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On Comms Part 2 - Trail Communication

Posted in How To on June 1, 2013
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In Part 1, we spoke of ways to bounce signals off satellites and what was out there and how they worked. This time we are going to talk about the more mundane, and sometimes more misunderstood, “ground based” units. The difference between what we talked about last time and this time, is these send a signal to another station, whether that station is land-based, or in the hand of another Jeeper. No extraterrestrials are going to be involved with these things.

We’ve all been around them for years: CB radios, HAM radios, and for a lesser amount of time, hand-held UHF and VHF radios and cellular phones. They are all good choices for both Jeep-to-Jeep communication and sometimes Jeep-to-base communication. But like their space-roaming counterparts, there are a ton of options available and it can be difficult for the newcomer to wade through all the information…and misinformation.

While not many of us use these things as lifelines, if we go out on our own, we may have to. With that in mind, our bean counters and ambulance chasers want us to add this little bit here. Don’t go running out into the middle of nowhere with only a cell phone or a CB for a lifeline. Odds are really good when you need them, there will be no one on the other end. These things don’t take the place of common sense, the buddy system, or Chuck Norris in the shotgun seat.

Okay, legal disclaimers aside and proper number of beans tallied, let’s move on. What we’ve got here is a collection of common and commonly-confusing devices that you have probably seen before. We’ll get a bit techy so you can compare them and bench-race them later with friends. We aren’t going to go off the deep end regarding tech, but will just skim the surface and give you some info you might not have had before. We will also explain how they work, where they work well, and under what circumstances they might not be a good choice.

The Citizen’s Band radio, or CB, was popularized by the movie Smokey and the Bandit in the late ’70s and early ’80s to the point where Jeep offered it built into factory-installed radios as an option for a few years.

The venerable Cobra 29. A full-frame CB that can optioned with lots of features, it offers a lot of tuning features to kill background noise. There have been millions sold over the years, and they are still available today.

But the good old CB actually started back in the ’40s, and as they were then, they are still governed today by the FCC (Federal Communications Commission). In the beginning there were only 23 channels on the CB and power output was limited to 5 watts. The full 40 channels we enjoy today were opened up in 1977, and today’s power output is limited to 4 watts. Yeah, we hate the “lowered” output rating, but much like the horsepower ratings in the fabled horsepower wars of the ’60s, not all ratings are equal.

Just like a 500hp car from today puts out more power than a 500hp car from the ’60s, so too does a 4-watt CB today actually put out more than the old rating. The old rating would be 3 watts and change today. The FCC’s power output regulation limits interference between CB channels, CB units, and other electrical devices such as R/C cars.

That relatively low power output also limits the range of the radio, and sometimes even reaching the Jeep in front or behind on a trail run becomes difficult. CBs run on AM, and you know how they work if you’ve ever listened to AM radio—the same interference affect CBs.

Sidebands were more popular 15 years ago, but you hear less about them now. If you picture tuning that old dial-based AM radio, you know there is a range on the indicator where you can hear the station you are looking for, and depending on where you are or what’s around you, you need to tune it up or down to keep the station. That’s like your channels 1-40—they can be heard on a wide range on the dial. Sidebands are only above or below the sweet spot. Because of the narrower range, the FCC bumped the limits on sidebands to 12 watts.

In its heyday, it was common to see stationary base units, mobile vehicle-based units, and handhelds. There are less base and handhelds being sold today, but automotive-based units are still pretty popular. At the end of the day, though, AM signal is AM signal, and you know its limitations. The same limitations exist for CBs.

PhotosView Slideshow

Frequency: 26.965 MHz to 27.405 MHz
Max power: 4 watts; 12 watts (sidebands)
Average range: Up to 5 miles (flat ground)
Use for: Jeep-to-Jeep communications
Not good for: Jeep-to-base or Jeep-to-home communications

HAM Radios
As soon as many people hear the word “HAM,” they think pigs, coppers, or glasses-wearing geeks getting brain cancer while calling out goofy call signs. HAM or amateur radio goes back…way back…HAMs can claim ties with the likes of Nicola Tesla, Heinreich Hertz, and Guglielmo Marconi. Don’t worry if you don’t know the names, there will be no test. But the basis and spirit of HAM goes back well over a century, let’s just put it that way.

The Yaesu VX-3 handheld has lots of memory features and capabilities to monitor other channels simultaneous to the primary channel you are transmitting on.

Depending on what class of license you go for and what bands you are transmitting on, you can transmit legally all the way up to 1,500 watts in some cases. Even if you failed math in school, you get the idea as compared to a CB. Now let’s talk frequency. CB radios are stuck with AM, and you know how that works in the real world. HAM operators can run on both AM and SSB (sideband); they can also run CW (continuous wave) and FM, which is how you get your favorite music when the iPod dies and the CD is scratched. HAM also covers the frequency ranges many refer to as HF, UHF, and VHF.

Not only does HAM have power output and type of transmission over CBs, but HAM operators can also use repeaters. A repeater does just what it says, it repeats a signal. It is basically a tower tuned to a frequency that just sends out whatever signal you send it. You can also chain repeaters, which makes it possible to bounce a signal around the world. While we are talking repeaters, if a repeater has the capability, you can even make a phone call with your HAM unit. However, you usually need to know the password, and repeaters with that capability are becoming more and more scarce thanks to cell phones.

The Yaesu 2800M (current model equivalent FT-2900R) is a powerful mobile (Jeep-based) unit that boasts up to 65 watts of transmitting power (75 watts for current model).

If HAM is so great, why aren’t more people using them? Well, before 2007 licenses required knowing Morse code. While you don’t need to know Morse code anymore for all licenses, there is still a test to get a license and a fee to take the test. Once you’ve taken the test, the hardware is more complicated than a CB and often more expensive. And, you can’t legally talk to your buddies with CBs from a HAM radio, so you’d need to have both in the Jeep.

Icom F3001/F4001 is typically called a UHF or VHF radio. The one shown operates between 151 MHz and 154 MHz and requires no license or special training to use. HAM operators can communicate with this type of radio legally.

Frequency: 144.0 MHz-148.0 MHz (most popular range)
Max power: 1,500 watts
Average range: Up to 50 miles (no repeater)
Use for: Jeep-to-Jeep, Jeep-to-base, Jeep-to-home
Not good for: The guy who hates protocols and numbers

Cell Phones
Cell phones are probably the best understood of these communications devices since just about everybody and their grandmother has one and uses them every day. However, there is a lot of discussion out on the trails as to which carrier is the best one to have when wheeling.

A GSM phone with T-Mobile and AT&T SIM cards in the foreground.

There are two major types of cellular services in the USA—Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) and Global System for Mobile communication (GSM) networks. Verizon and Sprint use CDMA, while AT&T and T-Mobile use GSM. If that doesn’t clear it up for you, GSM phones will typically have a Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) card, while a CDMA phone won’t. A SIM card can be a good thing to have because if you kill your phone out in the boonies, it’s as easy as getting another phone that accepts your SIM to get up and running again. No SIM means a trip to the nearest store, which might not be so close. Also, most of the world outside the USA runs on GSM, not CDMA.

As for whether or not you have service in a certain area depends on lots of factors. Cell phones rely on the phone being able to “see” a tower, so whether or not you have service comes down to a tower being in range of wherever you are at the time. CDMA towers have three times the effective range of a GSM tower, so you might think automatically CDMA wins. But there are more GSM towers than CDMA towers across the USA. In the end, it comes down to many other factors such as the height of the tower, the power output of the tower, the directional characteristics of the tower’s antenna array (which way it is pointing), and more. Basically if you are looking for a cell phone to take wheeling, ask guys who spend time in that area what works best and go with that.

If you are looking to send emails and text messages while out wheeling, don’t go getting too hung up on the “G” all the phone companies are pushing. The “G” in 2G, 3G, and 4G only stands for Generation and has different meanings for what the actual speed is depending on what bands your phone can send and receive on and what the nearby towers are capable of. We normally go wheeling to get away from that kind of stuff, but again, if it is important to you, ask the guys who go where you do what works for them.

There are also range extenders for cell phones. First off, those little wire stickers that you are supposed to put by your battery don’t work, don’t waste your money. Some cell phones have a port where you can plug in an external antenna and that does work to some degree, but the best solution is an external power amplifier. An external range extender will require being wired to the Jeep’s power and will have an antenna that goes on the window or the roof. Prices range from $150 to around $300.

Wilson Electronics Cellphone Range Booster (magnet-mount antenna not shown on roof).

Frequency: 850 MHz, 900MHz, 1800MHz, 1900MHz (GSM); 850 MHz, 1900MHz (CDMA)
Max power: 500 milliwatts
Average range of tower: 40km radius (GSM); 120km radius (CDMA)
Use for: ET phone home (if there is signal)
Not good for: The guy who wants to escape civilization


Wilson Antenna
Rock Island, IL 61201
Cobra Electronics
Chicago, IL 60707
Wilson Electronics Inc.
Icom America
Yaesu USA

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