Backcountry Communication Devices; Satellite phones, VHF radios, & Cell Phones

Technology is a part of the backcountry these days, whether we like it or not.  Backcountry technology can be used heavily, or just for emergency situations.  Typically some form of backcountry communication device is considered standard practice these days, at least in an institutional setting (guide service, summer camp, collegiate outdoor rec program, etc.).  Over the past number of years I have seen communication devices from a multitude of different programs I have worked with and for.  These private guide services that I have worked for outside of Kling Mountain Guides (some of these being the larger ski & mountain guiding operations in the US), as well as American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) programs I have participated in, and numerous collegiate outdoor rec and education programs I have taught for throughout the western US.  These different programs have been domestically (CO, WA, UT, NV, OR, AK) as well as internationally in Russian, Africa, Argentina, and Mexico.

I am in no way a spokes person for the AMGA, these or any other guide services, Wilderness Medical Associates, WEA, or any collegiate program/Association for Outdoor Recreation and Education.  The following is also what we adhere to at KMG.


Paul (AMGA Certified Alpine & Rock Guide in the fore ground) & IFMGA Guide/ AMGA IT member Angela Hawse in the background @ Burgundy Col, Washington Pass, WA. Angela is communicating on a VHF radio to an other AMGA group close to 30 miles away.

  • Two Communication Devices:  Every trip/ program must have two forms of communication devices.  This can be a combination; cell phone, sat phone, VHF radio preprogrammed with local channels, and Spot/ Delorme device.  Most often it seems to be a sat phone and VHF radio.  However, there is never a never and never an always.  Depending on location this might also just be a cell phone.  IE if we are running front country rock climbing trips in Durango, CO then just a cell phone is fine.  As long as the carrier works.  Anybody that has spent time in CO knows that T Moble, Boost Moble, Cingular, etc do not work well, so any of these would not be considered a viable communicant device.
  • Iridium VS Global Star: I have owned and used both the Iridium 9505A phone as well as the Spot Global phone   Up until recently, the Iridium phone was by far the more popular one, reaching much further north and south on the globe then Spot/ Global Star.  I never really knew which one worked better though because I never had an Iridium and Spot phone with me on the same trip to compare them side by side for connectivity. This summer I had that opportunity.  I had my Spot phone and the program I was working for had an Iridium 9505A on the same trip.  My Spot Global phone connected better than the Iridium every time to the point where the program I was working for gave up on their Iridium phone and began to use mine.
  • Larger Programs:  On larger programs (IE there are 12 participants and 3 instructors, that might break into 3 smaller groups in the field) there needs to be one sat phone for the entire group and then each instructor has a VHF radio.  IE a program with three instructors and 12 students, operating at a 4:1 ratio. There should be at least one sat phone in the group total. Then each individual group would have one VHF radio (some mini groups had more than one VHF) to communicate with each other.  Different topic, but family radios such as Motorola Talk About radios are not considered a professional radio.
  • PLB VS Sat phone: I have seen programs/trips that operate with just a Spot/ Delorme.  These are great for calling out the calvary and initiating a rescue.  I have been on multiple searches and recoveries via my local SAR group that were initiated by these PLB style devices.  These are again, great for initiating a search.  However from what I have seen, these do not seem to be best industry practice as a professional level communication device for the following reasons:
    • Can not text a 911 center
    • Can not text a ranger center such as on Mt. Rainier, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, or the Grand Canyon.  Most National Parks emergency dispatch centers are not set up to receive texts directly. Only voice calls from a cell phone, satellite phone or VHF radio will go directly to the dispatch centre.
    • Spot devices go to a third party Emergency Communication Center (ECC) that then must get in touch with the contact list from the Spot’s owner, then to a federal/local dispatch center, etc. etc.   These are extra steps that can take extra time.  As we all know, sometimes these extra minutes make all the difference.
    • All two way texting conversations using a Delorme inReach device must be initiated from the user’s device. Most land agencies cannot initiate a text if they have not received a text from the InReach device first.
    • If I initiate a rescue with a Spot/ PLB, but then want to call it off I cannot do that. This happened to a buddy of mine guiding on Rainer a few years ago.  He had a client collapse on the trial to camp. P on AVPU.  Still had a pulse and respirations.  Long story short they initiated a rescue and asked for a helicopter.  He ended up coming back to A/0 x 3 (person, place, time) after about 15 minutes.  They still wanted a rescue, but changed the urgency to not wanting a helicopter.  They purely requested ground support and an ambulance at the trailhead.  They were able to change their requests because they had a sat phone. A Spot/PLB could not have done this.
    • I cannot “Spot” my medical advisor.  If I have medical concerns on a trip I want to be able to call and actually talk with my medical advisor.

KMG Operations Manager Bonnie making a phone call on an Iridium 9505A sat phone from the flanks for Kilimanjaro, Africa.


Global Star/ Spot phone is running a special right now that gives a free sat phone with subscription.  Details can be found here.  This was the deal I used and have been more than happy with it.

There is a great article on communication devices here.  While this article is based on Parks Canada, much of it is very similar to the US System.

So, my final verdict; two communicant devices, one being a sat phone is best industry practice these days.  If I am going to get rid of one device, I would purely carry the Sat phone.  It would seem that the larger US guide services, collegiate outdoor rec programs, as well as the AMGA, a Sat phone is the norm.  Two communication devices are preferred.  I think of it as the sat phone can call the helicopter and the VHF radio can help me land it and deal with the SAR team.

Hope this helps!

Josh Kling, 
AMGA Certified Alpine Guide, Certified Rock Guide, Assistant Ski Guide
IFMGA Aspirant Mountain Guide
AIARE Level 1 & Level 2 Course Leader
Wilderness Medical Associates Instructor 
This entry was posted in Alpine Climbing, American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) Training, Avalanche Courses, Mountaineering, Rock Climbing, Skiing, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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