Communications in Remote Areas
Updated: Dec 7, 2019
Whether sailing the world or travelling overland especially in remote and high risk areas of the world, the ability to communicate is an important social and safety factor. It facilitates good decision making and choice of routing through access to weather forecasting and road conditions. It allows the traveller to stay in touch with the ‘outside world’ including family and friends. Whilst you will be able to sort most problems out on your own, in the event of a disaster, communications allow you to at least tell somebody you have a problem and to call for assistance where its available.
These days ‘Adventurers’ and ‘Explorers’ are somewhat spoilt for choice. There are many different types of communications equipment available. Different capabilities come at different price points, subscriptions and with different operating rules, regulations and licence requirements. A summary of options for anybody travelling in remote areas is offered for consideration. Business solutions are not addressed here but are available for those that need more functionality and higher data rates.
The focus of this article is really ‘Overlanding’, if you are crossing oceans, deserts, jungles, mountain ranges or just enjoying the big ‘Outdoors’, I hope this is of interest to you.
Overlanding is self-reliant overland travel to remote destinations where the journey is the principal goal. Typically, but not exclusively, it is accomplished with mechanized off-road capable transport (from bicycles to trucks) where the principal form of lodging is camping, often lasting for extended lengths of time (months to years) and spanning international boundaries.
Safe Travel – good practice.
The term ‘communication’ infers a two-way flow of information and it is not all about the latest, sexiest most expensive equipment!
Routine ‘Check Calls’. It is good practice to ‘check in’ (make contact with) a point of contact at home at agreed regular intervals. Somebody at home also needs to know how to contact the travellers. This person (lets call them a Coordinator) can keep family and friends up to date with news and act as a focal point of contact for reaching out to the travellers in case of a family emergency. Nomination of a ‘Coordinator’ therefore allows the travellers to provide assurance of their well-being, pass information about progress, changes to plans and to receive any urgent messages.
How often? Circumstances will drive the frequency and timing of these ‘check calls’. For mariners, calls can be easily organised at any convenient time of the day and may often be set several days apart. For Overlander’s, depending on the underlying risk in the area they are travelling through, it may be appropriate that these calls be scheduled daily at the end of each travelling day after the campsite / accommodation has been reached.
Time zones! Remember to be clear about time zones when setting call schedules and reporting positions.
Voice / SMS / Email. A ‘Check Call’ may be a voice call (satellite phone or mobile) but even with an inclusive minutes tariff, international calls quickly become expensive. A satellite or mobile text message or email could be used. What’s important is that contact is made.
Call content – When making the check call, the following information should be provided:
Position (Lat / Long Coordinates)
Intended movement – planned route and any alternates / diversions if known.
Next planned overnight stop
Any issues or requests.
Day / time of next scheduled check call. (If this is not provided then the assumption is that the current call schedule continues).
Missed / overdue calls. If a check call is not received, its important that the Coordinator’s actions are clearly defined and understood. Appropriate action will also be influenced by risk in the area in which the travellers are moving through and awareness of any incidents in the region that might have affected the travellers safety. There maybe a number of reasons why its not possible to make a call (or get connectivity) for example weather or steep valley sides, heavy jungle canopy, equipment failure or ........ just plain forgot! It is good practice to document the actions the Coordinator should take within an ‘Emergency Response Plan’ specifically produced for the trip so that everybody knows what to expect.
For example only, when Overlanding in a reasonably benign environment and based on a check call being made every 24 hours, the Coordinators actions might look something like this:
Missed Call 1 (24 hours)
In the event that a Safety Check Call is missed, the Coordinator shall:
· Check live tracking (Iridium and Garmin) to confirm the Convoy is in the expected location and moving in the right direction.
· Call or send a message to Travellers via SMS, satellite messaging, Garmin InReach messaging and / or email to check all is OK.
· Search the news to see if there has been a major incident or bad weather in the area concerned.
· (Travellers shall respond at the earliest opportunity to confirm all is OK and to pass current position (Lat and Long) and intended movement / campsite for the next night’s stop.)
Missed Call 2 (48 hours)
In the event that two consecutive Safety Check Calls are missed, the UK Coordinator shall:
· Review tracking
· Attempt to contact travellers by voice
· Iridium message
· SMS message
· Voice (Mobile and satellite phones)
Missed Call 3 (72 hours)
In the event that three consecutive calls are missed (72 hours without contact), the Coordinator shall:
· Attempt to contact Travellers by all means available.
· If still no response and / or tracking shows no movement or vehicles in any unexpected location; then:
Contact the following and inform them of the situation
· Police (home Police force)
· National Embassy in the relevant country
· Duty Officer of the relevant Government Department (for example the FCO if travellers are UK Nationals)
Duress Code. A Duress Code should be agreed and known by all crew members and the Coordinator. Use of the duress code either verbally or in any text message or email shall indicate that the speaker / sender is acting under duress and requires urgent assistance. The Coordinator should retain a copy of the duress code in a sealed envelope for verification purposes.
For example, on receipt of the duress code, the Coordinator could be directed to:
Discretely acknowledge receipt (if possible)
Start a log and maintain a factual record of events
Record all voice calls thereafter and retain copies of all communications, written and verbal.
Contact the relevant Embassy(s) in the Country concerned. Report current location if known and pass details of the vehicle(s) and Persons ‘On Board’.
Contact the relevant Government department Duty Officer (for UK Citizens this is the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) in London) and provide details as appropriate.
Inform the Police and provide a copy of the Personal Information Packs (PIP) for those concerned. The PIP’s include:
o Full names, address, contact numbers
o Mobile network service providers for the travellers (remember to give details of local Sim Card and network operator if appropriate)
o Photographs and physical descriptions of each person (in Interpol Missing Persons (MISPER) format)
o Vehicle details, make registration, colour and description
o Passport details
o Medical / health information if requested
o Next of Kin / Emergency Contact details
o Planned travel itinerary
o Last known location(s) and intended movement
o Tracking details including login to the website
o Copy of the relevant Road Book
Monitor live tracking information.
Liaise and cooperate with the Police as required. Do not be surprised if the Police response is slow to start; they may treat it as a missing persons report initially.
Inform and liaise with Next of Kin or nominated Emergency Contacts as appropriate.
To cancel Duress. The duress code can only be cancelled following confirmation by a trusted and verifiable third party such as:
The British Embassy (or Commission) in the Country concerned.
The hotel manager of a 4/5 star international hotel.
Bank manager of an international bank in the capital or other major city
Senior Police Officer.
International Business Country or Security Manager
Hospital / international Clinic Manager
National Parks Manager
Bush resort manager
Other by mutual agreement
The travellers should proceed to a convenient Safe Haven that meets the criteria described above and present themselves in person with their Passports to confirm their identity. The Verifier should confirm their identity to the Coordinator or other Authority as appropriate and confirm the safety and well being of the party. It is important that the Verifier also provides their full contact details.
A duress code is ‘one time use’. If / when used (and successfully cancelled), a new duress code should be issued.
There are 5 main categories of need for communications; these are:
Person to person;
Vehicle to vehicle;
If you can make Carrier Pigeons work for you….. then fine, but somebody needs to know when or how often to expect a Pigeon and what to do, or who to tell if a Pigeon doesn’t turn up. A Pigeon dispatched back with an urgent message from home needs to be able to find the travellers. Unfortunately Pigeons are not very reliable as they may need to run the gauntlet of Peregrine Falcons and other hazards along the route. (See ‘Valiant’ an animated comedy film - Walt Disney Pictures August 2005.)
Person to Person Communications
Person to Person communications are typically those voice communications used to maintain contact between crew / team members (typically 0-5 miles). For Overlander’s, this includes communications between a Spotter and a Driver to assist transiting complex difficult terrain or managing a vehicle recovery. For Mariner’s this might include communications between a Shore Party and the Yacht or children away fishing in the Tender.
PMR Radios. Most communications between team members are short range. Radio communication is normally the most flexible and cost effective method for short ranges; PMR radios can be used to avoid expensive mobile phone roaming charges. They are a great option for a crew or family. They offer a relatively low cost option and do not require a license to operate them. They also provide a great platform to teach children to use radios confidently.
VHF Hand held marine radio. For mariners needing communication with a RIB or beach party, a hand held VHF Radio can be used. There are plenty of different manufacturers and specifications available with features including GMDSS. There is normally a VHF GMDSS Base Station fitted on each Yacht. A radio licence s required.
Mobile Phone. Is an option in areas with network coverage and where roaming agreements are in place but note that this can become expensive very quickly unless a local SIM card is used. Local Sim cards create additional issues; different (new) contact numbers and changes to contact details for communications applications such as Whatsapp or Telegram. These issues can be overcome by using a separate phone for local sims and / or a Wifi router with two or more Sim card slots.
Vehicle to Vehicle (or Ship to Ship) Communications
Used when two or more vehicles are travelling together (in convoy) and typically 0 – 10 miles range. The purpose is to coordinate and maintain spacing between vehicles and to alert vehicles behind to hazards or trouble on the road ahead. It is also used to coordinate the safe transit of road blocks or Police ‘stops’, or any internal administrative traffic.
Flags. International maritime signal flags (and the International Code of Signals) are still used to communicate between ships. A series of flags can spell out a message, each flag representing a letter. Nelson used flags to communicate with the Fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar.
PMR Radios. Most communications between vehicles are short to medium range. Radio communication is normally the most cost effective method but there would need to be good line of sight for PMR radios to be effective at the longer ranges.
VHF / UHF Radios. When professionally fitted and with a high performance antenna and in the right conditions, extended ranges can be achieved. Some of these fitted radios require at least one person in the vehicle or onboard to hold an appropriate radio licence. These radios can also provide access to the Amateur Radio (Ham) Network and other users such as Game Lodges and National Parks teams. At sea, marine band VHF radios are widely used and normally include GMDSS (Global Maritime Distress and Safety System). Airband also enables communications with medical evacuation aircraft.
Semaphore is the telegraphy system conveying information at a distance by means of visual signals with hand-held flags, rods, disks, paddles, or occasionally bare or gloved hands.
Mobile phones. Are also an option in areas with network coverage and where roaming agreements are in place but note that this can become expensive very quickly unless a local SIM card is used.
Satellite phone. Not as effective, responsive or flexible as good radio communications, and can take longer to get a connection than a mobile phone. This would work but it’s an expensive option for routine local communications. Contrary to popular belief, not all satellite phones work globally so care needs to be taken when selecting the network provider. Iridium is the only truly global operator and especially in the higher latitudes (polar regions). Inmarsat is also popular, especially at sea and with those typically working in static locations requiring voice, internet / email access using static directional aerials; Inmarsat (Isat) also offer a satellite handset.
SMS / text messaging. When discretion is required, for example when being observed perhaps waiting at a check point, it may be possible to discretely communicate between vehicles using SMS / text messaging. These formatted messages can be pre-programmed and stored on some devices including mobile and satellite phones and some navigation systems. Be aware that there can be delays in receipt of SMS messages.
Flashing Light. Morse code is commonly transmitted as a visual signal using flashing lights or reflections but can also be used as a non-detectable form of communication using the tapping of fingers or even blinking of eyes. The Royal Navy uses flashing light between ships in visual range.
Email. If there is internet access, then email may be an option but there can be delays in transmission and reception and the receiver may not be monitoring their email account. If using satellite communications, an email integration service (such as Iridium Mail or Sailmail) will help minimise unwanted traffic, reduce file sizes and costs.
Communications within the country that you are currently travelling in. Typically used to monitor local weather forecasts and road conditions but can be up to 1500 miles range. To manage administrative tasks including campsite / hotel / marina bookings and activity planning. Emergency response, calling emergency services, mechanical breakdown support, VISA applications etc.
VHF / UHF Radio. Some frequency ranges are used by the amateur radio (Ham) network but most countries require at least one person in the vehicle or onboard to hold an appropriate radio licence. In an emergency the Radio Ham network has a good reputation for providing assistance. In Africa these frequencies are used widely by Rangers and remote Farms; often a good source of local information.
HF Radio. In this context, HF is mainly used by Mariners to manage radio safety networks and weather schedules. It is also used by groups like minerals exploration teams working in remote areas. The advent of satellite communications makes HF less popular but if properly setup, a wide range of free services can be obtained via HF including weather and even internet (email) access using a modem. Some of the new radios now offer VHF / UHF and HF communications in a single Transceiver.
Morse code encodes text characters as standardized sequences of two different signal durations called dots and dashes (or dits and dahs). Morse code is named for Samuel F. B. Morse, an inventor of the telegraph.
Mobile phones. An option in areas with network coverage and where roaming agreements are in place but note that this can become expensive very quickly unless a local SIM card is used.
Satellite phone. Can take longer to get a connection than a mobile phone. This can be an expensive option for routine working. Contrary to popular belief, not all satellite phones work globally so care needs to be taken when selecting the network provider. Iridium is the only global operator and especially in the higher latitudes (polar regions). Inmarsat is also popular at sea and with those typically working in static locations requiring voice, internet / email access using static directional aerials. Unfortunately data rates are quite slow.
SMS messaging. Not really suitable for urgent traffic as there can be delays in both delivery but a useful fall back. SMS does often work even when networks are overloaded (see Emergency Communications).
Local Wifi. Can be used to access internet services where available in places like hotels, bars and café’s. This can give access to email and web based communications services like Skype, WhatsApp and Telegram. A Wifi enhancer fitted in the Camper will improve signal quality and enable you to connect to existing networks at longer ranges.
This category includes communications with friends and family, administrative tasks such as personal banking, access to email, social networks / blogging, uploading video and photographs. Check calls with the nominated Coordinator. Tracking. Monitoring country political and security risk. Weather forecast and route selection. VISA’s. Ranges typically up to 10,000 miles.
Local Wifi. If available access to local Wifi gives free access to the internet, voice calls using various applications (Skype, Whatsapp, Telegram etc). Having a Wifi booster aerial on your camper will improve connectivity. Some yachts have reported successfully using shore based Wifi up to 10 miles offshore with a booster!
Mobile phone. Only within network coverage.
Sateliite phone. Excellent for international voice communications but can become rapidly very expensive. Whist data rates are slow, in areas where there s a strong signal, computers , iPads and smartphones connected to the internet can sometimes use the data allowance to make voice calls by running applications such as Whatsapp. Access to email, uploading photographs and updating blogs are all possible but patience is required.
HF Radio. Link calls are still possible over HF. This service connects an HF Radio User with a land line number and was widely used by ships at sea until about 2000 when superseded by satellite phones. There are still some National and Ham Radio Stations that will provide this service; some will charge and you need to be comfortable with passing your credit card details openly over the air! Could be an option in an emergency. Free internet access is also possible when used with a modem although data rates are slow.
Some satellite (and mobile) telephones include a tracking feature that automatically sends a position report at preset intervals (typically 10 minutes). This position can be viewed by those authorised via a (secure) website. If a call is missed, a quick look at the tracking can confirm at least whether the vehicle / yacht is in the expected position and heading in the right direction. Of course this assumes that the tracking has been switched on, enabled and the platform being tracked is within the relevant network coverage area!
AIS tracking. Vessels over 300 GRT and most ocean going yachts use a system called the Automatic Identification System (AIS) primarily to assist with collision avoidance. A secondary benefit is that this also allows vessels to be tracked when within coverage areas. This tracking can be viewed via a number of free websites; a popular example can be found at www.marinetraffic.com.
Security. Transmission of tracking information can present a security risk to the travellers. Any urge to push this data to a live public website should be resisted to avoid the information becoming useful to the ‘ill disposed’. For example, Pirates have used AIS tracking to target vessels.
SYSTEMS DESIGN AND INTEGRATION
If you want to get the most out of your chosen communications solution, then you will need to take an integrated approach. This will ensure that you realise best value for money by building in as much redundancy as possible and maximising operational capability whilst minimising operating costs.
Redundancy. It is good practice to have more than one option available for communications at all times.
Budget will drive your final communications solution but when developing your integrated solution, in addition to communications systems you should also consider:
Power. Develop a power consumption forecast (day and night) in all scenarios and climates to ensure that you can generate and store sufficient power to supply and operate all the equipment in your camper. Don’t forget all the ancillary equipment.
Batteries. A lithium system is lighter and performs better than traditional batteries.
Computer(s). Your personal computer(s) and applications including communications, mapping and planning tools. The ability to upload / download / exchange them with other systems ‘onboard’ (for example only, a Garmin Overland GPS system.
Server / hard drive. For storage of photos / videos / movies / music and shared data.
IPADs. Mapping and communications, viewing movies, internet browing etc
Bluetooth. The use of bluetooth to minimise internal cabling requirements.
GPS. Its likely there will be several GPS receivers included amongst fitted equipment. Where are the position feeds to come from and go to?
Mapping. Try to choose mapping and associated data bases that can be used on all (or most) platforms and be easily synchronised.
Navigation system. The main system in the truck / vehicle should be capable of all core functions (road traffic reporting, locating services / key points. Camp sites etc). Route definition on and off road. Track following. Breadcrumbs for back tracking if required. Distance and measuring tools. Ideally it will be integrated with satellite communications for position reporting, messaging and tracking.
Wifi booster (Wifi BAT). A wifi signal booster that can capture wifi signals in campsites / hotels and allow you free internet access.
Cellphone booster. A cellphone signal booster to improve network signal strength and connectivity.
Firewall. For use when connecting to the internet for example via satellite.
Antenna’s. Professionally installed high performance antenna’s will reduce mutual interference and increase performance and signal quality / clarity.
Emergency power. Standby batteries (and portable solar charger) in case of total power failure or a need to leave or operate remotely from the Camper.
Solar panels. To charge the battery bank. Also charging from the vehicle when underway and the grid when available.
HF radio modem. To allow data to be passed over HF
Vehicle and camper stereo radio / entertainment systems
Computer display. For TV / video viewing.
Security cameras and lighting
Cameras / video / drone. Ability to seamlessly upload imagery
Gas, fire and security alarms.
Lighting. Internal and external LED lights.
Heating. Vehicle heating systems, hot water etc
Tank Levels. Fuel, water, grey water and black water tanks
Remote access. Ability to monitor (and control?) systems remotely.
Data back up. System and file restoration
Fault finding / diagnosis. A high quality installation should facilitate easer fault finding. Colour coding of wires (traceability), visibility of system status lights, access to fuses, units for replacement etc.
Mobile phone. Check with your service provider that they have roaming agreements in place with the countries that you are planning to visit. You also need to ensure that you have international roaming enabled on your account and make arrangements to ensure that your account is paid monthly.
Satellite phone. There can be a significant difference in tariff rates and packages between providers. To manage costs effectively it might best to go for a higher tariff if it includes unlimited data with included voice minutes. This will give you unrestricted access to internet and email. Unfortunately satellite data rates are slow so not very good for up or downloading large files. You might be able to run applications like Whats App over the network and make voice calls using the data allowance.
"If something can go wrong, it will and at the worst possible time".
Sod’s Law (also known as Murphy’s Law)
The subject of Safe Travel merits its own White Paper in due course but for now suffice to say that its good practice to make sure somebody back at home (or at least outside the country you are travelling in) is aware of your location and planned movement ……. ‘just in case’. After a major incident, this can significantly reduce the workload of authorities such as the UK FCO trying to account for the safety of their citizens and managing enquiries from concerned family and friends.
‘Shit happens’! As I write this paper there have been reports of fatalities following an earthquake in Albania and serious flash flooding with associated land slips and loss of life in Kenya and Ethiopia. These are all popular Overlander / Off Roading / 4WD areas. Families watching the news at home will be worried about friends and family living or travelling in the region.
For those at sea, we are now coming towards the end of the North Atlantic hurricane season but disaster can strike suddenly and without notice. Whilst being very unusual, the sudden loss of yacht keels is an example of what can happen.
Cheeki Rafeeki, a Bénéteau First 40.7 sailing yacht on 16 May 2014 in the Atlantic and Polina Star III, an Oyster 825 In 2015 in the Mediterranean off southern Spain both lost their keels and sank.
In addition to being able to stay in touch with family whilst you are away, and despite carrying equipment and spares to facilitate ‘self help’, it is still possible that you could find yourself in trouble. If you cannot at least tell somebody about it then you could be in for a long wait especially if say on a bush track or away from shipping lanes. If you come across an illegal roadblock in a high risk areas, it s good practice to be able to speak or send a message to somebody with your position and a summary of the issue so they are aware of what is going on. Otherwise you could ‘disappear’ and nobody would know where to start looking.
Any and all of the above technical solutions have a place during an emergency. Of special note are the PMR Radios. It is strongly recommended that everybody has a pre packed ‘Grab Bag’ with emergency supplies to allow independent personal living for up to 72 hrs. Each Grab Bag should include a PMR Radio.
Mobile Phone Networks. During major mass casualty incidents (such as terrorism or natural disaster, networks can become overloaded and fail. In these situations SMS messaging tends to last longer than voice. Connection to Wifi networks may also allow you to communicate. In some circumstances authorities my even shut mobile phone networks down.
Land Lines. In the event of a coup d’etat, mobile and fixed telephony communications networks (land lines) are likely to be shut down. Both may be lost after a major natural disaster, but radios (and satellite communications) should still function. Loss of the landline and mobile phone networks can be one of the first indicators of trouble.
Satellite phone SOS buttons
Some satellite phones or messaging devices include an SOS button. Don’t just assume that if you press the button, help will come; monitoring and response may require you to pay an additional subscription. Some examples follow:
Iridium Go & Iridium 9575. These units include an SOS button monitored by an Operations Centre. The ability to speak to an Operator or somebody coming to assist is a great benefit. This service is offered as an optional and additional monthly subscription.
Garmin InReach. Messaging and tracking only, no voice communications. The Expedition tariff has unlimited messages and tracking at 2 minute intervals. It includes an unlimited 160 character messaging and SOS service. A useful standby option.
EPIRB and PLB
PLB. Personal Locator Beacon 406MHz. This is in essence a personal EPIRB (see below). A PLB is registered to a person and it is always manually activated. It is available with or without an integral GPS and once activated it sends the same signal via the same route as an EPIRB to the same destination. Due to a shorter battery life of around 24 hours, the signal will cease transmission sooner than would be the case with the EPIRB. If you decide to purchase a PLB then its recommended you always buy one with integrated GPS.
EPIRB. Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon 406MHz and 121.5 / 243.0MHz. Used to alert search and rescue services in the event of an emergency. It does this by transmitting a coded message via the free to use, multinational Cospas Sarsat network. Typically quite expensive to buy but requires no monthly subscription. Activation generates an international IAMSAR response. Must be registered with a competent authority in your country.
For ‘overlanding’ in a vehicle for extended periods in areas outwith mobile phone coverage (and especially if travelling through areas of higher political and security risk) the recommended basic package for those travelling should include:
Mobile phone (ideally a smartphone) with international roaming
PMR radios (1 for each person).
A satellite telephone (for example Iridium Go that offers Bluetooth connectivity for up to 5 devices) with an Unlimited monthly data package and inclusive (voice) minutes.
If you can afford it then you might also include:
Fixed aerial installation for the satellite phone
Fitted VHF / UHF Radio
Garmin InReach satellite messaging (can be integrated with Garmin Overland GPS and mapping system – very useful in Africa).
If money is no object then also consider:
HF radio and high performance antenna
Firewall / wireless network
Wifi signal enhancer (Wifi Bat or equivalent)
EPIRB (or PLB)
Changing Iridium Go or adding Iridium Pilot (or Iridium Certus).
The key message here is that if you are intending travel for an extended period anywhere outside of mobile phone coverage, you really should consider either a PLB or (better) a satellite phone.