Communications

Communications ROverAn important factor to consider for any overland trip is how you will communicate with the rest of your party. There are a lot of options out there, from yelling out the windows at stops to handheld FRS radios, CBs, 2m, and more. While all of these methods will get the job done, some of them offer a little more usefulness than others. Right now, we are in a transition period.

 

From  the ExploringNH forums:

Why such the emphasis on HAM? When most people have a CB in their vehicle anyways? Especially when it’s causing barriers like this. Or is CB considered an amateur band too?

The largest is that I am sick of CB and the weak range, poor transmission quality, and the problems that arise. Every single run I have ever been on has had someone with CB issues, whether it was a CB that would receive but not transmit, severely reduced range, someone that sounded underwater, or some other issue. It is ALWAYS something, even just dealing with having to switch frequencies because of chatter on the channel, usually from someone with an amped up radio talking about nonsense to themselves it seems. Even between those with working CBs, the range isn’t great, especially with the antenna mounts and locations and styles that we all run for off-road use. We had an issue on a winter run where Paul and I were less than 1/4 mile from each other, I could almost see him, and we couldn’t communicate, and both of our CBs work fairly well. I know that in an ideal world if we all had great CB setups, this would be less of an issue, but the reality is that in the real world, very few people have properly functioning CB setups, even after SWR tuning. The other day I hit a repeater 15 miles away, from inside my house, on a $30 Baofeng HAM radio with it’s stock antenna and it was crystal clear. This type of performance is not unusual, and can get even better with higher powered mobile units or even a $20 external antenna. I have been to and hosted many events and the overall feel of the event changes dramatically when communication drops off. It is ALWAYS better when you aren’t worried about if someone heard you, whether you are missing something, or when you are just fighting with the squelch knob all day. Having good communication is key to having a great experience at an event. Without it, you will never have more than a “good” time. It is ALWAYS better when you can hear what is going on and can have clear communications with your teammate or other people at the event.

For this event, the focus is on Overlanding. CB radio and it’s functionality is quickly falling out of favor for the overland crowd. Many OTR trucks don’t even use CB anymore, instead opting for other means of communications. HAM radio offers a much better chance at emergency contact when overlanding in remote areas and allows a further range from a base camp or teammates under adventure travel situations. When Shawn and I took our trip through Central America, handheld FRS radios were a huge benefit at border crossings where one person stayed with the truck and the other completed paperwork or even allowed us to complete two tasks or wait in two lines at the same time. With multiple vehicles, more people in a team, or a base camp, use of amateur bands has many benefits to the overland traveler, even outside of the US. I recently completed a trip across Maine on all remote dirt roads, many with unknown conditions. As night was falling, some members of the group were stuck and the conditions ahead were unknown. I scouted ahead and made it to the end of the section and out to a passable road. I tried to radio back to the group to come ahead but I was well out of CB range. Instead, I had to turn around and backtrack several miles of trail, depleting my already low fuel reserves and risking again getting stuck, in order to relay that the road ahead was clear. With HAM radio, we could have communicated and I wouldn’t have had to backtrack.

For these reasons, I want everyone to eventually switch over to HAM radio for communications at all events. This is already the norm out west. … The ONLY reason anyone uses CB is because everyone already has CB. Once those scales tip, everyone will use the more common technology, and I want to switch to something with a better range and higher clarity.

 

cobra75wxstCB Radio

CB, or Citizen’s Band, radio has been around for a long time and has become the standard for off-road vehicles. They work well when set up properly and tuned but even then they have a limited range compared to other options. CB radio is falling out of favor as some technological advances have brought the price of other options down to a reasonable level. CB radio has 40 channels in the 27MHz band. CB radio does not require a license here in the US and the only barrier to entry is the initial cost and setup of the equipment. Anyone can buy a radio and antenna and start transmitting. CBs are all relatively simple to figure out as well. Typically the only thing you need to know is how to change the channel ,adjust the volume, and adjust the squelch. The squelch adjustment allows you to tune out any background static and is simply a knob that you turn like the volume.

Channel 9 is restricted to emergency communications only and channel 19 is supposed to be the channel that truckers use. These days, truckers are using CB less and less as cell phones, mobile internet, and other communications options open up.

One of the major downfalls of CB radio use in the off-road and overland world is that our systems are often not optimal. Wear and tear from off-road trails and inconvenient antenna mounting locations can attribute to sub-par performance. One of the most important aspects of CB radio is having a good antenna setup. This usually means mounting an antenna in the center of the roof to get the best ground plane. As can be imagined, this is not the optimal placement for a vehicle that will see trail with overhanging trees or a lifted vehicle that still needs to fit under low bridges or into garages. A common place to mount an antenna would be the rear bumper of a vehicle or, common on Jeeps, behind the spare tire on the rear door. Neither of these are optimal as the antenna doesn’t stick up far enough above the roof and the ground plane isn’t great. These places provide good antenna protection from trees and garages, so a trade-off has to be made.

There are other problems with CB radio as well. Even with a properly setup CB system, the range is eclipsed by a cheap HAM radio with even a magnetic mount external antenna. Clarity is also very poor compared to the digital communications of HAM. When we run CB radio on the trails we usually end up having to switch channels at some point because we find other people talking in the background that makes it hard or annoying for us to communicate effectively as a group. These background conversations are typically miles and miles away and are reaching us through scatter or through the illegal use of modified and over powered CB radios from truckers or other users.

The ONLY reason that we all have CB radios, is that it is still, by far, the most common communication method for overland and off-road travel. It is no longer the cheapest, it is no longer the best, and it is no longer the only option. Once the majority of people switch to HAM or other communications methods, CB will very quickly fall out of favor.

For a CB radio, I always recommend the Cobra 75 WXST. The Cobra runs about $95 but you also need to add an 18′ coax cable, antenna, and mount. For an antenna, the Firestik Firefly 3′ antenna usually works well. I would recommend getting a spring base for a fiberglass antenna, usually the heavy spring is good.

 

FRS, handheld radios

FRS radios operate in the 462 and 467 MHz. This is part of the UHF (ultra high frequency) band. FRS radios transmit using FM instead of AM and at the frequencies used, exhibit different radio propagation characteristics that make communication more reliable than CB. Because of this UHF band, they are also not subject to the same interference effects that CB radio is. FRS radios are reasonably priced and work pretty well for overland use. One major benefit is that they are portable and easy to carry in a pocket. This opens up options for those times when you are separated from your party but still within contact distance, maybe at a border crossing or if you are scouting a trail on foot ahead of the group. Another great option is to keep two and if spotting is necessary through a difficult obstacle, the potter and driver can communicate more effectively. The range is about equivalent to CB radio but can end up being somewhat limited when inside the vehicle due to the factory non-removable antennas and a limited .5 watts of power. By FCC regulations, FRS radios are not able to have the antenna replaced and because of this, using them inside of a metal box (your vehicle) tends to hamper performance, just like it would if you placed your CB antenna inside your truck. The good news is that even with this restricted performance, range is close to a CB radio in most cases. The benefit is that communications are much clearer and there is usually no interference from other uses due to multiple channels and multiple privacy codes within those channels. No license is required to use FRS radios and they are even simpler than a CB to operate. Most FRS radios these days are dual FRS/GMRS. It is illegal to transmit on the GMRS frequencies if you don’t have a license. For FRS radios, I personally think that they are all about the same when it comes to performance. Try to find some with a decent battery life and water proofing/resistance. I like rechargeable ones so I don’t have to buy and carry batteries. I usually have an inverter to charge them if needed or many come with a car charger. Maybe these Midland radios for about $43.

 

GMRS radios

GMRS is essentially the same thing as FRS, with the added benefit of more power and the restriction of requiring a license. 1 and 5 watts are common power levels although, depending on license, you can operate up to 50 watts. I don’t personally know of anyone that uses more than 5 watts on GMRS and I think most operate at 1W. The license is granted through the FCC and costs $90 with no test and are good for 5 years. Pay to play. Immediate family members can operate under your license.

 

baofengHAM (amateur) Radio

HAM radio is quickly coming into favor for the overland and off-road world. HAM has been around for a long time but a recent introduction of cheap Chinese radios has led to a huge uptick in HAM usage. HAM radio has a significant barrier to entry, and this is the license. Anyone operating on the amateur bands must pass an exam and receive a license. The cost is negligible, $15, but the time investment is what scares most people off. I personally studied for about 3 weeks, 30min-1hr per day (with some days off), and passed the test at 100%. The system is a little antiquated and you can not take a test online. There are countless study guides and other reference materials, even iPhone apps, that will help you pass the test, but in the end, you have to locate a testing location near you and spend some time going to take the test. My test took about 20 minutes from the time I arrived to the time I was handed the test and allowed to start. This was just time sitting and waiting while three people checked off on my license to make sure I was really me and sign on the test that they had verified. After this, the test took about 10 minutes and I was graded and out the door within another 15 minutes. All in all, about an hour investment on a Saturday. This was just my experience and other’s may vary, depending on your testing location. The test is not hard, but it does require some studying.

As for equipment, that is the easy part. For starters, pretty much everyone grabs a Baofeg UV-5R for about $30-35 off of Amazon. This is everything you need to get started. This is a great way to start because it is so inexpensive. Transmit range can be an easy 15 miles, even with the stock antenna. Inside of a vehicle that is more limited, but still expect far better performance than the other options, especially when transmitting at 5w. After playing around with the Baofeng, some people opt for a more expensive mobile unit with power up to 50 watts. The best thing you can do for your Baofeng is to get an external antenna. This will massively increase performance compared to the factory antenna inside the vehicle. If you decide you want to upgrade from the Baofeng, you can sell it and not lose more money than the cost of a cheap lunch. Keeping a spare Baofeng will allow for handheld use when away from the vehicle whether you are waiting in lines, checking the road ahead, or while spotting through an obstacle.

Communications are clear, again due to FM vs AM. There are very few people using the frequencies, and even if it is a busy day, there are a ton of frequencies available and those can be multiplied exponentially with the use of privacy codes. You will rarely come across any radio traffic on simplex (radio to radio, not using a repeater) bands. Another added benefit of HAM is the availability of repeaters. These are stations set up that you can talk on their frequency and the station will rebroadcast your message with much greater power from a fixed antenna, usually in a great position up high. This can massively increase the potential range of your radio and usually there is always someone listening on the repeater frequencies, great for emergency situations.

HAM radios can be intimidating at first. There are so many buttons and lights and frequencies. It really isn’t any different than operating a CB! You pick a frequency and go! Even after testing, operating the HAM radio for the first time when trying to hit a repeater can be daunting. I found it very hard to try to read and learn about CTCSS codes, offsets, and everything else. It would have taken 5 minutes if someone could have explained it to me, and that is exactly what I suggest to new users. Bring your radio to an off-road event and someone there will help you get going. It makes it 100x easier to have someone with another radio to transmit and talk to and try different things. Sitting in your house alone talking to a repeater that you aren’t sure if someone is on while trying out 100 settings that you aren’t sure what they do is not a fun way to spend a day.

 

Part 90/Business class radios

These radios are commonly used at events or offroad competitions. It is illegal to use a HAM radio for business. It is an amateur band only. A Part 90 or business class radio is essentially the same thing as amateur radio except that it requires a business license and a frequency (or frequencies) is assigned to you. Radios can then be distributed among staff of competitors.