2
$\begingroup$

I am wondering if using a VHF/UHF ham radio for emergency (I get injured, become ill, run out of water/food, etc.) communication while hiking the Continental Divide Trail would be possible.

I see that the area I am looking to go has repeaters along the route so my theoretical range would be extended. I see there is some sparse contact information, other than that, I have no guarantee that it exists beforehand short of verifying those few contacts. Then, I must be tuned to that frequency to have my transmissions repeated at a greater power. Additionally, if I were in an emergency, it would boil down to whether or not someone is actually listening to those frequencies.

$\endgroup$
8
  • $\begingroup$ What's your scenario? Going backpacking? $\endgroup$ – rclocher3 Nov 2 '20 at 16:06
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Backup communication ... what is your primary method of communication? Also, what sort of scenarios are you talking about? If you are going hiking in mountainous areas, it would be very different to going walkabout in the desert. "Ham radio" also covers many things - although it sounds like you mean "VHF handhelds" rather than "an HF setup in a backpack". $\endgroup$ – Scott Earle Nov 3 '20 at 2:12
  • $\begingroup$ I meant emergency by backup. I'm not planning on communicating except when I'm in town. There are wide stretches of the trail that have no cell service and to conserve power, I would likely have my phone off. I guess I'm asking if I should have a satellite communication system or can just use a HAM radio with reasonable assurance. Yes, it'd be VHF/UHF. $\endgroup$ – Walter Nov 3 '20 at 3:00
  • $\begingroup$ You don't say what trail you're planning to hike, but if you're talking about something like the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail, then I'd personally be comfortable with an HT for emergency communications instead of a satellite device that requires an expensive subscription. You'll want a reliable list of usable repeaters, and not just a book or app that lists every repeater in the state. BTW the "rubber ducky" antenna that comes with the HT doesn't work very well with distant repeaters. I'd recommend a roll-up J-pole antenna as popularized by Ed Fong WB6IQN. $\endgroup$ – rclocher3 Nov 3 '20 at 15:24
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @Walter better to put details in the question than the comments. "Emergency" could mean a lot of things: earthquake, stock market crash, heart attack, ... $\endgroup$ – Phil Frost - W8II Nov 3 '20 at 16:43
6
$\begingroup$

Possible, yes. A good idea as your plan for emergency communication while hiking on a remote and hazardous trail? I wouldn't count on it.

As you've already observed, although there are repeaters along the way, you have to know what they are, you have to be in range of them, and someone has to be listening.

Consider the things that could go wrong:

  • You discover the repeater that you thought would cover this area of the trail is no longer operational.
  • You are in a canyon with no repeater coverage.
  • You have incorrect CTCSS or other access information which means you can't access the repeater, even if you can hear it and it's operational.
  • You are lost, and not be able to figure out what repeater to use, even with a prepared list.
  • You are lost, and can access a repeater, but you're unable to describe your position in sufficient detail for rescue crews to find you in time.
  • You lack the presence of mind to find your location, consult your repeater list, program the radio, access the repeater, and articulate your situation.
  • You can access a repeater, but either no one is listening at the time, or anyone listening is unable to effectively relay your message to someone that can help you.
  • You are off your planned course, either because you are lost or were forced to detour, and you don't have access to a list of repeaters in the area.

A much better solution for this use case is a satellite tracker, for example SPOT or an EPIRB. It works pretty much anywhere with a view of the sky, it notifies search and rescue at the press of a button, and it tells them where you are.

Seriously, don't underestimate the probability that you will be lost. It's called "search and rescue" and not just "rescue" because people get lost, a lot. Sometimes they just lose the trail. Sometimes they fall, and they survive but can't get back to their route so they detour, and then they get lost. Sometimes, due to hypothermia/dehydration/hypoxia/hypoglycemia/drug use/etc they manage to get lost when it seems like no reasonable person could. It's not uncommon to find people dead one mile from a trail or road that would have led them to help.

By all means, bring a radio and plan to use it: it will be a useful means of non-emergency communication or a backup in case the satellite tracker is damaged or lost. Bring a cell phone too: you can send a text from a lot of mountain peaks. But I wouldn't count on it as your only means of communication.

$\endgroup$
2
  • $\begingroup$ One small gripe - SPOT has the flashy marketing, but the proper solution for backcountry hiking is an EPIRB. Registered with the authorities in your country. No fees. 10 year battery life. Compact. Detected by GPS, Galileo and Leo satellites and all SAR aircraft, as opposed to one GEO satellite requiring a clear sky view... $\endgroup$ – tomnexus Nov 3 '20 at 20:46
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ yeah...but you can send a text with spot. Like, "Delayed, not dead. Don't call the authorities." $\endgroup$ – Phil Frost - W8II Nov 3 '20 at 20:58
1
$\begingroup$

In an area with good cellular (mobile) phone service, then a cell phone is hands-down the best option for everyday emergency communications.

However, many parts of the world, particularly rural and mountainous areas, have better coverage through ham radio repeaters than the mobile (cell) phone network. There are several reasons for this:

  • A cell phone tower must have coverage that is limited to a reasonable number of subscribers, or the service will be poor. The trend for cellular phone companies is to build more towers with smaller coverage areas. Newer technologies such as 5G are accelerating this trend. Ham repeaters on the other hand are placed as high as possible, on high mountains and tall broadcast antenna towers, to have as much coverage as possible.

  • Cell phone towers are enormously expensive. Ham radio repeaters are relatively cheap.

  • Ham repeaters can be powered by solar panels and wind turbines, allowing them to go places where the electrical grid doesn't reach. Mobile phone towers require a lot of power, and are almost always connected to the electrical grid.

In extended emergencies such as long-term electrical grid failures, mobile phone towers tend to go down. Mobile phone towers often have emergency generators, but typically only a few days' fuel. If the grid is down for more than a few days, there will be no mobile phone network. Some ham repeaters are solar-powered and can continue to work for months or years without power from the grid.

Here in the US, there are many repeaters, but often not many people are listening. I have a few tips:

  • Some repeaters are linked to networks of other repeaters, temporarily through technologies such as IRLP or Echolink, or permanently. A distress call to such a repeater could be heard by many more hams, increasing the odds of a timely response.

  • Some areas are served by many repeaters. Some are more popular than others. It helps to find out in advance which ones are popular. The ham club closest to the area should know which repeaters are the most popular.

  • If a mayday call is not answered at first, don't give up! Keep trying! If limited battery life is an issue and there are no answers, turn off the radio and wait a while if that is possible, and then call again. You should get a response eventually. Prime time on repeaters is usually the hours when people commute to and from work, and in the early evening when nets are typically scheduled.

$\endgroup$
2
  • $\begingroup$ In a major emergency cell phone towers get overwhelmed, so having a cell phone doesn't guarantee that you'll be able to call anyone. $\endgroup$ – Pete NU9W Nov 3 '20 at 13:49
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ The details are buried in the comments, but the kind of "emergency" in question isn't the sort that would overwhelm cell phone towers. $\endgroup$ – Phil Frost - W8II Nov 3 '20 at 16:44
1
$\begingroup$

Just adding to the previous answers. Many people, mostly preppers, throw a cheap Baofeng into their emergency kit or whatnot. Here's the problem with that: so many people have no idea how to use it. I'm almost done with my general license and I still have to use the internet o figure out how my new radios work. Not a bragging/insulting point, but rather showing the importance of knowing how your specific radio, and radios in general, work.

$\endgroup$
1
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Hear, hear. Anyone who wants to use a ham radio in an emergency would do well to be familiar with how to use the radio, how to use a repeater, amateur radio lingo, etc. before the emergency. That's especially true with Baofengs, because they come pre-programmed with useless frequencies in the channel memories; newbies often assume that people will be listening on those frequencies, which isn't true. $\endgroup$ – rclocher3 Nov 23 '20 at 16:46
-1
$\begingroup$

The short answer is "yes" you can use Ham Radio as backup communications for anything legal in ham radio. (You can't use it as a fireman or police officer for example.) Back before cell phones were ubiquitous, it was reassuring to have a radio in the car "just in case." Of course, as you stated, it's most useful when someone else is listening. There may be repeaters with "autopatch", meaning you can make a telephone call over the radio. But even those are becoming obsolete.

All that said though, these days you're better off counting on your cellphone.

$\endgroup$
4
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ In my mountainous and rural area, one is not necessarily better off with a cell phone. There are many areas outside of town, including residential areas, that have no cell coverage but full-quieting access to repeaters. Of course I recognize this as an exception to the general rule, but stranded people in my area have died when they could have easily summoned help if they had had a VHF ham radio in the car. $\endgroup$ – rclocher3 Nov 2 '20 at 16:04
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ You do have a point, over-reliance on a cell phone is a hazard as well. $\endgroup$ – Duston Nov 2 '20 at 16:07
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ mountainous regions especially tend to have better repeater coverage than cell coverage, because the repeaters are on the really big peaks whereas the cell towers are down in the valleys near the population centers. And of course if "ham radio" includes HF, you can get thousands of miles of range, which almost certainly means you could contact someone in an emergency. $\endgroup$ – Phil Frost - W8II Nov 2 '20 at 18:48
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Where I go hiking the most, I have no cell service within the entire park but still can hear a repeater well over 30 miles away (haven't tried transmit yet though) $\endgroup$ – Galaxy Nov 22 '20 at 23:15

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.