Emergency Off Grid Communication Guide
This emergency communications guide will help you understand what options are available to you and your family to use during and after a disaster, should normal lines of communication be unavailable.
We will discuss the basic and advanced technologies that exist today; such as satellite & radio communications, along with more basic methods as simple as loud noises and flashing light.
We're going to get into a lot of depth on some fairly complex subjects in this guide.
This isn't an advanced tutorial but we will try to give you a comprehensive understanding of what options you have and what their strengths and limitations are, and that will include a pretty deep dive into electronics and radio theory so some complex subjects are ahead.
Types of Emergency Communications (EMCOMM)
Why are backup communications an important part of preparedness?
During a natural disaster or emergency, you might not be able to depend on your cell or land-line phones or internet to exchange information between you and your loved ones, or the community around you in they ways you are used to.
Cell towers and internet routers must be powered to operate, and if there is a large enough power outage than their services can be easily be compromised, and might not come back online for days, or even weeks.
Both of these situations happen quite frequently around the world, especially during large scale events such as earthquakes, wildfires, or hurricanes.
You might not be able to reach your family, friends, and neighbors even within your own community!
So what can you do?
There are other methods of communication which are available to you:
- Basic methods: signaling and notes
- Satellite Phones & 2-Way Devices
- Mesh Networks
- Handheld UHF/VHF Radios
- High Frequency Radios
It's good to have a combination of these technologies, as they all have their strengths and weaknesses.
Some are easy to use, some require a learning curve, some are cheap, and some are prohibitively expensive.
We will dive into each of these options in detail so you can decide what is best for you.
BTW If you buy anything with the links we provide on this page we might get a small percentage of the sale from the manufacturers end. For more info click here.
The technology we are about to discuss is great stuff, but sometimes the older methods will work best or be more pertinent.
We have a basic Emergency Nav & Coms outlined in this blog post that is an essential kit you should have in every survival bag. Start there.
Every emergency kit should contain a whistle and a signal mirror. They can send signals (and messages using morse code) great distances with little effort. Here's an great article to show you how to use a signal mirror and how amazing they are.
Waterproof paper and pen are important because you might need to leave notes on community bulletin boards. Having a magic marker in your kit is also a good idea, find a piece of cardboard and you can make a large sign that can't be missed.
We have had to use this method before in some remote areas to help people in town locate the rest of the group where we were gathering. It's also an important way to communicate in a shelter or refugee camp.
Satellite Communication Options
Satellite communications are a newer option available to most, and costs are reasonable, about the same as you would spend for a cell phone and service.
Satellite systems can work worldwide, but are not be legal in all countries (they are illegal in India for example.)
Unlike cell phones which use land based towers and antennas, satellite devices connect directly to satellites in orbit, which in turn relay the signals back down to earth.
There 3 main types of devices: Satellite Phones, Messengers, and Trackers. There are also Satellite WiFi Hot-spots like the Iriduim Go, which act like your wireless router at home.
The coverage of most of these devices is amazing, you can be in the middle of many oceans and communicate around the world. The exact coverage area depends on the network you are using.
The big three networks are Iridium, Globalstar, or Inmarsat.
SPOT Messinger Coverage Map. Last Updated 2016-08-05. Estimated coverage area. Actual coverage may vary.
Our favorite satellite communication device is the Spot X 2-Way Messenger. It's the right blend of price / features.
Typical Price: $250
SPOT X provides 2-way satellite messaging off the grid and beyond cellular coverage. It can be used as a standalone communication device or with the SPOT app on your smartphone. Each SPOT X has its own dedicated U.S. mobile number, so others can message you directly at any time. You can send an SOS to 24/7 Search & Rescue services and message back and forth about the nature of your emergency, and receive confirmation when help is on the way. It's a great device that can really be useful in an emergency!
We were able to pick up an older SPOT Connect for $40 on eBay which has a $12 a month service fee. It can send text or email messages one-way or call for rescue if needed via your cell phone. A cost effective option if you can find one.
Typical Price: $450
Utilizing the global Iridium network, the inReach Explorer+ gives you both satellite communications and GPS navigation. GPS tracking info you can share with others. Pair with your phone to use maps, aerial imagery and U.S. NOAA charts. GEOS emergency response solutions and monitoring included.
There are a multitude of Satellite Phones and plans available these days. The pricing has come down substantially in recent years, and now sat phones cost about the same as cell phones do for both the devices and the service.
They aren't dependent upon terrestrial relay networks, so if you are in an affected area you can call cell phones or land-lines outside of it, or to other sat phone users within.
Many also have GPS, SMS, and SOS features, all worth having if you can get them.
These are a no-brainer if you have a boat which you take offshore, or live in an area where cell service is already spotty.
There has been a new style of device hitting the market which can piggy back off our smart phones processing power to create useful peer-to-peer local networks for communications.
Typical Price: $179
We think these are a incredibly cool and inexpensive off-grid communication choice we think everyone should consider implementing. The more of these in the world the more powerful it becomes.
goTenna mesh units communicate directly to each other via radio, and don't require a centralized network to send messages to each other.
Send private messages with your friends, family, or community using the same technology that you use everyday, text messages.
Track your location and your teams location on real-time maps. You can even send Bitcoin with them!
See our full goTenna Mesh review here.
The tried and true backup system is also one of the oldest: using radio waves to communicate long distances.
With the right gear and the right atmospheric conditions you can communicate locally, regionally, or world wide with equipment small enough to fit in a backpack or a vehicle.
You can talk with voice, morse code, or digitally (with electronic messages.)
Elecraft makes the great portable HF/UHF/VHF radios. KX3 and KX2 are their smallest.
The radio spectrum in the US is regulated in the US by the FCC. Any device which transmits radio frequencies must conform to their regulations.
Some radio frequencies can be used by anyone and are used by the radios you pickup at your local sporting goods store. These are the CB, MURS, FRS and MARINE bands.
GMRS radios, which are readily available do require a license, although the do not require you to pass a test. Here is a guide on how to get a GMRS license ($70 for 10 years.)
Some frequencies require taking tests, getting licensed and receiving and using a call-sign. These are what is known as Amateur Radio aka "Ham Radio" bands. They can utilize parts the UHF, VHF, and HF spectrum, depending on the level of license held by the operating station.
Ham Radio is a somewhat complex subject that requires study and oftentimes help from others.
In order to practice using the products and some of the techniques we will discuss here, you will need to acquire a license from the FCC if you wish to transmit on the Amateur radio bands.
We suggest that the adults and teens in the family get at least their Technician Class License as a Ham radio operator. It's easy, only 35 questions to answer - 26 correct to pass - and with a few weeks study you can pass it without issue.
This gives you access to VHF/UHF Amateur bands and limited operations in certain HF bands, which is above and beyond the public walkie-talkie frequencies (which are UHF and don't travel very far.)
You can also use repeaters to help move messages around a broader geographic area. Repeaters are devices mounted in antenna towers which can allow radio users to communicate greater distances.
We put together a tutorial to show you the quick and easy ways to get your Technician License here.
Getting the next level up, the General Class License is a smart idea because then you have access to the HF bands, which can give you world-wide communications via atmospheric propagation (more on that later.) It's not much trickier than the Technician Test.
BTW You DON'T have to learn Morse Code to get your license.
BUT...Morse is the most efficient way to communicate long distances with small radios and small power output.
It is the ultimate post-collapse communications method, as it's one of the oldest we as humans have for long distance communications.
Important Radio Terminology
Let's nail-down some specific definitions before we go further and you get too much lingo you don't understand.
If you are already a Ham, skip this section as you probably already know this stuff. But if you want to brush up feel free:
Radio is an electromagnetic wave. Waves have frequencies, meaning the amount of time it oscillates during a specific period. Radio frequency is measured in Hertz. 1 Hertz is 1 cycle per second. Frequencies are broken up into distinct groups for clarification:
HF: High Frequency Band
3 - 30 MHz Wavelength: 100 to 10 meters
VHF: Very High Frequency Band
30 - 300 MHz Wavelength: 10 to 1 meters
UHF: Ultra High Frequency Band
300 MHz - 3000 MHz (3 GHz) Wavelength: 1 meter to 10 centimeters
Personal Radio Services (PRS):
Not all radio frequencies require a license: there are several free services available, and some that require a license but not passing a test. CB, MURS, GRS, MARINE and GMRS* bands are easily available to most people.
*GMRS does require a license, but you don't have to pass a test.
There are certain limitations and restrictions for each band, familiarize yourself with them.
These aren't the best bands to use, those tend to be saved for the Amateur bands, and tend to be overcrowded but they are a good way to get started.
Handheld VHF and UHF radios can make use of repeaters to increase their effective ranges.
These are electronic devices which take incoming radio signals and re-broadcast them out and In flat territories this can mean ranges up to dozens of miles or greater.
Typically repeaters or their antennas are located very high up since they rely on line-of-sight (simplex) operation with VHF/UHF.
Most Ham Band repeater use will require at least a Technician level license. Read more on Wikipedia.
Fun Fact: With GMRS you can setup your own repeater to increase its effective range - this is a very powerful feature!
At medium wave and shortwave frequencies (MF and HF bands) radio waves can refract from a layer of charged particles (ions) high in the atmosphere, called the ionosphere. So radio waves transmitted at an angle into the sky can be reflected back to Earth beyond the horizon, at great distances, even transcontinental distances. This is called skywave or "skip" propagation. It is used by amateur radio operators to talk to other countries, and shortwave broadcasting stations that broadcast internationally.
Propagation is a deep subject, but it's an important concept to understand if you want to experiment with long-distance radio communications. Here is great article from Jonathan Imberi which explains it in detail.
Radio devices take many different forms. Your cell phone uses radio waves. So do terrestrial TV sets.
The kinds we are concerned about are two-way radios where you can talk and receive information.
Since we are talking about Bug Out situations, our focus will be on portable radios, not the big 1000 watt base stations that Ham Contesters use.
That narrows us down to Handheld HT's (Handy Talkies) and Portable HF (High Frequency) Radios.
- Family Radio Service (FRS)
- General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS)
- Citizens Band Radio Service (CB)
- Marine VHF Radio
- UHF/VHF Ham Bands
- High Frequency Bands
Family Radio Service (FRS)
The Family Radio Service (FRS) frequencies do not require a license to use.
FRS allows two-way voice communications over very short distances, generally less than a mile. It uses channelized frequencies around 462 and 467 MHz in the UHF band. FRS radios are limited to 2 Watts of output power and cannot use external antennas.
This means they are really for very local use, in your neighborhood or around your property. Get up to higher locations to increase the line-of-sight and the effective range.
Typical Price: $80 per pair
A great upgrade to some of the terrible options out there. 36 FRS Channels +121 CTSS Privacy Codes and NOAA Radio channels means you have as powerful of an FRS radio as you can get. USB rechargeable!
This package comes with 2 radios, a charging dock, rechargeable batteries, and ear-piece microphones.
FRS is a great way to quickly get started, but GMRS is much more scaleable:
General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS)
GMRS systems may only be legally operated with an FCC license. A licensee may permit his or her immediate family members to operate under their license.
Users can set up their own repeater systems to vastly increase operating ranges, this is a a feature typically only available to licensed Hams.
GMRS is our top choice for people who don't want to get licensed for the Amateur radio bands.
Typical Price: $80
22 Channels + 14 extra privacy code channels with 121 Privacy Codes and NOAA Weather alerts. Hands-free operation with Voice Activation.
Use in conjunction with a repeater system like the MXT115VP3 below to get massive ranges of 40+ miles under the right conditions!
Typical Price: $200
A powerful bundle designed for ATV/UTV or vehicle use, 15W Radio with 8 repeater channels for increased communication range. Compatible with all handheld GMRS radios.
Get the antenna up as high as you can to increase the effective range. Remember that radio works line of sight, so obstructions like buildings and trees can decrease performance.
Citizens Band Radio Service (CB)
CB radios have a range of about 3 to 20 miles depending on terrain, for line of sight communication. Sometimes you can get atmospheric skip with CB.
Transmitter power is limited to 4 watts in the US, although there are many bandit stations out there pushing much more power than that.
We don't really recommend CB radio for emergency use. Too many people on it doing random stuff.
Typical Price: $60
40-Channels with 4-Watts of Output Power. Built to be durable. Uses 9 AA alkaline batteries, rechargeable NiCad batteries, or included 12V DC adapter. Flexible, Removable Antenna with BNC connector.
Marine VHF Radio
Marine VHF Radio is a worldwide system of two way radio transceivers on ships and watercraft used for bidirectional voice communication from ship-to-ship, ship-to-shore (for example with harbormasters), and in certain circumstances ship-to-aircraft*.
While these are good for marine use, you should not be using these channels for land based emergency communications unless a life-or-death situation demands it.
We do not recommend using these bands in your backup communications plans, unless you will be living on or traveling by boat or ship.
UHF/VHF Ham Band Handhelds
Once you've gotten an Amateur Radio license a whole new world of technologies and options open up to you.
The most powerful is the ability to use repeaters, some of which can be hundreds of feet in the air and over huge areas. You can also use external antennas and high powered radios which can really get your signal out there and heard.
You don't need to have a license to listen to Amateur radio bands, only to transmit - UNLESS THERE IS AN EMERGENCY - then you are free to use any available means to get help, including transmitting on Amateur bands.
Many of these radios also have APRS GPS tracking which you can use to be found by others at aprs.fi. Some also have integrated Terminal Node Controllers (TNC's) so you can send digital messages and data.
The top-tier manufacturers are: Kenwood, Icom, and Yaesu.
Our suggestion is to get at least your primary radio from one of these manufacturers if you can. They cost more, but they dramatically out perform the less expensive Chinese models in all ways: better output, better receive, better scanning, better battery life.
Typical Price: $180
This is a rock solid radio at an entry level price. 144- and 430-MHz transceive operations, receives VHF and UHF TV bands, the VHF AM aircraft band, and a wide range of commercial and public safety frequencies.
It's very popular and has been around for years so is well known and trusted to deliver when it needs to. It's shock and water resistant, so it is designed to be out in the real world and be abused. We' have had this radio for years and is our go-to when we are in the field.
Typical Price: $27
An upgrade to the fantastic BaoFeng UV-5R. See our full Baofeng UV-5R review and walk-thru here.
The Baofeng UV-5R Plus is a compact, economical HT covering 2 meters and 440 MHz. This model adds a metallic rugged shell, which is more durable than previous models.
It has special VHF receive band from 65 - 108 MHz which includes the regular FM broadcast band.
Dual watch and dual reception is supported. Up to 128 memory channels.
To make the most out of your Baofeng UV-5RA there are a handful of accessories you should consider. If you want to use the radio in a car then you will need an antenna that sits outside of the vehicle because the inside of the car blocks the signal.
It's easier to use a separate Radio Speaker while driving then talking directly on the radio, that's why I have a Baofeng BF-S112 Two Way Radio Speaker in each of our vehicles.
If you are taking the radio with you as a pedestrian then having a pouch to put it in is helpful.
You might also want to replace the stock antenna with a smaller stubby or a longer range one.
If you want to program the radio with the computer using CHIRP then you need to get a USB cable. Make sure you get the right one! The real ones cost $20, the rest are knock offs that wont work.
High Frequency Radios
HF radios come in many different flavors. You can buy huge base stations that can run at thousands of watts or small portable units.
For our conversation here we are focusing on the smaller portable units that can be used in the field during a bug out, either with internal batteries or with a small(ish) external 12 volt battery.
Many of these units do not come with an internal power supply as they are designed to be run in portable applications as in a vehicle so if you want to use them at home as a base station you will need a 110 power inverter.
There are a couple of HF radios which will also run VHF/UHF frequencies which is great, keeps you from having to run 2 radios at a time.
Some of our favorites are made by Yaesu: FT-817D and the FT-857D. Both have been around a while and both are portable. Each has a couple of things to consider to decide which is best for you, which we discus in greater detail later on.
AS discussed earlier HF (High Frequency) Radios can be used to send voice/morse/data communications around the world with the right conditions.
One thing to note that nearly all run on 12v power, so you will need an external 100v to 12v power source like a power supply or you can just wire directly to a car battery.
Typical Price: $1,300
Just released, the IC-705 HF/50/144/430 MHz ALL MODE Transceiver is one of the most exciting radios released in years. 5 watt operation on with the battery pack, 10 watts using 13.8 V DC.
You can send photos via digital radio and display received photos on the IC-705's touchscreen.
Built-in WiFi (for remote operation) and Bluetooth for operation and audio devices.
Replaceable rechargeable battery packs and the unit itself can be charged via the Micro USB port. That feature alone makes this radio a winner for portable use.
The FT-857D is a great choice for most portable radio needs. It's extremely powerful for it's size at 100W. That helps to get your signal out there better than a QRP (low power) radio like the FT-817D. RX/TX on HF, VHF, UHF. Can be used with a TNC for digital coms.
It is a menu driven interface given it's diminutive size, so you might need to keep a cheat sheet with you until you memorize your favorite options.
This has slightly older technology out there when it comes to its noise filtering but makes up for it with portability.
You will probably want to use with an antenna tuner like the popular LDG Electronics Z-100PLUS if you want to use a variety of antennas, or try the auto-adjusting Yaesu ATAS-120A 40 Meter through 70cm Auto Tune Motorized HF/VHF/UHF Antenna.
Typical Price: $500
This is a really great, fun little radio. It operates on low-power at 5W so the radio can run on internal batteries. FT-817 is designed for operation on the 160-10 meter HF bands, plus the 6 meter, 2 meter, and 70 cm bands.
Running low power can be tricky with field deployed antennas with voice communications. It can be difficult to make contacts in some cases. You will have more luck with Morse code and digital modes, which requires less power.
If you had to pick between the 817 and the 857 I would chose the the 857.
HF Radio Antennas
If you've made it this far then you are serious about this subject therefore, I am about to give you the greatest and most important detail about radio you will ever need to know:
You could have the best radio in the world, but if you have a bad antenna setup it won't perform.
A correctly utilized and properly configured antenna can make even a bad radio a great radio.
THE ANTENNA RULES ALL. IT IS THE ONE RING, FRODO! <-- gratuitous Tolkien reference.
This goes for any kind of radio, from a Star Wars walkie-talkie to a multi-thousand dollar contesting rig.
Antenna design and theory is a science onto itself and takes practice and experimentation.
And HF antennas can be tricky, because many of them are very long and need to be very high up. There are portable options however and with a little finagling, you can usually make them work pretty OK even in the field.
Here is a great article to get you started learning about the types of antennas out there and how they can be configured.
Typical Price: $329
Super compact, easy to setup long-range HF/VHF/UHF. Excellent packable field antenna. Can be used with any radio. Vastly improves your transmit and receive distances. Place as high in the air as possible.
The EMCOMM III Portable antenna is a portable High Frequency (HF) antenna specially designed for short to long range portable HF communications. It is comprised of a matching transformer, a 73 foot antenna wire on a line winder, and a 25 foot counterpoise - making a highly portable and effective HF antenna system.
These are designed have ends hung from trees or poles or even the side of a building. Different configurations give you different radiation patterns and can change the way the radio works.
- Frequency: 10M - 160M
- Power: 100W SSB or 50W CW
- Length: 73’ + 25" Copper Clad KEVLAR PTFE (Teflon) (-70°C to 150°C) wire
- Weight: 1.5 Lb.
NEXT STEP: Portable Power
Header Photo Credit: Piztrek - Incredible website! Check out his Pinzgauers.