Good communications is as simple as keeping in touch. Letting someone know where you are and where you’re headed so that they don’t worry, and if anything does happen somebody knows where you should be. This applies whether you’re on the road solo, or whether you live alone at home. A regular check means somebody always knows where you are, and, importantly, knows when to start worrying if you don’t check in.
To do that you need the right tools.
Questions I often get asked are:
- What mobile phone plan is the best?
- Do I need a satellite phone?
- Do I need a UHF?
- How do I get internet on the road?
Like everything, it depends on where you are going and what you’re doing.
Telstra still has the best overall coverage outback, though Optus are getting better. In a few places there is only Optus coverage, though these are very few. To decide what plan is best for you, compare the coverage maps on both the Telstra and Optus websites
I’ve been getting feedback from people that Aldi has entered the market and has decent coverage. Check theirs out here
Telstra can be expensive, so some people have a cheaper plan for when they’re at home in the city then get a Telstra SIM only when they’re travelling. Some people travel with 2 SIMs and swap them depending where they are and who has coverage.
A drawback to this is that you’re likely to change your phone number when you travel, which can have the unintended consequence of making it more difficult for friends and family to keep in touch.
The phone you use is also important. Make sure it has 4G and 5G capacity and is set up for both.
DRAWBACK : Mobile phone coverage can be patchy once you get away from population centres. Be aware that even though other companies advertise that they use the Telstra network, that doesn’t mean they have access to all of it. Check it out carefully before signing up to a plan.
If you are even considering going outside populated areas I strongly recommend a satellite phone. They are expensive, but are worth it for the peace of mind when you are remote. If you don’t travel much you can hire them as needed.
I take my sat phone with me even when I’m not planning on going remote. Plans can change, and I figure it’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.
I found researching sat phones quite confusing. In the end I went with an Inmarsat phone, with a pre-paid plan that I buy as I need when I’m travelling. It has good coverage Australia wide, and is reasonably priced. Incoming calls are rather expensive for the caller but I only use it for calling out when I’m remote, not for receiving calls.
I’ve had my phone for over 10 years and it’s now a bit outdated, but it still works. All I need it for is to make telephone calls when I’m remote and it still does that. It’s not like a mobile phone that has to be updated every couple of years. While the initial cost was expensive, this has now worked out to $55/year and I think it’s good for a few more years yet.
Make sure you top up your credit before you go remote.
DRAWBACK : Satellite phones rely on having a good view of the sky to pick up the satellites. If it’s very cloudy or you are under trees they might not work.
UHF radios are great tools for keeping in touch with other vehicles if you’re driving in convoy, or for scanning other communications on the road. You can get them installed in your car or use hand held. Which you chose is a personal preference.
Remember, they’re open channels, so anybody else near you can hear your conversation and vice versa. Our first trip to the Cape we were travelling through Mossman looking for the bait shop. Doc was on the UHF discussing where it might be with the people travelling with us when an unknown voice chimed in “it’s behind the servo”.
I have a UHF installed in the car, but to be honest I rarely have it on. I find it annoying more than anything though it is very useful at times. It’s a good idea to have it on if you are travelling on a route where there is a lot of other traffic, particularly large trucks. You can find out information about the road ahead and communicate with other vehicles you might want to overtake or who might want to overtake you.
There are specific channels you should and should not use, and etiquette you should be aware of. You can get guides to UHF channels from most 4WD or camping shops, or download them from the net. The Caravan & Camping Industries Association of SA has a good one here
DRAWBACK: UHF radios have very limited range, so DO NOT rely on them as your primary emergency communications. There has to be somebody near you AND listening in for them to be effective.
If you have a mobile phone plan with enough data it should allow you to hotspot your phone to your laptop/tablet so you only need the one plan for both.
Otherwise you can get a separate dongle or SIM depending your set up.
DRAWBACK: Mobile internet will only work where there is mobile phone coverage, and sometimes not even then. It takes more to upload/download data than to make a phone call or send a text
No discussion of communications would be complete with a reference to social media. Most of us use it – facebook and Instagram particularly. It lets all our friends know where we are, and facebook groups can be a great source of communications and advice when you’re alone.
If you’re an avid social media user and are going to go out of an internet service area, let people know so that they don’t start worrying if you don’t upload anything for a while.
On the other hand, be wary of using timed uploads – if people see things going on line regularly they might assume everything is ok even if it’s not.
Personal locator beacon (PLB)
A PLB is not strictly a communications tool but I’m often asked by people whether they should have one. I do carry one, and for me it’s an important emergency resource. A PLB can be triggered if you are in a situation where you can’t get any other help – if you’re injured, sick or lost and there is no other way for you to contact anybody or get yourself out. Basically, the PLB, once triggered, sends a signal to specific satellites, which is then bounced down to a mission control centre on earth, and from there sent out to local rescue control centres.
These are for use in absolute emergencies only.
Having the right tools for the job is essential, but it is even more important that you keep them charged and ready for use at all times. If you do have an emergency it won’t help if your phone battery is flat. You can buy simple charging stations from 4WD, auto, and camping shops.