2- Communication

Recommended Equipment


This is the most important communication item. This affords a chance of self-rescue if one gets lost or separated from the group. A whistle may also be used to attract the attention of rescuers or passers-by. It requires very little effort and energy to blow, yet the sound carries great distances.

Children and immature adults must keep their lips off until an actual emergency. The whistle is a survival tool, not a toy.

All group members should be familiar with distress signalling. A universally-recognized distress code is three equal blasts on the whistle, to be repeated until others hear it and respond with two blasts of recognition. Make sure everyone knows that if possible, the person lost or in distress needs to stay in one place until reunited with the rest of the group.

Another universal distress code is the S.O.S (three short blasts, three long blasts, three short blasts).

Get a whistle that’s worth carrying.

Okay, there are whistles and there are whistles. Forget about kid’s toys and useless, feeble gimmicks. Get a good one, since a life could depend on it. Look for a whistle that’s rated for military, EMS, rescue, or law enforcement work (large, loud, durable, and easy-to-blow).

Put your whistle on a lanyard so you don’t lose it.

Three signal mirror examples. A Silva Ranger compass mirror (left), a tempered glass mirror (right), and a plastic/mylar mirror (bottom).

Signal Mirror

signal mirror can attract the attention of aircraft, ground searchers, or passers-by. You already have a signal mirror if you carry the recommended compass (mirror inside a hinged lid).

There are stand-alone mirrors marketed as signal mirrors (the Air Force-style signal mirror is a good example). Some are plastic (durable), others are glass (not as durable), but all of this type are very effective. Some have a sighting hole in the center to aid in destination acquisition. All can be used the same way outlined (“Using a Signal Mirror”) above.

Celllular Phone

It seems like most everyone has a cell phone. Cell phones provide instant 911 communication, and some have other features, such as GPS and internet access.

Cell phones, while extremely useful, are limited by two factors:

  • Service area (signal strength or acquisition)
  • Battery life
Service Area

Before your hike inquire about cell phone access in your hiking area. The ranger station or park office can let you know what to expect. Some areas have good signal strength, while others have very poor or no access.

Although much improved, service in mountainous areas still remains inconsistent. Signal strength relies on the proximity and line-of-sight access to local cell phone towers. This may be poor or none if you’re in the bottom of a valley or drainage, or if ridges or other physical features are in the way.

Access may be improved if one is on a ridgeline or similar terrain feature. This is achieved only through (what may be lengthy) trial and error.

Cell phone features, including GPS, are also reliant on the service area. If you can’t get cell phone coverage, you won’t have access to your cell phone’s GPS function. Cell phones must obtain their GPS location by accessing cell towers in the service area, unlike dedicated GPS units that use satellites for navigation.

Cell Phone
Author’s Casio Exilim cell phone. Integrated LED flashlight, 5.1 MP camera. Meets military standards for water, shock, and dust resistance.
Battery Life

Cell phone batteries are notorious for short life. All are rechargeable only, meaning you’re out of luck if you don’t have a spare battery. Carry a freshly charged spare battery as a backup.

AA battery-powered and solar-powered chargers are available as aftermarket accessories. Your success with these items may vary. Test them out on your phone before considering them reliable power sources.

Battery strength fades quickly if you frequently talk on the phone, or if you leave the phone on in service-poor areas. In service-poor areas the phone continually searches for access, which runs the battery down quickly.

Cell Phone Use

Leave the phone off at all times until you plan on using it. If a phone needs to be on at all times, consider having only one phone in use per group, since everyone doesn’t need their phones on at the same time. Think about what calls are important, and what can wait until you conclude your trip. Think emergency access only.

Periodically assess and identify cell phone access locations. Start at the trailhead or starting point, and go from there as you progress through your hike.

Don’t Rely on Cell Phones

The reality is clear. Cell phones, while an excellent communication resource, are only useful if you’re in a service area.

It’s unwise to rely on them as your only communication resource. Carry, and practice using, other communication options. Develop an emergency communication plan with the understanding that cell phones may not be reliable.

Note Pad and Pencil

For written messages, carry a pocket-size note pad, a pencil, and some plastic baggies.

A message should include your name and the date and time it was written. Include who is with you, how much food and water you have, your next destination, the reason you left, and your overall physical condition.

A written message can be a message sent out for help, or a message left at a fixed location.

Note Pad and Pencli
Note Pad and Pencil
Messages Sent Out for Help

To get help, you may have to send a message out with passing hikers or others in the area. A written message insures the information is relayed by its bearer in its entirety.

Messages Left at Fixed Locations

You may also need to leave a written message at a fixed location. In most emergency situations (such as when you’re lost), the best course of action is to remain where you are until found (go to Stay Put for more discussion on this subject). However, if you must move on, a written message can be left behind.

Fixed messages should be put in a baggie (for weather protection) and visibly anchored on or adjacent to a conspicous point that searchers will notice. This could be near your fire ring, a large tree or rock, a shelter location, or a trail sign. Place a marker of piled rocks or other material next to the message to draw attention to it if necessary.