14 SHTF Communication Methods to Know What’s Happening

So the grid goes down and your family is scattered to the wind.  Now what?  How do you reach your brother that lives two hours away?  How do you reach your survival network?

How do you get information from the National Weather Service or local authorities?  You will find that there are numerous ways to accomplish these things, but you have to plan ahead.

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14 Ways to Talk to Loved Ones in a Disaster

#1. Cell phones

First, we will state the obvious.  If there is a disaster of some kind, you should first try your cell phone to see if it works.  Cell phones require a few things to stay operational. The cell tower needs a power supply.

High winds and flooding can take out power lines and take down towers.  They also need access to satellites which can be taken out by hackers, debris, or solar storms. Of course, your cell phone needs a charged battery as well.

History has shown us that cell phones are not reliable in disasters.  During hurricane Katrina, only 70% of calls made it through. The disaster on 9/11 flooded the towers and shut down communications.

Flooding during hurricane Sandy created major issues as well. These are recent examples of disasters that made your cell phone about as useful as a paper weight.

#2. GoTenna

There is a new service launching this winter that could help. It is called GoTenna and allows your cell phone to keep working if towers go down.  This service will allow you to bypass the towers for cellular communication.

#3. Landlines

You still may be able to use conventional technology in these scenarios. Do not assume that all standard communication is down. For instance, always keep a hard wire to plug your computer into your modem. You will lose WIFI if your power goes out, but you may still be able to hard wire to the internet with your laptop.

Landlines do not require power and have been a reliable means of communication for 80 years.  Check sites to find the closest pay phone to your location.  Yes, they still exist and are reliable without power.

Let us assume that these methods of communication are out of the question.  You now have a few modern options and a few primitive options.  There are a variety of different radios that can help you communicate around the corner or around the world.

There are also more simplified means of communication that have been used for millennia.  When in doubt, go back to methods used before modern technology existed.

#4. Walkie-talkies

Walkie-talkies are about as simple as it gets. These hand-held devices allow two-way communication over a short distance.  Normally, these work for about a two to three mile radius.

Regardless of the distance they provide, do not plan on any privacy. There are only a limited number of two-way channels available in your area. If anybody else is on the same one, they will be listening to every word you say.

#5. CB radios

Having been part of the trucking industry, I would be remiss if I did not endorse CB radios. These radios are simple to use and require no license; although, they have a limited range. I find these radios’ range tend to vary between one and ten miles depending on the terrain.

If you are not familiar with the slang used on CB, you may be quite confused.  It could be a good option if you have somebody living within a few miles of you that knows to meet on a specific channel.

#6. Sat-phones

Satellite phones are a great option, but can be quite expensive.  These phones bypass towers and give you a direct connection to the satellite; nevertheless, they require a line of sight.

That means they do not work indoors or in the woods or jungle with heavy overhead cover. The monthly fees are pricey as well.  You may want to consider renting one on your next adventure.

#7. Personal Locator Beacon

If all you need to do is transmit a signal, a PLB may be the best option. Personal locator beacons are devices that use a direct connection to a satellite to send a distress signal. Some are only tied to local authorities, and some allow you to connect to cell customers as well.

However, if there is a large scale disaster, cell service may be down and the local authorities may be out of commission.  I like these for off grid hunting trips, but not as much for SHTF scenarios.

#8. Short wave radios

Short wave radios are a very good option for a disaster. They are for receiving only, but are great for weather updates. You can buy hand crank options that require no power source, such as this one:

emergency radio
Dan Sullivan’s emergency radio with LOTS of additional features.

Short wave can also receive a signal from around the world. Be cautious about your sources though, many of these frequencies are news organizations that can twist the information they broadcast. Take it with a grain of salt.

#9. Miscellaneous radios

There are a few other radio types to consider. Family Radio Service and Multi-Use Radio Service options are simple, but have a lot of the same limitations as CB radios. General Mobile Radio Service devices are much more powerful and cover a larger radius, but require a license.

Scanners are great for listening to local police activity in your area along with Ham, aviation, military, federal, and EMT. However, they are pretty expensive and can be difficult to program. With some of this equipment, your choice will need to be based on your personal needs.

Emergency Communication Gadgets

#10. Ham Radio

That brings us to Ham radio, the ultimate survivalist choice. Ham is simply amateur radio and can be as simple or as complex as you like. It can reach around the block or around the world.

You can use a small handheld device in your bug-out bag, or have a large in home setup.  For some people HAM is a lifestyle, and there is a very strong HAM survivalist community if you want to learn more.

One of the most wonderful things about HAM is that you can build one with spare parts lying around your home.  If we were to have an EMP blast, this would be crucial.

In WWII, there were soldiers that made foxhole radios to receive signals with items as simple as a pencil and razor blade. You can also make a spark gap AM transmitter with household items to transmit a Morse code signal over very long distances. Be careful not to get electrocuted with this one.

Ham was the only consistent way that people were able to communicate during hurricane Katrina. It does require a license to operate a Ham radio, but they are easy to get.

There are three levels: technician, general, and extra.  To use equipment that travels over longer distances, you would need to upgrade your license.

Repeaters allow your signal to be shot out over much larger distances. You can even use the internet for a remote transmission, so your signal can originate from any point in the world you wish.

You would likely need to upgrade your antenna for longer distances.  Your transmission radius is greatly affected by the quality of the antenna.

One of the reasons that Ham is great for preppers and survivalists is that it is what the Military Auxiliary Radio Service and the Amateur Radio Emergency Service use.  Ham connects to the National Weather Service as well.

If you want to be stealthy with your communication, Ham is the way to go.  It’s hard to monitor because of the volume of users. You can also transmit on one frequency and then receive on another so nobody can ever listen to more than half of your conversation.

Some people disguise their antenna so it is not visible to others. Antennas can be built into flagpoles, fences, ladders, or even placed underground.

#11. Signalling for Rescue

If you want to go primitive, there are plenty of ways to do it. In a search and rescue situation, ground-to-air and ground-to-ground signals are very important. For stationary signals, contrast is key. Use black rocks or logs against snow to write ‘SOS’ for helicopters to spot.

Blaze your trail as you hike by chopping marks on trees exposing the white underwood against the dark bark. Build a signal fire and dump green material on it for white smoke or rubber/plastic on it for black smoke.

You can also use a signal mirror, laser pointer, tactical flashlight, flare, or whistle to get the attention of rescuers.

#12. Communication Plans

If you need to communicate with family or friends close by, having a plan is key. Make sure your family knows where to meet if SHTF.  You can also set up a note drop system with others in your area.

Find an agreed-upon spot and drop a note there.  Come back the next day looking for a response.  This can help you coordinate several people over a larger area to pool supplies or manpower.

#13. Morse Code

In situations like this, code is very important.  People could see you dropping your note and use that information to try and steal supplies.  Either use Morse code or come up with a system of your own.

Other Primitive Ways to Communicate

You can also come up with visual cues to communicate with those that have a line of sight.  You can devise a flag system or use a tactical flashlight to signal with Morse code.

Agree to head to your roof at a specific time to signal somebody that will also be on their roof at that time. Also look for markings on a specific mailbox or tree to communicate a plan with others. Sound can accomplish the same thing.

Use whistle blows or horn blasts to communicate with people close enough to hear. These systems have been used for thousands of years.

If you are in very close proximity, nonverbal communication can still be important. There will be times that you need to tell a group to get down or to advance without alerting a specific threat in the area.

Hand signals are great for this and are commonly used by the military.  If you need to communicate over very long distances, sending a messenger is likely your only option.

Carefully choose whether to send your message verbally or to send a sealed note. If you go verbal, there is room for the messenger to misinterpret the message. If you send a note, it could be intercepted. You may want to rely on code to be safe.

Final Word

When SHTF, communication is very important.  Initially it is just used to make sure your family is safe.  However, you will quickly find that there is strength in numbers when you are trying to survive.

Whichever method of communication you choose, I suggest you become very familiar with it.  Make sure that everybody in your network knows how you will communicate and encourage them to get on board with the same method.

About Ryan Dotson

Ryan Dotson
My name is Ryan Dotson and I am a survivalist, prepper, writer, and photographer. I grew up in the Ozark Mountains and in the foothills of the Pocono Mountains. My interest in survival started when I was in Boy Scouts and continued as my father, uncle, and grandfather taught me to hunt and fish. In the last few years I have started taking on survival challenges and have started writing about my experiences. I currently live in Mid-Missouri with my wife Lauren and three year old son Andrew.


  1. Avatar

    You left out one of the best approaches. Send instant messages rather than voice calls if you can’t make a voice call. A short instant message only requires a single block of data and can get through even through there isn’t bandwidth for a voice call. A working cell tower which is unable to make voice calls because of the volume can send huge numbers of instant messages. I understand that this worked during Katrina; that a handful of working cell towers, some running off of battery power, where able to carry IMs during the critical aftermath.

  2. Avatar

    If you don’t know Morse code, another code which is very simple is Tap code, also known as A F L Q V code. Google it! It only takes a minute or two to learn it!

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