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Communications 101

Written by  Taft Babbit
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It doesn't matter if you're few hours or a few days from home, the ability to communicate with others can bring added enjoyment to your adventures and greatly increases safety. Radio communication while on the trail comes in many forms. In this article we will focus on the three most common types of radio communication available to you: the Family Radio Service (FRS), Citizen Band radio (CB), and Amateur Radio also known as HAM Radio. The first thing to understand is that each of these use the same basic technology as the AM / FM radio in your car. It’s all radio waves. What makes each type a little different is the power you can transmit with and the frequencies they use. As you dial up or down on your car radio you might use the term ‘radio stations’, but a radio station is simply transmitting on a particular frequency, for example 105.1 FM.
Here are a couple of other concepts to consider before we discuss each option in more detail. Radio waves travel at the speed of light, so there is virtually no delay in most situations. Radio waves also travel in 'line of sight'. This means the more obstacles between you and the one are communicating with, the more interference you will experience. Radio waves can penetrate objects, but different objects will require more or less power to penetrate. The type of radio wave also determines how well it will penetrate objects. The last thing to note is that antennas make a difference. There is a huge difference between transmitting using 5 watts of power with a cheap antenna and transmitting 5 watts of power with a great antenna.

Family Radio Service or FRS (also called two-way radios) is a simple solution for very basic communication needs. FRS radios generally cost from $50 to $200 and they do not require a license to operate. FRS radios transmit using .5 watts, which by radio standards is very low. This is why in real world scenarios you should only expect to be effective with FRS at ranges of a mile or two or less. The packaging might tell you the range is much more and in very good or perfect conditions it might be true, but don’t count on it. FRS radios are very common and have a limited set of 22 channels. Don’t be surprised if you hear others talking on the same channel you are using. One of you will simply need to move to another channel or enable the 'privacy' features on your radio. FRS radios use FM frequencies which are good. FM frequencies are clearer than AM frequencies (think AM radio stations vs. FM radio stations).

Citizen Band or CB Radio is a very common form of communication among truckers and off-roaders. CB radios generally cost from $80 to $200 and also do not require a license to operate. CB radios transmit using a maximum (legal) 4 watts of power, providing greater range than FRS radios. Generally speaking, one can expect about 3-5 miles of range using CB in good conditions. However, CB radios use AM frequencies which are more subject to interference. CB radios also use the concept of channels and most modern CBs offer 40 channels. CB is by far the most common form of radio communication in the off-road community.

Amateur Radio or HAM Radio is no longer for old men in basements with outdated technology. HAM radio has kept up with technological advancements and has a lot to offer. HAM radios generally cost from $120 to $1000 and do require a license to operate. Obtaining your license is now easier than ever. The test is 35 questions and is quite easy. You do not need to know Morse code to obtain your license. The fee for the test is about $15, and your license is good for 10 years.
HAM radios transmit using 5 watts up to 1000 watts depending on the radio you purchase. These radios can easily reach 40 miles or more. HAM radio does not use the concept of channels like FRS and CB radios do. Instead, HAM uses specific frequencies. So instead of tuning your radio to channel 12, like you would on FRS and CB, you tune your radio to a frequency like 147.555; this provides for greater flexibility and the ability to find a completely private channel. HAM radio can also use repeaters to make them even more useful. A repeater is an antenna that listens on a certain frequency and repeats what it hears on another. This greatly increases your range, in some cases up to several hundred miles. There are hundreds of repeaters across the United States. Repeaters can also be linked connecting one repeater to another. Using linked repeaters, HAM radios can communicate all across the country.

There are additional features available to HAM radio which we won’t go into in detail, but here are a few of the key ones: APRS – This is a feature that allows HAM operators to use the radio to include GPS information in the signal. Using this feature and GPS devices you are able to see on the where others are located. AutoPatch – This feature, which is available on some repeaters, allows the HAM radio to connect to the public telephone system and make a normal phone call. So you can be out in the backcountry, connect to an autopatch repeater and call your loved ones. Editor's Note: In times of emergency, HAM radios are almost always the only method of wireless communication that works. When cell phone networks become overloaded, HAM radios will still work fine. There is much more to HAM radio that can make for a lifetime hobby but we will save that for future articles.
In summary, consider what your needs are and get the radio equipment that will meet or exceed those needs. In best case scenarios, communication can greatly enhance the enjoyment of your adventures and in the worst case scenarios communication can be a life saver. Happy transmissions!

Taft Babbit is a technology professional and avid blogger. He's very active on FJCruiserForums.com and can be found online at http://mountainthinking.blogspot.com/

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