Whether it’s one of your off-grid home systems or your remote location, many challenges come with living off the grid. One of the most important systems you need to worry about is your off-grid communication setup.
Even with the widespread use of cellphones, they still don’t work everywhere on earth. In fact, if you live in a remote area, you likely have a weak network signal or none at all. To overcome this issue, you’ll need an alternate form of off-grid communication. Read more below and find out which of these seven off-grid communication options is best suited for your needs.
Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
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Original Off-Grid Communication
Before satellite phones, the internet, and all these different gadgets, communication was done manually. It might sound crazy to a millennial, but people used to communicate using all sorts of different non-electric signals. Some of these included smoke signals, light signals, fires, audio signals, and other resourceful options depending on the circumstance.
These original forms of off-grid communication weren’t invented for fun. They provided a very important lifeline for homesteaders, farmers, and others up until the 20th century. But back then, “living off-the-grid” wasn’t used to describe people living remotely. In fact, there wasn’t even a “grid” to worry about.
Smoke, Fire & Light Signals
These rudimentary communication options weren’t meant for long conversations. They were mainly used as an emergency alert to request help from neighbors or others nearby. For example, smoke and fire signals are common signals used to notify search and rescue teams of someone's location.
Due to their visual nature, smoke, fire, and light signals rely on a clear line-of-sight between your signal and the intended recipient. This limits the visibility of the signal to a few miles, depending on your environmental factors. However, the signal will be much more visible at a greater range to anyone searching from above. This makes it ideal to use in a prolonged survival situation or densely wooded area.
Another simple communication method involves using noises and sounds to alert someone to your emergency. The most common option would be to fire a few rounds from a high-caliber rifle or shotgun. If you ever do this, ensure you shoot in a safe direction and setting. Other options would be to use an air horn or a similar device that emits a piercing, continuous sound.
Using an audio signal has pretty clear limitations on distance and reliability. Depending on the terrain, your sound might only travel a short distance before being blocked by hills or trees. Also, using this method requires a neighbor in close proximity to your location who is aware of which sound you’ve decided to use for emergencies.
Off-Grid Communication Requirements
Overall, it is safe to say that traditional off-grid communication options were unreliable and inconsistent at best. People used these simple methods for centuries because that was the best they had at the time.
Nowadays, as new off-grid communication methods continue to be invented and innovated upon, it has become clear that certain requirements are essential to consider when choosing your method. Reliability should be at the top of any off grid homesteader's wish list, but there are a few other things you need to consider as well.
An important aspect of off-grid communication, you need to make sure your method has the range to reach your intended recipients. As mentioned above, people using traditional communication methods had their range limited by environmental factors. Unfortunately, a few of these factors can still affect some modern-day communication device ranges. We've run into these issues before with our off-grid internet setup.
Before you just choose the option with the longest range, consider your terrain. Do you have mountains or hills nearby that will limit the range? What about trees? Depending on the type of signal you plan to use, these factors can affect the consistency and range of the connection.
Be sure to always check with any manufacturer before assuming their declared “range” will work in your environment.
If you plan on using your communication method daily or for long conversations, ease-of-use might not seem that important. After all, the more you use it, the more comfortable you’ll become with the operation. However, if this device will only be used occasionally or for emergencies, you’ll want it to be as simple as possible.
As an example, some digital communication gadgets currently on the market must first create “mesh” networks. They then connect with existing cellphones and communicate through encrypted apps to other users on the network. If you had an emergency and needed to get help right away, this probably wouldn’t be the easiest option for you.
Make sure you choose an off-grid communication method that you'll be able to operate quickly and easily under pressure. Once you settle on the best option, practice with the device or method, and become as familiar as you can with it.
If you invest time and money into an expensive product, you want it to last a long time. There’s nothing worse than spending money on a new off-grid system, only for it to break or deteriorate rapidly from the elements. This is especially important for your communication method, a literal lifeline to the outside world.
Depending on the size and type of communication device, the durability will have different factors. For example, the longevity of large installations with an outdoor antenna will likely be affected by the elements.
For battery-powered devices, you’ll want to make sure you have extra batteries available or keep the unit fully charged at all times. Also, consider where you’ll be using the device. Very cold temperatures will affect battery performance and life, and it might lead to your device dying when you need it most. (Up here, our cellphones start fading at about -20 C, and stop working completely at about -40 C.)
And while we're talking about batteries, this is how we store the power from our solar panels or generator - in large batteries in our home. Learn more in this post about batteries off the grid.
As with any purchasing decision, the cost will always have an impact. While traditional off-grid communication methods were essentially free, modern-day ones can get expensive very quickly. Entry-level mesh gadgets will cost you between $100 - $1000 depending on brand and capabilities, with other options in a similar price range.
Keep in mind that a higher price doesn’t necessarily mean a better option. Assuming so was actually one of the first off-grid living mistakes I made.
Start by assessing all of the requirements for your communication needs. Build a list of what's important, and do your best to find an option with the lowest cost. Unfortunately, what you need won’t always be the cheapest option, but comparing costs will at least help you make sure you’re making the economical choice.
Looking for ways to make extra money? Try these 50 ideas on how to make money off the grid.
7 Off-Grid Communication Options to Consider
Now that you have an idea of what to look for in your off-grid communication setup, it’s time to decide what option will work best for you. Each of the options below has its own advantages and drawbacks, so read carefully and decide which setup will suit your needs.
1. Satellite Phone
Satellite phones have come a long way since the old, giant, brick-like devices from a few decades ago. Nowadays, they come in a variety of sleek designs that look similar to any modern-day cellphone.
Satellite phones draw their signal from satellites orbiting the earth, rather than a land-based cell tower. The signal from a satellite is much stronger and shouldn’t be affected by mountains or other terrains since the signal comes from overhead.
The range of a satellite phone depends on the specific model and carrier you choose. They use different communication satellites as well, so do some research on what carrier has the best satellite coverage in your area. You can even choose from a variety of monthly text, voice, and data plans like you would with a regular cellphone.
While many satellite phones have military-grade durability and a battery life of up to 30 hours, they do have some drawbacks. For example, one of the most popular models available is the Iridium Extreme. It has a relatively high price tag of $1149 and does not work in temperatures below 14 degrees Fahrenheit.
Many satellite phones will have minimum temperature requirements, so be sure to check if one will work in your area before deciding on a model.
2. GPS Messenger Beacon
GPS messenger beacons are basically the little brother to a satellite phone. They cost significantly less but have fewer features. As a reference, the Spot Gen4 Satellite Messenger Beacon costs $99 but doesn’t have a phone call function.
The device has an SOS function that transmits your GPS location with an emergency signal to search and rescue teams. It also gives you the ability to send a pre-programmed message to family and friends to “check-in”, with your GPS coordinates attached. The device will even track, send, and save your exact location on google maps.
For emergency use, the messenger beacon is a reliable, inexpensive solution. It will work in temperatures as low as -22 degrees Fahrenheit and has a battery standby mode of 3 months. Even if you decide to use a different off-grid communication method, an emergency beacon would be an ideal backup to have nearby at all times.
3. HAM Radio
A tried and true communication method, HAM radios use radio frequencies to exchange messages or broadcast emergency calls. They have been used for well over a century, and their reliability has helped them stay relevant to this day.
However, if you want to use a ham radio on the main frequencies in the United States, you’ll need a radio license. Although you can use lower and weaker frequencies without a license, you should get one anyway. Having a license will allow you to broadcast on stronger frequencies, drastically increasing your range.
Due to their basic technology, ham radios have a pretty low price tag, between $50 - $100 depending on the model. The Btech UV-5X3 Tri-Band Radio costs $79.99 and comes with a rechargeable battery and earpiece kit. Even if you don't need one, it might make a great gift for a prepper or survivalist in your life.
Although the technology is simple, actually operating a ham radio can be a little tricky. You’ll need to practice with it to ensure you’re comfortable using it in emergencies. Also, some ham radios require a power supply instead of batteries, so make sure you buy the right one or have a way to generate electricity off-grid.
The most common form of modern-day communications, you’ve probably already thought about using your cellphone off-grid. While they can be lifesavers in the right situation, cellphones might not be as reliable as you think.
If you want to use a cellphone for off-grid communication, you’ll need to test out the network coverage on your property first. If you live in a remote area, there’s a good chance you’ll have limited or no cellphone network coverage. Try using your phone on every corner of your property, including at the highest points (we used to climb up our windmill to get reception at our cabin).
Other than range issues, some additional drawbacks of off-grid cellphone use include durability and battery life. If you have a smartphone, you know how quickly the battery will die. A lot of factors will affect the battery life, but you can expect a full charge to last anywhere from 2 - 3 days on standby mode.
Just like other electronic devices, cold temperatures will affect the battery life and may shut down your device completely. If you think this might be a problem in your area, try carrying an extra battery pack or solar USB charger.
5. Mesh Networks
Mesh networks are a relatively new option in the off-grid communication market. A mesh network device will connect to your cellphone and allow you to create your own local network. This will then allow you to communicate with other mesh compatible devices in your area.
Mesh devices work without the use of wifi or cellphone service, making them ideal for remote locations. Unfortunately, this also limits their range. As an example, the popular goTenna Mesh device has a range of up to four miles in open areas and less than one mile in dense areas.
Another drawback of mesh devices is their limited functionality. They only allow users to chat, send texts and GPS locations, and still require a cellphone to pair with. Also, they only have 24-hour battery life.
Due to their limited functionality and range, mesh devices are more suited for hikers and day trips rather than prolonged off-grid use.
This option might be a longshot for some of you, but a surprising amount of off-grid properties have a landline, despite no other connections to the grid. They don’t require electricity to work, and won’t be affected by your surrounding landscape or weather.
If you do have a landline on your property, get an old handset, and plug it in. If you don't have a handset anymore, find one on Amazon for less than $20. Rates for home phone plans have also become extremely cheap, making it an economical and reliable solution for off-grid communication.
For those of us not lucky enough to have a landline on the property, don’t give up hope. Ask your neighbors or locals where the closest landline is located. Memorize the location and how long it takes to get there in case you need to make an emergency call one day.
Since the invention of the cellphone, walkie-talkies have been kind of forgotten about. These simple radio communication devices have a low price tag, a high-range, and a lot of durability. Also, because they transmit using standard frequencies you can contact people on other frequencies or devices for help.
The Uniden SX407-2CKHS walkie-talkies available on Amazon for $95 have a maximum range of 40 miles. They are completely waterproof and will even float if you drop it in the water, making it one of the most durable options on this list.
If you plan on using walkie-talkies as your off-grid communication method, make sure you have a neighbor or someone with an open frequency to receive messages from you. The battery only has a 14-hour life, so you may want to leave it plugged in or have extra batteries available.
The walkie-talkie range will be affected by your terrain and environmental factors, so be sure to test the range in your area before relying on the device in an emergency.
Although our ancestors used audio and visual signals to communicate for centuries, recent innovations and inventions have given the modern-day off-gridder many options to choose from. Whatever your situation, location, and needs, there’s an off-grid communication method right for you.
Remember to assess every option and product against your most important requirements including reliability, durability, range, cost, and ease-of-use. This will ensure you choose the right solution and keep you connected to your friends, family, and the outside world.
Interested in learning more about homesteading and living off-the-grid? Continue reading below.