Build a BOB: Signaling and Communication

Posted on: January 31, 2017

At first, you might wonder why you’d want signaling gear in your BOB. After all, isn’t the point of bugging out to get away from most other people? Well, sure, but consider that we have no idea what the future holds. First of all, many people take their BOB with them everywhere they go. After all, what’s the point of assembling all this great stuff if you don’t have it with you when you need it, right? Let’s say, for example, you take your BOB with you on a day hike. Things go awry and you find yourself in desperate need of assistance. Thankfully you took a moment to stash a few signal tools in your BOB, just in case.

Even in an actual bug out situation, there may be instances where you need to send a message to someone and radio or phone might not be viable options.

Fortunately, the tools I recommend for signaling are small, lightweight, and easy to use. You could add several options to your BOB without appreciably increasing the weight or bulk of the pack.


The first is a good quality, very loud whistle. A whistle is far louder than your voice, even at full “eldest child just ran the car into the side of the garage” volume. Plus, blowing a whistle isn’t going to strain your vocal cords and make you even more miserable.

Look for plastic whistles rather than metal. The latter tends to cause issues in very cold weather. Remember the flagpole incident in A Christmas Story?

Whistles come in two basic types. The traditional type of whistle has a small ball, called a pea, inside. The more modern type lacks this pea. It is easy enough to determine which is which. Shake the whistle and if you hear something rattling around inside, that’s going to be the pea. Opt for a pea-less whistle. In cold conditions, the moisture in your breath could end up freezing the pea to the side of the whistle, making the whole thing rather worthless.

I recommend a minimum of two whistles. One should be on a breakaway lanyard around your neck every time you head off into the wild. The other is your backup and should be in your BOB. Three short blasts is the universal signal for help.

Signal mirror

Next on the list is a signal mirror. To use, you hold the mirror out and angle it in such a way that it catches the sun’s rays. Hold your other arm outstretched with your palm facing outward. Line up the reflection coming from the mirror so you can see it on the back of your outstretched hand. Make the peace sign with the first two fingers of your hand and turn the mirror slightly back and forth so the reflection falls between your fingers. Line that V up with your target and you’re good to go.

In a pinch, a CD or DVD can serve as a signal mirror.

Glow stick

Of course, the signal mirror is only going to be effective during the day and even then only when you have strong sunlight. At night, you can use a glow stick (also known as cyalume snap sticks) and some cordage to reach out for help. Tie the glow stick to the end of a hank of paracord or bank line, maybe 2-3 feet long. Snap the glow stick and shake to activate it. Then, twirl it in front of you, making a large glowing circle. This can be seen for quite a ways off.

Rescue laser

A rescue laser is more than a little different from the laser pointers you may have used to torment your cat. The rescue laser is designed to grab the attention of both search and rescue on the ground as well as in the air. The way it works is it shoots out a laser in the shape of an expanding fan, rather than a single dot. At 8 miles away, that fan is 3,000 feet wide! You use it somewhat like you do a signal mirror. Shine the laser on your outstretched hand, then line it up through a V you make with your fingers. Sight your target through the V and press the button.

Rescue lasers are a bit more expensive than signal mirrors or whistles but they are definitely effective.


If you will be bugging out as a family or small group, the means to communicate with one another is critical. Plans change and sometimes those changes will happen on the fly and, as a result, will need to be communicated down the line so everyone is on the same page.

Cell phones

Cell phones may or may not be viable options. All depends on the catastrophe at hand. You can probably count on voice calls being off the table, so to speak. Cell networks quickly become overloaded in a crisis. Sometimes, though not always, text messages can get through even when voice calls cannot.

If you’re able to get online, you could use Facebook, Twitter, or another social media’s private message features to communicate with each other. But again, that’s an iffy thing.

CB Radio

CB radio is an option. They are easy to install in vehicles and there are handheld models as well. However, they are far from private and the range is somewhat limited. Figure about five miles or so, maybe more if the terrain is rather flat.


FRS and GMRS handheld radios are another way to go. FRS stands for Family Radio Service and GMRS stands for General Mobile Radio Service. They work in similar manners and are very much like the walkie-talkies you may have played with as a child, though more powerful. While the range won’t be anywhere near what the package claims, they work well for short distances of a couple of miles, depending on terrain.

Ham Radio

Ham radio is something to seriously consider. Handheld radios like the ever-popular Baofeng UV-5R work great. However, the use of ham radios to transmit is subject to licensure. While the FCC might not be cracking down on unlicensed operators during a true emergency, you might find other operators less than helpful if they learn you are unlicensed. Further, you need the license to practice using your equipment ahead of the catastrophe.

At the very least, consider adding a small crank radio to your BOB. While you won’t be able to use it for two-way communication, you can use it to gather information on the situation. The more information you have, the better off you’ll be when it comes to making decisions.

With any powered communication tool, you’ll need extra batteries as well as a way to charge batteries when they get low. I highly recommend the Greenivative saltwater battery charger as one option. Another is to invest in a small portable solar panel like those offered by Goal Zero.

Get caught up on all installments in this series here:
First aid / Hygiene
Signaling and Communication
Choosing the Pack or Container
Common Mistakes
Useful Odds and Ends


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