When you’re in the backcountry communication is key. A solo traveler needs a reliable way to contact help in case there’s an emergency, and a group needs a reliable way to stay in touch with each other. While it’s tempting to rely on cell phones, if you’ve ventured far from the beaten path you’ve found that they aren’t always reliable.
Below we’ve outlined some of our top picks for alternative backcountry communication. We’ve also shared some of our top choices for systems that use the respective band. Each platform has its pros and cons, so take a look and decide what works best for your locale and purposes.
The Family Radio Service (FRS) also commonly known as the classic Walkie Talkie, is a private, short-distance radio used for two-way communication. The benefits of FRS is that there is no required license to transmit and the rules are pretty simple - you can only operate on 2 Watts. This stipulation greatly limits your range and capabilities.
FRS is a great tool as a back-up option for GMRS but where it shines is a 2-way communication between groups on the trail within a close proximity. FRS operates on 462 and 467 MHz in the ultra high frequency band on 22 authorized channels which are shared with GMRS. Operating in the best conditions (line of sight), a range of 2 miles is about all you’re going to get with FRS.
- CASEY DEMING | KO4UPO -
General Mobile Radio Service, commonly known as GMRS, is a step above your Family Radio Service radios. It requires a license, but there’s no test, and a 10 year license only costs $70. GMRS radios typically operate in the one to five watts power range.
This means you can expect handheld GMRS units to reach between one and two miles. In recent years mobile vehicle based units have become popular. Depending on the terrain these can reach up to five miles. Another benefit of GMRS radios is that they share channels 1-7 with the FRS system, but they also have GMRS exclusive channels 15-22. So if your group includes radios of both types you can all chat, but you’ll still have the extra power of the GMRS band.
This platform has become a great option for overlanding given the five mile range of larger GMRS radios will easily communicate from one end of a convoy of vehicles to another. However, some recent releases literally push the GMRS platform to the max. By law GMRS radios can transmit up to 50 watts of power, and the new Midland MXT500 and MXT575 take advantage of that law with 50 watts of broadcasting power.
The main difference between the two is the controls. The MXT500 controls are all on the head unit, whereas the MXT575 controls are on the mic. The MXT500 is currently available for $400, and the MXT575 will be available later this year.
- RICK STOWE-
Amateur radio, commonly known as Ham radio- in a nutshell- is a hobby, art/science, and public service all wrapped into one. To become a Ham, you have to pass a 35 question exam and be issued a license and a call sign by the FCC. There are 3 classes of license for Amateur radio operation: Technician, General, and Amateur Extra, respectively. Technician is the entry level class and must be obtained before you can test for the other license classes.
Depending on license class- Hams use a spectrum of allocated radio frequencies known as the amateur bands to communicate across town, throughout the continent, and even around the world, without the reliance upon cell phones or the internet. The advantage of Ham Radio over GMRS, is RANGE! By using the amateur bands and a portable radio - it is possible to communicate vast distances with as little as 5 watts. It is touted that when nothing else works. Ham radio gets through!
The license fee to become a Ham is $35 and the study material will cost between $15-$35. There are also a multitude of phone apps and free online study resources to choose from to help you pass the exam and get on the air. Find a local Amateur radio club in your area via the internet and they will provide you with scheduled exam dates and locations. If you're local to us here are Georgia Bushcraft, we will be hosting another Ham Cram in April 2023.
Radio options are practically unlimited and getting on the air can be as simple as purchasing a handheld 5 watt Baofeng UV-5R for as little as $40 and as sophisticated as an Icom IC-7300 base station, equipped with an amplifier providing you up 1500 watts of power, that range into the thousands of dollars. As fore mentioned above - the choices are vast and there are plenty options to fit any budget.