Updated: Jul 8
Communication is at the core of any good relationship and being in the mountains is no different! Staying in touch with your friends and family can be done via text when you’re at home, but in the outdoors radios are a reliable way to communicate with our adventure partners when there might not be cellphone service. Radios have many uses in the outdoors. From search and rescue to general communication, use this guide as an introduction to safely and effectively using radios on your outdoor adventure.
Have you ever tried screaming into the wind? What about yelling to a friend from a long distance? Radios come in handy when a friend isn’t within sight or the weather is carrying your voice in another direction. Radios work best when you need to communicate specific instructions or directions. One of the most common uses is when two groups split up but need to communicate each other’s whereabouts.
Radios come with varying functionality, features, and uses, and everyone uses radios (or communicates) differently. Consider doing a demo or reviewing commands when you’re standing next to your friend, partner, or family member. Make sure the lingo for the activity is aligned and what to do if the radios fail (or the battery dies). Test the radios before you leave the car and pause after pushing in the push-to-talk (PTT) button. Make sure that the radio is in a safe place in your backpack so that the PTT button doesn’t get pressed while you’re walking on the trail.
SheJumps youth Wild Skills programs teach radio communication focusing on what to do in case of an emergency or incident. Knowing how to communicate an emergency is crucial for outdoor activities, especially when first responders may not be able to drive to the patient or incident.
Below, learn two-way radio basics and how to use a radio to call for help. Though this Micro Venture focuses on radio communication, the tips below also will work if you’re calling for help with your cellphone to 9-1-1, search and rescue, or the local land management staff.
Types of communication devices
Decide what tool you need for the activity (or adventure) you’re doing. Cellphones have their limitations in the backcountry but are normally what most people use.
Radios are great for longer range and real-time communication between the group if spread across an area like a ski resort or a rock climbing wall but may not be able to call for help if dispatch is out of range.
Personal Location Beacons (PLBs) and satellite communicators excel in remote areas. They have many uses, including navigation, programmable text messages, or S.O.S. (Save Our Souls) buttons to call for help.
What’s a two-way radio?
A two-way radio (walkie-talkie) is a radio that can both transmit and receive radio waves (a transceiver), unlike a broadcast receiver (like the one in your car) which only receives content. Learn more about how to choose a two-way radio.
How do radios work?
Two-way radios work by using a radio receiver that receives the radio waves and interprets the information that the frequency carries.
A tuner is also included in the receiver as it helps sort our different frequency signals. This allows you to receive messages from a particular frequency.
Parts of a radio
All radios are different, so when you purchase one or two, make sure you read through its user manual. A few things you should understand before using your radio are the suggested range (or distance), features, controls, buttons, and type of battery.
Most radios have a dial that is used to turn on/off the radio. This dial also is volume for your radio. When using the radio, make sure you, your friend, or dispatcher also have their radios on and all are set to the same channel.
All radios have antennas which receive radio waves by turning the waves into electrical signals. The more powerful the antenna, the better the signal and the longer the distance it can transmit more clearly. The FCC (Federal Communications Commission) has rules on who can use the more powerful antennas, but for most basic radios everyone is allowed to transmit on antennas less than 2 Watts.
Push-to-Talk is usually the big button located on the side of a two-way radio. When depressed (or pushed) in the microphone starts to work when you lift your finger off the button the microphone stops. You need to hold the button for about 3 seconds before talking so that your words are not cut off.
This button when pressed causes the radio to produce a disruptive ring which gives notification prior to having a conversation or know that you’re trying to get their attention.
The speaker is where the transmissions or sounds come from.
Turn up ↑ / Turn down ↓
These buttons often change the channel settings or help with programming of the radio.
When the PPT button is depressed it cues the microphone where your voice is picked up and sent to the other receiving radios.
This is the screen or window on the radio. Depending on the radio, the LCD displays the channel number, signal strength, battery level, messages, etc.
Function (or menu)
The menu button is often used in programming the radio or to switch channels, settings, or frequencies. Using the function button to look through the settings options and then use the turn up or turn down to scroll through the selections needed.
This is where one can connect an external microphone to clip to the outside of your jacket and will allow you to protect your radio from the weather by keeping it inside the jacket.
The belt clip is attached to the back of the radio and allows you to attach the rado for easy access by securing it to a belt or backpack strap.
Helpful tips for a successful radio call for help
Remember to test drive the radios before you go with the people you will be talking to. Get to know how you sound on the other end and adjust your talking speed so your partners can understand you the first time.
Hold the radio about 1 inch from your mouth.
After pushing the PTT button, wait a moment to speak so everything you say is heard.
Speak clearly and listen carefully for response.
Having trouble hearing the response? You may be in a “dead spot,” try moving a few feet in any direction to see if your signal improves.
Know before you go
Before you go, research to see what coverage and emergency services are available in the area of your adventure. Make note of contact information.
Remember: The more options you have for communication - the better. Bring your fully charged cellphone and/or radio along with extra batteries.
Basic call for help
WHO? WHAT? WHERE?
Fill in this ‘mad lib style’ script. Then practice what to say when you make an emergency call for help:
“This is _______________, My friend is hurt and needs help.
We are located at _______________.
My friend is ______ years old and is a _______________.
They were hurt by____________________________________________.”
Professional call for help
Emergency response professionals such as ski patrollers and firefighters provide certain information in order to move the rescue process along efficiently. Practice your call for help like the professionals with the help of this script.
Remember the S.A.I.L.E.R. acronym.
Sex or gender of patient
Age of patient
Incident - or chief complaint
Location of accident/patient
Equipment needed - medical devices (Splint, Backboards, Litter)
Resources needed - search and rescue, evacuation vehicle, more rescuers
Caller: <YOUR NAME> to dispatch
Dispatch: Dispatch go ahead
Caller: S.A.I.L.E.R. INFO >>
Dispatch: Copy, <LOCATION>. <EQUIPMENT NEEDED>, <RESOURCES NEEDED> on the way to location
Dispatch: Contacting Airlift Pro
Caller: Stand by for vitals
Dispatch: Standing by
Caller: <YOUR NAME> to dispatch
Dispatch: Dispatch go ahead for vitals
Caller: Resp <RESPIRATION RATE>, pulse <PULSE COUNT>
Dispatch: Copy vitals, Airlift Pro will be on the ground at <ESTIMATED TIME OF ARRIVAL>
Caller: Affirmative <YOUR NAME> out
Dispatch: Dispatch out
Download the She Jumps Wild Skills Radio Communication guide to practice these skills at home.
The Sharp End podcast on ‘When and How to Call for Help!’