Proper communication is an invaluable tool while on the trail. Learn why having the right comm system is important and the different options available so you can pick the system best suited for your needs.
As the slowest Jeep, you fell behind and may have taken the wrong trail at Poughkeepsie Gulch, an infamously dangerous trail not recommended for even seasoned wheelers. When the dust settled, you’ve discovered you are alone, and the sun is stretching the last of its ruddy orange rays on the horizon. You’ve got to contact the rest of your trail convoy but how? Keeping tabs on your mates can ensure you get help should you need it or simply know whether to go left or right at the fork in the road. Inform yourself of the different options available to you so you can keep tabs on your caravan and they can keep tabs on you.
Importance of Staying in Touch
Accidents happen. People get lost. Lines of communication are severed and not easily repaired, especially when one half of the party doesn’t know there’s an issue. Much like informing other people of your off-road weekend plans (where you’re going and when you’ll be back, etc.), it is just as important to stay in communication with those in your group. Staying organized and informed means your whole caravan is on the same page when it comes to breakdowns, breaks in the road, and breaks for lunch.
They always say that a bad day on the trail is better than a good day at work, but a bad day on the trail can be worse if you are stuck alone, lost, hurt, or stranded. Having your buddies wait worried or distressed at the campsite for you to show up can be a stressful situation, and a simple hand-held radio could mean the difference between inconveniencing the whole group for a couple of hours while your issue gets resolved and ruining the entire weekend.
“But I have a cell phone,” you say. Sure, they work great in the city, but it is only as good as the network it is associated with. If you are well off the beaten track or even tucked in behind a steep canyon wall, your cell phone might be good for a lot of nothing. In addition to your cell phone, there are other types of communication devices available that are just as reliable, maybe less expensive, and easier to use.
Cell Phones and Satellite Phones
Certainly the most ubiquitous device for communication the world has ever seen is the cell phone, and odds are great there’s one in your pocket or sitting somewhere on your desk right now. Smart phones not only make phone calls and send texts, but via apps, they have compasses, maps, navigation tools, GPS, and literally the entire Internet at your fingertips.
The downside is that, although networks are getting better, you may not find coverage in the backcountry, rendering dumb your so-called smartphone. Where cell phones lack, satellite phones make up for it, as they are the ideal solution for any off-road needs. Handheld satcom phones work virtually anywhere, but that convenience comes with a stiff price tag.
Iridium Extreme, for example, is a small, military-grade, rugged handset that features voice, text, email, GPS, SOS functions, and Google mapping services. It works anywhere in the world and has a talk time of up to four hours. The downside is that the phone is over $1,200, there is a monthly plan starting at $45.00, and it will cost you approximately $2 per minute to talk on it. If having that level of reliability is important, be prepared to pay for it.
Family Radios Service (FRS)
Started in 1996 at the behest of Radio Shack (to sell their line of handheld radios, no doubt), the FRS “is a private, two-way, very short-distance voice and data communications service for facilitating family and group activities. The most common use for FRS channels is short-distance, two-way voice communications using small hand-held radios that are similar to walkie-talkies,” according to the Federal Communications Commission.
There are 14 designated FRS channels, 1 through 14. No license is required to operate an FRS radio or to communicate on an FRS channel, and they can be used for personal or business use as long as you are not a representative of a foreign government and provided the radio itself does not exceed 500 milliwatts (half a watt). The 14 FRS channels range from 462.5625 to 467.7125 megahertz, and each channel has a bandwidth of 12.5 kilohertz.
You don’t need a license to use an FRS, and there are not any per call charges, fees for airtime or usage. Except for the expense for batteries, everything is practically free to utilize, and although many companies will tout the reach of their radios, they are usually tested under perfectly ideal conditions. The real range of an FRS radio is approximately five miles at best.
General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS)
There are a total of eight dedicated GMRS channels (channels 15 through 22), which occupy the range between 462.5500 and 467.7250 megahertz, each with a bandwidth of 25 kilohertz. Everyone who operates a GMRS radio is required to have an operator’s license to do so. They reach higher ranges, can be equipped with aftermarket and modified antennas, and usually cost much more than FRS radios.
For more information on obtaining a GMRS license, visit www.FCC.gov and search “GMRS.”
GMRS/ FRS Hybrid
Channels 1 through 7 on an FRS radio overlap with those of a GMRS radio. The FCC states that if you buy a radio that has been approved for both FRS and GMRS—a hybrid—and if you limit your operations to the FRS channels with a maximum power of one-half watt, you are not required to have a license. Some hybrid radios transmit with higher power on FRS channels 1 through 7, so these radios can only be used without a license on FRS channels 8 through 14.
The beauty of the FRS/GMRS radios is that you buy them in the 30 to 50 dollar range, and it will have 22 channels. These are the same 22 channels and that means that if you are talking on Channel 2 of a Motorola brand and a friend is listening in on Channel 2 of a Midland FRS radio, they will be able to hear you. Simple, and all the while using AA rechargeable batteries. However, around the camp, it might get a little crowded, so many radios provide Continuous Tone Coded Squelch System (CTCSS) or Continuous Digital Coded Squelch System (CDCSS) that allows you to subdivide main channels with the use of privacy codes. Rather than trying to communicate with a friend simply by using Channel 4, privacy codes let you connect with a combination of channel and code—for example, Channel 4 and Code 2.
Although the use of CTCSS or CDCSS codes can minimize the amount of unwanted chatter the user would otherwise hear on the main channel, it is important to note that a “privacy code” does not make your communication private; this is why some manufacturers alternately call this feature “interference elimination” codes.
Citizens’ Band (CB)
Made popular in the ’70s thanks to successful movies such as “Smokey and the Bandit,” the Citizens’ Band radio has been around since 1945 and utilizes 40 channels within frequencies 26.96 through 27.41megahertz. It doesn’t require a license, and the equipment has since been improvised and upgraded to meet modern standards. Stereotypically used by long-haul truckers, the service is rather antiquated and outdated. Only one user may transmit at a time, for example, and all other users of that station must wait for a break in the traffic, which is why they say “over” at the end of each transmission.
Originally, CB required a purchased license ($20 in the early ’70s, reduced to $4 on March 1, 1975) and the use of a callsign; however, when the CB craze was at its peak many people ignored this requirement and invented their own nicknames (known as “handles”). Rules on authorized use of CB radio (along with lax enforcement) led to widespread disregard of the regulations (notably in antenna height, distance communications, licensing, call signs and transmitter power).
Midland, Cobra, Uniden, and Galaxy all produce handheld and in-dash-mounted CB radio units starting around $60.
CB has lost much of its original appeal due to development of mobile phones, the internet and the Family Radio Service, not to mention fluctuations of solar activity that affects the ionosphere (where high frequency radio waves travel). However, it is still a favorite among truckers and is a good means of communication.
Believe it or not, but there are around 750,000 licensed amateur radio operators in the United States, and although it is easy to see a typical Ham radio operator sitting in his basement chatting away with another Hammy hundreds of miles away, a Ham radio is a great off-road communication tool.
In order to become an officially licensed Ham radio operator, you have to pass a test, at least one of three [though amateur radio is regulated by the FCC the tests are administered by voluntary organizations such as National Association for Amateur Radio (ARRL)]: Technician, General, or Amateur Extra. To obtain the entry-level technician license you have to pass a 35 question multiple-choice test with a score of 74% or better. The test costs $14 to take and nothing for the 10-year license. Although not difficult, you will have to put in some serious study time to pass. This will allow you access to any band above 30 megahertz.
Though the gear can be a little pricey (an Icom IC-718 100W HF Base Amateur Radio will run around $650), the range for a Ham radio varies because of a great number of factors, one being the power of the signal, the height of the antenna and the proximity of a repeater station (there are thousands of them around the world). A line-of-sight transmission of more than 50 miles is typical.
Keeping in Touch
Staying in contact with the rigs in your convoy is not only a safe method to ensure that everyone comes home without injury or incident, it is also a great way to make the trip more fun; instead of being in the truck with the same couple of people for the whole ride, via the radios, it will feel like you are all in one vehicle together.
The options for communication methods during your off-road treks comes in many forms, but the hard part is discovering which one is right for you and your crew.
(Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the Jan/Feb 2018 print issue of Tread Magazine.)