Sure, your smartphone does it all — if you never venture out of the signal range. But if you embrace the “0 bars” experience, your phone’s usability is way more limited. The solution? Radio.
Radio is tried, tested, and, most importantly, reliable. There are plenty of options for intrepid hikers, so take a look at your choices.
A basic AM/FM radio can receive commercial broadcasts from terrestrial (a.k.a. ground-based) sources. Portable AM/FM radios suitable for hiking, camping, and other outdoor adventures are available in a vast range of styles, including battery-, solar-, and hand-powered units. Some models even power a small flashlight or recharge a USB device. And while you won’t be able to use AM/FM for two-way communication, these radios are excellent for providing useful information, including important weather updates and other relevant news that can help you anticipate what to prep for while you’re out in the wild.
FM frequencies are good for up to 100 miles depending on the strength of the broadcasting station and the terrain, and they provide high-quality sound with little interference. AM frequencies travel much longer distances — up to thousands of miles — but are more prone to interference from manmade and natural radio sources.
Backpacking? Hiking? Carry a portable NOAA weather radio in your pack. The NOAA weather radio service maintains transmitters throughout the United States, and they automatically broadcast general regional weather information and alerts 24/7. You can’t access these broadcasts through a standard AM or FM receiver because NOAA uses an entirely different set of frequencies; instead, you must use a NOAA weather radio. Many weather radios can continuously scan weather transmissions even when the radio is on standby, and they’ll “wake up” and play any serious weather alerts as they occur. This provides you with peace of mind that you won’t be caught surprised by a major weather event during your adventure.
There are enough NOAA transmitters scattered throughout the country to ensure that many locations are within range of one (a typical NOAA transmitter’s range is about 40 miles). Do your research ahead of time to see if your expedition’s location is within range.
For amateur explorers who want to stay in direct communication with a “home base” and other members of a hiking party, two-way radios provide clear, easy-to-operate communication — at least over short distances. The big advantage here is that these radios are obviously independent from cell services and can operate even where no phone has gone before.
The downside is that the ranges of these radios can be quite limited. While some two-ways may be able to transmit up to 30 miles or more, this is true only in theory. Plus, it requires perfect weather conditions. In a real-life situation with wooded or mountainous terrain, expect a range of only a handful of miles at most. One upside: because of that limited range, you usually don’t need a license to operate these radios.
Portable Ham Radios
A final option is to carry a portable ham radio, which has the potential to increase your range of communication — and your ability to make contact with people outside your immediate expedition. Possible downsides? The weight of the equipment (the wattage may not be any better than a basic two-way radio) and the need for an operating license.
As you’re packing up everything from cans of Rip It Energy to your altimeter, consider adding a radio to your hiking checklist. It could help you out more than you know.