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Backcountry Communications

"What radios are most people using on the trails?"

It's a pretty common question. The blunt answer is: most aren't.

"So what radio should I get?" Well.. it depends.

There are so many different types available, each with its own purpose, strengths, and drawbacks. Each purpose requires its own specific type of hardware, and in many cases, specific licensing. Ultimately your decision should start with what you want to use it for: communication in a group? Long range? Staying in touch with other industrial traffic on the backroads?

The sections here will cover different types of radios most commonly used in the backcountry - requirements, strengths, limitations, etc.

Resource Road Radio

In 2015, BC started rolling out the Resource Road Radio Program province-wide. Previously, many active FSRs used the operating company's own leased frequencies, leaving other road users unsure in advance of what channels they would need to monitor for traffic. The RR project created a standardized set of 35 road channels for use on public FSRs throughout the province, along with standardized protocol and signage. This allows FSR users to have their radios pre-loaded with all 35 RR channels and 5 "loading" channels, and easily switch the appropriate one when entering an FSR.

It's important to note that it is only legal to transmit on these channels using a certified and licensed "land mobile" ("commercial" or "business") radio. The license is available by submitting an application and license fee ($42 annually, prorated) to ISED, and only a qualified person or radio shop is allowed to program them. Most shops can assist you in submitting the license application, and will program the assigned channels for minimal cost or for free.

Outside of a land mobile radio, it is also only legal to program the channels for monitoring in a radio that is incapable of transmitting on them - specifically, a "true" ham radio that is restricted to transmitting within the ham bands. It is not legal to enter these frequencies into "unlocked" radios such as Baofengs and other Chinese radios.

Yes, we understand it's "a safety thing". That doesn't "make it okay" to use them illegally, when nobody is restricted from BEING legal: anyone can pick up a land mobile radio, get the license, and be golden (an older Icom can be had for $150 or less). Or pick up a scanner and listen to anything you want.

Amateur Radio

Amateur or "ham" radio is the most popular radio service for backcountry communications in BC, due it its potential range, higher power than license-exempt devices, variety of features, and the ability to use repeaters.

As with other radio services, while anyone can listen freely, a license is required to transmit in the ham bands. A basic ham license can be obtained by passing a course put on by a local radio club, but all you really need to do is pass the exam, and your license is then good for life. You can study online at sites like hamstudy.com, or by working through practice exams on ISED's website. A list of examiners can be found there as well, and while they're allowed to charge a small fee to cover expenses, most will administer the exam for free. The BC Ham Radio group on Facebook also has links to other resources for self-study, announcements of clubs that are running online courses, and examiners that will conduct the test online for free.

The regulations surrounding the types of radios hams may use are pretty lax; while you would normally want an actual amateur radio for the ability to directly program frequencies, you may also use land mobile (aka "commercial") radios, as well as "unlocked" radios like Baofengs and other offshore brands.

While it's commonly referred to as "VHF", there are actually ranges of frequencies set aside for hams in nearly every band. In the VHF (Very High Frequency, 30-300MHz) band, hams are allocated 50-54MHz (6m wavelength), 144-148MHz (2m), and 222-225MHz (1.25m). Other common frequency bands for hams to use are 28-29.7MHz (10m HF, or High Frequency) and 420-450MHz (70cm UHF, or Ultra High Frequency). Your basic Canadian ham license allows you to use these and others.

The ability to use repeaters to extend your contact range is one of the primary benefits of ham radio over other services. Some can link world-wide via Internet connections, others allow you to place phone calls. We recommend downloading the RepeaterBook app to your phone or tablet; it works offline and can use the built-in GPS to find your location and show you the nearest repeaters to you.

Off-roaders around North America commonly use 146.460MHz as their primary contact frequency. 146.520MHz is the designated "national calling frequency" in North America and the best option to make initial contact with someone else. It's good etiquette to move to another frequency for chit-chat once contact has been made, but you want to familiarize yourself with which frequencies are designated for other uses (repeaters, APRS, CW, etc.)

It's important to note that a ham license does not allow you to use land mobile frequencies such as the RR (Resource Road) channels; transmitting on those requires the relevant license from ISED (which can usually be obtained through a radio shop that sells and programs land mobile radios). It's only legal to access those channels on a licensed land mobile ("commercial") radio, or a radio that is incapable of transmitting on them (ie. no Baofengs or "modded" ham radios).

Useful links:

License-Exempt Devices

In general, ALL radio transmitters require a license of one kind or another for legal operation. The exceptions are known as "license-exempt devices", transmitters that are limited in output power, signal type, and locked to frequencies specific to their purpose. These include things like cordless phones, garage door openers, RC cars/boats/planes, WiFi systems, and so on.

Off-the-shelf radios like CBs and FRS/GMRS (the Cobra, Motorola, Uniden, etc. "walkie talkies" you can find almost anywhere) also fall under the "license-exempt" category. They all have a few things in common: low power, preset channels, and fairly limited range. You can also buy any of them, slap them in your rig, and start yapping.

CB (Citizen's Band) has one advantage in that vehicle-mounted models can use an external antenna for better range. The low-frequency AM signal carries well at night and under the right conditions, you can use atmospheric "skip" to talk to people hundreds or thousands of miles away. CB isn't as popular in hilly areas like the BC South Coast, where range is limited by terrain, but it's still widely used in other areas where flatter land allows the signal to travel. Used radio/antenna packages can be had fairly cheap on eBay and Craigslist. Look for a model with SSB (Single Sideband) if you really want to get some range out of your comms.

FRS (Family Radio Service) and GMRS (General Mobile Radio Service) handhelds come in a wide range of prices and (claimed) range. Some can receive WX (weather alert radio), have a flashlight, are waterproof, have regular broadcast FM radio reception, and so on. The (claimed) range on pretty much all of them assumes line-of-sight to the receiving radio, under perfect conditions. These are handy for traveling in a group, but the UHF signal doesn't go over hills or around corners well, so range will be more limited on many of the twisted, winding roads, especially on the South Coast. Nevertheless, they're generally cheap and easy to obtain, and I usually recommend finding them in three- or four-packs so you always have extras for others in your group - after all, ANY radio is better than NO radio.

Satellite Communications

Satellite communication could have a page all to itself, but for our purposes here we'll try to summarize the different options.

Satellite phones and internet hotspots are cool, but very expensive, both in terms of hardware and for monthly access plans (other than single-use beacons, you're not going to find anything that DOESN'T require a recurring plan), so we'll leave that out for now.

Personal Locator Beacons are single-use devices with no subscription fee; you buy one, register it, and then just hit the SOS button if you're ever in trouble. Not a bad idea to carry one in the bush, but not the most flexible option.

Many people now choose to carry satellite messaging devices. The most well-known names in this field are InReach and Spot, along with other relative newcomers such as ZOLEO and BivvyStick. 

InReach is probably the most popular overall, with models that include a GPS navigation display and the ability to type in random messages directly from the device. They can also link to an app on your phone or tablet to allow sending and receiving messages and locations through that device. InReach uses the Iridium satellite network, which has excellent coverage and reliability.

Spot is also very popular, with devices that range from dedicated tracking units to full-on text messengers (complete with built-in QWERTY keyboard on the Spot X). Spot uses the Globalstar network, which in recent years has had some heavily-publicized issues with coverage and communication - something to look into if a Spot device is in your plans.

Both InReach and Spot can update your position on a regular basis on a map for anyone to view your position 

ZOLEO fits another gap between these devices: it's simpler, with no built-in display or keyboard, at a substantially lower price point than InReach or Spot. The device itself has an SOS button that will call for help and inform two emergency contacts, as well as a "check-in" button that will send a pre-defined "I'm okay" message to up to five contacts, along with your current location if you choose. ZOLEO also uses an app on your phone to send and receive messages, with a couple of significant differences from the other options:

1. The ZOLEO app uses cellular and WiFi by default to send and receive messages, falling back to the satellite device if the others aren't available. This allows seamless text and email messaging with anyone in your phone's contact list.

2. ZOLEO gives you a dedicated phone number for as long as your account is active: you can pass this number out to friends, family, or anyone you want to be able to get in touch (even put it on a business card), and they can message you at any time. InReach also gives you a messaging number, but people can't text you blindly on it; you have to message them first so they can reply, and if you don't use it for a period of time, the number goes back into a pool and you'll have a different number next time.

People like to praise ham radio for backcountry "emergency" use because of the ability to use repeaters to extend your range, but there are lots of areas of BC that are out of range of those repeaters, and even if you can hit one, it still relies on someone listening at the other end. Satellite messengers are the ultimate in backcountry safety, allowing you to send a message or summon help at the push of a button from almost anywhere in the world.

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Backcountry Radio: The Best Of Both Worlds

To date, the decision of which type of VHF radio to get has been a toss-up: for industrial communications, you need a radio that carries the Resource Road channels. If you only want to receive, ham radio will suffice, as most models can receive well outside the ham band. But if you want to talk to the big rigs - call your KMs, for example - you need a land mobile radio (also called a “commercial” radio) and the proper license to go with it.

Okay, so that’s easy enough… then how do you talk to your buddies on the trail? Well, you can go with license-exempt options like limited-range GMRS walkie-talkies or good ol’ CB for trail chatter. If you’re a licensed radio amateur, you can get your regular ham channels pre-programmed into your commercial radio, but otherwise, you’re running separate radios for road traffic and group chatter.

Some wheelers have long argued for one radio that could do both… and now we can offer that!

With a LOT of help from our Corporate Sustaining Member, Vernon Communications Ltd, we have applied for, and received, our own 4WDABC licensed frequency that is now a part of Appendix RR of the ISED spectrum: in short, if you license your land mobile radio for RR channels, you now get the 4WDABC channel for convenient backroads communications in your groups as well.

This greatly simplifies all-in-one backcountry communications for off-roaders province wide! One radio, one license, no course or test required.

In compliance with ISED regulations, we’re not giving the frequency details out publicly; for the time being, it will be provided via Letter of Authorization to 4WDABC members, which you can then include with your license application to ISED for Appendix RR and B1.

To request your Letter of Authorization, please complete the form at https://bit.ly/4wdabcradiochannels

UPDATE: ISED has authorized the use of "light-mobile licensing" for RR and 4WDABC channel use. This includes a simplified online form that makes it easier both for users to fill out, and for ISED to process. Details on using this method will be included with your LOA for the 4WDABC channel.