There is, always has been, and always will be a lot of confusion and misunderstanding when it comes to radio communication. That’s the nature of the FCC, and all other federal regulatory agencies for that matter. You might be thinking, “I’m not confused… I turn my radio on to 103.7 and listen to Nickelback all day, and I couldn’t be happier!” Okay first of all, my condolences to you. However, we’re talking about two-way radios, and we’re using them out in the dirt!
This article aims to discuss the common options for off-road radios, and a few rules and things to keep in mind when using them. Yes, the article is long. You guys know me by now… I write long posts, long articles, long emails, talk a lot, yap on the radio too much, blah blah blah (that’s me)… but, there is a lot to be said about radios.. Seriously, it’s ridiculous. You’ll see.
Some Quick Sciency Stuff
Two-way radios are nothing more than radios that can transmit (one way) and receive (the other way). They convert audio signals into radio waves and send them out through the air for all to hear, and they listen for other radio waves, which are then converted back to audio signals for you to hear. It’s that simple! Radio communication has been around since the late 1800’s, if you can believe it, and it’s only getting better and more efficient!
The Radio Spectrum
The Radio Spectrum is the range of frequencies on which radios can operate. The entire spectrum can be broken up into “bands”, which define a smaller range of frequencies. In our case, the radios we use for off-road communication most likely fall into three bands: High Frequency (HF), Very High Frequency (VHF), and Ultra High Frequency (UHF). Original, I know. There is also Super High Frequency (SF) and Extremely High Frequency (EHF), Medium Frequency (MF) and all the "lows" as well.
In the radio world, the term “frequency” refers to the number of waves per second of a given signal.
Frequency Vs. ChannelMost two-way radio users have probably heard these terms before. You may have said to your friend or family member, “Hey, go to channel 13” or “We’ll be on frequency 467.6875”. In the civilian realm of radio communications, these two are essentially the same thing.
We know that a “frequency” refers to the number of waves per second, but how does that apply to our radios? Well, when you tune your radio to a specific frequency, you are telling your radio to transmit using a specific number of radio waves per second, and also listen for other signals that share that same number of waves per second.A “channel” is actually just a slot for a specific frequency. Think of it like a speed dial function on a telephone. You’d program your phone so that when you press the number 1, a specific phone number is dialed, but you don’t have to remember that phone number! Channels on a two-way radio work the same way. For example, on programmable radios, you could designate an open channel slot, name it whatever you want, and program a specific frequency to be used when operating in that channel. Other radios are pre-programmed and not modifiable, and the channels still correspond to a specific frequency, but you cannot change them.
In our example above, “channel 13” corresponds to “frequency 467.6875”.
Personal Radio Services (PRS)
CB (Citizens Band, HF)
CB radios have been in the game for a while, and for a long time, they were the gold standard for off-road communication (arguably, they still are). All CB radios come pre-programmed with channels 1-40 for your choosing. As described above, these channels actually correspond to a specific range of frequencies; however, a CB radio is not programmable and you are confined to the range that the radio is designed to operate in. You do not need any license to use a CB radio. They operate in the High Frequency (HF) band and the intended use is for personal and business, regardless of age or technical qualifications. The typical CB radio is limited to a transmit power of 4 watts.
Most CB radios are of “mobile” design, meaning they are installed and mounted inside a vehicle, with a detachable microphone and a separate antenna. While “handheld” CB radios do exist, their range is inferior and they are, in my opinion, quite expensive for what you get.
FRS (Family Radio Service, UHF)
You know those walkie talkie packs that you can buy just about anywhere? Those are FRS radios. You probably won’t ever see that acronym on the packaging, because manufacturers don’t want to make things too complicated, but it’s what they are. FRS radios come pre-programmed with designated channels, just like CB radios, but in a completely different frequency band (UHF instead of HF).
FRS radios can also be operated without a license. Like CB, the FCC has restricted the transmit power of FRS radios to a very low wattage (2 watts). These types of radios are not programmable, and are confined to channels 1-22, and cannot use a detachable antenna.
FRS radio range will be limited by the low transmit power and permanently affixed antennas, and even worse in any kind of obstructive terrain.
GMRS (General Mobile Radio Service, UHF)
GMRS radios actually use the same exact channels as FRS radios. The difference is that you need a license to use them. This is because GMRS radios are not limited to such low transmit power like FRS and CB, allowing them to transmit farther, and therefore making them an ideal option for off-road communications.
In addition to the standard channels 1-22, the GMRS system introduces a capability that we have not yet discussed… repeaters. Without going into too much detail, a repeater is a physical station, usually positioned somewhere high up with little obstruction. The station listens for incoming transmissions on a specific channel (input), and then re-broadcasts it on another channel (output), usually with higher power. Repeaters are useful for long(ish) range communication, and can be found throughout the country.A GMRS license comes with a call sign. By federal law, when using GMRS radios, you are required to periodically broadcast your call sign during normal radio use. One nice thing about the license is that anyone in your family can use it - that way you don’t need a separate license for you, your wife, your seven kids, your dog, your grandma, your uncle and your girlfriend… Wait, what? Fun fact: my GMRS call sign is WRJS426.
GMRS radios are available in both mobile and handheld design. Handheld GMRS radios are typically limited to approximately 5 watts of output power, while mobile GMRS radios can transmit up to 50 watts. GMRS radios can be used with detachable antennas, which opens up the possibility of increasing range.
When using your GMRS radio on channels 1-22, anyone with an FRS radio can communicate with you on those channels. However, remember that FRS radios are limited to low wattage, meaning they cannot transmit as far, so they might be able to hear you, but you might not hear them. Something to consider when out with a group.
MURS (Multi-Use Radio Service, VHF)
Less common but worth mentioning, MURS is sometimes described as one of the best kept secrets in personal and family radio communications. MURS radios are very similar to FRS radios, in the sense that they are license free, handheld, limited to 2 watts, and confined to a specific range of frequencies. So what’s the big deal?
The biggest advantage of MURS over FRS is that you can use a detachable antenna, allowing for much more flexibility and options when it comes to outfitting your radio for different uses. The other advantage to MURS, especially in the off-road world, is that with VHF frequencies, signals will typically bend over hills better. Partner that with a roof-mounted antenna on your vehicle and you might just get better range off road than GMRS. One final advantage of MURS that is often overlooked is the fact that most people are using FRS or GMRS channels, and therefore MURS channels are usually less busy. With that said, a lot of large department stores use MURS, so you might hear somebody say “Cleanup on aisle four!”
One thing to note about MURS radios is that many of them come as pictured, with no screen, not many buttons and seemingly no features. That is because they are only designed to work on 5 different frequencies, at a set wattage, and are common amongst businesses with a need for a large number of radios for a team of people (construction, retail, etc...).
Basic PRS RulesThe four radio services we’ve covered so far are considered part of the FCC’s Personal Radio Services (PRS), which are described as short-range, low-power radio communications using devices that operate much like walkie-talkies. To operate on any of these services, you must only use a radio that is designed and programmed for the channels / frequencies of that service, and such a radio cannot be modified or capable of transmitting outside of the service frequency band.
In other words, to use MURS, you need a MURS radio. To use CB, you need a CB radio. Because GMRS and FRS radios share a frequency band, you can cross communicate, but with rules. Remember when I mentioned the transmit power limits? If you have a GMRS radio, you must have a GMRS license to use it, because of its power capabilities. You can talk to people with FRS, and they can talk back. However, you must abide by GMRS rules when using a GMRS radio, even when everyone else in your group has FRS radios. That means technically you must announce your callsign accordingly, and you must follow the restrictions on transmit power depending on the channel you are using.Not too bad, right? Now, a quick warning.. If you continue reading, you may end up throwing your computer out the window, running to the garage, grabbing the biggest hammer you can find, and… well, you know the rest of that story. Let’s talk about ham radios.
Amateur Radio Service (ham radio)First, some etymology. What most people commonly refer to as a “ham radio” is actually not technically called that. The term “ham” is an informal name for an amateur radio operator, dating back to the early 1900’s, and possibly even before that. Over the years, it has become somewhat of an accepted label for the amateur radio service and the equipment used.
We discussed the fact that the PRS radios are confined to a single band (range of frequencies) on which they may operate. Amateur radio operators are allotted 29 different bands, some of which are pretty widespread! However, you must have an amateur radio license to use ANY of the frequencies within those 29 bands.The great thing about amateur radio is that you don’t have to have a specific device. You can buy them, you can build them, and you can modify them. In order to operate on amateur radio frequencies, you’d need a radio that is capable of transmitting and receiving on user-designated frequencies, and NOT just channels. There are no pre-programmed “channels” in the amateur radio world.
By the way, the maximum transmit power for amateur radio is 1500 watts. That’s literally 375x greater than CB, and 30 times greater than GMRS. Think about the potential.
Here’s where things get complicated…
Ham Radios on PRS Channels
We’ve all seen the $30 Baofeng radios that you can buy on Amazon, literally in bulk if you wanted to. They’re cheaply made, but they work, arguably well. They are widely recommended for off-road use due to their portability, price point, and programmability. They can be used to operate on amateur radio frequencies. You may have seen them referred to as “dual band” radios, meaning they can operate on two different bands, usually UHF and VHF, which covers both GMRS/FRS and MURS, along with many amateur frequencies..However, the question we all have is this: Can they be used on CB, FRS, GMRS and MURS channels / frequencies?
The answer is yes… they can… but no, they can’t.
Let’s go back to PRS for a second. PRS requires that the radio operating within those services is designated and programmed to operate only within the frequency band of that service. CB for CB, MURS for MURS, and so on. That means that because those Baofeng radios are capable of operating outside of the PRS frequency bands, they are federally illegal for use on CB, FRS, GMRS and MURS. Actually, we can take CB out of the equation now, because most handheld “ham radios” don’t even operate in the CB frequency range at all.
So, again, these radios are technically capable of operating on FRS, GMRS and MURS, but not legally.
FCC Certification / Type AcceptanceSimply put, any radio operating on FRS, GMRS or MURS must have a “Part 95” acceptance by the FCC. That means that the radio must be certified under CFR Title 47 Chapter 1 Subchapter D Part 95... What the heck? Well, in order to be granted that “acceptance”, the radio must not be capable of transmitting outside of those bands. Those $30 Baofeng radios are NOT “Part 95” certified, they are likely “Part 90” certified, which allows them to be used for commercial use, but not on PRS. Because amateur radio does not have much in the realm of equipment certifications, these radios can be used on all amateur bands. Amateur radio operators may use any equipment certified under any other rule part.
So who can use those Baofeng dual band radios?Licensed amateur radio operators, on amateur frequencies. That’s it.. Nobody else. If you don’t have a “ham license”, you can’t legally use a Baofeng dual band radio. At all. Ever.
Now, with that said, Baofeng does make some GMRS and MURS radios, which are actually FCC type accepted for use on those services. However, those radios are not programmable, and are confined to the parameters of their respective radio services, just like any other walkie talkies.So why do we always see them being used in off road clubs and outings? Because most people aren’t aware of what we just discussed. They don’t know the rules, the type acceptance and the licensing requirements. Manufacturers and retailers of such radios are NOT going to tell you the rules. They want you to buy their stuff. It’s as simple as that. Another possible reason is that they don't necessarily care.
You’re probably wondering now if the feds are going to kick down your door for using your Baofeng radio without a license. The answer is probably not. But maybe! It depends on how much of a nuisance you are. I don’t think the FCC is interested in Joe Schmoe from Wild West Jeeps in rural Nevada who is using his Baofeng radio on GMRS frequencies during club outings. They’ve got bigger fish to fry. However, your mileage may vary. Just something to keep in mind.
Emergency UseEmergencies are the one big exception to all of these rules. In a real emergency, you can (within reason) use any frequency your radio is capable of operating on, without a license. With that said, you’d better be prepared to justify your use. In a life threatening situation, it would be appropriate to start calling for help on any and all channels and frequencies that you have. One thing to keep in mind is that aside from dedicated emergency response channels, no one is under any obligation to answer your call.
So What Radio Do I Buy?Yes.
Just kidding, I actually have some insight for those who are looking to buy their first radio for off-road communication. I won’t be recommending brands though.If you don’t mind paying for a license (it’s $30 now, for 10 years) and following some basic rules, I recommend getting a mobile (car mounted) and/or handheld (portable) GMRS radio that is capable of repeater use. You would then be able and allowed to use the repeater networks in your area, communicate with walkie talkies, and you’ll have good clarity and decent range, especially with a car-mounted antenna and mobile radio.
If you don’t want to get a license, you can use MURS and/or CB, and you can increase your range by using a good antenna setup. You can also use FRS, but remember that you won’t have options for detachable antennas.If you want the greatest range, capabilities and most options, your best bet is to get an amateur radio license. Just keep in mind that you will only be able to communicate with other amateur radio operators, and only on amateur frequencies. In my opinion, amateur radio is less ideal for off-road club use.
In the above image, there are two handheld radios. The yellow one is a GMRS radio, while the other is a UHF/VHF dual band radio, or informally, a "ham radio". In their current state, they talk to each other. The dual band is programmed with GMRS/FRS channel 15. Remember, it is not legal to transmit on GMRS/FRS channels with this type of radio.
You've seen it... right there on the packaging... "Range of up to 40 miles!" Forget it. The sellers use this as a marketing tactic because 40 miles is scientifically attainable.. if you're in an area with zero obstruction, no sunlight, no dust in the air, no trees, no bushes, no bugs, no moisture, no aliens, no hills, no other signals, no one using any brain power, okay you get the point. For our off-road group runs, you can reasonably expect MAYBE half a mile of good quality reception, up to a few miles if both radios are in a reasonably flat, unobstructed area.
It sounds good, right? You enable a code and you have privacy. Nope! No privacy for you! Also known as CTCSS or DCS codes, privacy codes work like this: all radios in a group can hear each other on the same frequency or channel, but also, anyone else on there who's NOT in your group can also hear you, and talk to you. Privacy codes prevent YOUR radio from hearing others, unless they have the same privacy code enabled. They do not make your chatter private. The idea is that when turned on, your radio filters out all other radio transmissions that do not have the code enabled. This allows your group to hear each other, but no one else. Just keep in mind, that everyone can still hear you, as long as they have their privacy codes turned off.
Here are a few considerations to take when using your radio, no matter what type/service, within a group of other users, such as a Jeep club run!
- Conduct a radio check before heading out to make sure there are no issues.
- Group leaders should ensure that radios are placed strategically to ensure the best spread of communication.
- Try to choose a channel / frequency that is not currently in use. Conduct a test call to check if another group is using it.
- Keep transmissions short and to the point, unlike my blog articles.
- If someone relays information to you over the radio, acknowledge that you heard them.
- If adjustable, keep transmit power limited to what is necessary to cover the group.
- If everyone has the capability, use a privacy code to block out other transmissions.
One last thing about rules... and breaking them. In this article, I told you that using those Baofeng radios on any of the PRS bands is illegal. With that said, I may or may not always abide by that law. If you are in a group with mixed types of radios, and you decide to use a random frequency, PLEASE use one in the GMRS/FRS band... this accomplishes two things: 1) Your GMRS/FRS people will be able to join; and 2) You're not tying up an amateur frequency with a bunch of unlicensed people. That doesn't sit well in the ham community.
LinksHere are some links that I have used in the past to gain the knowledge that I have shared with you in this article. Some of the information below will expand on topics I have covered.
Thank you Mike Morgan, Aaron Dykstra and JimmyLee Smith for letting me use your photos!
Also, I (sometimes) admit when I'm wrong... if anything in this article is incorrect, please let me know and I will do the research and update as necessary!