10 Forms of Off-Grid and Remote Communication

Reader Contribution by Christopher James Marshall

Electronic Communication for Remote Locations

Electronic communications can be limited when off-grid and/or remote. Off-grid means you must generate your own electricity to power phones and radios, while remote means you might be out-of-range to connect.

Left to right: cell phone, smart phone, satellite phone, HAM transceiver, Walkie Talkies

Cell phones and smart phones work fine if you’re within range of a cell tower, but often remote locations get only a single bar of signal strength, and that is sometimes only in one particular spot, not even necessarily at your home. With a reduced signal, text messages get thru, Internet will use up more data because of errors and re-transmission. Only with better signal can voice calls be completed. It can be very frustrating to go outside to the “phone spot” to make or wait for a call.  Weather conditions can make weak signal strength go to zero.

Amateur HAM Radio requires a license, while Citizens Band and FRS Walkie Talkies do not. HAM, CB, and FRS radios use different frequencies than police, fire, and forest service. The two-meter HAM band, CB, and FRS are all useless when there is a hill between sender and receiver, and limited to a few miles when used without obstructions. HAM has the advantage of connecting to repeaters that re-transmits your signal, thereby extending the range. It’s best to try the repeaters in your area to discover who’s available. In a request for emergency help, a HAM would have to call another HAM via repeater and then the second HAM would use the local phone to call the authorities. HAM operators are allowed more power, including the short-wave band that is used to reach across the country.

Weather radios and AM/FM radios are receivers. NOAA broadcasts weather for localized regions around the country and the extreme weather alerts are very helpful.

Written Communication for Remote Locations

Written communications require no electricity, but remoteness renews the need to write clearly in the context that much time passes between sender and receiver.

Mail is available on rural postal routes. Unfortunately a mail box on the side of the road is not a secure place to send or receive important and/or valuable documents. Often people get a post-office box in the nearest town and then make the trip to town as needed to check mail.  Interestingly, if you don’t have a street address, it becomes a challenge for the State to issue your driver’s license, voter’s ballet, and tax statements — “on-grid” means street address where sewer, electricity, and other utilities are connected; “off-grid” is not connected. Even if you have a title and GPS coordinates, the State won’t recognize either as an address.

Note on a tree is a very slow method of communicating, for those really remote locations. Usually involving a hike of substantial distance to a shared spot where you pin a piece of paper on a tree to await the other party to make their trek to retrieve it. The note might read, “Too cold this winter, so went to the other side of the mountain. Meet me in spring at the river with supplies.”

Signs are either direction pointing, welcoming, or a warning to keep your distance. Funny how signs of place-names, e.g. Switchback Mountain, actually are very literally interpreted. Sometimes the friendliness of remote people gets strained, like animals in a zoo that have a constant supply of “looky-loos,” so mind the signs you read.

Audio and Verbal Communications

Audio and verbal communications is different when people are more sparse than abundant. People may jabber too much or not talk much at all, depending on how often people meet and the purpose of the meeting.

Calling out, “Hello in the cabin?” is the proper approach to take in remote locations. Ideally, after the dialog, a handshake is the conclusion between persons who are parting for some time.   It says the parties agree and can count on each other.

Horns have been used by hunters and troops of old as a method of broadcasting a message. Many small towns test blow the fire siren at noon, serving as time sync.  Horns can serve the needs of a small community when the households are separated by no more than ½ mile. Human-powered horns are louder than the human voice. A group of homesteads could use a set of codes and to signal that one party has arrived at home, is requesting a visit, alert that someone is coming down the road, and more. Perhaps one in the group will be more musically inclined and would play a nice tune to celebrate sunset for all to enjoy.

Bells and triangles have been used to send the signal for “come and get it” or “time for dinner.”

Finally, there is one form of communication that perhaps is best experienced in isolated locations — the reason why artist’s retreats are available — to find the peace and quiet of the soul. In this case, no electricity, no signs or notes, and no horns are necessary.

More ideas for your homestead are in Christopher James Marshall’s holistic guide, Hut-Topia: How to Create Sustainable Small Homes and Homesteads. Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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