After 40 years of experience in the wilderness, I can confidently assert that my biggest priority is bodily safety while far from civilization. I also happen to be thrifty and “frugal”.
To that end, my own personal choice for an emergency communication option is the OCEAN SIGNAL RescueMe PLB-1. It is the smallest PLB in the world (at the time of this article) but otherwise, you’re just as well-off to buy any PLB from ACR. I am very fond of them both!
I can’ help but be attracted to the lack of subscription fees and the unmatched intensity of signal directly to the rescue authorities.
I’d love to encourage you to be safe and get at least a 1-way or 2-way communicator, or if you’re allergic to monthly bank-draining fees like I am, consider the PLB for financial savings, less maintenance, and better odds of actually getting rescued!