One of the most-often asked questions by off-roaders concerns communications. Specifically, the questions are centered on the best options for remote or wilderness communications. I’ll infer that the need is to maintain contact with the other vehicles in your group, whether during an expedition or as part of a club ride, and for radio-based, non-beacon locator service emergency communications.
I’ll also assume that you will be in areas where a commercial service such as cellphone service is not available. When you do have commercial service, it is the best choice for reaching a specific user or a first-responder organization.
As in many things in life, there is no one perfect solution for communications. Each form has inherent advantages, drawbacks, and limitations. Extended capabilities infer complexity and cost; simple functionality constrains features but often insures survivability. We’ll step through the various non-commercial communications options available to expeditions and those hitting the trails. I’m not going to go into too much technical detail, as one can forever argue the merits of one mode over another or other aspects of their underlying technologies. Where they’re relevant to the real-world utility of the radio, I’ll mention them.
Personal Communication Services
Personal communication services are the Family Radio Service (FRS), Multi-Use Radio Service (MURS), and General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) radios that are commonly sold in department stores and outdoor stores. They are intended as short-distance, two-way communications using small, portable hand-held devices. I’ll refer to them as FRS-type services generally, since they are very similar in intended use, though they are in fact, different radios and different services:
FRS radios do not require licensing and operate on 14 FRS channels in the 462 to 467 MHz UHF portion of the spectrum. FRS is intended for short-distance, two-way communications using small hand-held radios, and are limited to one-half watt, thereby ensuring they are specifically targeted to short-range applications.
MURS radios also do not require licensing, but operate on 5 MURS channels in the 151 to 154 MHz VHF portion of the spectrum. MURS radios are limited to two watts – somewhat better than FRS, however MURS radios are not as common as FRS radios, and are limited to the five specific channels.
Another service available to users is the General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS), which uses hand-held radios intended for short-distance, two-way communications. GMRS operates in the 462 to 467 MHz UHF portion of the spectrum, and makes use of 23 channels using up to 5 watts. Unfortunately, GMRS requires licensing, and there are also restrictions on using the services near borders and under other conditions. Unless users want to use GMRS within a closed group, with each user licensed, the utility of GMRS is somewhat limiting.
Radios are available that may combine various FRS, MURS, and GMRS services. Unless the specific combination of services can be justified, these radios are costlier and more complex than their usefulness suggests.
FRS-type radios also offer features such as Continuous Tone-Coded Squelch System (CTCSS) – also known as PL (Private Line) – which allow groups to set a tone that is encoded on each transmission. Once the CTCSS is set, the radio will only allow transmissions from that group to be heard, thereby filtering out other users. The disadvantage is that users can talk on top of each other, since the frequency may be is use, but the CTCSS doesn’t provide that information.
Another advantage is that the radios can be very accessory-rich. Headsets, chargers, carrying pouches, and other goodies are often available. Since most are sold in pairs, one purchase can be split between two vehicles so as to mitigate the cost, which is in itself reasonable. For travel within a group, it’s a great way to communicate between vehicles without listening to the CBers and the noise generated by noisy alternators. MURS, FRS, and GMRS use FM, which is not as noisy as the AM mode in use by CB.
Since the radios are typically no larger than the microphone on a conventional mounted radio, they take up little space; a spare cup holder or a clip mounted on the dashboard will suffice. The problem of course, is that they can fall out or get lost under a seat or somewhere in the vehicle, and though they can also be used around the campsite or outside the vehicle, they can also inadvertently be left on a picnic table or dropped trailside.
There are some problems with these radios. They are not as ubiquitous as CB on the road or on the trail. Other than the other members of your travelling party, who you know to be equipped with any of these types of radios, communicating with anyone else will be hit or miss. Paradoxically, with a given number of users within range, the more channels available the more difficulty in finding what channel others are listening on. If they also have CTCSS enabled, they will most likely not hear you even if you are in range and on their channel.
Another problem is that you must have spare batteries or be capable of charging the power packs if they are rechargeable. This means managing usage and charging times and ensuring they’re available when they’re needed. The best solution is to have a vehicle charger so they can be kept topped off or powered even while the batteries are being charged.
Finally, no discussion of FRS-type services would be complete without calling BS on manufacturer’s claims as to the range of these products. Notwithstanding claims on the packages on store shelves claiming up to 7 miles of coverage, the FCC’s website specifically says that “The usual range of communications between FRS devices is less than one mile.” ( http://www.fcc.gov/encyclopedia/family-radio-service-frs )
If two FRS users were to stand on top of skyscrapers with no obstructions between them, then 7 miles would be possible. Under a tree canopy, in a valley, transmitting from inside a steel vehicle, or under similar other conditions, one mile should be considered the best real-world model.
There are fundamentally four things that will influence the range between any two radios that use the FRS-type services – the output power, the design and height of the antenna, the presence of obstructions in the path, and the sensitivity of the receiver. These services are less than optimal because the power is relatively low, the short rubber antenna with a poor ground is inefficient, they are typically used within the steel shell of a vehicle and trees, rocks, mountains, and other obstructs are present, and receivers are not particularly good.
The bottom line: Use these radios to communicate between vehicles when traveling as a group, whether by road or trail, use them around the campground, or use them to maintain contact with the kids as they go off exploring for short distances.
Citizen’s Band (CB)
CB has been around a long time, and if one can get past memories of the CB craze back in the ‘70s, the unregulated nature of the users on the air, and the perception that it’s strictly a trucker’s band, CB offers a lot of utility relevant to the expedition and the trail rider.
The value of CB is that it’s ubiquitous, simple, cheap, and it works. Radios are available nearly everywhere, no license is needed, the radios are simple to operate, installations are easy, and they are available in many configurations in a wide range of prices. On any given stretch of highway, chances are that someone is on one of the channels and an emergency communication can be made. On the trail, more CBs are used by clubs and individuals to maintain communications along rides and for spotting than any other type of radio.
CB is a 40-channel service in the 26 – 27 MHz High Frequency (HF) portion of the spectrum. It is also known as the 11 meter band given its wavelength. The service is intended for short-range, two-way communications between unlicensed stations using up to 4 watts output to the antenna. Unlike FRS-type radios, CBs are available as hand-held, mobile, and base station models that can be connected to external antennas that improve both transmitting and receiving performance. The external antennas overcome the severe design constraints of the rubber ducks on the FRS-type radios and generally make CB more reliable than FRS at greater distances.
Because CB uses a portion of the high-frequency spectrum that is subject to radio propagation, it can experience long-range (sometimes global) openings. While interesting in themselves, these openings cannot be relied on for reliable communications, and CB should not be considered suitable as a long-range service. The CB service also provides for single sideband (SSB) operation. CB uses AM mode; basically SSB squeezes the double-wide AM signal into half the space and suppresses the carrier, which results in more punch for the same amount of power. Generally, there is little benefit to using SSB on the trail or in a vehicle caravan.
Mobile installations get antennas outside the vehicle, provide for a vastly improved ground, allow the convenience of full-time 12 VDC power, offer secure mounting options for rough terrain, and provide for the connection of an external speaker for improved listening in open vehicles. The disadvantage is that the radio can’t be carried around, but many groups carry along a handheld CB for the use of a spotter to guide a driver over obstacles. In most cases the longer antenna requirements of CB doesn’t make it the best candidate for portable operation anyways; FRS is probably a better solution for campsite use.
A disadvantage of the AM mode used by CB is that it is susceptible to ignition noise and other electromechanical interference. Alternator noise comes across as a whine that increases in pitch with an increase in RPM. Such noise can often be mitigated by directly attaching the radio to the battery and by using filters. The squelch should also be set so as to block out the background noise so that only desired signals are heard.
The bottom line: CB radio is ubiquitous among off roaders, and is the best solution for a low-cost, effective communications between vehicles on the trail or on the road.
Ham Radio (Amateur Radio)
Ham radio is as simple or as complex as you choose to make it. Radios and modes of operation are as simple as low-power handhelds, as complicated as satellite communications, or as frenzied as the world-wide high powered pursuit of working rare countries. Given its complexities and licensing (and testing) requirements, ham radio is not “plug and play” from the standpoint of making a purchase and just getting on the air. Unless you are already licensed, the ham radio transceiver you choose for your ride can’t simply be installed and used.
The best way to consider becoming a ham to think about it as an investment and commitment. The prospective ham will need to invest in studying the operating rules and procedures, and learn some theory on radio communications. He or she will then need to sit for an exam before receiving a license to operate. Because of this commitment and the nature of the operating requirements, ham radio is a disciplined and self-policing service. Many hams are involved in emergency services, disaster assistance, search and rescue, and other public services in which communications and all-terrain capabilities can be merged for the public good. Public service is one of the founding principles of amateur radio.
In addition to individual study, there are thousands of amateur radio clubs that run programs for prospective hams. These consist of classes, operating practice, and mentoring. Just like in off-roading, clubs offer additional information and enjoyment. More information can be found at the American Radio Relay League (ARRL) website at www.arrl.org.
Assuming you are willing to jump through these hoops to get licensed, how does amateur radio fit into off-road excursions or expeditions? First, it should be remembered that unless others in your group are licensed and equipped with ham radio, CB is still probably your best option for maintaining communications within your group. The number of fellow hams in your off-road club is likely to be low.
Ham radio becomes more relevant for situations in which you may want to contact someone back in civilization, and is more effective for this than any other means of non-commercial service due to the number of power, mode, and frequency options available. For a round-the-world (RTW) expedition, ham radio transcends national boundaries and provides worldwide capability in addition to providing effective vehicle-to-vehicle or local communications.
Ham radio options for the off-roader can best be categorized based on the desired objective. Radios – commonly referred to as transceivers – fall into three groups: mobile high frequency (HF), mobile VHF or UHF (often combined into a dual bander), and handheld VHF, UHF, or dual band. Mobiles with HF and VHF/UHF combinations are also common, are a good choice when both are required.
HF, or high frequency refers to the amateur bands below 30 MHz. These include the 10, 12, 15, 17, 20, 30, 40, and 80 meter bands. Each have different propagation characteristics in the course of a day and are influenced by solar activity, which creates conditions in the ionosphere conducive to reflecting signals back down to earth to cover vast distances. All of them can be global communications bands, and are your choice for covering long distances. Your actual capabilities will depend on your power, antenna, location, and propagation conditions.
Antennas for these bands are relatively long, and pose some challenges for mounting on off-road vehicles. Good grounds, efficient antennas, and good receivers are key to taking advantage of HF mobile communications.
VHF and UHF are generally used in FM mode, though SSB is also used in some sections of their bands. VHF and UHF are line-of-sight bands, and signals do not travel very far over the horizon. Good antennas are important here as well, and permit effective vehicle to vehicle communications distances on many miles.
VHF and UHF can be used in simplex or in repeater modes. Simplex means that all stations are transmitting and receiving on the same frequency, as is the case with CB and with the other radio services we’ve discussed. The range using simplex is based on how far apart the vehicles can be and still work one another.
In repeater mode, properly known as half-duplex, all stations listen on one frequency but transmit on another. A repeater, located on a tower, mountaintop, or tall building, listens on the mobile’s transmit frequency and retransmits the signal in real time on the mobile’s receive frequency. With a repeater in an elevated location, the coverage area for communications is increased due to the more distant radio horizon at that height. Mobiles don’t have to work each other direct and can instead work each other through a repeater. Repeaters are located throughout the US, Canada, and populated locations worldwide. Even the Rubicon Trail is covered by a repeater.
Handheld VHF and UHF transceivers have most of the capabilities of mobiles, but with lower power levels and antennas designed for portable operation. Even these radios can be connected to an external antenna or run through an amplifier to achieve significant power output levels. Thus equipped, a handheld is flexible enough to be used as a mobile or to be carried around as needed.
Ham radio has capabilities we don’t have the space to explore in this space, such as automated global positioning and tracking, the linking of radio transmissions to the Internet for voice communications, data modes that are orders of magnitude more effective for communications than voice modes, and the ability to get very exotic with antennas, power, and operating modes.
The Bottom Line
Ham radio adds an important element of communications that isn’t available with the other services, and is your best bet for reaching someone on the outside during an emergency. Given the requirements, costs, and complexity of ham radio, be prepared to be the only one in your off road club equipped with it, but also be prepared to be the hero when it’s absolutely needed.
In summary, the ideal excursion would consist of elements of personal, baseline, and advanced communications capabilities. Personal communications would consist of FRS-type radios carried by individual members for use between closely traveling vehicles and outside the vehicle, such as at campsites or while exploring on foot.
Baseline communications are represented by CB, which is ubiquitous on the road and on the trail. Caravanning vehicles can communicate over greater distances (over FRS) and alternatively communicate with truckers, other off-roaders, and occasional base stations.
Ham radio represents an advanced but more complex communications capability using local (simplex), regional (repeater), or global (HF) modes. A simple handheld transceiver or mobile model takes up little space but packs a big punch in terms of capability.