As you and your 4x4 take your adventures into more remote regions, the ability to maintain contact with a basecamp or reach help in an emergency situation should rank highly on your vehicle-preparation checklist. Beyond cell phones and CB radios, which are limited in range for those middle-of-nowhere excursions, FM transceivers can provide nearly infallible long-distance communication from almost anywhere.
What's A Ham?Aside from the usual chunk of cured pork you may be thinking of, ham is slang for an amateur radio user. It originated from early radio days when both commercial and amateur users shared the same wavelength. Commercial radio operators would often refer to amateur operators as "hams" when they'd jam the frequencies and create radio interference. The amateurs affectionately adopted the title, and it is still in use today.
FM transceivers are also widely used in off-road racing for short- and long-distance communications. Most teams will have a dedicated frequency for communicating between the race vehicle and support teams and will also monitor a shared frequency that broadcasts race and emergency information. Even off-road clubs make good use of FM transceivers for trail runs and events to help maintain the flow of vehicles through the obstacles and enable rapid response in emergency situations. Once the proper license is obtained (see sidebar), a ham radio user can transmit and make two-way communications on a frequency licensed to that user, as well as on other frequencies that are shared by many users.
For our latest project rig, we required a powerful enough radio to transmit from the deserts and mountains throughout the north and southwest U.S. as well as throughout Baja California where we attend many off-road races each year. Based on experiences with some bulky CB radios, we also wanted something that wouldn't be a knee-scraper or a head-cracker in its mounting configuration. Our search for a unit that fulfilled these requirements led us to Icom America, a huge player in the worldwide amateur radio industry and a manufacturer of many styles of FM transceivers. Icom's IC-208H is a high-power, dual-band VHF/UHF FM transceiver designed for monitoring and broadcasting on amateur radio bands (standard frequencies of the IC-208H cover 118-173, 230-549, and 810-999 MHz) as well as aviation, marine, and weather frequencies. It is the company's most powerful dual-band mobile radio, offering 55W/50W (VHF/UHF) output for stable long-distance communications, as well as reduced power settings (15/5W) for local communications.
With radio in hand, we started a driveway installation in our '97 Jeep Cherokee Sport. The IC-208H includes a radio mounting bracket that permits a variety of mounting possibilities. With limited space in the driver's area of the cab, the remote-mount face was a terrific feature. We found a great spot for the radio beneath the rear seat and easily routed the necessary connections forward. With the radio in place, we'll have peace of mind that we're never alone, even in the farthest reaches of nowhere.
Ham Radio Use: Get Your License
Ham radio users are required to take an exam in order to obtain an amateur radio license. In the United States, amateur radio licenses are monitored by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). An entry-level license, the most popular, earns a Technician designation, which allows operation on all amateur frequencies above 50 MHz. The next level is the General class, which allows increased use on amateur bands. This level requires a written test and a five-word-per-minute Morse code test. The top license is the Amateur Extra class and permits use on all amateur frequencies. Licenses are issued and renewed free of charge and last for 10 years. A license can be obtained by taking a test administered by an accredited volunteer examiner (VE). A list of VEs in your region can be found on the FCC Wireless Telecommunications Bureau website. Another good source is ARRL, the National Association for Amateur Radio, which offers a searchable index for test centers in your area.