A well-known credit card company likes to remind customers that they shouldn’t “leave home without it.” The same is true for communications equipment if you plan to drive off road. Cell phones don’t operate in many remote areas, so you should consider picking up additional gear.
The following information comes from manufacturers or retailers. Keep in mind that performance is affected by numerous factors, including terrain and elevation. Your results may vary.
This is a good time to remind you of the importance of driving in groups and not depending entirely on communication equipment functioning. Going out alone is risky. Having at least one extra vehicle along ensures that you have transportation home should that become necessary.
Personal locator beacon
Lightweight and small enough to fit in your pocket or backpack, the beacon transmits distress and homing signals when activated. A satellite determines the location of the beacon, and transmits the information to authorities. Accuracy is said to be within 110 yards. A PLB has been used to rescue at least one person in the United States since the devices became available in July, 2003. It is mandatory that you register your PLB. It’s fast, easy and free at www.beaconregistration.noaa.gov . When activated, the unique identification code in your PLB is linked to the registration database. The purchase price is about $600.00 but there is no subscription fee.
SPOT (Satellite Personal Outdoor Tracker)
Another beacon-like device just introduced in November 2007, this palm-sized unit uses GPS satellites to acquire its coordinates, which it then feeds to your family, friends, or even a 911 dispatch center. (If in 911 mode, SPOT transmits your coordinates every five seconds.) SPOT can track your movements, and will place calls for non-emergency assistance as well. According to the manufacturer, its battery lasts up to 40 days in tracking mode and four days in 911 mode. The current cost for the unit of $149 to $169 USD is cheaper then a PLB and you receive a lot more functionality but there is a service fee of $9.99 per month or annual fee for $99.99. The corporate web page is http://www.findmespot.com/.
Beacons should be used only during a life-threatening emergency. You’re essentially calling 911, with any number of satellites around the globe picking up your signal. Use with care as you are activating a massive number of resources.
As the name suggests, these phones use satellites to carry your signal. The main players, Iridium and Globalstar, have each deployed a collection of low-earth-orbit satellites to support these phones.
Manufactures claim the phones offer superior sound with minimal dropped calls. If terrain or buildings get in the way, the system is designed to “hand off” the call to an appropriate satellite. Both manufacturers claim to have extensive coverage around the world.
Just recently Globalstar introduced a new Satellite phone in a smaller trim package. As a result the old bulky phones are on sale. Over the next 2 year they are re positioning their satellite configuration. As a result, call service will be spotty with dropped calls – just like the early days of cell service! If you hurry you can get a great deal on an old phone and crappy service. Phones are going for $250 USD with unlimited monthly talk time for $9.95 per month. To learn more, go to http://satellitediscountstore.com:80/globalstar-ultimate-plan.aspx
Amateur radio: A ham radio license gives you access to various bands from shortwave into UHF. VHF frequencies are useful for short to mid range, while the shortwave bands will get you out farther. You need to take a written test to obtain a license, but you no longer need to know Morse Code. For more information, go to www.arrl.org .
Citizens Band: CB offers 40 channels in the 27 MHz portion of the shortwave band. Range typically is one to five miles for the mobile units using an external antenna. Expect shorter range with the hand-held version. Historically, channel 9 was used as a distress frequency, but most other channels are monitored or in use throughout the day. No license is needed to operate CB. Most existing 4-Wheel Drive clubs use CB and you will be expected to have one if you join. I recommend you buy a full size CB with single side band and weather channels. Regardless of what radio you purchase buy a high quality antenna and make sure it is a solid installation. The key to clear communication is in the antenna. The California Association of 4-Wheel Drive Clubs recommends that antenna length be limited to 4 and ½ feet. This is a safety issue. The full length whip (108 inch) antennas can hurt people off road (as the name implies).
FRS/GMRS/MURS: Soon after the CB craze reached its peak in the 1970s, people starting asking for new frequencies to get away from the congestion found there. The FCC responded by opening two UHF bands and one VHF band for private communications.
Most of the radios found in stores today are designed for the Family Radio Service. These low-power (½ watt) handheld units offer 14 channels with a range typically less than a mile. You don’t need a license to operate one of these. Some radios are equipped to handle the additional eight GMRS frequencies as well. GMRS (General Mobile Radio Service) radios are permitted more power (up to 5 watts in a hand-held and up to 50 watts in a mobile radio), and require you to apply for a license. (No exam is required.) The license is $85 and is good for 5 years. They can transmit over greater distances, especially if you have an external antenna and can access a repeater. Information about GMRS repeaters, including their locations, is available on the internet.
MURS (Multi-User Radio Service) radios operate on VHF frequencies with permitted power up to 2 watts and can have a external antenna. They don’t require a license, and don’t appear to be as popular as FRS and GMRS radios.
RINO (Radio Integrated with Navigation for the Outdoors):
A newer concept, these radios combine GPS technology with FRS and GMRS frequencies into one hand-held unit. The radios come with mapping software, and you can download information about new areas using sources like MapSource®. Higher-end models include NOAA weather channels, an electronic compass, and a barometric sensor.
Output power for RINO units is the standard ½ watt for FRS frequencies but may be only 1 watt for GMRS channels. Therefore, your range could be limited to perhaps a mile or so.
Research before you buy
With so many options to choose from, do your research before buying. You can find a wealth of information on the internet. Then turn to a knowledgeable and objective source for any questions. Make sure that person understands where you will be driving and under what conditions you will be operating.
Driving into the wild can be very exhilarating but also very dangerous. Make sure you have reliable communication equipment on board before leaving home.
Tom Severin, President
Badlands Off-Road Adventures, Inc
Make it Fun. Make it Safe.