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How to Choose an Emergency Communication Device

You might be trained in wilderness survival, safety and first-aid skills. But should you ever encounter someone who has a serious injury — like a broken bone, internal injuries, severe bleeding or a head injury — and you are hours or days from an emergency room, that person’s chance of survival might depend on your quick actions to communicate and organize a rescue.

Weekend trips to a local park probably include access to cellphone towers, allowing you to use your smartphone to call for help. Extended off-the-grid treks, on the other hand, require much more thought when it comes to planning emergency communication. Use the following guide to choose the best device that meets your group’s needs.

Connecting in 3, 2, 1 …

Three of the major communication devices — personal locator beacons, satellite emergency notification devices and satellite phones — use one of the major satellite systems orbiting Earth.

When researching the best device for your trip, verify that the device offers satellite coverage for the location where you will be traveling.

PERSONAL LOCATOR BEACONS

The ACR ResQLink+ ($269, acrartex.com), weighing just 5.4 ounces, is made of impact-resistant plastic; it’s also waterproof and it floats. Using U.S. government satellites, it sends a powerful 5-watt signal directly to search-and-rescue teams, pinpointing your location within 100 meters.

Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) are handheld devices used to send a distress signal via satellite that helps emergency responders “fix” on your location. Some devices’ signals provide search-and-rescue responders with your personal information, including your name, emergency contacts and more.

Pros: PLBs are compact, lightweight, waterproof (most models) and easy to use, with a relatively long battery life — for some, a pair of lithium batteries can last up to six years. While the device must be registered with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), no subscription fee is required.

Cons: PLB devices can only transmit your location and basic emergency-contact information; they cannot tell search-and-rescue responders any details about the emergency. Once you have sent the signal, you will not get confirmation that it was received or that someone is responding. Users must be extremely careful not to accidentally send a false distress signal.

SATELLITE EMERGENCY NOTIFICATION DEVICES

The 7.5-oz. Garmin inReach SE+ provides two-way, 160-character text messaging and social-media updates using the worldwide Iridium satellite network. The device has a small screen; you can pair it with your smartphone for a larger touchscreen. An SOS button with a lockout switch (to prevent accidental triggering) sends an emergency message; for a cost, you can also text back and forth with first responders. $400 plus subscription fees. The Garmin inReach Explorer+ is a communication tool that also offers GPS capabilities — such as creating and viewing routes, waypointing, using a compass and viewing data (like your average speed and elevation). The inReach Explorer+ offers the same communication features as the inReach SE+. $450 plus subscription fees.

Lightweight, handheld Satellite Emergency Notification Devices (SEND) are a technological step up from PLBs because you can send text messages via satellite. Some devices even let you update your social-media profiles.

Pros: Two-way messaging, available on some devices, can be used in an emergency or simply to let families at home know your trip is going well. In the event of an emergency, search-and-rescue teams can confirm that your message was received. And, if an SOS message is sent by accident, you can let responders know you are OK.

Cons: The device itself is pricey, and you must also pay subscription fees. Compared to a PLB, the battery life is significantly less (approximately 100 hours).

The 3.4- by 2.6-inch, 4-ounce SPOT Gen3 ($170, findmespot.com) has an SOS button to transmit your GPS coordinates to emergency responders. It can also send a preprogrammed “all OK” text or email with your GPS coordinates to up to 10 recipients. However, it doesn’t always connect with a satellite in dense forest or steep terrain, and it cannot receive messages.

SATELLITE PHONES

Just like your cellphone — except this one pings satellites high above — a sat phone lets you call any telephone number, such as the closest public-safety or rescue agency. Some models also send text messages, depending on the subscription plan you purchase.

The 9.4-oz. Iridium 9555 ($1,099, iridium.com) makes voice calls and sends text messages worldwide using annual or monthly subscription plans that range in price. You can also purchase a prepaid SIM card with a specific number of available minutes.

Pros: Satellite phones are highly reliable for verbal communication — particularly for expedition and outdoor leaders — and they are available for rent in some areas.

Cons: Dense forest and terrain features like mountains and deep, narrow canyons might block satellite reception, and sat phones are prohibitively expensive for many people. They can be a little bulky, too. You must also know the phone number of the nearest emergency-response team in the place you are traveling.

TWO-WAY AMATEUR RADIOS

Modern rechargeable handheld units like the powerful, 1- to 8-watt BaoFeng BF-F8HP ($63, baofengtech.com) and the waterproof, almost indestructible Yaesu VX-8DR ($380, yaesu.com) are as portable as a walkie-talkie, and feature dual-band VHF and UHF, NOAA weather alerts and often multiple power-output settings.

Known as “ham” radios, these devices use designated radio frequencies to communicate with search-and-rescue responders. They are commonly used at permanent locations, including remote Scout camps like Northern Tier National High Adventure Program and Florida National High Adventure Sea Base, because they are very powerful and reliable.

Pros: These radios are affordable (starting well under $100), and they facilitate two-way verbal communication over a potential range of hundreds or thousands of miles.

Cons: They require a license to operate, but the training can be a great troop activity. You must also make sure the radio you buy uses the bands for which you are licensed, and these bands allow you to reach people who can help you in an emergency. Some handheld models have limited battery power and range.

WALKIE-TALKIES

The Motorola Talkabout MS350R ($99 per pair, motorolasolutions.com) are waterproof, durable and rechargeable, and also have a weather channel.

You might not be trekking the remote backcountry, but you still need to communicate with buddies across relatively short distances (think: Scout camp). Portable walkie-talkies are useful for groups that might spread out or in an emergency when party members become separated. Check with your Scout leaders to make sure walkie-talkies are permitted.

Pros: Walkie-talkies offer two-way verbal communication that is relatively affordable, lightweight and simple to use.

Cons: They can only call someone using another walkie-talkie on the same channel; you cannot message or call authorities to request help. Range can be reduced by terrain like dense forest or elevation. Battery life is typically short.

62 Comments on How to Choose an Emergency Communication Device

  1. Hello I am looking for walkie talkies that are hands free. I will be using them inside a building so distance is not a concern, however I will need more than two any suggestions of brands and what to make sure I look for when buying them so I purchase what is needed. Thank you so much

  2. I need two two way radios that are water proof and have a three mile range through
    mountains and are $15 can you help?

  3. Privacy codes do not scramble the message, they just add a subaudible tone to the beginning of the message that opens the tone squelch circuit in the radio. If you have a ham license, these are normally referred to as CTCSS tones.

  4. Some nice info, thanks again everyone for all the input.

  5. Radiotechkb1 // August 29, 2011 at 3:17 pm // Reply

    Ham Radio is the best way to go.

  6. I like the Garmin Rino but I prefer a ham radio.

  7. Pepperthechessmaster1 // August 1, 2011 at 4:01 pm // Reply

    and in the $40-$80 range

  8. Pepperthechessmaster1 // July 30, 2011 at 7:35 pm // Reply

    need walkies talkies BAD plz help one that not too expensive but still works good and has a big range (20 miles)

    Thank u

  9. i want 2 good walki talkies 4 hunting below $50, any sugggestions?

  10. i’m looking for a two way radio that is water proof and has 15 chanel if any body wants to tell me about one in the $40-$70 range please tell me

    • scoutmaster // May 24, 2011 at 9:00 am // Reply

      With that price range, you’re looking at Family Radio Service (FRS) frequencies. The range is listed on the front of the radio but will be significantly less with any terrain in between you and what you are communicating with. You should also consider a model that is rechargeable. Privacy codes allow you to block out other coversations but you should be careful not to interfere with others. These are available at many outdoor and department stores.
      Look for a comfortable size and buttons that you won’t hit by mistake. Otherwise, just start reading the feature lists and compare till you find something you like.

  11. i love them with head sets

  12. Cobra Micro talk 21 mile range durability great watertight 21,000 private channels

  13. I am looking for a a two radio for talking with other people at our club fairs, there is alot of talking in the background, we need to communicate between10 people. Any help

  14. Parky's Farm // July 7, 2010 at 8:58 am // Reply

    Anyone have suggestion on radios that are waterproof. I work on a educational farm with a bunch of teen staffers who have a tendency to drop their radios in water troughs. Range isn’t that important to me but durabity and waterproofing are.

  15. get up and go // April 4, 2010 at 5:17 pm // Reply

    Again, I’ll say it. Unless you plan to go get lost on Gilligans Island, or some such, save your money.
    I just use a 30 mile walkie-talkie. I just use the hams at a merit badge course.

  16. The Midland LXT-300 talkies are good for scouting events, and they work great if you work at cub scout camps or council summer camps. I also use them for river canoeing, hiking, and caving. They have a pretty good range and work well, but use a wall charger instead of batteries, so you have to charge them prior to your adventure.

  17. I have. A
    motorola. Em1000r. It. Is. Great. You. Can. Talk. 20 miles. Away. But. The. Problem. With. Motorola. Gmrs./frs. Radios. Is. When. You. Try. To. Plug. In. A. Headset. The led. Lite. Is. Always. On. When. I. Plug. It. In. That. Means. It’s. Pushing. The. Talk. Button. By. It. Self

    • littlemike // March 30, 2010 at 6:45 pm // Reply

      u need to turn the radio off before plugging in an accesorie to a motorola radio then turn it on and the accesorie will then work

  18. try the motorola talkabout 5000.pretty good range of 5mi, and water resistant. comes in alkaline battery model and rechargeable models.

  19. DonkeyKong // August 4, 2009 at 5:13 pm // Reply

    I have the Cobra PR 170-2 VP one. I wish it had a silent mode 😦

  20. If you want to talk a long distance > 2mi over different terrain the FRS/GMRS radios are not going to do it. You’d be best to get your ham radio license and get a better understanding of radio communication in general.

  21. would like good quality, inexpensive radio please advise thanks!

  22. uyyyyyyyyyyy // June 4, 2009 at 11:50 am // Reply

    the Midland LXT330 is amazing

  23. Is there any way to know which brand/ model would work best in an area with a mixture of lakes, hills and forests?

    thanks

  24. tankmaster94 // January 31, 2009 at 4:32 pm // Reply

    i have 2 motorola FV200R

  25. eagleorbust // January 6, 2009 at 5:31 pm // Reply

    I have 10 Motorola FV200R but several of them don’t work. 😦

  26. Archeopteryx // December 24, 2008 at 5:50 am // Reply

    The Garmin Rino 530 rocks!!!!!!!!

  27. king tut:
    not a radio but might be effective: telephone

    • Ivan A.K.A. KL2UG // November 1, 2016 at 3:34 pm // Reply

      Unfortunately phones only work in the “Front Country”, heck they sometimes don’t work there. “Back Country” locations, genereally, do not have cell reception.

  28. I was going to buy a radio but i just want a good one that will reach about 15 miles

    They all say that they will but they only reach about 2.

    So if anyone knows a good two way radio please let me know

  29. I love waki takis and have used everything but i dont like motarala very well because they dont have rechargable batteries.

  30. Awesome

  31. i thought about wiring a flashlight to it a crank one but that would be a waste

  32. I have 2 bellsouth radios model 2210 issued i ’01 there great but eat up the batteries so much so i put in a smaller speaker and its better but i still go through a lot of batteries

  33. i got a cobra micro talk it is great and a little waterproof

  34. Make sure whatever you get has whether alerts. I got caught in a blizzard in Big Bear once!

  35. if you want a good 2 way radio thats not to pricey you should get a motorala they last forever

  36. these are awesome two way radios especialy the one with a GPS built in that could be handy for anything

  37. There is no need to get a GMRS license. I have one and it was a waste of $80. No one has never ask to have my license #. I will never buy a nother one.

    • It is a federal law and you do need one because they do find people that don’t havfe a license. And yes there is a way to find you if you don’t have the license.

  38. Hi,

    Would I need a FCC license if I buy Motorola TALKABOUT EM1000R 2-way radio ?

    It has both FRS & GMRS, but I have no intention of using the GMRS mode.

    Pls advice

  39. where do u get a FCC license and why? Thanks.

  40. People often forget that it costs 80 bucks for a FCC licence

    • Thats not all true you can get a Ham Radio Liscence For about 15 bucks.
      Although you need to pass a written exam

  41. what do you think about the garmin rino 110

  42. Thanks for the tips Motorola FV200R looks good for me

  43. The Uniden GMR 1438 ($50) is a great mid-level unit with a 14-mile range, 99 privacy codes, vibrate and silent modes and rechargeable NiMH batteries.

    If this just carried luthium AA or AAA batteries I would buy it!

  44. Do not think about the XT511 from Midland; it’s not going to come

    to market anytime soon. Look for the older T7200 handheld from

    Motorola. It has lots of features.

  45. asome:)

  46. walkie talkies are great for capture the flag wich our troop plays alot of

  47. Pretty cool. 8) I’d prabably go for the MidlandXT511 or the Motorola T9500. That Garmin Rino 530 must be kind of rare, I mean, it’s $535. 😮

  48. 🙂 😦 8) 😛 😉 😮 😀

  49. Pack760Scout // August 30, 2007 at 5:06 pm // Reply

    The Garmin Rino is Awesome!!!!!

    Our Troop used it it was great!!!!!!

  50. Thanks for your info on these Hand-helds.How does one get a license for the GRMS radios??

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