Emergency Communications: Are You Prepared?

What would you do if you had a break-down in the bush? A car fire in the desert? Or a medical emergency hours away from the nearest hospital?

As remote travellers, we need to be mindful of the risks. Adequate preparation is key.

Emergency communications

One of the first things that should cross your mind when preparing for a remote trip is how you would call for help if you need it. There may not be mobile phone reception where you’re headed, and if that’s the case, dialing 000 or 112 isn’t going to help you!

Consider the different scenarios you may find yourself in and what communication method would be most practical. If you only had a HF radio in the vehicle, what would you do if you had a car fire? For this reason we’ve chosen three different means of emergency communications – a HF radio in the car, a satellite phone, and a PLB.

HF Radios

While HF radios seem to be “going out of fashion” as a means of remote communications, they still have their advantages. HF radios are unlike UHF systems as they can transmit across large distances – potentially from one side of the country to the other if conditions are right! Modern radios also offer functions like phone calls and even emails! Keep in mind that phone calls made on a HF radio may be heard by others on the airwaves.

Our Codan NGT HF radio

We elected to install a HF radio to join one of the 4WD radio clubs. The community aspect of the HF radio clubs really influenced this decision. We thought it would be a good way to chat with and meet other travellers, tune in to the “skeds” to find out about track conditions, and have that reassurance that if we had any issues while on the road we would have a community of other travellers on our side.

We are certainly no experts on the intricacies of HF radios, having only recently installed ours. If you would like to know more we’d recommend chatting to a HF radio club or a service technician who specialises in HF radios.

Satellite Phones

There are many options out there when it comes to satellite phones! Geostationary or orbital satellites, truly global or limited coverage networks, month-by-month plans or pre-paid calls… The options are nearly endless and its very easy to get bogged down in all the details.

Our Thuraya satellite phone

We’ve opted for a satellite phone on the Thuraya network. Iridium is another network that appears to be very popular amongst Australian travellers. There are some limitations with the Thuraya network – as it operates using geostationary satellites (the closest to Australia being located roughly over Singapore) it does not offer reliable service in the south-eastern states of Australia, and is not a true global network. Satellite phones rely on being able to “see” the satellite they’re connecting to, so network coverage may be different if you’re on top of a mountain or in a deep valley even in the same region.

At the time of posting, there are two $15/month plans available in Australia on the Thuraya network – through Pivotel or Optus. Things to consider when deciding on a plan that’s right for you may include:

  • The cost per month and the cost of calls
  • The option to pause or cancel the plan when you’re not travelling
  • Connection or cancellation fees
  • Data access
  • If you’d prefer a mobile number (which may make it cheaper for friends and family to call you) or satellite number
  • Limitations of network coverage compared to other providers

Personal Locator Beacons (PLB’s)

We would consider a PLB the absolute minimum that a remote traveller should have! Often confused with EPIRB’s (which are usually installed on boats, but can be used on land or in the air), PLB’s are small devices that allow you to activate a distress signal to alert emergency services that you need help. They don’t allow for two-way communication.

When you purchase a PLB it is essential that you register it with the Australian Maritime Safety Authority. It is also imperative that the beacon is only activated in a true emergency. Activating a beacon triggers a “pull out all stops” recovery response by emergency services. If it’s activated in error or a non-emergency situation you may find yourself liable for the costs of the recovery.

Our tiny RescueMe PLB

Mostly PLB’s are compact in size, some moreso than others. We elected to purchase the Ocean Signal RescueME PLB1 due to its tiny size. Being smaller than the palm of my hand, it fits in our vehicle glovebox and can easily be thrown in a day pack if we’re hiking away from the car.

Other Options

Another common option is a satellite tracker/messenger. These devices are similar to PLB’s in that they can send a distress signal to emergency services, but also can allow for that signal to be sent to predefined emergency contacts. Some also log your travel progress at regular intervals allowing friends and family to check you’re on track, and may even allow you to make social media updates with your location. All the devices of this type that we investigated had ongoing costs.

While we are by no means experts in this area we have done a lot of research to decide what options were right for us. If you have any questions about satellite phones, HF radios, or PLB’s, please let us know and we’ll do our best to help you. Likewise, if you’re a fellow remote traveller we’d love to hear what communication methods you use and why.

We're a married couple from Brisbane with a passion for travel - in our own backyard and abroad. Follow our blog to hear more about our travels, car modifications, camping advice and more.


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