Modern Trail Communication Options

Modern Trail Communication Options

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Photos by Shane Williams & Daniel Markofsky

The debate over which trail communications system to use has probably been going on since the first GIs started wheeling WWII era Jeeps. Today there are still debates over which setup is best, what should be required for events, and how to best setup your rig.


Modern communications for off road overland ham cb GMRS Toyota magazine

How Communications Systems Work

Without going deep into radio frequencies and physics, most consumer communications gear works by line of sight. The 3mi, 10mi, 50mi range on the package of most handheld radios? Yep, that's in perfect, flat, unobstructed conditions.

The effective range of comm gear has to do with power, frequency, and antenna size, placement, and quality. As a general rule, I divide the advertised range in half to estimate the true effective range.

If you're using a setup that has access to repeaters (ham and some GMRS), that can extend your range to hundreds or thousands of miles. Details for repeaters is beyond the scope of this article, but we're always happy to discuss options in our online groups =) For this discussion, we'll stick with radio-to-radio, also called 'Simplex' operations.

Now that we have the basics of line-of-sight down, on to the options.

Modern communications for off road overland ham cb GMRS Toyota magazine

CB: Citizens Band Radio

Citizens Band radio has been popular among explorers longer than any other system. In fact, I installed and used my first CB radio over 30 years ago. Up unil the last few months, I've always had a CB in my rig as a back up, common trail communication system. Even though it was rarely used more than once per year.

While CB systems are inexpensive and easy to install, they suffer from a severe lack of range and voice clarity when operated at legal output power. The AM band that CB operates on is great for skipping signal off of the atmosphere, but is not well suited for relatively short range communication in varied terrain.

Modern communications for off road overland ham cb GMRS Toyota magazine

Ham Radio

I first obtained my technician ham license shortly after the Morse code requirement was dropped, well over 20 years ago. I had been familiar with the primary VHF and UHF bands for ham operations from my military and SAR experience, so studying for that first test was pretty straightforward.

The main reason I decided to go the ham route is the ability to use repeaters plus the excellent 50w power available for simplex operation. With a well configured ham setup in my vehicle, it's possible to talk to anyone in the state of Colorado from just about anywhere. On simplex (how most people use trail comms), I've been able to chat with others nearly 50 miles away.

Modern communications for off road overland ham cb GMRS Toyota magazine

So, unlike any other of the technologies in this article, it is actually possible for ham to be useful in the case of an emergency. Well established standard frequencies and the wide variety of repeater options mean that your mayday call will likely be heard. Add in the easy APRS setup for automatic position reporting, and ham is a really great option for communication PLUS emergency use.

In my opinion any serious overland or vehicle supported adventurer should take the time for 5-10 hours of study plus a quick test so that they can legally and smartly operate ham radios.

Modern communications for off road overland ham cb GMRS Toyota magazine

FRS: Family Radio Service

The lack of any licensing requirement means that Family Radio Service is the most accessible short-range communications platform. It's also the busiest. Everyone from kids playing army to families out on a bike ride use FRS.

The legal power for these radios is very limited so it's unlikely that real-world range ever exceeds the 3 miles commonly advertised. Still, I always have a set or two of FRS radios when out exploring.

GRMS: General Mobile Radio Service

If you saw our New & Noteworthy in the Summer 2020 issue, you know that our team has been experimenting with General Mobile Radio Service equipment from Midland over the last year.

The licensing requirement for GMRS is quite low at $70 (soon to be $35) for a 10 year license for an entire family. No test required.

Hardware from companies such as Midland is also varied and quite capable, depending on your budget and preferences.

Adding the ability to operate on GMRS repeaters, and the fact that many of these radios are also compatible with FRS handhelds make this a great choice for many adventurers.  Keep in mind however, that GMRS should not be relied on for emergency communication.

Modern communications for off road overland ham cb GMRS Toyota magazine

I cannot overstate the requirement for proper licensing, regardless of which Trail Comm system you choose. Not only does it ensure that you're operating legally, it shows the FCC that this service is important at should be protected. Midland USA has even put together a nice tutorial on how to get your GMRS license. Link here

So which trail communications method should you opt for in 2021? At the minimum I suggest a great mobile and/or handheld GMRS setup from Midland USA or another reputable brand. If you'll be out exploring quite often, especially if you're rolling solo, please consider the investing the time to pass your ham exam and learn how to use the great systems available from Yaesu, Kenwood, or Icom.

We look forward to seeing you out on the trails, and will be excited to chat on the radio =)

Modern communications for off road overland ham cb GMRS Toyota magazine



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