One of the basic rules when trail-running is to try to keep the vehicle behind you in sight such that the slowest driver sets the pace for the group. This helps prevent a driver from getting lost or off course. However, there are plenty of times when rigs get out of sight, and it's handy to be able to communicate amongst drivers.
There is a wide range of radio communication available to allow you to converse with your fellow off-roaders. Whether you're in a street-legal 4WD, rock buggy, ATV, motorcycle, or snowmobile, we'll give you some idea as to what is available, along with the pros and cons of the various choices.
For many years, the most popular trail radio has probably been the Citizens' Band (CB). These 40-channel radios operate in the 27-MHz frequency band. CB radios are relatively inexpensive starting at about $40 and going up to a few hundred dollars. With a 4-watt (12-watt single sideband) power limitation, CB range is typically effective for a few miles but can go tens of miles under the right weather and atmospheric conditions. No license is needed for CB radio use and Channel 4 is typically used by four-wheelers in many areas. CB communication can also be used for both private and business use.
CB radios are available in a mobile mount that uses an antenna mounted to your rig, or you can buy a handheld unit. Mobile versions work much better than the portable units due to typically higher output power and more efficient antenna setup. CB radio is common and is a good basic radio system for all-around use.
Family Radio Service (FRS) has gotten very popular in recent years. These walkie-talkies are small units that you can clip in your rig or carry on your person. The radios operate in the 462- and 467-MHz UHF bands and have 14 channels available. These radios use FM (frequency modulation) which typically yields a cleaner sounding audio than the AM (amplitude modulation) used on CB radios. Within each channel, the user can also select a subaudible tone squelch code to filter out sound from other users on the same frequency.
There are a number of radios available with various options such as channel-scan capability, a battery meter, voice activation, and auto squelch. A very basic pair of FRS radios can be purchased for as little as $20.
Some of the radios use AA batteries, and some offer rechargeable batteries with the unit. Maximum output power is 0.5 watt, and operation does not require a license. Range is typically less than 2 miles and will vary widely due to the presence of large metal structures or hills.
FRS radios are commonly seen in use by families at shopping malls and amusement parks. Some businesses have also adopted FRS radios for short-distance communication.
The General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) band of communications is also located in the UHF band and was once the old Class A Citizens Radio Service. As such, it requires a license for use in this band. GMRS radios are available as walkie-talkies, mobile, or base station units.
It is similar to FRS (and shares some frequencies) in that it uses FM signals, but GMRS can transmit higher powers, thus is effective over longer distances as compared to FRS. Recent FRS/GMRS radios have come to market having 22 channels.
GPS RADIO COMBOS
Another twist on the FRS-type units are the Rino units offered by Garmin. These combine an FRS radio with a GPS receiver, all packed in a small handheld unit. There are several models available, including ones with color displays and the ability to store maps and a large number of recorded coordinates. An added benefit to these radios is the ability to display on the screen the location of others in your group using another Rino radio/GPS unit.
The Rino is a handy unit to have, even when riding an ATV, motorcycle, or snowmobile as it can be used for communication, tracking of your fellow riders, and for navigation purposes. Models are available with both FRS and GMRS frequency capability.
Beyond the more commonly used public radio systems described above, there are also available communications using ham radio frequencies. Licensing is required, but the possibilities of using portable, mobile, and base station setups opens up numerous possibilities with options to improve antenna configuration and power outputs.
With these setups you can configure systems that can communicate over the longest distances due to the allowed transmit powers. These are typically the highest-cost radios as well. Additionally, with access to repeater stations, a person may be able to communicate over hundreds of miles and possibly make use of a remote phone line with the help of ham club systems.
It is possible in some cases to use a cell phone for communication on the trail, but you're highly limited by proximity to a local cell site. Once you get in remote areas, the usefulness of a cell phone drops tremendously. Also, cell phones are not conducive for group communications.
With exception to a ham radio, a cell phone is probably your best bet when it comes to trying to contact emergency services, with limitation based on access to a cell tower signal.
If you decide on a mobile form of communication that will be mounted in your vehicle, you'll also need to purchase an antenna, antenna cable, and any necessary mounting pieces or adapters to complete the installation.
Choice of antenna can be important to ensure maximum transmission/reception performance. Antennas perform in different ways, and some require a larger metal mount surface, or ground plane while others do not. For example, choice of antenna used on the roof of a truck may be different than that used on a utility rack of an ATV or on the cage of an open-top rig or rock buggy.
Once everything is installed, the antenna should be tuned to optimize the transmission and reception of the system. This is usually done using an SWR meter connected inline on the antenna cable and monitored while transmitting. A tubing slug on the antenna is adjusted to optimize transmission output. Optimum transmit/receive performance cannot be achieved without some basic system tuning on a mobile radio.
Whether poking fun at your buddy that's stuck or spotting another driver through a tricky spot, radio communications on the trail can be quite useful. There's a big array of possibilities on the market to satisfy most any off-road rider or driver application, and with portables you can take one with you on foot for hiking, hunting, or just exploring.