I’m a big advocate of using 2-way radios for communication while backcountry skiing, especially in avalanche terrain. To minimize risk in avalanche areas, it is essential to spread your party out, often traveling or skiing downhill one at a time. Thus, communication can be a challenge; shouting and wild gesturing only go so far, especially in storm conditions. For example, in one documented fatal accident party members below a skier tried to gesture and shout for her to turn out of the avalanche path, but she keep heading down and was killed by a slide.
If every backcountry skiing party member carries and uses a 2-way radio, you can prevent these types of situations, more, you’ll find you can relax a bit more, and your whole day of backcountry skiing or other outdoor recreation may yield more fun.
Tip: rig heavily used 2-ways with a small speaker mic that’s clipped in a convenient location on the exterior of your jacket or pack strap, so you don’t have to dig for your radio every time you use it.) A wide choice of small consumer “blister pack” two-way radios are available. What is more, if you choose to acquire an amateur (ham) radio license, you can use a variety of well made mil-spec radios that are perfect for backcountry sports.
Family Radio Service (FRS & GMRS, see glossary at bottom of this article) “talkabout” “blisterpack” are the radios most commonly marketed to average consumers (as opposed to higher quality more expensive units). Quality of these radios varies, some are actually quite good. BCA Link is one of the best quality choices out there, and is designed specifically for backcountry sports, see link to right.
“Blister pack” radios use frequencies (AKA channels) specified by the FCC with little to no licensing requirements. The lowest cost models work fine if you’re chatting strictly line-of-site a short distance. Indeed, they’re so meager you can lose contact with someone as soon as they round a corner on the trail — so we don’t recommend the cheapos for backcountry use. Better quality blister-pack models using GMRS frequencies (convention in blister pack radios, numbers 1 to 7 and 15 to 22) will work slightly farther apart. GMRS frequencies are included in nearly any good quality FRS blister pack radios these days, and we’d say having them is essential. How to know? Generally, any blister pack radio sold these days with 22 channels has GMRS and provides more transmit power to some degree. Again, for an example of such models see our shopping links in this article.
Sadly, all FRS/GMRS blister pack radios are nearly useless for calling help in an emergency (as in most areas the channels are not monitored), and they’re usually restricted to line-of-sight unless you get lucky with your signal bouncing around and projecting into a nearby valley. Also, you’ll usually have no system of repeaters (as sometimes exist for ham radio, some business systems, etc.) that’ll get your FRS/GMRS signal some distance to the right people in an emergency.
Thus, for backcountry emergency help calls, you’ll still need something like a SPOT or satphone, or set yourself up with a radio system that is verified to access local communication systems (examples: with permission use a guide’s or commercial operations frequency, or get your amature “ham” radio license and use their communications systems if they exist).
In terms of specific product recommendations, we’ve tested dozens of blister pack radios over the years. We’ve enjoyed using some of the smaller ones that save weight and bulk, but such models frequently lack features, power and battery life. Instead, we favor slightly larger Motorola brand units with more battery and larger, easier to operate controls. Best we’ve found as of 2014 are the following, all use a supplied rechargeable battery or user supplies AA batteries.
FRS/GMRS Radio Shopping List
MS350R is submersible waterproof, costs a bit more and lacks the on-off switch volume control dial.
MT350R is splash proof, in our opinion the sweet spot in the Motorola lineup.
MR350R is our WildSnow standard, not particularly weatherproof so not recommended for wet climates.
MJ270R is another WildSnow standard, a bit smaller and lighter, not weatherproof, slightly cheaper.
While somewhat high in price and a few ounces heavier, the BCA Link backcountry skier’s FRS/GMRS radio system is beautiful. Professional grade, with integrated speaker/mic. Note this is not a handheld unit, it’s designed to be mounted in your rucksack.
When you shop for a radio, look for these features:
– 22 channels, radio sold as “FRS/GMRS.”
– AA battery capability, along with rechargeable option.
– Control key lock (IMPORTANT — most better radios have this).
– Easily accessed dial/knob volume/on/off control rather then fiddly buttons.
– Speaker mic and/or earphone connector.
– Privacy codes.
– Weather channels.
– Options to turn OFF annoying beeps and rings.
– Battery life meter.
When shopping, you’ll see packaging verbiage about how the radio is good for “22 miles, 37 miles” and so on. I have no idea how they get those numbers, they’re stupid, but perhaps indicate relative performance of different models within a brand. Whatever, the claimed mileage rating is of little concern for backcountry skiing or ski mountaineering use so long as you’re buying a good quality unit in the upper ranges, as all such radios can transmit at the maximum power allowed by law. In real life, any radio that uses the FRS/GMRS frequencies is limited to line-of-sight transmission, though a signal may skim and reflect over ridges and other terrain features, thus allowing “blind” communication. (Since radio communication is unpredictable, it’s important to test your radios frequently throughout the day by send and receiving quick “radio checks.”)
Nearly any 2-way radio will let you set a “privacy code” or “interference eliminator code” with each frequency (aka channel). These are simply subaudible tones known to techs as CTCSS tones. The idea is your radio will only let you hear transmissions that include the code. This works fairly well, but can be of limited usefulness if someone else nearby of with high power is transmitting on your chosen frequency, as you’ll still get “stepped on” and momentarily be unable to transmit or receive despite the use of privacy codes. Remember this glitch if you’re using your radio in places where radio use is heavy, such as ski resorts. Solution is to simply turn off all privacy codes, listen, then switch channels (or scan, if your rig has that option) till you find one that’s being used less. Communicate use of that channel to your friends, set a mutual privacy, and you’re good to go.
Note that beyond the blister pack models, FRS/GMRS radios of ostensibly better quality and perhaps more power can be had. While some of these might be worth considering, we’ve found the blister pack units to work so well we see little need to spend more money. If nothing else, we like the feeling of using a radio that’s inexpensive enough to not worry about dropping or losing.
In our experience, the biggest problem with blister-pack radio durability is moisture damage. At the least, acquire a unit that’s rated as “water resistant” or “water proof” to standard JIS4. This means you can probably use the unit in light rain without damage. If you come back from the wild with a soaked radio, dry it out before storage. Use of corded speaker mic allows storage of the radio inside your backpack (perhaps in a ziplock bag) and is the best solution to weather issues. As with all electronics, carry a few spare ziplocks in case you need to weather a torrent.
Other radio options
Citizen Band (CB) The trucker “10-4” type radio. For backcountry use don’t bother with this interference prone, limited range band, filled with bandit high power operators shouting profanity and clogging the airways (thanks for nothing FCC). It can be useful to have a small inexpensive CB mounted in your vehicle, left off most of the time and used to chat with truckers on the open road or with others while on 4×4 trails. Some CB radios are sold with weather channels, a useful feature (use it as your weather radio, while using your other radios for communication). In our experience, FRS/GMRS radios have pretty much taken over from CB, and the only people still using CB are truckers and the occasional group of 4×4 enthusiasts.
Amateur Radio (ham). If you’re serious about using a two-way radio for trail “inter-comm” — and for emergencies — get your amateur “ham” license (easier than you think). Doing so allows you to use a wide selection of high power “dual band” handheld radios, many of which are waterproof and shock resistant.
The beauty of ham radio is that ham clubs everywhere in the country have amazing systems of repeaters that allow effective emergency communication from places where a cell phone call is a joke.
The problem with using a ham radio for backcountry skiing or other recreation is that very few of your buddies will take the time to get a license. It’s best if they do so, but if you fail to convince them here is the solution: They can still carry a ham type radio configured for all the emergency frequencies, but they can only transmit on those freqs in an emergency (it’s legal to transmit on any freq in a life/death emergency). For inter-party communication (inter-comm) on the trail, simply use one of the frequencies in the MURS band (see information later in this article). I’ve also heard that many people simply use the FRS frequencies with a ham radio (see below) for trail intercomm. Using FRS/GMRS with a programmable ham radio possibly breaks FCC rules, but in some expert’s opinion can be done in ways that make it acceptable.
For example, if you make the correct hardware modifications to a dual band ham radio, you can use such a radio to monitor (scan) the the blister pack FRS/GMRS frequencies. To keep this legal, you can’t transmit anything but emergency calls on the FRS freqs. Some experts say you can also follow a few rules and transmit FRS/GMRS, mainly by limiting your transmit power and using an antenna that’s permanently attached directly to your radio. Others have told me that the rules require you to be using a retail radio certified by FCC for FRS or GMRS. Whatever the case, we’ve found that simply using blister pack radios is brilliant for 95 percent of our needs so using other radios has become a non issue.
2-Way Radio Reference Information
FRS and GMRS Radio Frequencies (aka freqs or channels, indicator (channel) numbers used by Motorola and many other brands but are not a standard)
8—467.5625 FRS (limited power in any radio)
9—467.5875 FRS (limited power in any radio)
10–467.6125 FRS (limited power in any radio)
11–467.6375 FRS (limited power in any radio)
12–467.6625 FRS (limited power in any radio)
13–467.6875 FRS (limited power in any radio)
14–467.7125 FRS (limited power in any radio)
FRS freqs 8 through 14 can be best for short distance communication, since they don’t overlap more powerful GMRS frequencies other people may be using. On the other hand, if you’re in a relatively unpopulated area I’d suggest figuring out what higher power options your radio has, and using those channels/settings if your party tends to get spread out. Penalty for doing this is battery life, but keep your transmissions short and you shouldn’t have any problem (transmitting is what uses up battery, listening uses minimal power unless your radio speaker is constantly blaring).
Tips for better radio range: Radios have much better range between units if the antennas are oriented in the same plane. Standard in radio use is to orient antennas vertically, thus, remind all party members to hold or locate radio so the antenna is vertical. Know that any solid object between you and your intended receiver can attenuate your signal, that includes your body and backpack. If you’re having problems with reception, try holding the radio as high as possible at arms length above your head, or seek higher ground. If you’re in the fringe of performance, sometimes simply walking around while receiving can help you find a sweet spot.
If you and your friends use programmable ham type radios and don’t want to attempt using FRS/GMRS, the MURS (Multi Use Radio Service) VHS frequencies could be a good plan for radio chat. Always listen before you talk so you won’t interfere with someone — use of these frequencies is common.
Channel Frequency Channel Name
1 151.820 MHz N/A
2 151.880 MHz N/A
3 151.940 MHz N/A
4 154.570 MHz Blue Dot
5 154.600 MHz Green Dot
GLOSSARY OF RADIO TERMS
Blister Pack Radio… FRS/GMRS radio sold in plastic packaging, lower priced for general consumer use, quality varies.
Channel… Pop term for the transmit/receive frequency used with FRS/GMRS radios. Most adhere to the Motorola standard channel numbers detailed above, but we’ve found a few that had odd channel numbers.
HT… Any handheld transceiver, handy talkie or walkie talkie, be aware that in many European countries cell phones are called “handies.”
Freq … radio frequency, often organized by channel numbers.
GMRS … General Mobile Radio Service (consumer frequencies that FCC allows to be used with more power though license may be required).
Ham … an amateur radio operator licensed by the FCC.
FCC … Federal Communications Commission.
Broadcast … to transmit like television or commercial radio.
MURS … Multi Use Radio Service, 5 frequencies that do not require license.
Transmit … to talk on a 2-way radio.
Receive … listen to a 2-way radio.
Hand Mic … a small microphone/speaker attached by a cord to your radio, aka Speaker Mic.
PTT … Push-To-Transmit, usually refers to the switch you press to talk.
Speaker mic … same as above.
VOX … voice operated transmit switch, acronym for VOX or Voice Operated eXchange (usually works poorly in backcountry sport environments due to incidental noise).