Outdoors

Backcountry Communication Options

Male hiker using walkie talkie against mountain peaks.

We live a life of being constantly connected in one way or another. Whether through our computers or our phones, the thought of not being able to contact another human being rarely enters our mind.

However, for those of us who prefer to seek the wild places, we often don’t have to go too far before we see the dreaded “No Service” message on our screen.

When I was growing up and camping with my family and my Scout troop, no one ever thought about being able to contact the outside world. A few folks had CB radios in their trucks, but for the most part, once we jumped off into the wilderness we were on our own. No GPS units, no cell phones, no miniature portable radios.

Radios options for the backcountry
Image by Randy Bauman

Today, we not only have phones that are powerful and compact, but we also have other options to keep in touch with the outside world if we need help or just need to check in.

Portable radios are one of the easiest and most accessible option for most people. Nearly every big box store has the latest FRS/GMRS wonder radio that will reach for 36 miles. CB radio, although not as popular as in years past, is still a pretty good option for those who take to the four-wheel drive trails and backroads.

There is also the MURS radio frequencies and the world of HAM radio to consider for your communications needs. Finally, if you just want to have a tether to the home front that allows you to check in or summon help in an emergency the SPOT locators and inReach devices are awesome tools to have in your pack.

What Is a Radio?

I grew up in home where my father was an electronics repairman and served in a combat communications squadron in the Air National Guard for over 20 years.

You would think some of the radio lingo and inner workings would rub off. Not so. For most of my life I have referred to radio simply as FM… magic. But, radio is quite simple if we don’t get too deep in the weeds. Radio communications consist of three components: a transmitter, a receiver, and an antenna.

The transmitter generates an electronic signal that carries our speech. The antenna turns the signal into energy that travels through space as a radio wave. The receiver converts the radio wave back to speech so the person we are talking to can understand it. See, Magic!

Fortunately, for folks like me, all the components are housed in handy gadgets called transceivers.

Radio Modes and Options

Here’s a quick look at the different modes and options for radios.

CB (Citizens Band) Radio

Handheld Citizens Band Radios
Image by Randy Bauman

CB radios are most frequently found mounted in commercial vehicles. They are still very popular in the trucking, logging, and farming industries.

There are 40 channels available in the CB frequencies and they will generally allow you to communicate over several miles depending on the terrain.

Channel 19 is most frequently used on the highways to monitor road conditions, and to stay up to date on traffic and accidents. Channel nine is set aside for emergency communications only.

Pros:

  • Anyone can use CB without a license
  • Vehicle-mounted and handheld units are available
  • Inexpensive
  • Easy to operate

Cons:

  • The range is fairly limited, unless atmospheric conditions allow for “skip.” This means your signal bounces through space much further. Be aware, it is an FCC violation to contact and chat with stations more that 155 miles away on CB.
  • Handheld units are bigger than most FRS or FRS/GMRS radios.
  • Limited power.

GMRS and FRS Radios

Left to Right: Compact FRS Radio, GMRS Radio, Combo FRS/GMRS Radio
Image by Randy Bauman

General Mobile Radio Service and Family Radio Service radios are most recognizable in the bubble pack at stores like Gander Outdoors, Cabelas, and Walmart.

In the past the radios were used as simple walkie-talkies without much concern for the FCC or the rules that applied to the GMRS frequencies. In 2017 the rules governing the use the radios were reworked to make things a bit simpler.

Today FRS radios can operate at up to two watts and be used without a license. In the past the output was limited to just one half a watt. FRS now will enjoy 22 total channels. New FRS radios must be designed so the output on on channels one through seven and 15 to 22 do not exceed two watts. Channels eight to 14 must not exceed one half watt of output.

Any radio that exceeds two watts of output will be classified as a GMRS radio and will require a license to operate. The GMRS radios will have 30 total channels. Channels one to 22, plus eight channels for use on repeaters. The GMRS radios will still be limited to just one half watt on channels eight to 14.

GMRS radios will likely give you some extended range since they can be operated at five watts for a handheld unit. GMRS radios can also utilize aftermarket antennas which can help give the user extended range in the field.

The new license structure will cover you and your family. The license is now good for 10 years and costs $70. There is no test, just fill out the application form. The steps to obtain a license are outlined on Midland’s website.

GMRS and FRS radios are certainly a viable solution to keeping in touch with your hunting partners. The radios are fairly inexpensive, easy to use and many have a NOAA Weather Alert feature so you can track the weather while you’re in camp. Just keep in mind that you are not likely to get the range stated on the package. In heavy timber and mountainous terrain your range will be severely limited.

MURS

The Multiple User Radio Service is a set of five frequencies operating in the VHF (Very High Frequency) range and can legally transmit at up to two watts.

The real advantage of the MURS system is that very few people utilize the frequencies involved so there is less chance of interference and from other radio users in the same area. The radios can be fitted with longer antennas in order to increase the range and there is no licensing requirement to use MURS.

Like the FRS and GMRS radios, MURS radios can be programmed with privacy codes to further diminish the likelihood of interference.

HAM (Amateur Radio)

Baofeng Dual Band Radio
Image by Randy Bauman

HAM radio is for those wishing to increase the potential range of their communications and the options available. For all HAM radio operations a license is required. The Technician level license will introduce new operators to the theory of radio as well as the legal and safe use of radios.

For outdoor adventures many will turn to a handheld dual band radio capable of communications on the two-meter band and the 70-centimeter band. With a two-meter radio you will be able to communicate with your partners, assuming they are also licensed, as well as access repeaters that will, in essence, amplify your transmission and send it out the other side with increased range. Utilizing repeaters allows one to communicate with other HAM operators at great distances.

Many repeaters are owned and operated by search and rescue groups as well as the local county sheriff. If you find yourself in need of help or rescue, putting out a call on a repeater quickly activates the local search and rescue teams to come to your aid.

Last fall I took a handheld two-meter radio to our whitetail camp. I was able to access a repeater 25 miles away and easily speak to a fellow HAM operator in a town near the repeater. It was nice to know that I could summon help from our camp when the nearest cell phone service was about eight rough miles from where we camp.

Some may scoff at the idea of the Baofeng radios, but they make entry to the world of amateur radio possible for nearly every budget. The radios are dual band, meaning you can operate on the two-meter and 70-centimeter bands once you have your license. You can also program the radios to receive the NOAA weather stations so you can stay up to date on weather changes.

The licensing procedure for HAM radio is fairly simple. For the Technician license you will pass a 35- question test from a pool of 400 possible questions. I used HAMTestOnline to study and review. I spent 30 minutes a day for about three weeks before the exam and passed with no trouble.

You can find local testing venues at ARRL.com. The test costs $15 and the license is valid for 10 years.

Satellite Communications

For those traveling in remote areas that need a way to keep those at home up to date on their whereabouts and to summon help if needed, the latest offerings from Garmin are the way to go. The inReach Explorer + GPS will allow you to send regular updates to those back home.

You can send a text message and you can set up the device to send your location updates to selected recipients so they can see your location on a map and track your journey. The inReach units utilize the Iridium satellite network to provide the text services as well as connect you to the interactive SOS system and the 24/7 search and rescue monitoring center.

Couple that with powerful GPS navigation capabilities and you have a very handy tool to take to the backcountry. The inReach systems do require a subscription plan to access the various services available. However, they are very flexible and can be activated only when you need them for as little as $11.95 per month.

In Conclusion

Mountain Rescue Officer Holding Radio Walkie Talkie and Severe Mountain Landscape Background
Image by AlexBrylov from Getty

There is really no reason to be out of touch, even if we are going to the woods or the range where our cell phones won’t work. Calling shots at a competitive long range match or calling your buddy to help pack out an elk are well worth packing a radio in your gear.

The radio services and radios discussed above will all work for those who venture outdoors. Just remember, there are limitations to range. There are rules to follow. There may be licensing required depending on the service you choose.

Maybe one day we’ll have a Star Trek transmitter and be able to “beam” that bull elk out of the woods and right to our freezers. But then, what would be the fun in that? We go to the wilderness to find adventure and test ourselves.

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