Offgrid Survival Survival Scenarios: Communication Breakdown
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I recently had the opportunity to take an Intro to Emergency Communications class from Independence Training here in Arizona. This class, taught by guest instructor Ted Harden, served as an excellent overview of some of the core concepts of emergency comms, specifically the use of handheld radios to stay in touch via FRS, GMRS, MURS, and HAM bands in off-grid settings. I'll be writing a full review and summarizing lessons learned in the future, but for now I'd like to discuss a communication-oriented survival scenario that came up during our time in the classroom.
While discussing the various capabilities of HAM radio, Harden mentioned a surprising real-life event in which some stranded individuals used their radio to call for help in a creative way. Depending on your level of experience with amateur radio, you may or may not know that it's possible to use low-orbit amateur satellites (AMSAT) as repeaters to extend the reach of the signal from your own radio. This means that if you find yourself in a dire situation and need to call for help, and there's no cell service or terrestrial repeaters in range, a last-ditch option would be to call for help via one of these amateur satellites. In fact, that's exactly what a father and son did on August 27th, 2019, in Texas' Big Bend National Park.
Clayton and his father Jack were off-roading in a remote section of Big Bend National park, when their vehicle reportedly became stuck up to the axles in deep mud created by recent monsoons. They were unable to get the vehicle out of the mud on their own, and there was no cell signal available. Stranded in the intense summer heat, they knew they needed help from Park Rangers, so they began to consider how to use their HAM radio to call for help. Clayton was aware of the AMSAT system, and determined that one such satellite (AO-92) would be passing over their position. This gave him an extremely brief window to call for help as the satellite's orbit intersected their location.
After connecting with AO-92, Clayton broadcasted his call for rescue, including his latitude and longitude, vehicle description, and status. The call got through to a man named Kevin in Florida, who took down the information and worked with other listeners to relay it to the Big Bend National Park Ranger station. Within two hours, Park Rangers arrived on scene and helped Clayton and Jack get their vehicle un-stuck. They made it to safety as a result of this call through the AMSAT network.
This article from AMSAT.org contains links to audio recordings of this event — check them out if you're interested in hearing it firsthand.
This account speaks to the impressive capabilities of HAM radio in an emergency scenario, and serves as a reminder of why a handheld and/or vehicle-mounted radio (and the training to use it properly) should be part of your survival plan. However, it also led us to wonder about what might've happened if these men hadn't been so prepared to reach the AMSAT network, and so fortunate to be within range of a satellite that day.
If you have emergency communications gear, but aren't in range of a viable cell tower or HAM repeater, would you leave your position to attempt to establish a better signal? Or would you stay put in a known safe location and broadcast calls for help, not knowing if anyone can hear you? This is the question we pose in today's edition of Survival Scenarios, in order to get you thinking about how you'd deal with this hypothetical dilemma in real life. As always, we'll end this article with a poll where you can respond with the course of action you think is best, and see how other readers responded.
For the purposes of this scenario, your circumstances are similar to those of the real-life example above. You were out off-roading with your dad in the desert, when your truck unexpectedly got bogged down in mud. You attempted to self-rescue by rocking the truck back and forth, digging out the tires, and filling in the ruts with improvised wood ramps in hopes of regaining traction, but to no avail. It's hopelessly stuck, and you need someone to pull you out.
At this point, it's late morning, and the summer temperature is already a sweltering 105°F. It may get as hot as 115°F in the afternoon. You've got plenty of water, some protein bars, and a pack full of survival tools, first aid gear, and spare clothes in the truck. There's also plenty of fuel to keep it idling, and the A/C will keep you cool while you're inside the cab. However, you'd rather not camp out here until someone happens to pass by — that might take days based on the remoteness of your location.
You and your dad both have fully-charged cell phones, but both have shown zero signal all morning. You're way out of range of any cell towers. However, your phones still provide your current GPS coordinates, which will be helpful if you can convey them to rescuers. Your only other long-range communication option is a single Baofeng UV-5R handheld radio with a standard antenna. You programmed it with the most common bands: FRS, GMRS, MURS, and all the local HAM repeaters you could find. During your drive out, you could hear some chatter on the repeaters, but that was a while ago. Now, it's an eerie silence. And, unlike the Big Bend National Park incident, you're not fortunate enough to be in range of an amateur satellite.
Knowing that your radio is reliant on clear line of sight to maximize range, you realize that finding some high ground is probably your best bet to get in touch with someone on the radio. There's a large, rocky hill on the horizon, but it appears to be at least 2 miles away, and won't be an easy hike in this heat.
You're presented with a choice — do you stay in the comfort of the air-conditioned truck and attempt to call for help from there, unsure if anyone will hear you? Or do you set out on foot with the radio, climb the hill in the scorching heat, and attempt to improve your signal?
You probably know that most search and rescue personnel advise lost or stranded individuals to stay put, because this makes them easier to find and reduces the risk of getting even more lost or injured. However, when no one knows that you're in trouble and you can't call for help, that complicates things. In this case, help probably won't be coming anytime soon unless you can get in touch with someone.
Remaining with the truck provides the obvious advantage of comfort and safety. You'll be able to stay cool in the cab, and have easy access to all the survival gear you brought. You can also stick together with your dad, ensuring one of you won't get lost or separated.
The main downside to staying with the truck is that reaching anyone will be a roll of the dice. The truck is in a wide valley between large rock formations, which isn't helping your signal strength. You can transmit distress calls on each of the programmed bands, but if you're not in range of another radio or repeater, those messages will fall on deaf ears. Maybe you'll get lucky and someone who can assist will hear you — maybe you won't be so lucky.
The other option is to take your radio handset and embark on the several-mile hike to elevated ground, climb the rocks, and attempt to reach someone from there. It's more likely that you'll get through to someone this way, but it's certainly not a guarantee. If you go this route, your dad can stay in the truck, but he will have no way of calling for help (or even communicating with you) since you have only one radio.
Exposure is the biggest downside to this plan. It's extremely hot and getting hotter, and you'll be traveling on foot over rocky terrain. If you slip and get injured during the climb or end up with heat exhaustion while you're out on your own, the situation will get significantly more dangerous. But if all goes well, you might be able to scan for a signal, contact someone, and get rescued within a few hours.
Splitting up is always risky, especially in extreme heat, but the alternative might mean no one even knows you're in trouble until a day or more have passed.
So, how would you approach this hypothetical twist on a real-life survival scenario? Let us know in the poll below.
As always, the purpose of our Survival Scenarios feature is to get you thinking about how you'd face these difficult circumstances in real life, as well as how you could avoid facing this problem in the first place. There should be a few immediate lessons learned here, which mirror some of those we learned from Harden's class with Independence Training:
Keep an eye out for more lessons learned from the emergency communications class in a future issue of our magazine.