BC Link — Snowsports 2-Way Radio


This post by WildSnow.com blogger  

Update, 02-17-2014:
BCA Link testing still going well, only gripe is that the radio unit needs a charging/charged indicator. Only indication of charging is on the wall-wart USB power supply LED. Thus, if you want to USB charge from a generic charger or from USB on your computer, you have no way of seeing at a glance if the radio is charged or not (though you can turn it on and look at the battery indicator — if you have the handset attached. I’ve been tending to leave my handset attached to my backpack, so I don’t have that option).

Update, 12-24-2012:
I’ve now got about 10 days using the BC Link radio. Durability so far so good. Battery life is terrific, I did one test that involved leaving the radio switched on for the bulk of 4 days, with moderate use each day. Battery was still going strong at the end of that period. Only gripe is I’d like the radio base unit to indicate when it’s getting a charge, because when you charge from USB other than the provided wall-charger you have no way of knowing if the radio is getting juice. Thus, if you’ve got a defective USB cable or connection (not uncommon) you could merrily be charging along only to find out the next morning you’ve still got a dead battery. At any rate, charge every night and you never need worry about using the radio heavily all day long. (But for battery life insurance, still use good radio technique such as speaking clearly and concisely instead of rambling or fooling around, as well as turning the unit off when not in use.)

This thing is cool. From the plain black-on-black styling to the waterproof connectors, the new BC Link 2-way radio from Backcountry Access reeks of quality and downright functionality. I got one of the first retail units, figured this first-look was appropriate. Field testing commences immediately (see below for some results from later today).

The grand unboxing of BC link. I have a feeling a few of these will be opened Christmas morning.

Grand unboxing of BC link. The sound of heavenly radio transmissions came down from on high as we lifted the lid. I have a feeling a few of these will be opened Christmas morning.

The concept is bold. Instead of trying to match the bloviated “blister pack” FRS/GMRS radio market with a Battlestar Gallactica electronics toy lookalike, BCA came up with an understated black moisture sealed radio that only works with the attached speaker-mic on a dedicated coil cable. Idea is you carry the base unit in your backpack or perhaps a jacket pocket (also has a belt clip if you want to totally geek out). Controls for normal use are on the mic, while you set your background settings (channels, beeps-on-off, etc.) on the base unit.

I’m about as familiar with FRS/GMRS walkie-talkies as you can get (as well as licensed Amateur radio operator KC0FNM). Thus, only surprise here is that without a PTT (push to talk) switch on the base unit, I expected it to be smaller. But the base unit has to carry a fair sized lithium rechargeable battery, which probably drives the form factor.

Link base unit is designed to run inside your backpack, with external handmic providing  enough control for normal use.

Link's base unit is designed to run inside your backpack, with external handmic providing enough control for normal use.

Link handmic (otherwise known as a speaker mic) has necessary controls. Small dial at top right

Link handmic (otherwise known as a speaker mic/microphone) has necessary controls. Small dial at top right is on-off and volume. Lower dial with letters is the channel pre-sets. A series of LEDs at top left indicate the radio being powered up, transmitting, etc.

Speaking of the battery, per current pop electronics you can only charge the BCA Link via USB. This requires the usual USB wall-wart adapter if you want to juice from residential wiring. You can presumably plug directly into your computer, or into whatever source you’re using to feed USB current to say, your smartphone. Mixed emotions about this. In an ideal world, USB would simplify things. But shucks, with a dozen or more different types of USB connectors out there (was this designed by Microsoft?), I still carry a spaghetti mess of cables and adapters, so really, things are just as complicated as in the old days. What is more, I still feel the ideal DC current standardization is the >< 12 volts of automobiles. But that's another story.

Of more importance, you'd better have a good charging strategy for BC Link if you're on a multi-day backcountry skiing trip without electricity. I'll do the official WildSnow begging to BCA for an AA battery pack, but something tells me this won't be forthcoming any time soon. Instead, look to any of the aftermarket auxiliary USB chargers, such as those by Anker and Goal Zero.

Settings
If you’re familiar with Motorola FRS/GMRS radios, changing channels and such on the Link base unit will be easy. It’s done exactly the same way. Ditto for disabling all the annoying beeps and noises these types of walkie-talkies seem to think would make our lives better. The all important LOCK mode is obvious; designated by a graphic on the base unit face: push MENU and OK buttons simultaneously and you get a nice countdown to when the unit is locked. The only thing non-standard is setting the channel memories that correspond to 6 settings on the handmic, switched using a small dial marked with letters A through F. This is too easy. Just get the base unit set to the channel you want, then press the OK button. There you go, you have a pre-set for whatever letter you had the handmic dial set on. (Link comes with pre-sets that will probably become standards, but I’d recommend figuring out a few pre-sets specific to your usual group of backcountry skiers to prevent channel crowding once these radios are in common use.)

Note: There are no FRS/GMRS channels “officaily” designated for various uses, but convention designates channel 1 for general public chat, and channel 20 (with quiet code 22) for emergencies. That said, in most areas the FRS/GMRS channels are NOT monitored in any way that would help you call for help. In reality, channel 1 tends to be overused due to it being the easiest channel to get to on a new radio, as well as being easy to remember. Thus, when setting your radio we recommend not using channel 1. But perhaps keep channel 20 as a setting and don’t use it for day-to-day comm.

Likewise, bear in mind that the FCC requires these types of walkie talkies to lowest power on channels 8 through 14. Thus, when picking channels for general backcountry use it’s advisable to pick a channel from 2-7 or 15-22 (Link transmits at one watt on those channels, 1/2 watt on the other ones). Furthermore, the antenna on this type of radio can be assumed to be tuned to the midrange of frequencies (channels), with performance falling off at either end of the channels. Thus, for a bit of extra umph in your distance range I’d recommend using channels 6,7,15,16,17.

Conversely, if you want to conserve battery and know you’ll always be close to your compadres, try using the Link’s lower power (1/2 watt) channels 8-14. These will perform better than you might think. The Link radio doesn’t have a low/high power setting, so using these channels will significantly extend your battery life if you’re doing much talking. In other words, this is a way of forcing the radio to lower power.

IMPORTANT: To get best performance from any 2-way radio, all users must have their antennas oriented in the same position. Convention for this is to orient your antenna vertically. Since the Link base unit is presumably buried in your backpack, it may end up in a random position (BCA packs will have a radio mount, presumably vertical). I’d recommend all party members figure out a way to carry/mount their radios to the antenna stays somewhat vertical. By the same token, the higher the radio is above the ground the better it will perform.

Water resistance
We’re assuming the Link is robust and “waterproof.” Word from BCA is it conforms to standard IP56. In my research this indicates the unit is sealed against powerful gushing water, but is not immersion proof. From what I see when physically examining the Link, my take is it’ll hold up fine to normal humidity and moisture encountered in backcountry skiing, but might not be the radio for commercial fishing. That said, BCA told me they actually tested the radio at full immersion and it passed. All connections have obvious seals. Both the hand mic and base unit cases are assembled with small, confidence inspiring metal fasteners rather than being snapped together or glued as with toy radios. These fasteners cause us to fantasize about modifications such as a better antenna. Yet again, another story.

Ease of Use
Some of the blister pack FRS/GMRS radios are so loaded with features they become difficult to use unless you’re on them every day. BCA’s approach to this is perfect. In my opinion the Link has enough features for effective use, but by lacking dodads such as scan and VOX it’s much less confusing when you step through the menus. Such features can be useful, especially scan, but simplicity is key if we want radio use to become more common in our sport. Which leads to our next thought.

Safety
Inter-group communication is just as important to avalanche safety as is your beacon or airbag. The 2-way radio enhances such communication to a stunning degree. More, beyond avalanche safety you’ll still find that using walkie talkies can make a huge difference in situation such as navigating complex terrain. Yes, there is indeed a geek factor to these things. Get over it. Hide the Link base-unit in your backpack, discreetly mount the handmic on your pack strap, turn off all the beeps, don’t chatter, and you’ll be able to live with it.

Ergonomics
Base unit is basic. Smaller would be nicer, but whatever. A small lanyard mount on the top enables hanging from the inside of your pack in the recommended vertical position. You could also do this with the included belt-clip if you could find (or mod) a way to attach it. In either case, our testing indicates that to keep the unit vertical you need more than just a basic attachment inside your backpack. I rigged up some bungie cords that stabilize the position of the radio in one of my packs. BCA backpacks will of course have a dedicated Link mounting system.

Handmic (BCA offical name “Smart Mic”) is designed to locate on your pack strap with the coil-cord feeding up over your shoulder, operated with either hand. I find the PTT (push-to-talk) is a bit awkward to press, but I’m getting used to it. Looking down at the Smart Mic, you can see the volume/power dial as well as the pre-set channel selector dial with its A through F markings. The movement of both dials is adequately attenuated to prevent accidental changes. Nonetheless, per good radio technique glance down when transmitting to make sure you’re on the correct pre-set, and check your volume once in a while by calling for a radio check. (Some 2-way radios have a volume self check. Link doesn’t have this as an obvious option. Still, you can do a volume self-check by turning on any of your weather channels, which will result in either static noise or voice you can check. I’d recommend programming your local weather broadcast to one of the pre-sets, perhaps the last one, F.)

The base unit has no charging indicator in the LCD. Instead, the light on the wall wart goes red when charging and green when done. To me this situation is a big detriment, as I can see myself charging the Link in a variety of situations when the wall wart is not used. Indeed, if BCA is keeping a list of recommended improvements, let me recommend “charging indicator in LCD.”

One other ergonomics take: We really like the LED flashlights built into some FRS/GMRS radios. Carrying two light sources during big backcountry trips is an important safety consideration (main headlamp and some sort of tiny auxiliary light). Link LCD can be used as a light source by pressing the MENU button. It’s dim and turns off after 3 seconds, but would be adequate to illuminate swapping batteries in a headlamp, or finding a lost hat in your sleeping bag at 2:00 in the morning.

Weight
Big consideration, especially for those of you who presently don’t carry 2-way radios. The better blister pack FRS/GMRS radios we use weigh around 7.3 ounces, 207 grams with lithium AA batteries installed and a set of spares. (They’re easily waterproofed by carrying in a ziplock, though doing so is a bother. Waterproof blister pack radios are available, and weigh a bit more. ). Link total on our scale (handmic and base) weighs 11.4 ounces, 322 grams. Add a handmic to your blister pack radio and you up the total by at least 3 ounces, to at least 10 ounces, 284 grams. That’s still lighter than BC Link, but not by much. What that extra ounce or so gets you is the key: Link is waterproof, apparently durable, and has what I’m assuming is significantly longer life battery than what we get with the 3 AA cells (and a set of spares) for our blister pack unit.

Real World Test
I took a Link out skiing today, paired with Lisa carrying a regular name-brand FRS/GMRS. We tested while separated by a small hill. Transmissions were clear as ever. We then tested by talking from top of ski resort to the base area, about 2,000 vertical feet and not line-of-site. A bit of static, but totally audible. I’m not sure Link is any better than another good quality FRS/GMRS, but it’s certainly no worse. Tomorrow I’ll do a brutal comparo by having a person drive away in a car while continuing to talk, using the Link as well as another radio. I doubt we’ll find anything significant.

Conclusion
If you’re a big radio user I’d think the small weight penalty would be worth going with BC Link. If you’re the type of user who keeps the radio stashed in your backpack, turned off, a smaller/lighter rig might be more appropriate (some blister pack FRS/GMRS radios are quite small). Me, I’ll probably use both types depending on situation. Have to say I really like the Link handmic with controls, and not worrying about moisture is a big plus. Four WildSnow.com ski tips up to BCA Link!

Size of Link, from BCA:
Mic: 3.3” x 1.0” x 1.8” / 8.0 x 4.0 x 4.5 cm
Base unit: 2.5” x 2.0” x 6.0” / 6 x 5 x 15 cm

MSRP: $175 each (includes handmic and powerful lithium ion rechargeable battery said to supply at last same power as several sets of AA batteries).

Shop for it online.

Link at BCA website.

Our general 2-way radio take, with shopping links.

Here is the breakdown on this radio’s transmit power. Channels 1-7 transmit at one watt, 8-14 at 1/2 watt, 15-21 at one watt, channel 22 at 1/2 watt.

Comments

22 Responses to “BC Link — Snowsports 2-Way Radio”

  1. Matt Jacobs December 12th, 2013 11:41 am

    BCA’s product specs don’t say anything about power. Is this radio still limited to 1W on the GMRS channels?

    My 5W ham radio, with a quality external antenna, spare li-ion battery and speaker mic comes in at around the same cost, probably cheaper. I have no love for the current crop of FRS radios with their ringing call tones and ridiculously inflated mileage claims, but $175 for a single FRS radio – ouch.

    Is there any reason to believe the electronics, antenna, sound quality etc. are any better than a $40 motorola, or is the premium all going into the physical build quality and the extra controls on the speaker mic?

  2. Greg December 12th, 2013 1:57 pm

    Regarding you comment on radio orientation: The radiation pattern from a simple dipole dictates that the transmitting and receiving antennas need to be oriented parallel to each other for best performance. Vertical orientation is the only sensible choice. If you orient horizontally you’ll need to also line up the antennas in the horizontal plane (e.g. both horizontal and pointing north), which is impossible to maintain if you’re on the move.

  3. louis dawson December 12th, 2013 2:42 pm

    Matt, my take is what you get for the extra money is the build quality and excellent speaker mic. I just did a range torture test paired with a Motorola on 7 and did not see anything different then what we are used to. Thing is, if you buy a good quality waterproof motorola and speaker mic it’s not going to have the nice glove friendly controls on the mic, and you’re not going to spend that much less.

  4. travis December 12th, 2013 4:48 pm

    When comparing these to blister pack radios or hand helds like the Baefong and various more expensive options, I think the REALLY important distinction here is that the controls are on BCA’s speaker mic. Since it’s now well established that most electronics interfere with searching avalanche beacons, the ability to turn off the BCA via the speaker mic is a feature that should be stressed. Volume and channel controls via the speaker mic are a nice bonus, but the power off capability makes all radio comparisons “apples to oranges” in my opinion. Of course, someone will comment that a radio in one’s pack shouldn’t interfere with a searching beacon at arms length, but that argument can best be resolved on the debris pile and under stress.

  5. Lou Dawson December 12th, 2013 5:12 pm

    I just added that actual transmit power ratings, at the end of the blog post. Higher power channels transmit at 1 watt, lower power channels at 1/2 watt. The battery is rated at 2,200 mah, but keeps the radio running past that due to a more gentle discharge curve, so it’s difficult to compare to lithium AA cells that quit running the radio once they discharge significantly. The best test will probably be just using the radio and seeing how long it runs before next charge. Problem is, without a AA battery option it just turns into a brick if you let it run out…

    Lou

  6. Lou Dawson December 12th, 2013 5:21 pm

    In case anyone is interested, here is a nice waterproof Motorola FRS/GMRS. Pair with a speaker mic to get something closer to what Link offers, but you still won’t have controls on the speaker mic, and the mic won’t be waterproof even though it’s what you hang out in the weather.

    http://www.rei.com/product/815266/motorola-talkabout-ms350r-2-way-radios-2-pack

    And a speaker mic:

    http://www.amazon.com/Motorola-53724-Remote-Speaker-Microphone/dp/B00000JD34/ref=pd_sim_e_4

  7. Sam December 13th, 2013 7:00 am

    Regarding USB power: I don’t love needing USB connectors to charge things but the good news is that USB power is just 5V DC and there are loads of external batteries/chargers that you could carry along to top up something like this. Everything from solar to hand crank to steam based are available. Ideal? Not quite. Loads of options? Yes Sir.

  8. Brian December 13th, 2013 7:16 am

    LOL
    Louie, please save us from geek/gear fest with a good TR please please please!!!!

  9. Lou Dawson December 13th, 2013 7:53 am

    I share your laughter, it’s gotten crazy around here! Rest assured, we’ll be shifting over to more travel blogging and trip reports in a few weeks. This cycle happens every year. It’s like the rising and setting of the sun (grin). Lou

  10. Scott Nelson December 13th, 2013 8:42 am

    Thanks for sharing this Lou. I’ve been curious about a real world assessment of these guys.

  11. yiminy December 13th, 2013 9:56 am

    I’m curious if these will affect the performance of beacons. It seems that most other electronics cause problems. Have ya’ll tested this yet?

  12. Lou Dawson December 13th, 2013 11:07 am

    Actually, most other electronics (when carried 12 inches or more away from beacon) do NOT cause beacon problems of any significant nature, or even of any detectable nature. The persistent rumor that they do is annoying. What is more, it’s incredibly easy to test your electronics vs beacon. Just set up a simulated search and do it with your electronics turned on, and off, and 12 inches or more away from beacon.

    The only way I’ve been able to produce beacon problems caused by other devices has been to sandwich the beacon to the device with a rubber band. And even in this case I couldn’t always get things to malf.

    This is just an FRS/GMRS radio. When at rest it probably produces nearly no RF. What is more, you can bet BCA tested this with their beacons. If there was any sort of problem they wouldn’t sell it. To do so would be ridiculous.

    Lou

  13. ark December 13th, 2013 4:42 pm

    Neat kit though statement “you can bet BCA tested this with their beacons” leaves questions. It would be great, especially since they’re growing their business model to include selling backcountry ski radios, if BCA would let us know what they learned during testing and/or verify that this radio has zero impact on beacon performance, particularly in realistic buried and search conditions, on chest harness vs in pack, etc. The proximity of my radio and beacon on a chest harness is usually pretty close, <30cm for sure, and I suspect that there would be some interference. I do know that a 5watt multiband radio can mess around with my tracker when I key the mic…not so sure what .5-1watt does. I do note that there's a handy on/off switch on the Smart Mic, does this power down the whole radio or just the handset?

  14. travis December 14th, 2013 11:47 am

    According to this paper: http://arc.lib.montana.edu/snow-science/objects/issw-2012-348-352.pdf
    “Based on the results of this study, it is
    recommended that all electronic devices be turned
    off while attempting to search with an avalanche
    transceiver. This includes electronic devices that
    were not tested in this study. If items must remain
    on during a search, then the searching beacon
    should be held more than 40cm away from that
    object. As a broader rule, having all electronic
    devices, besides for avalanche transceivers,
    turned off while traveling in avalanche terrain is
    recommended, especially in this era of increasing
    technological use.”

  15. travis December 14th, 2013 12:07 pm

    Point being: the BCA Link makes it easy to keep the radio in your pack and turn it off from the speaker mic if necessary.

  16. Lou Dawson December 14th, 2013 12:21 pm

    Yes, I’d add that turning on and off from speaker mic is easy and intuitive (and actually the only way to turn on and off). I’d also add that in all my testing over the years I’ve never encountered any sort of problem with RFI that would compromise a rescue. Again, best test is just do a beacon drill with all your electronic stuff loaded up and switched on, and see what happens. Set up the “victim” beacon on a backpack with same junkshow. Lou

  17. Lou Dawson December 15th, 2013 7:48 am

    Travis, re the Montana paper, I’m glad they studied the issue but like a lot of this sort of thing they should have stayed away from their impractical conclusion (in recommending all devices be turned off). In the real world, people are going to have electronic devices and many of those devices are going to remain turned on during a search. From what I know, the important thing here is that anything with a battery probably emits some RFI. Even your brain emits RFI, Even the universe emits RFI. The question is, how powerful is the RFI and how is it mitigated. Distance is important because there is a “near field” and “far field” surrounding any RFI emitting device. The “near field” causes a lot more problems. With small, lower powered devices, it’s easy to stay out of the near field. What is more, the RFI from most devices is so low, it only takes a few inches of distance to obviate it. The worst offender is going to be any transmitting radio communication device, so, with a walkie-talkie just limit how much you talk while you’re searching. With cell phone, keep it some distance from where your beacon would be while searching. I’d actually be more concerned with a radio, camera or cell phone being sandwiched with my beacon a a buried avalanche victim. In my testing, that’s when I saw problems. Thus, be sure there is no chance of that happening by virtue of how you carry your gear.

  18. Jefe December 24th, 2013 1:27 pm
  19. Lou Dawson December 24th, 2013 4:49 pm

    Jefe, handheld CB totally 100% unrecommended. Interference prone, short range, bandit operators clogging frequencies…. Lou

  20. Sarah H February 15th, 2014 2:59 pm

    You say in the article ‘channel 1 tends to be overused due to it being the easiest channel to get to on a new radio’ do they not have a squelch option?

    great review article.

  21. Lou Dawson February 15th, 2014 8:36 pm

    Yes they have tone squelch but no manual squelch. You get too many people using a channel and tone squelch doesn’t work very well. Better to just get on a lesser used channel. Lou

  22. Lou Dawson March 10th, 2014 10:16 am

    Just did three days of Colorado backcountry skiing with a group who was all radio’d up. It’s amazing how well this works, if everyone is familiar with their radio and pays attention. Really adds a lot of safety to the day as a larger group can spread out more discuss snow observations, direct each other to safe zones, etc. Thanks BCA for supporting radio communications. Lou

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Welcome to Louis (Lou) Dawson's backcountry skiing information opinion website and e magazine. Lou's passion for the past 45 years has been alpinism, climbing, mountaineering and skiing -- along with all manner of outdoor recreation. He has authored numerous books and articles about backcountry skiing and is well known as the first person to ski down all 54 of Colorado's 14,000-foot peaks, otherwise known as the Fourteeners! Books and free back country news and information here, and tons of Randonnee rando telemark info.

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