Emergency Radio

Last summer, we took a 3 day trip on the upper potomac river (which runs along the C&O canal). We were pretty remote and had no cell coverage until the last day.

We are planning on doing this trip again, but my wife wants to get out and hike the trail for part of the way, while I will be in the kayak.

What is the best way to keep in communication, and be able to contact emergency services should there be a problem? Any suggestions would be appreciated.


amateur radio?
If there’s no cell-phone or marine VHF coverage, you might consider a couple of handheld amateur radios.

You could use them to talk with each other, and there are probably repeaters in the area that would get your signal beyond the immediate vicinity. It wouldn’t be hard to check that. Getting the entry-level license is just a matter of passing a simple written test.


Another option would be inexpensive FRS/GMRS radios to talk to each other, and rent a sat phone or PLB for the trip for emergency use.

I didn’t think of sat phones… good idea

Spot messenger

– Last Updated: Jan-28-09 7:40 PM EST –

We use the spot messenger and find it well worth the money. It can send "we're o.k." messages along with GPS maps on google earth, and can also call in emergency services to your EXACT location, useful if you don't know where you are. As far as keeping in touch with the wife, some cheap FRS radios aught to do the trick.


Spot is great idea, but all it can do in your case is call emergency services for help. Wouldn’t do anything regarding letting you and your wife communicate with each other.

2 VHF radios would work fine, and if there are any other boated or coast guard around, could also let you contact emergency services. Not cheap, at about $150 a pop for a decent, yet inexpensive one.

The radios you see at sports stores for skiers and such are another option. No ready way to use them to contact emergency services, but should let you contact each other so long as you are within a few miles/line of sight.

Careful with VHF
The frequencies are devoted to maritime use, and the CG and FCC might get a bit bent out of shape if used otherwise. As I understand it, VHF communication can be between vessels or between a vessel and a base, but not between tow land-locked VHF’s.

Anyway, VHF is essentially line-of-sight, as is cell service. If there is no cell, I doubt that there would be a marine VHF station coverage either.


So I went ahead and bought a pair of the GMRS radios and it looks like I am supposed to buy a FCC license for $80 to be able to use them (sounds like a scam).

I went with the GMRS as most of the terrain between the river and the trails are pretty hilly/tree covered so I wanted the extra distance to make sure we are in contact. Although I doubt that the radios get 16 miles as advertised, I would expect at least a mile or two.

I also looked into renting the SAT phone to keep on the boat in case of emergency, as I will have a gps as well to give out my location. This looks like my best option.

As a side note, it makes me laugh that I need all this technology to take a “wilderness style” kayaking trip. Anyone else notice the irony.

just curious, what GMRS units …
… did you get and where did you get them ??

How many watts ?? Do they have combined FRS ??

What frequency(s) did they come set up with ?? … do they have 467.MHz range transmit capability or only 462.MHz range ??

Are they commercial grade or basic store purchased units ??

There is a guide published somewhere that list registered owners of repeater stations , don’t know how complete it is , but you may be able to request and receive permission for limited transmit/receive from the owners (group) repeater station on a predetermined scheduled basis , say a few day float down the upper Potomac . The guide may tell you about who , what and where the repeater stations are , and contact info.

GMRS licensing

General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS)

The General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) is a land-mobile radio service available for short-distance two-way communications to facilitate the activities of an adult individual and his or her immediate family members, including a spouse, children, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces, and in-laws (47 CFR 95.179). Normally, as a GMRS system licensee, you and your family members would communicate among yourselves over the general area of your residence or during recreational group outings, such as camping or hiking.

The FCC grants five-year renewable licenses for GMRS Systems. The individual licensee is responsible for the proper operations of the licensed GMRS system at all times.

FRS/GMRS Dual Service Radios

Some manufacturers have received approval to market radios that are certified for use in both the Family Radio Service (FRS) and the General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS). Other manufacturers have received approval of their radios under the GMRS rules, but market them as FRS/GMRS radios on the basis that:

Some channels are authorized to both services, or

A user of the radio may communicate with stations in the other service.

Radios marketed as “FRS/GMRS” or “dual-service radios” are available from many manufacturers and many retail or discount stores. The manual that comes with the radio, or the label placed on it by the manufacturer, should indicate the service the unit is certified for. If you cannot determine what service the unit may be used in, contact the manufacturer.

If you operate a radio that has been approved exclusively under the rules that apply to FRS, you are not required to have a license. FRS radios have a maximum power of ½ watt (500 milliwatt) effective radiated power and integral (non-detachable) antennas. If you operate a radio under the rules that apply to GMRS, you must have a GMRS license. GMRS radios generally transmit at higher power levels (1 to 5 watts is typical) and may have detachable antennas.


Before any station transmits on any channel authorized in the GMRS from any point within or over the territorial limits of any area where the FCC regulates radio services, the responsible party must obtain a license. The FCC usually grants GMRS system licenses for a five-year term. To apply for a GMRS system license, you may file online through the Universal Licensing System (ULS), or file FCC Form 605 manually. New filers can learn more about ULS in its getting started tutorials. See Fee Requirements for FCC Form 605 (pdf) for current licensing fee information.

Sat phone
My wife and I rented a sat phone when we paddled for 6 days in Alaska and the phone worked good. We called home a couple of times because our daughter was expecting and we wanted to see how things were. I would go with that for the piece of mind it brings.

Just for yucks, I looked at FCC form 605
You can see it here:


If you enjoy doing your income taxes, you’re gonna LOVE this form. I strongly suspect that many individual GMRS users who are willing to “do the right thing” and get a license take one look at this form with it’s complex instructions and multiple “schedules” and say “screw it, I’ll take my chances”. It seems like another classic case of “the government just doesn’t get it”. If you want people to do the right thing, you have to make it easy for them. This form is a bad joke.

gone down in price
My first VHF bought about 5 years ago was 135 dollars–I just got a superior model for christmas–smaller more compact with a recharger that actually works for 90 dollars—five years ago the same model was closer to 150—it also pays to shop around.

logging truckers
in the Maine woods use vhf which has replaced the old CB radios—they generally are at least 100 miles or more from salt water—although technically illegal for this use, since they don’t interfere with marine traffic no body bothers them(enforcement would also be virtually impossible) You are correct about line of sight–without repeater stations put up by the USCG the range would be limited. If the OP really feels the need to stay connected(kind of goes against getting out in the wilderness IMO) then probably he could rent a sat phone.

VHF or marine VHF?
There are several VHF bands that are designated for general commercial use – often referred to as “business band” or “land mobile radio”.

Yes, but

– Last Updated: Jan-30-09 9:56 AM EST –

I don't disagree that Form 605 is complicated, but it is a multipurpose form used by commercial radio folks and amateurs to whom it is neither difficult nor unduly complex. Adding the GMRS to the form is a bit of overkill. Whether a license should be required for a casual family radio use is a legitimate question as such users are never going to have any understanding of the radios or use the radios with any understanding of "formal" protocols nor should they be expected or asked to.

To respond to another post about VHF radios, VHF refers to a broad radio spectrum and not just the freq. used by marine radios. There are various business, governmental, military, aviation, and amateur allocations in that spectrum and the marine channels are a very small slice.

Without repeaters, a GMRS radio, which operates in the UHF spectrum, is going to have a limited range. A few miles handheld to handheld is about the limit for any VHF/UHF unit while with a good, high repeater you can communicate well over 50 miles using VHF/UHF handhelds. Once you are into using repeaters, then you need to have a bit of knowledge to properly program the radio to use the right offsets and CTCSS tones. At this point having a callsign obtained by having a license becomes more important too.