Field Communication — How We Stay In Touch With Our Trips Over the Summer

By Will Robertson

The great outdoors: expansive and awe-inspiring, but often with minimal cell service. For some, this is a plus – get away from it all, disconnect from work e-mails and the 24-hour news barrage. For us here at Apogee global HQ, however, it’s something we have to work around. Today I’m kicking off our spring blog series with a piece about what we call “field communication” – how we stay in touch with our groups that are in the wilderness. I’m hoping to shed a light on our communication practices with our groups, whether they’re in the rolling hills of the Scottish Highlands, or the pines of Maine’s Baxter State Park.

Firstly, it’s worth mentioning that all of our trips are electronics-free for Apogee students. This means no instagramming, snapchatting, facebooking, or any other mode of communication other than good old fashioned face-to-face conversations. We feel this is very important to our goal of creating small, tight-knit groups, that we often refer to as ‘Apogee families.’ While students get to soak in the joys of being phone-less and free, our leaders don’t get that benefit; our leaders will always have their phones while in the field. This does not, however, mean that our leaders get to enjoy their social media app of choice throughout the day – our leaders are instructed to use their phones only for Apogee-related reasons (most commonly communicating with the office, coordinating with outfitters/service partners, or for weekly student calls home).

What, you may wonder, are these leaders communicating with us about? I’ll break it down into three categories:

  1. Daily blog pictures: Leaders are asked to keep our summer blog machine fed and happy by sending at least one picture of the group along with a brief update on what they did that particular day. If you’re not familiar with our summer blog, the blog is our tool to keep families updated on their child’s trip – check out a post from last summer to get familiar with the format!
  2. ‘In-Camp’ check-ins: Every day, our leaders on our hiking and biking trips are asked to send us a brief text once they get to their camping location for the day. This is a quick and easy way for us to track the progress of each trip along their route.
  3. Procedural Questions & Emergency Communication: If something comes up that our leaders need to check-in with us about – from a non-emergent question about an itinerary detail to more pressing matters of student health & safety, leaders are given a clear protocol on how to get a hold of office staff 24 hours a day.
Selfies for the blog!

With those being the main reasons for field communication, let’s go back to what I opened with: the cell service issue. How do our trips communicate with us when they are in an area with little to no cell service? To answer this, let’s break our trips down into two categories:

  1. Front country trips: This includes all of our biking trips and our specialty trips. These trips spend all of their time in the front country, which means they’re always in range for cellular communication.
  2. Trips with backcountry portions: These are trips that have sections of the itinerary where there is limited or no cell service. All trips under this category are hiking trips (stay tuned for my colleague Jack’s blog explaining backcountry living in two weeks!).

For front country trips, it’s pretty simple: leaders will be able to fulfill their communication duties every day through the use of their personal cell phones. For backcountry trips, it gets a little trickier; these trips are issued a Garmin inReach satellite communication device to allow them to send us ‘in-camp’ notifications and communicate with us in case of an emergency. These Garmin devices are, in layman’s terms, pretty neat. They allow our leaders to communicate with us from anywhere in the world via text and have a feature that allows us to ping the exact location of our trips at any time. The devices can pair to leaders’ phones via Bluetooth to allow them to send us custom messages about issues that arise in the field, or, with the quick press of a button, they can send us a standard ‘in-camp’ notification. Further, these devices are equipped with an ‘SOS’ feature – a button that immediately sends a distress signal, along with their exact GPS location to first responders in their area.

Garmin inReach Devices

You may be thinking: this all sounds great, but wouldn’t you want to be able to talk to your leaders instead of texting them? While this may seem more efficient, in practice, the technology just isn’t reliable enough for us. We used satellite phones for many years and have found them to be far less reliable than the Garmin inReach devices that we currently use. If you’ve ever been on a badly-connected cell phone line – that’s what satellite phones sound like, since they’re usually trying to connect with a satellite through lots of tree cover that obscures the connection. While these Garmin inReach devices are truly remarkable pieces of technology that have become the industry standard for outdoor education programs like ours, there still is no technology that exists that will allow our leaders to send in blog pictures through a satellite. So, alas, parents will still have to go through a drought of blog pics while their student’s group is in the backcountry.

Time to send the blog photo!

Another piece of the puzzle for field communication is how we stay in touch with trips that are based internationally. We run trips in Canada, Costa Rica, and various destinations throughout Europe; in every country, there are unique cell providers, meaning that a traditional US cellular plan won’t automatically connect to the cellular networks. To get around this hurdle, we use one of two strategies. Our Vermont to Montreal trip, which spends most of its time in the US before crossing the border into Canada for the final four days will use the ‘Travel Pass’ function offered by most US-based cell providers. This allows a US-based SIM card to connect with international cell towers for a daily fee. For trips that spend their full itineraries outside of the US, we purchase a SIM card for our leaders in their country of origin. They swap this SIM card out with their US-based SIM card, and are subsequently able to connect with all of the country’s cell towers on their personal cell phone.

Finally, I’ll briefly touch on the office side of this field communication matrix. Over the summer, we staff the office for twelve hours every day, from 8:30 AM to 8:30 PM; during those hours, we communicate with leaders over our office phone lines. We also maintain a 24-hour ‘duty phone’ that leaders can call if they have issues or questions outside of office hours. The duty phone is for leader use only and is staffed by Apogee’s Assistant Directors throughout the summer (sorry, parents – we don’t give out the duty phone number!).

There’s a lot to think about when it comes to making sure we can stay in touch with our groups that are spread across the globe. Hopefully I was able to give you a little window into our comprehensive field-communication plan. We prioritize good communication, because we believe it leads to smoother trips. As always, if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to reach out to us in the office!