By, Stu Olson N7QJP
The least common radio that is also ideal for off-road travel is Amateur radio, or "ham radio" as it is often called. I have been a licensed amateur radio operator for about 25 years and rely heavily on it while I am off-roading in Arizona. My vehicle has several radios that cover a variety of frequencies and bands. It is a rare day that I cannot reach home on at least one of them. My wife and one of my children also have their license. If I need to get in touch with someone at home and they are not answering, I can always contact a fellow radio-club member to assist with a quick relay. A ring on the phone will either bring my wife to the radio, or it will result in a message on the answering machine and she can call me later when she gets in. Of course, this is all based on the fact that she is NOT holding down the shotgun seat in my TJ while I am on the trail.
Many of you might be wondering why you should take a test (yes, a FCC license is required to use ham radio and a written test is required) just so you can talk on a radio. Let me give you an example of the potential that ham radio provides. A good friend of mine recently completed a 30 day off-road/camping trip in Utah. His base camp was some 40 miles north of Moab, out in the middle of nowhere. Using his ham radio, he talked with his wife in Phoenix, Az. (she is also a licensed amateur operator) several times each day. He would relay to her his plans for the day, expected trails (she had a copy of them at home) he would be on, and even GPS coordinates when he deemed it necessary. (I am not advocating that you should make it a habit of off-roading alone. However, if you need to, amateur radio can certainly help fill the communications gap.) Oh, did I mention that he was able to reliably talk with his wife using only a 5 watt radio? For those of you who are wondering...no, he did not have to learn Morse Code. He is a member of a radio club that has a linked radio repeater system that spans no less than 6 states here in the Southwest. By using this linked system, he can be four-wheeling near Sacramento, Ca. and chat with me in Phoenix. The quality of the signal is like that of a regular phone conversation. You can find more information about ham radio at http://www.arrl.org .
are two of the radios that I have in my '98 Wrangler.
The Kenwood covers three different ham bands and is primarily designed for use with radio repeaters. There are several linked repeater systems that cover my state to one degree or another. These linked repeater systems extend the range of your radio by relaying your signal from one repeater to the next, similar to the way a cell site works with your cell phone. By doing this, it provides the operator with a range of several hundred miles using only a 5 watt hand-held radio. If you use a 50 watt mobile radio with a good vehicle mounted antenna, the range will increase even further. The 36" tall antenna for this radio is mounted on the right front fender of my Jeep.
The lower radio is the front panel of my Icom 706 radio. The remainder of the radio is located behind the drivers seat on the floor. This radio covers 3-30 MHz, 50-54 MHz, and 144-148 MHz. With it, you can literally talk around the world, around the country, around the state, or just around town. It will also work on repeater systems and offers the operator the use of FM, AM, CW, and SSB (single-sideband) modes of operation.
The main antenna for the Icom radio is an inexpensive 102" stainless steel whip antenna that was donated to me from a CBer. The difference between this antenna and its use in the CB world is that in ham radio use, the antenna must be capable of operating over a very large frequency range. To accomplish this, the antenna is connected to a multi-band automatic antenna coupler that is attached to the right rear fender well in my Wrangler. The antenna coupler's coax cable is connected to the radio and senses the frequency of the transmitted signal. When you change frequency on the radio, the antenna coupler automatically changes and matches the antenna to the correct frequency. By doing this, you are ensured of the best transmit signal possible. (This is the ham radio version of "tuning the antenna".)
You may be wondering about the cost for ham radio? Well, the range is about as broad as is the selection. A good 50 watt mobile radio is priced around the $250 range, with used ones available for $100. The radio equipment in my TJ totals almost $3K. However, this represents a combination of two diverse hobbies all rolled into one.
One last comment on the communication topic; please remember that none of these communication devices are worth carrying unless you have the proper power to operate them. If you carry a phone or portable radio, be sure to carry ample back-up power for it. Check the battery pack before leaving home and if possible, carry a spare battery. You cannot completely rely on your vehicle's battery for powering these devices. What happens if you develop an electrical problem in your vehicle? I hope this article has given you a better perspective on Trail Communications. When making your decision on which "trail comm" tool is best for you, take a look at where you off-road and what it will take to summon help should the need arise. After all, the most basic use for off-road communications is to help ensure the safe return of you and your vehicle.
Enjoy the trails and please TREAD lightly!