What are the Best… Off Road Communication Options?

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There are lots of inexpensive off road communication options for keeping in touch while out on the trail four-wheeling. These off road communication options include cell phones, satellite phones, two-way walkie-talkies, CB and Ham radios.

Off Road Radio

So what is the best communication device for your unique situation? That depends on what your particular needs are and how far away you need to communicate.

Some off-roaders prefer not to communicate at all. A few want to be in constant contact with members of their party. Another small segment only want the ability to communicate in case of an emergency.

A growing number of off road adventurers want to take advantage of as many off road communication options as they can. Fortunately for these folks, certain communication devices satisfy several options.

Let's explore the various off road communication options available to four-wheelers and other outdoor adventurers.


Off Road Communication Options

Cell Phones – Cell Phones are actually low powered, high frequency, two-way radios that depend on strategically placed cell towers to function.

Cellphone

Cell phones don’t always perform very well in off road conditions due to the lack of available cell towers within range. Optional internal/external antennas and power boosters claim to increase coverage somewhat.

With all the different cell phone choices and types of service available, it’s hard to tell in advance if your phone will work in a particular area. You will probably have to find out first hand through experimentation.

My Nokia 6102, through Cingular’s GSM service, exceeds my expectations in off road conditions here in Western Nevada. While friends phones with Nextel, Verizon and Sprint services seldom work off road.

Update...
It's been some time since I first wrote this article and I've been through several phones. I now have a smart phone as do most people. The cell service is so good now that even on a recent hunting trip to central Nevada, we had phone service over 80% of the time with Verizon, Sprint and AT&T phones.

In other parts of the country, the other services and phones might work better than mine. Coverage area maps are deceiving and don’t always represent actual coverage. Investigate to see which phone and service provider works best for your off road needs.

Satellite Phones – Satellite Phones seem to be the ideal solution for most off road and outdoor needs. Satcom handhelds work almost anywhere and provide reliable backcountry and off road communication capability.

Satellite Phone

The only real drawback is the purchase price and minimum monthly charges associated with owning a sat phone. Purchase prices run from about $250 and up, while basic service plans start at $20 per month.

Beside the high purchase cost, activation fees and the mandatory monthly/annual service fees, most airtime charges run over a $1.00 per minute. You may have to pay roaming and long distance charges as well.

In conclusion, a great way to go if you really feel you must have the most reliable off road communication option available. Just be prepared to spend hundreds annually for a phone you may seldom use.


FRS and GMRS Radios

FRS and GMRS 2-way radios – These are inexpensive options for outdoor communications. They are lightweight and compact, cheap to buy and once you purchase them there are no further charges associated with usage.

FRS Radio

FRS or “Family Radios Service” radios are relative short range, 14 channel (1-14), two-way radios that don’t require an FCC license to operate. The maximum allowable power of 1/2 watts limits range from about ¼ to 2 miles.

GMRS or “General Mobile Radio Service” operates on 8 dedicated channels (15-22) designated by the FCC. Handheld UHF/FM GMRS radios typically come with 1 to 5 watts operating power.

GRMS Radio

To operate a GRMS radio, you must purchase an $80 FCC radio operator’s license good for 5 years. Range can go from ¼ to over 10 miles depending on conditions. Many GRMS radios can operate on the FRS frequencies too.

CB (Citizens’ Band) Radios – Citizens' Band radio service is intended to be a private two-way voice communication service for use in personal and business activities of the general public. No license is required.

CB Radios

The maximum legal CB power output level is four watts for AM and 12 watts (peak envelope power or "PEP") for single side band.

CB radios in the United States use frequencies near 27 MHz. (a slice off the original Amateur Radio band). Normal range is from 1-5 miles.

During periods of peak sunspot activity, transmitters can sometimes be heard for hundreds or even thousands of miles. So CB can be a good way to go if those you are communicating with have compatible radios.



Amateur Radios

Amateur (Ham) Radios – There are over 700,000 licensed amateur radio operators in the US. We tend to think of a ham as someone sitting in some corner of his/her house talking to another Ham. I use my Ham license for off road communication and emergency backup.

Ham Radio

While this stereotype can be true, many hams are also avid outdoorsmen that use mobile and handheld two-way radios to communicate while enjoying many off road outdoor activities.

How do ham radios perform while off road? Very well. I would rate them just behind a satellite phone in capability. This is largely due to a large number of repeaters scattered throughout the high mountains and various other strategic outdoor locations.

Transmit power, antenna length, frequency band and other factors also come into play. Normal range depends upon many of the above factors and more. Line of sight to 50 miles and more can be expected.

What about the test to get your amateur 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.

In conclusion, off road communication comes in many forms, you just have to choose the mode that works best for you.



Useful Links

Iridium Satllite - www.iridium.com
Yaesu Radios - www.yaesu.com/
The National Association for Amateur Radio - www.arrl.org

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