Mom Goes Camping

Overview of the 5 Types of Backpacking Communication Devices

backpacking communication devices

I absolutely love to take breaks from the city life and I gladly leave the office behind for a chance to relax in nature. Camping, hiking, and overall anything that involves me walking through the great outdoors with friends and family is my way of de-stressing and enjoying the wonderful mystery that is Mother Nature.

However, Mother Nature is not always kind and there are times when a wonderful hiking trip can end in disaster. That is if you don’t plan ahead and consider the emergency situations (which can be numerous and of various types). Now, besides the usual first aid kit and orientation systems, it’s always recommended to have a way to communicate with the authorities.

And NO, your cell phone is not always reliable as in many areas the coverage is extremely weak or non-existent!

Since I know that many beginner hikers don’t usually think about this, today I’ll do a short overview of the types of communication devices one can use in the great outdoors.


Gourmet As Heck ebook

#1: Personal Beacon Locator (PBL)

This device can only raise the alarm and send your GPS coordinates at the moment of activation. This means that the person/rescue team receiving it will only know your last location and that there is an emergency (nothing about the type of emergency or anything else about the situation).

The advantage of this device is that it is small and doesn’t require any advanced knowledge to be activated (actually, it can be activated by mistake).

personal location beacon

The ACR PLB can be used anywhere in the world. See it here.


#2: A Satellite Phone

Well, I wouldn’t personally use a satellite phone in my trips, but the device has its uses. It is powerful and allows communication with the rescue team using voice calls, which is important. However, the signal can be blocked by vegetation or canyons so it’s not completely reliable.  

Even more, the device is bulky and requires a bit of training to know how to use it. Also, you can’t call 911 directly (or the emergency line in your area), you must know the number of the nearest public safety answering point.

Finally, the device is expensive, but if you really need one, there is the possibility to rent one.

satellite phone


#3: Two-Way Radio

In my opinion, these are ideal for maintaining communication between the members of your group. For instance, if you have a satellite phone, but the group has 2 members, it’s best to supplement your communication devices with a two-way radio system. This way, in case you get separated, you’ll still be able to communicate and alert the authorities if something happens.

Still, keep in mind that two way radios are short-range devices. The ones designed for hiking and outdoors in general are more powerful, but there is still a limit.

two way radios


#4: A Ham Radio

Also known as amateur radio, this is an excellent way to keep in touch with the world when you’re getting deep into the wilderness. However, you need some training to know how to use it and it requires a license.

Overall, the device is bulky, and even the best handheld ham radios don’t go over the 100 miles range. On the plus side, once you understand how it works, it is easy to use and amateur bands are available almost anywhere so the device is reliable.

Still, you should check with local authorities and experts to make sure you’ll be able to use it in case of emergency.

ham radio


#5: SEND

The Satellite Emergency Notification Device allows two-way messaging and uses commercial satellites as a medium of communication. So, using SEND, you can:

  • Send pre-configured messages: Such as “I’m okay”
  • Request non-emergency help from your personal contacts
  • Request emergency help
  • Check in: Using Twitter, Facebook, Google Earth and other web tools.
  • GPS Tracking: Newer models of SEND devices let you track where you’ve been, which is great for mapping your route/times and letting family members know where you are.  You can choose how frequently the device maps your position, ranging from every 30 seconds to once every 4 hours.
  • Send and receive free-form 160 character text messages. The more expensive SEND devices will let you send and receive messages up to 160 characters. These devices will have a keyword built in or can be paired with a smartphone.

With SEND devices, you can be sure your message was received (unlike when you’re using a PBL) as the person/team receiving it, will confirm. Finally, you can find devices that will connect to your phone via Bluetooth so the messaging will be easy and natural. On the cons side, it doesn’t work that well if there are clouds or a lot of vegetation around.

SPOT tracker

SPOT is one of the more popular, affordable SEND devices for hiking. See it here.


About the author /

Craig Raymond writes Two-Way Radio Talk (TWRT), a site that gives insights on the latest products in the communications field for outdoor, survival, and riding enthusiasts.

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