Monday, May 21, 2018

Comprehensive Overview of Outdoor Communications

Updated Spring 2018. I've recently been tackling OutdoorGearLab's PLB and Messenger review. This has me tuned into the options, and remembering this important topic and article. I'm bumping this to the top of the site, because it is something that matters. 

We head to the mountains partially to escape technology and the “constant contact” of the smartphone age. We have more communication options in town than ever before. Similarly, we have a ton of options in the backcountry. Just as we carry rain gear when it shouldn’t rain and take first aid classes even though no one should get hurt, we should educate ourselves in the options for both routine and emergency communications. 

Deep in the wild? At least give some thought to effective routine and emergency communication. Here, in the Wind River Range of Wyoming, we carried a satellite modem for voice and text through a smart phone. And we carried battery power to spare. 

First of all, one need not carry any sort of communications. Unless it is expected or asked of you by a specific person, the choice is yours. One can choose whatever level of commitment one desires. While it is a matter of personal preference, there is an ever evolving convention. I like to think of it this way: “What does my mom expect I do?” Now, my mom is just savvy enough to represent convention, in my view. She expects that I carry a first aid kit, that I use my seatbelt, and that I have avalanche training. There are measures available that aren’t on her radar. Those have yet to become conventional, and my mother's ignorance of them confirms that. When it comes to emergency communications, my mother expects that I know where cell signal works, and she expects that I have an “Oh $h17” button I can push if things really go south in the wild. She likes when I can call from a sat phone, but it isn’t something she expects all the time. With my mom's expectations, that’s where I’d draw the “convention” line. You can choose less in the interest of adventure, and more in the interest of greater margin of safety, but it is all your choice. 

Once you have chosen your method of communication, understand its limitations and make sure everyone involved understands. With one-way satellite communications, for instance, the agreement with those out in civilization must be “no news is good news”. These things do not always work. And those in the field have no way of knowing if it is working. If you are counting on communicating in the event of an emergency with someone who is not a professional emergency dispatcher make sure he or she understands what to do when you send word. I could write an entire article, and may someday, on how to craft, with your loved ones, an excellent backcountry emergency response plan. You can save everyone involved a great deal of stress by clarifying expectations and limitations beforehand. 

Alright, in order of simplicity and utility, as it pertains to backcountry communications, your options. 

  • Cell signal. We all have cell phones. As a backcountry tool your only further responsibilities are to keep it charged (extra, external batteries are available) and to know where you will and will not get signal. This latter objective is problematic at best. Cell providers' maps of coverage are grossly over optimistic. Local knowledge is best. “Line of sight” to cell towers isn’t enough. Strangely enough, when very far from towers, your phone may show full signal but not work at all. Or it can get a text out but not a phone call. Or vice versa. Rumor has it, and I know of no one that has tested this, that you can sometimes get a 911 call out when you can’t otherwise make calls or texts. It has to show signal for this rumored trick to work. Some parts of the world now have dispatch offices that receive text messages to "911". In an emergency, if you can't dial 911, it is worth trying a text message. 
You'd be stoked too if you had just sent a huge couloir in
fresh snow with attendant amazing skiing and complicated
avalanche hazard management. BCA BC Link radios
(shown on Meagan's left shoulder) prove invaluable in
situations like this. 

  • Satellite. There are devices that communicate with aerial satellites which in turn communicate back to the ground. All satellite communication requires a clear view of the sky and experiences at least momentary and terrain-dependent service blackout. There are three major networks of interest in North America. Iridium is global, and the most reliable for two way communication of all types. Globalstar is less expensive, and works for both one way and two way communication, with the right equipment. Its coverage is lesser in the northern latitudes and a lot less over the open oceans. Finally, governments around the world cooperate to maintain a network of satellites for exclusively one-way, emergency communication. This is called the COSPAS-SARSAT network. 
    • PLB. Personal Locator Beacon is a generic term for exactly what it sounds like. It is a device carried by a person, that knows your location, and can send a signal. In most contexts, PLB refers to a device that uses the COSPAS-SARSAT communication service. The devices are quite small, relatively inexpensive, and the service is free. With one exception (drop me a note and I can elaborate), you can only use a government PLB in an absolute emergency. All that is sent is a distress signal, and the user knows nothing about the receipt of that signal until the proverbial cavalry arrives. The responders do not know whether you are just lonely or if you are on the verge of death. You will be punished for abuse of the service. 
    • One-way communicators. This is the “Spot” device. Using the Globalstar network, these devices can send rudimentary communications out. They cannot receive anything. Depending on the device and the service plan, the user can send preprogrammed messages of a couple types, perhaps a short text message, and an emergency distress signal. The emergency distress signal is similar to that of the PLB, except that it is monitored by a service for which you pay. 
    • Two-way text. The DeLorme InReach device uses the Iridium network to do everything the Spot does, plus two-way texting. 
    • Voice. One can acquire satellite phone service on a wide spectrum of devices using either the Globalstar network or the Iridium network. Most of these satellite phones can also do rudimentary texting, some data, and some have an emergency distress button. 
    • Iridium makes what they all the “Iridium GO”. The GO is essentially a satellite modem for your smartphone. Limited by strength and presence of signal, you can do voice calls, texting, and data. 
  • Radio. “Old fashioned” two-way radio can be used for both routine communication and emergency response. It can also provide reliable and immediate communication between groups or individuals in the field. This latter attribute is especially helpful in backcountry skiing when members of a group may be spread out over thousands of feet, yet would greatly benefit from immediate information sharing. All radio technology can be used to communicate between groups in the field. Communication with the outside world is more problematic and I’ll detail the limitations in each sub-section below. All radio frequencies are regulated by the federal government, but all are legal for use in life or limb emergencies. 
    • HAM. This is the federally licensed amateur radio network. It is exclusively for non-commercial use. One must be licensed to use HAM frequencies, except in an emergency. The community of HAMs is tight, resourceful, and rule-following. They erect and maintain a fairly comprehensive network of signal repeaters that creates a coverage that is at least slightly better than cell phones but, if you limit the equipment to that which is reasonable to carry on human powered adventures, less than the coverage of satellite communications. 
    • VHF/UHF. The “Very High Frequencies” and “Ultra High Frequencies" are entirely regulated. Within these frequencies are some HAM stations, some stations used in commercial endeavors like ski patrol and guiding, and some frequencies used in government entities like land management and law enforcement. All are legal for use in emergencies, but negotiating the morass of relevant frequencies is utterly mystifying. 
    • FRS. The “Family Radio Service” is yet another subset of the overall radio band. These frequencies are used by the “talkabout” style radios. Except in very specific venues, usually those with a very high density of outdoor enthusiasts like certain parts of certain National Parks (Denali National Park and the West Buttress climbing route is the best known), these radios are only reliable for communicating within a party. On Denali the park service monitors a specific frequency for emergencies, and broadcasts daily weather on another. Further complicating your selection and use of FRS radios is the fact that the US FCC is in the process of revising its rules on these radios. 
      • There are countless products on the market that use the FRS channels. Most are, at the very least, confusing to shop for and choose. They are all limited by federal regulation in terms of power and frequencies. The vast majority of options are configured more for novelty use than they are for actual backcountry application. It is theoretically possible to cobble together a set of FRS radios with reliable battery power, weather resistance, ease of use, and an external mic for convenience. But I know of no one that has pulled this off. The far better option is to go with: 
      • Backcountry Access BC Link radios. My buddy, and fellow IFMGA guide Rob Copolillo, has assembled a far more comprehensive review of these radios. Suffice it to say that these radios are, at first glance, nothing revolutionary. However, they take proven technology and wrap it into a very user friendly package. The end result is far more applicable to backcountry travel than anything else available. 
  • GoTenna. I was recently made aware of this start-up, crowd-sourced sort of communications network. My review on (search it out) better elaborates on this. For now there really isn't anything that GoTenna does that radios don't do better. However, with wide enough adoption, that could change. 

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