E.T. Phone Home: Communications And Signaling

By Mykel Hawke

Photo by Dmitriy Suponnikov

Bad things happen. It’s a fact of life. They can happen to anyone at any time and they do happen to everyone at one time or another. The best way to deal with a bad thing is to get out of it.

This is especially true when it comes to survival. You can have all the gear in the world and still die. You can be the best trained in the world, and still die. Things can happen to hurt or kill anyone, and only the foolish would think otherwise. We can hope for the best, but hope is not a plan.

When we plan, we plan for the best, and the best plan is to get out of the survival situation and to do so as soon as possible. The best way to get out is to call for help. Sure, we can survive, and we can survive for a while, maybe even survive long enough to walk out of danger and all the way back to Fort Living Room. But it is so much easier to just call for help and get rescued.

And that rescue call requires planning and being equipped. What is the best kit to get the heck outta trouble and back to your sweetie? You need to figure out the best tech for your needs, skills, and budget. Tech is constantly changing, evolving, and improving. So here are some of the principles you need to consider and the gear you need to be eyeballin’.

Principles of signaling are pretty straightforward: make yourself seen or heard, because it’s the squeaky wheel that survives. But to get seen/heard/found, you should have a five-point contingency. You need one for everything really, but especially for your commo (communications) plan.

It’s best to have a few layers of communications on you at all times, if not all five. In the military, we call these “redundancy” systems, but I prefer to just call them backups. In Special Forces we always have at least five layers or a five-point contingency plan. We use the acronym PACE-GTH, which stands for Primary, Alternate, Contingency, Emergency, and “Go To Hell” plan when all else fails.

You should have these items on your person or in your bag at all times, and this is especially true anytime you’re out and about or traveling, be it in the woods, desert, or sea—as the desert and sea can be the deadliest places on the planet, more so than the icy cold.


  1. P) CELL PHONE: It might not work out of range, but try to have phones with real GPS built in, so even when out of cell tower range, you can use the map function to get to help.
  2. A) RADIOS: Handhelds like Family or Marine can be good UHF/VHF options, or for carrying in a pack, or you should have a CB type as a backup system, in your car, boat, or plane. And some kind of HF long-range radio at your log cabin, beach hut, etc.
  3. C) SAT PHONE: These are very affordable and lightweight. Anyone going anywhere remote or dangerous or at risk of going down should buy or rent one of these. This is a surefire way to get help and get home anywhere in the world. Some systems work in specific regions, some work globally.
  4. E) AUDIO-VISUALS: These are mainly for when your electronic communications fail, break, batteries die, are lost or…you just flat didn’t bring ‘em!

E1) AUDIO, WHISTLE: Travels farther than voice, day and night.

E2) VISUAL, SIGNAL MIRROR: Primarily day.

E3) VISUAL, FLASHLIGHT: Primarily night.

GTS) NATURAL: These are for when you’re caught out with nothing and you’ve got to make use of whatever is around you. Some examples are fires and signs. See the list below for ideas on options in different terrains.


  • For all phones, consider options that keep the GPS function even out of cell tower range
  • Consider apps like Zello that work off a phone’s own Wi-Fi or Bluetooth and can act like a short-range walkie talkie
  • For all electronics, consider dual power sources as best
  • Use batteries that can be recharged by car, home, or sun
  • The very best options have a hand-crank option for cloudy days

SAT PHONE: Very common and affordable. There are different sizes, plans, and prices, and also different satellites and areas covered. Getting one of these for your travel region is essentially always having 911 available to you.

BGANS: Basically like the WiFi that lets other phones tether to yours for Internet access, the BGANS converts satellite to data and then lets family use their phones, tablets, and laptops to connect to it and communicate through the Internet. But it is expensive and connection speed is slow.

GPS RADIO: (Examples: SPOT, Rino) Wonderful tools to have, many brands and prices. Key things to look for are the standard functions of the higher-priced models.

The RINO 750 has a two-way radio with a range of about 20 miles, which is pretty good, but it also has a GPS so you will always know where you are. With the maps on the screen, that often means you can find your way to safety.

The EXPLORER gets you the GPS with the extra satellite function that lets you do some texting to a loved one, for example to let them know you are okay or need help.

The SPOT and devices built in them means you have a sort of Bat Phone in that you can press a button and an all-call alert goes out indicating you are in trouble, and it functions as a homing beacon to help bring rescuers to you.

HIGHER-PRICED OPTIONS: Watches that have a beacon transponder in them just like planes have. When a plane crashes, the beacon is activated. In this manner, a GPS device sends a distress signal to satellites, they pick it up, and emergency services know the exact location where the signal is coming from and a rescue crew is dispatched. Breitling is the standard. You unwind the knob, pull the cable, and activate the signal. It’s $18K for the watch and $100K if you make a fake call.

CB RADIOS: Primarily a vehicle radio, they require a strong battery and antenna but have good range. If you do a lot of road trips in a car, camper, van, SUV or RV, this should be a mandatory part of your kit.

Cell phone range may drop out in remote regions, but the CB will always be able to receive and transmit anywhere you are. The range is 5 to 50 miles. If anyone is near and has their CB on, they can respond.

VHF/UHF RADIOS: These radios are like CBs for cars. They use slightly different frequency ranges and are mainly used in boats and on aircraft.

UHF is ultra-high frequency with very little static but a shorter range. Often used with family band handheld radios.

VHF is very high frequencies, travels farther, picks up more static.

HF will travel around the world if the factors are right, also has most static.

HF radios (aka ham radios) have been around a long time, think WWII. I consider them to be the best survival radios after the SAT phone.

These can be mobile, with some gear or a base station. They are often the only thing that works after mass disasters. Ham radio operators often become the crucial link for FEMA, Red Cross, et al, helping in major catastrophes when all other communications fail. They require skill to work but can be the best radio out there.

GOOD RULES for communication plans, especially when power supply is limited:

WHERE: Always broadcast from the highest, most open, and most likely to be spotted vantage point, where visual signals can be seen from the greatest distance, and broadcast transmissions travel farthest.

WHEN: Try to concentrate your power-based communications in the first 24 hours, as this is when most search parties will be initiated. Broadcast your signal continuously during this window if you’re able.

Consider delaying your 24-hour broadcast period for a day or two if you have reason to believe it will take folks that long to begin looking for you. If you need to go in power-conservation mode, space out broadcasts, limit duration, transmit at regular intervals, and at standardized times such as dawn, dusk, noon, and midnight.

TIMES: Dawn and dusk have atmospheric changes that can help broadcasts travel farther. At midnight and noon the sky is stable, making them good times. Finally, human habit is to listen to the radio in morning and at night. 9 AM and 9 PM are good times to transmit for a person to catch your message.

CHANNELS: If you have an HF radio, tune to 5.000, 10.000, 20.000, etc. These broadcast WWV Universal Coordinated Time. People around the world use this to set their watches. SOS tapped out in code has a good chance of being heard here.

NOTE: It’s illegal to broadcast without a license, but you can handle that after rescue!


STROBES: are a great tool. They definitely can catch any human eyes, day or night. They make great ones that actually flash in Morse Code. SOS!

LASER FLARES: are also great. Like old flares, they are bright, go high or far. But they are better as they are not single-time use; they can be used for hours and days. And they are a lot safer in that they are not flammable, explosive, or gaseous.

LIGHTS: Use these as an SOS signal for any passing planes, ships, or any lights you can see in the distance. Three long, three short, three long. Say it, practice it!

There are apps for phones that can send this SOS signal using your flashlight, and if you have a radio, these apps can make the Morse code sound for you, too. There are even apps that can read Morse code and send it for any message you type.

PYRO-FLARES: should be fired overhead, at a slight angle away from you and never directly at a ship or aircraft. Only use when you can see/hear the craft.

LASER POINTERS: Can be used for signaling, but may be disregarded as kids. Use SOS.

Again, the best way to survive is to get back home, and that means calling for help.

If you plan, you’ll be ready. But if all else fails, these options can give you a chance.

AUTHOR INFO: As a U.S. Army Special Forces Captain and Sergeant First Class Communications Specialist, (18E), Mykel Hawke was trained in Morse Code, Clandestine Communications, Satellites, and Cryptology. Prior to Special Forces, Hawke was a Radio Operator (O5B) and a Radio Repairman (31V). He is a licensed Ham Radio Operator.

TRIVIA: Mykel Hawke taught survival radios on Man, Woman, Wild, the Montserrat episode on urban survival in a post-volcanic eruption environment.