Emergency Communication Tips

This article about emergency communication tips in the wilderness was originally published in Canoeroots and Family Camping magazine.

On a remote portage you come upon a group carrying a teenage girl on a stretcher. She has appendicitis and needs immediate evacuation. You spot a Forest Service floatplane overhead, whip out your Silva compass and aim the mirror at the airplane. Miraculously, the glint of reflected sunlight catches the pilot’s eye. He flies the girl to Grand Marais, Minnesota, where her appendix is removed.

You’re probably thinking, “Good story, Cliff,” but this actually happened to me in 1967 on my first trip to the Boundary Waters.

It’s smart to carry signal gear on any canoe trip, even one close to home. Here are some options.


Heliograph Mirror

The chance of reflecting sunlight onto a moving airplane with a standard mirror is almost zero. Much better is a genuine military heliograph mirror with a sighting hole in the center. With practice, a CD will also work.



Floatplane pick-ups and search and rescue operations are usually daytime affairs so smoke creates better visible contrast than flares. Best bang is the Orion handheld orange smoke signal, available at any marina. It ignites like a rail- road flare and pours out thick orange smoke for 50 seconds.


VHF Aircraft radio

An airplane you can see is probably close enough to be reached on a handheld VHF air- craft transceiver. A VHF radio with a 15-mile range allows about five minutes of talk time at typical floatplane speeds. As a courtesy, most bush pilots will circle to keep you in range. But high-flying jets won’t change course, so you better talk fast.

In a life-threatening situation, you may broadcast on the restricted emergency frequency (121.5 megahertz) monitored by all pilots. For other concerns, you must stick with the frequencies that are assigned to the charter companies—ask your pilot and program it into your radio. Transmitting without an FCC license is technically illegal, but in the bush— and given the short range of handheld transceivers—everyone looks the other way. Note that a VHF marine-band radio cannot be used to contact airplanes.



SPOT Communicator is a palm-sized, one-way satellite communication device. Push a button to activate a global 911 network and initiate search and rescue. You can also send two pre- written messages to your contacts via email. Recently, the unit has been paired with the Delorme Earthmate PN-60 GPS, which provides a type-and-send keyboard and GPS fix. SPOT is sure to evolve considerably by the time you read this.


Satellite Phone

Globalstar and Iridium are the most popular brands. Iridium has worldwide coverage; Globalstar has some blackout areas. Be advised that rental units see considerable use and batteries may be old and not hold a full charge. It’s wise to bring a solar charger if you rent a satellite phone.



You may not hear a whistle above the roar of rapids—that’s why you should know the inter- national safety hand/paddle signals. Whistles work well on land, if you wander off a bushwhacked portage trail and become con- fused, for example. Best are pea-less designs like the Fox 40 that still sound when flooded.


Color Counts

Brightly colored canoes, packs, tents and clothing make you easier to spot and can be arranged in threes to create the international signal for distress.


This article originally appeared in Canoeroots & Family Camping, Spring 2012. Download our freeiPad/iPhone/iPod Touch App or Android App or read it here.


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