By: Isaac Marchionna
Stay Connected – No Matter Where You Roam!
Once you have an overland rig, on your first trip you’ll discover offroad communications is essential. You’ll quickly find yelling out the window only works so well. Two cans with some string works, but has its range and line of sight issues.
“Why do I need a radio? I have a cell phone.” Well, that won’t work. The point of Overland Bound (and overlanding) is to get you off the beaten path. You’ll spend a lot of time off the grid without cell service. Also, a cell phone does not give you the immediate access to a group you need on the trail. “Push to talk” is the difference, and cell phones do not provide that feature. You will not be calling or texting, you will be grabbing your mic and yelling, “Fallen Tree! Left!” to everyone within range. Everyone receives that message immediately and at the same time.
But what kind of radio should you get? Evaluating which radio technology to add to your vehicle depends on budget and need. With all the options out there, its hard to know what the right choice is, and you don’t want to be to only guy with the Radio Shack “Realistic” bullhorn in a group of GMRS equipped rigs.
After a quick review, we’ll tell you which radios we often encounter on the trail so you’re not bringing a knife to a gun fight.
Can you hear me now?
Like cameras, the best radio is the one you have with you. And while *a* radio is better than no radio, who else has THAT type of radio will determine if it’s worth its weight or not. Radios, like tango, require two to be any fun. Someone needs to send, someone needs to receive, basic concept. So if you show up to a group using one kind of radio, but your fancy communication system can’t send/receive on the same frequencies, you might as well be yelling out your window. Ultimately one radio won’t do it all, and the reality is you’ll likely carry more than one radio type if you want to be and stay connected.
We’re going to review in order of escalating power (and cost), but keep in mind, more power is not necessarily better if no-one else has your radio type.
Just For Fun – FRS
FRS would be your most basic system, it’s a walkie talkie, using 14 frequencies with sub frequencies. These are capped at 500 milliwatt, they don’t require a license, they also don’t have much range. So within a convoy, generally within sight-lines, they’ll do the trick.
Use: Have a couple of these rattling around in your toolbox. If someone else shows up without a radio, at least they can communicate with someone in the group with a better radio who can then relay a message.
Stepping Up – GMRS and CB
GMRS would be your next step up, and can reach much further on 8 main (and specific) frequencies at upwards of 50 watts. These require a license to operate, but require no test to obtain licensing. It’s essentially a pay to play license (5 years). Certainly a step up in terms of clarity and range. The quality of radios vary, but these are a considerable step up from walkie talkies.
Use: Great for trail, with multiple rigs. clear communication with extended range. FWIW the Overland Bound rig had a GMRS radio on the dash. We use it when we can, but find adoption has been limited.
CB radio, which is 40 channels, and is usually synonymous with trucker radios. Sadly these are the most common on the trail. Everyone should carry at least a CB handheld, just as a backup for trail runs where the majority of the group is running CB. Unfortunately, CB is fairly poor in terms of range (even at 4-5 watts), and signal clarity, as it is obstructed by such things as line of sight, trees, or ya know…air. But it’s also everywhere and people opt for it because it requires no license and is better than FRS.
Use: On the trail, mostly for compatibility. There are a lot of them. We have a dash mount CB with external antenna, and often have the best range n the group. Our antenna is mounted on the front bumper – the benefits of which were explained to me in Australia, which I cant remember, but we get good range.
With Great Power – HAM
Ham Radio is a VHF/UHF system that requires a license to operate, but Ham also provides a unique callsign and, depending on the level of certification, you can talk on more frequencies, and higher power (from 5 watts all the way to 1000 watts, depending on license level). The biggest advantage is the use of repeaters, which are physical stations that groups of people can essentially connect to via their radios. These act as an amplifier for smaller radios using the power of the repeater. Think of it like a middleman who has incredible hearing and a megaphone, and can listen for your much quieter signal, and relay it to someone much further away than you could reach on your own. Normal non-repeated radio-to-radio can hit ranges of 90-100 miles away depending on power (based on using a 50 watt mobile aka vehicle mounted unit). Whereas the use of a repeater can double that range depending on geography. Ham also can send data over radio, and provide real time location tracking via APRS systems and GPS.
Use: Excellent and prolific radio communications over long range. We recommend getting your HAM license and a HAM radio.
Going Even Further – Satellite
We’d be remiss if we didn’t talk about satellite communication, which really shouldn’t be confused with trail communication. Satellite is critical because radio systems rely on someone being able to hear your radio communication at the time you make it. Whereas Satellite systems work just like cell phones or text messaging. This means even if someone doesn’t pick up the phone you can still leave a voice or data message. Say you’re out by yourself (which happens, but should be avoided because the buddy system is great), and you break something on your truck, or break yourself, and need to get a message out to someone who can assist.
These systems, like the DeLorme InReach, are popular for off-roaders, in providing 2-way text communication just like a cell phone (the InReach actually can text cell phones). However these are text messaging only systems. To send voice you’d want to look at a traditional satellite phone as a backup. All of these systems require line of sight, so a clear view of the sky to handshake with an overhead satellite. As such communication isn’t instant, and you may have to wait a few minutes to dial out. The phones can also be restrictive in cost, and airtime is fairly expensive. However if the situation is urgent, then money be damned.
Use: Security. This is a major fallback comms system. There are no blackout areas world wide, and you will be able to get a signal out if you have a clear view to the sky. Comms is limited to some data (location), txt, message post to social media channels, and expensive voice comms.
The Overland Bound rig has a Delorme InReach.
As stated earlier, no one system will do it all. What you pick depends on how far you need to communicate, and who you need to talk with on the trail. If your group is exclusively CB, then your decision is made. Keep in mind that in all the systems mentioned, the cost of entry is usually pretty low. A starter CB can be under 50 dollars, a starter Ham radio such as a Baofeng can be had on Amazon for 30 dollars. As you look for higher power setups with more features which go beyond simple trail communication, the prices go up. However outside of satellite communication to get started with FRS, CB, HAM, etc is not reserved for those with a lot of money to burn.
Get started with simple radios, learn the lingo, and best practices on the trail. You’ll quickly learn how critical communication begins while offroading. Ultimately your needs will dictate your radio type. And those needs will be determined by geography, range, and the other people in your group. Communication is an incredible thing, both in providing critical information to keep things safe, but also fun!
Our Recommended Starter Kit:
If we were to start from scratch and budget allowed, we would set up with the following basic equipment, which would cover about 90% of our Communications needs. We find that mostly, on the trail, other rigs have CB, or HAM, and you want to have satellite comms to get a message out in case things really do go bad.
- Handheld or Dash CB – Short range inexpensive widely used radio
- Handheld or dash HAM – Long range comms, license required
- Delorme In Reach – Satellite comms + txt off the grid world wide
What we use: