Update, February 2018: New FCC rules may change the feature set of the type of radios covered in this blog post. Current radios will be forward compatible so no worries. Much information about this can be had here.
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 attempted 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 normal consumers (as opposed to higher quality more expensive units). Quality of these radios varies, some are actually quite good. For example, BCLink is one of the best quality choices out there, and is designed specifically for backcountry sports.
Sadly, all FRS 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.
Thus, for backcountry emergency help calls, you’ll still need something like a satphone or Garmin Inreach, 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 or Midland brand units with more battery and larger, easier to operate controls. Best we’ve found as of 2018 are the following, all use a supplied rechargeable battery or user supplies AA batteries. Beware that while the “waterproof” units sound attractive, they may lack a volume control knob and thus be much more difficult to use in the real world.
FRS/GMRS Radio Shopping List
MS350R is submersible waterproof, costs a bit more and lacks the on-off switch volume control knob. This can be an effectiv choice for mounting inside your backpack with an external speaker-mic, as radios with a volume knob have to be taped up to prevent the knob from accidentally rotating. Quite bulky and noticeably heavier than most other FRS/GMRS radios, but very reliable in our experience.
MT350R is splash proof, has volume knob, in our opinion the sweet spot in the Motorola lineup.
MR350R is our WildSnow standard, not particularly weatherproof so not recommended for wet climates, but works well for us in Colorado. Has volume knob.
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 BC Link backcountry skier’s FRS 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. That can be fine, but when you want the best range the standard in radio operations is to hold your antenna perfectly vertical, with BC Link hidden in your backpack it’s hard to know what the antenna is doing. Another issue with BC Link is the channel selection dial on the speaker-mike can get bumped off your setting. Frequent radio checks, as always, are the solution but a small bit of duct tape used to stabilize the dial can be wise. (A redesigned “Link 2” will be available fall of 2018, and looks quite nice as well as taking advantage of the new FCC rules, but if you need a radio it’s not necessary to wait for this. What is more the new Link will be limited to a max of 2 watts power, while other brand radios known as GMRS will go to 5 watts.)
Another brand, Midland, has upped their game with current offerings we much prefer over their radios from a few years ago. Last time I looked, their speaker-mics were also quite a bit smaller than those available for Motorola. This Midland, for example, would work fine. It has the all important keypad lock, and ability to silence most stupid “beep” noises. Pair with a compact Midland speaker mic.
When you shop for a radio, look for these features:
– 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.
– Normal size with normal length antenna, not miniature.
– Options for rechargeable as well as use of AA batteries. For monster battery life equip with lithium AA cells, to save money set up as rechargeable and top off every night.
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 (probably guessed at by marketing people), they’re stupid, but perhaps indicate relative performance of different models within a brand. Whatever, the claimed mileage range rating is of little concern for backcountry skiing or ski mountaineering use so long as you’re buying a good quality unit, as all such radios can transmit at the maximum power allowed by law.
In real life, radios using FRS frequencies are usually limited by their power 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.”)
One other thing about range: Some blister pack radios are quite small. These can be attractive but often have a shorter antenna and may lack basic features such as privacy codes. The shorter antenna will limit your range. We do not recommend the “tiny” radios.
Nearly any 2-way radio allows for setting a “privacy code” or “interference eliminator code” with each frequency (aka channel). These are simply subaudible sounds-tones known to techs as CTCSS or DCS 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 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. Some radios have a scan feature you can use to identify what channels are in use by others, while fiddling with this can be time consuming it’s a useful feature that’s wise to master.
In backcountry areas with little to no radio traffic, privacy codes are an unnecessary complication.
Note that beyond the blister pack models, GMRS radios of ostensibly better quality 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 (open the battery case). 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.
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. 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 radios have pretty much taken over from CB, and the only people still using CB are truckers and the occasional group of 4×4 or ATV 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 interlinked systems 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 intercom. Using FRS with a programmable ham radio possibly breaks FCC rules, but in some expert’s opinion can be done in ways that make it acceptable, and indistinguishable from the use of a blister pack FRS unit.
For example, you can use a dual band ham radio to monitor (scan) the the blister pack FRS and 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, 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 use. Whatever the case, we’ve found that simply using blister pack FRS radios (or the BC Link from Backcountry Access) is brilliant for 95 percent of our needs so using other radios has become a non issue.
2-Way Radio Reference Information
Blister pack FRS and GMRS radio frequencies
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)
For most backcountry ski touring we suggest figuring out what higher power options your radio has, and using those channels/settings. Reason being that the lower power settings on FRS radios are paltry and best suited to situations such as convoy driving or maritime flat water. Penalty for using higher power is battery life, but keep your transmissions short and you shouldn’t have any problem (transmitting is what depletes battery, listening uses minimal power).
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. 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, the MURS (Multi Use Radio Service) VHS frequencies could be a good plan for radio chat as no license is required. 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
For reference, below are the alpha lettered presets you get if you purchase a BCA BC Link radio, you can program these into any consumer type FRS or GMRS radio, so you’ll be compatible with your friends using BCA radios:
— A is FRS Channel 1 privacy code off
— B is FRS Channel 5 privacy code 10
— C is FRS Channel 4 privacy code 20
— D is FRS Channel 8 privacy code 10
— E is FRS Channel 9 privacy code 11
— F is FRS Channel 20 privacy code off
GLOSSARY OF RADIO TERMS
Blister Pack Radio… FRS or GMRS radio sold in plastic packaging, lower priced for general consumer use, quality varies.
Channel… Pop term for the transmit/receive frequency used with two-way 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.
FRS… Family Radio Service, a set up specifications and frequencies for a low power radio service that doesn’t require a license. The type of radio covered in this blog post.
GMRS … General Mobile Radio Service (consumer frequencies that FCC allows to be used with more power, license required, most are the same frequencies as FRS, only with higher allowed power).
Ham … an amateur radio operator licensed by the FCC.
FCC … Federal Communications Commission.
Broadcast … to send over the airwaves like television or commercial radio. Correct terminology: A 2-way radio does NOT broadcast, it transmits.
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 or shoulder 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).
Check out this BCA paper (pdf) about utilizing radios for backcountry skiing safety.