The Wilderness Protocol

The Wilderness Protocol is a suggestion that if you are equiped to do so and you’re out riding the trails that you should monitor standard radio channels/frequencies at specific times during the day. This is to listen for Emergency or priority calls and perhaps relay the emergency traffic if required.

The wilderness protocol was originally conceived by Ham Radio operators in the United States which of course targeted Ham Radio frequencies but not everyone is a Ham Radio operator. This is an adaptation of the original wilderness protocol and now uses FRS/GMRS channels. This system is intended to facilitate communications between outdoor enthusiasts that are hiking, backpacking, ATVing or enjoying some other outdoor activity in uninhabited areas, outside cellular phone range. The Wilderness Protocol should be used by everyone anywhere whether cellular phone coverage is available or not. The wilderness protocol only becomes effective when many people use it.

The Wilderness Protocol suggests that those people able to do so should monitor the primary calling frequency that their radio equipment is capable of, every three hours starting at 7AM local time for at least 5 minutes. If you have a good power source and aren’t relying on batteries then monitor for 5 minutes starting at the top of every hour during the day, or even continuously if you can.

Why not use the designated emergency frequencies?
Not every radio service has a dedicated emergency channel or frequency and FRS/GMRS fall under that category. Most people will leave their radios on the primary calling channel/frequency for their radio type or at least have the primary calling channel/frequency in their radio’s scanner. The intention of the wilderness protocol is to give the best chances to someone in need of help.

So, why designated times?
If you’re radio is a handheld radio, chances are you’re running on a small battery so power is limited. The wilderness protocol gives you specific times people should be listening to the designated frequencies so you would only turn your radio on to use it at these times and then shut it off in order to save your battery for as long as possible.

What is a primary calling channel or frequency?
A primary calling frequency is the frequency or channel designated for each radio type and band that is used to call each other. It’s the frequency everyone is likely listening to. Once a connection is made, then you would normally move to a different frequency or channel to have your conversation, leaving the calling frequency open for others to use. In an emergency, stay on the calling channel or frequency, moving to another channel or frequency is an opportunity to lose communications with each other so don’t do it.

We have cell phone coverage, should I still follow the protocol?
Yes, absolutely. Someone in distress may not have a cell phone or perhaps their cell phone battery is dead. They may only have a radio left to communicate with.

What if I hear emergency traffic on the calling frequency?
If you hear someone calling for help and nobody is responding, then you should respond. If you hear someone calling for help and someone else is responding but the person calling for help doesn’t hear them, then you should respond. If you hear an emergency call already underway and people are talking back and forth, stay on the frequency and listen but do not transmit. You do not want to interrupt an emergency call underway. However, if you’re in the area, you may be able to lend assistance if called on to do so. If requested to respond, please do so.

 I’m in and plan to monitor, what next?
First, thanks for being part of the wilderness protocol, without you this wouldn’t work. When you’re out in the wilderness riding, hiking, backpacking, canoeing or  enjoying your favourite activity in the great outdoors, at the top of the hour at the designated times, tune your radio to the designated channel or frequency, briefly listen to see if the channel is busy or not. If the channel is clear of traffic, key up your MIC and announce your presence, just keep it short. After you’ve announced your presence, stop transmitting and listen. If you hear someone in distress calling, respond and help out however you can. If you are in a group, it’s only necessary for one of you to announce your presence. There is no specific way to do this, you’re just letting someone who might be in distress know that you’re there and you’re listening. If you have lots of battery power or a vehicle mounted radio, consider leaving your radio powered on and on the primary channel or frequency so you can monitor all the time.

 I need help, what do I do?
If you need assistance first try calling 911 on your mobile phone. If that doesn’t work and you have a FRS/GMRS radio, then at the designated times, turn your radio on and tune your radio to the primary calling frequency and call for help. After each time you call for help, stop transmitting and listen for 10 to 15 seconds to see if someone is responding to you. Keep trying for at least 5 minutes but if nobody responds after 5 minutes, turn your radio off to save battery power. If you have lot’s of power available then try calling at the top of each hour for 5 minutes or try calling continuously, but do your best to save your battery power for as long as you can. Emergency calls should begin with the words “Mayday Mayday Mayday“.  In an emergency, you have the right to operate any radio at your disposal and at any transmit power level, so use whatever you can.


Wilderness Protocol Calling Times (Local time):

starting at
7 AM for 5 minutes
10 AM for 5 minutes
1 PM for 5 minutes
4 PM for 5 minutes
7 PM for 5 minutes
10 PM for 5 minutes


Wilderness Protocol Calling Frequencies/Channels:

FRS: Channel 1 – squelch tone* off (set to 0)    (462.5625 MHz – narrow band (12.5kHz) FM – CTCSS/DCS** off)
GMRS: Channel 19 – squelch tone* off (set to 0)    (462.650 MHz – wide band (20kHz) FM – CTCSS/DCS** off)

Ham Radio 2m band: 146.520 MHz – Narrow Band FM – CTCSS/DCS** off
Ham Radio 70cm band: 446.000 MHz – Narrow Band FM – CTCSS/DCS** off

* Squelch Tone – Different radio manufacturers call this either a call tone, a sub-channel, a privacy tone, a PL tone or some other name. They all mean the same thing, it’s a squelch tone. When the tone is turned on, it will squelch any received signals that don’t have the same squelch tone so you don’t hear them. It’s important to turn this off so you will hear everyone who might be transmitting. If you have your squelch tone turned off, you will hear them even if they have their squelch tone turned on but they won’t hear you. Don’t be fooled, these really aren’t sub-channels or privacy tones.

**CTCSS means “Continuous Tone Coded Squelch System”. DCS means “Digital Coded Squelch”. Although they work slightly differently from each other, both are fancy methods to implement a squelch tone. Make sure they’re shut off. On most FRS/GMRS radios, squelch codes 1 through 38 are CTCSS, squelch codes 39 through 121 are DCS. Your radio might be different, but it doesn’t matter, just make sure it’s shut off.

If your radio has one, placing these channels/frequencies in your radio’s scanner will help. Since these are also the calling frequencies… bonus!