Recommendations for off-road communications equipment or platforms?

solarcodex

New member
I'd like to add communications equipment to our off-road rig so such that we can:
  • receive local information about weather, traffic conditions, etc. while on the highway (and off road if possible)
  • listen in on any Forest Service or other such organization for information about, say, logging activity, wildfires, etc
  • communicate out in case of an emergency while off road, or otherwise send a distress signal
  • communicate between someone inside the rig and someone a short distance, say, less than .5 miles
  • communicate rig-to-rig when traveling off road with a group
  • communicate with group members while hiking
  • send a distress signal, or otherwise communicate with the civilized world, in case of emergency while hiking.
We are complete noobs to this kind of communication equipment, except for reading some of the posts on this thread and some other resources on the internet. It seems like well equipped folks are using a combination of tools like an in-rig CB or Amateur Radio plus some sort of mobile, hand-held UHF or VHF device.

I'm hoping that folks on this thread might have some advice on what technologies (platform) or even what specific devices or brands to consider (or stay away from) given the use cases I mention above. Functionality, reliability, and durability are more important to me than price.

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pagero

New member
Options to consider include:
  • A Garmin InReach - I like the Mini - for reaching out in case of emergency whether you're hiking or driving. It's also a great device for sharing your location with others using a password protected website. Requires a subscription. Those that you give access to this website can also send a message to you. It can take a while for a message to go through, but at for me it will eventually go through. The InReach service can also send you a weather forecast if you need it.
  • GMRS radio such as this Midland for communicating with others when on the trail with you. Also works great with the small handheld FRS radios for spotting. GMRS requires a $70/10 years license that covers a family. No test required. GMRS, FRS, and Ham radios all typically can receive the weather channels for your local forecast.
  • Ham radios are also great for communicating while on the trail, and add many more options for reaching out further through repeaters. I'm partial to Kenwood radios like the TM-D710GA and the TM-V71A. Ham radios also require a license. The license is free, but it requires that you pass a test and there is often a small fee for the test. Whether you pick Ham or GMRS for trail comms really will depend on what the others in your group have, safest bet is to have both.
  • Handheld ham radios will have a much better range and options for communicating while hiking, although you will probably be able to reach at least 1/2 mile with with an FRS radio as well. One inexpensive and compact handheld ham is this Yaesu FT-4XR, but all three large ham radio manufacturers Yaesu, Icom, and Kenwood, have good options. Same caveat as above, you need a license to transmit on the ham bands. Also, note that handheld ham radios (usually referred to as Handy Talkies - HT) typically rely on rechargeable batteries, so might not work well if you plan to be out with the radio turned on for multiple days. The FRS radios can typically use regular AA or AAA batteries.
  • Citizen Band (CB) radios are useful for listening to truckers on the freeway, or potentially connecting with someone when you're stuck in and the traffic isn't moving. Not uncommon to hear someone reaching out on channel 19 asking if anyone knows "what's going on up there." Also, CB is commonly used by loggers in the US, so if you're concerned about a logging truck barreling towards you on a two track, look for signs on the side of the trail that says what channel they use. In my opinion that's all that CB is good for, so something like this Midland unit that doesn't mount permanently in your vehicle is a good option.
 

1Louder

Explorer
This ^------ Well stated

I would ignore CB, start with an InReach, and a GMRS mobile radio and a couple of handheld radios. Then decide if you want Ham down the road.
 

nwoods

Expedition Leader
Clearly, Pagero is an enthusiast and knows his stuff and is quality oriented. However, if you are budget oriented, there are much less expensive options that sadly, work just as well. I have a $400 Yaesu, and it's probably not easy to use as this cheap Baofeng unit:
One thing to understand, there isn't a radio that will do it all, at least not legally. GMRS will receive and transmit on FRS bands (at different power settings), but not on CB bands, and HAM radios will not transmit on GMRS/FRS or CB bands, by law. There are some modifications possible with a bit of soldering within various HAM units, but its not legal.

IMHO: Getting a decent GMRS base station from Midland (not a handheld), and a cheap handheld HAM radio will work for 90% of what you need.

Edit: I recommend the GMRS base station because they work SIGNIFICANTLY better than the handheld units. I have been on many trail conditions where a well thrown rock has more range than FRS or CB. FRS is limited to .5 watts I think? And GMRS is cranked up to 5 watts for handhelds, but basestations are 15 watts and the antenna mounted to a good ground plane helps tremendously. CB range various enormously, is very susceptible to engine noise, requires a perfect base plane (which does not exist on a jeep), and compensates for lack of range with much more power, but not very much effectiveness. Nothing beats HAM though. And what's fun with HAM is that you can talk to pilots in aircraft overhead, listen to the guys playing around in the space station, connect to someone on the other side of the planet, use your radio as a tracking device for your family, etc....
 
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DaveInDenver

Luddite
A GMRS radio isn't going to do much for listening to the Forest Service or any public organizations really. A general reception VHF radio might.

Some GMRS radios have the ability to tune the seven defined NOAA National Weather Service stations. There's hundreds of NWS stations around the U.S. but they all transmit on one of the seven frequencies so radios can be built that find at least one of them.

Any communications comes down to who you expect to be listening when you need it. I'm a ham and amateur radio covers a lot of intended purposes but it's not a substitute for has-to-work SHTF system. It's what I'm probably going to try first if I don't have a cell signal but I still carry a satellite PLB tracker. Amateur radio in Colorado is used for several emergency plans, some official capacity.

But it usually has to be activated first, e.g. a county sheriff or the state has gotten a call that requires it. There's a 4x4 rescue and recovery group that leverages the state-wide linked 2m radio system and it's monitored generally during the day by someone. But hams are not paid 911 operators staffing around the clock. It's just us helping each other when and where we can.

FWIW, the main part of my communications are a cell phone, SPOT Gen 3, a 2m/70cm voice ham radio and a 2m APRS (packet data) station. I can also operate CB or GMRS if someone in the group prefers that over ham radio but those are on-demand so to speak. I don't keep antennas and radios always available.

My $0.02 is pick the function you need and use them often enough to know they'll work when you actually need them. Installing a ham radio and never using it only means it'll be programmed wrong or you forget how to use it when you actually need it.
 
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nwoods

Expedition Leader
Installing a ham radio and never using it only mean it'll be programmed wrong or you forget how to use it when you actually need it.
LOL, some truth there. Some HAM radios are stupid hard to use, and the button labels are inscrutable to decipher. I have to relearn mine every time i use it. Finally found a laminated cheat sheet that I keep in my map case
 

NatersXJ6

Explorer
and use them often enough to know they'll work when you actually need them. Installing a ham radio and never using it only mean it'll be programmed wrong or you forget how to use it when you actually need it.
This is great advice. And I’m guilty of being on the other side of it. I’m not sure I could program my dual band ham right now to hit a repeater other than the 2 or 3 local ones I already set up. There are so many complex multi-function buttons and incomplete menus that it is easy to forget if you don’t use it constantly. Even having the manual in the glovebox... I would be pretty much useless if I had to re-tune it in an emergency... but that doesn’t happen until your last day!
 

solarcodex

New member
Thanks all, especially Pagero for the detailed breakdown. All great advice - I clearly have some thinking and researching to do!
 

DaveInDenver

Luddite
LOL, some truth there. Some HAM radios are stupid hard to use, and the button labels are inscrutable to decipher. I have to relearn mine every time i use it. Finally found a laminated cheat sheet that I keep in my map case
I keep a crib sheet with at least the menu descriptions for radios. If you program them and use them routinely you'll get used to the common functions but invariably you'll need to add a channel or change a repeater tone using the front panel instead of a laptop and it'll be like trying to set the time on your VCR, if you're old enough to know what I mean.

The Repeater Book app has made it much easier to know about repeaters, too. I wonder if anyone's gotten Chirp to run on a tablet. Hmmm...
 

alanymarce

Well-known member
We have a couple of iPhones for when we're in cell coverage, a satphone (Iridium) for emergencies, a pair of handheld UHF radios (about 6 Km range as long as there are no hills in the way) and a GME XRS-330CTP 80 channel UHF base radio (range 10-50 Km depending on terrain).
 

craig333

Expedition Leader
Yeah, the ham radios have a plethora of menus and can be a bit of a pain to use if you don't do it often. I program 99% of my radios stuff with RT systems software but I had two frequencies I wanted to input manually. Drove me crazy trying to figure out why it didn't work. Finally found out it didn't enter the offset correctly (unlike the programming software that did it automatically) and I was back in business.
 

dreadlocks

Well-known member
I've got chirp running on a pixelbook that can operate as a tablet..

I use APRS for location/messaging (SMSGTE), for the most part works consistently well when cell phones dont, this is long range so others in party can find my rally point or those left behind can track my progress.. I use GMRS for group communications on the road or at camp, and 2m HAM for Basic Information Comms like finding out what that smoke is off in the distance and whatnot.. usually if its something noteworthy like bad weather/fires/etc then scanning the whole 2m band will quickly find some traffic you can listen into.

I like denver has lots of radio traffic generally, makes it pretty easy to find someone to talk too and HAM's are generally happy to help you with a quick test/report.. I usually scan/listen until someone else is looking for a quick contact and signal report and try to respond to those just to keep in practice since I dont really rag chew like alot of the elmers.
 

DaveInDenver

Luddite
I like denver has lots of radio traffic generally, makes it pretty easy to find someone to talk too and HAM's are generally happy to help you with a quick test/report.. I usually scan/listen until someone else is looking for a quick contact and signal report and try to respond to those just to keep in practice since I dont really rag chew like alot of the elmers.
Just wanted to chime in to highlight this statement. I think a lot of people have a misconception about amateur radio that's not necessarily always true. There's the classic stereotype of a tighty whitey ham. That's one aspect of the hobby. But experimenting with technology, trying different modes, etc. is just as much ham as a crusty old guy pounding out Code on an ancient Navy surplus key. The one main thing that is common is just to have a willingness to use the spectrum one way or the other, e.g "advance" the radio sciences. Having a conversation or essentially water cooler talk on the air is what he means by ragchewing. That's just because some hams by their nature are chatty and social. A whole lot of us/them are not and rarely key a VHF FM radio so don't feel it's an absolute requirement. I tinker a lot with digital HF modes and APRS personally more than phone/voice.
 

craig333

Expedition Leader
Much like choosing a vehicle and camping platform. Choice is good. Personally digital and aprs have no appeal to me.

Don't be too concerned if some areas seem dead. They are. Around Bridgeport I rarely hear any radio traffic but drop down into the Owens Valley and its a different story.
 

DaveInDenver

Luddite
@craig333, why does APRS not interest you? I'm just curious since to those who I've demonstrated APRS seem to recognize the utility for our use but still it's not adopted enthusiastically by a significant margin. I've chalked that up to being a more advanced (so to speak) part of the hobby and my club's use of ham is primarily out of frustration with CB more than a widespread adoption of it as a hobby. I wonder if most people just see APRS as one-way position beacons and not much more, which is really a small part of it. I'd really like a sense of your reasoning.
 
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