Backcountry Access Link 2-Way Radio a Winner

Post by blogger | January 26, 2013      

Shop for BC Link ski touring radio.

While they’re sometimes as fiddly as a worn out pinball machine (and make the same noises), consumer type 2-way radios can save your bacon. Indeed, I know of at least one avalanche taken life that could have been preserved by a simple “go right” spoken on a 2-way.

BCA Link radio for backcountry skiers and other snowsporters.

BCA Link radio for backcountry skiers and other snowsporters.

Problem is, most of the consumer FRS two way radios out there are over featured and under engineered junk. Certain models can be pressed into heavy service as we did on Denali a few years ago and do so daily when we’re on backcountry skiing trips, and you can find limited offerings that are somewhat pro grade. But most are toys. (And yes, you can program FRS frequencies into a higher quality ham type unit, but while doing so works nicely, it is illegal and such radios can be expensive and over featured.)

Thus, I wasn’t surprised to see Backcountry Access, the electronics geeks who pretty much invented the digital beacon, have come out with their own version of an FRS radio specifically for backcountry snowsports.

Guiding idea of the Link is you have a small base unit that rides in your backpack or a jacket pocket. The base unit has a limited set of controls and a small LCD for changing presets and such, but no PTT button (push to talk) and no speaker or mic. Instead, the controls you use for communication are all on the speaker mic, attached to the base unit with a beefy coil cord and worn on your pack strap.

Key points about Link FRS radio:
– Provides all FRS/GMRS channels you get on most consumer FRS radios, along with quiet codes.
– Thankfully no roger beeps or call alarm tones you normally have to spend time kludging through menus to turn off, but turn themselves on if the radio setting happen to reset for some reason.
– Hand mic is splash proof, may need better water proofing if designed for 24/7 external use on backpack.
– Nominal supply voltage is 3.7. This helps keep battery size small, but will make this unit difficult to run with a basic automobile adapter (instead, you’ll need USB voltage which is inefficient due to the need for voltage step down from 12 bolt).
– Battery is lithium-ion, recharged with USB type voltage and connector. Battery pack is easily snapped off and on, thus easy to carry a spare.
– No word on if unit will run off USB power with dead battery, an important feature in my view.
– Antenna is fixed not removable, per FCC regulations for FRS radios.
– Weather receive frequencies are built-in.
– Speaker mic cord plug will not pull out by accident, unlike other brand models that require taping or otherwise securing the mic plug.
– BCA publication “Human Factors and Group Communication” is a data dump of radio tips and techniques that every backcountry recreator should read. Once you do, I think you’ll be convinced your group should all be sporting 2 ways.

Provided the Link radio is made with good quality and not too expensive, downsides are few. Main annoyance will be having a base unit that can’t be used independently. In my style of radio use, when stationary or at the base cabin or hut I like working a handheld two-way without a cord and speaker mic. I then plug in the mic when I rig for travel. With the Link unit, you’ll have to carry the cord, mic and base unit around the hut or have it cluttering up your car console. Of course for those uses you could always run a few el-cheapo blister pack FRS radios. But then, ever more junk to shlep around.

Another downside is Link appears to be a bit heavy (PR says 8 ounces) compared to consumer type FRS radios. I wouldn’t be surprised if using it will result in at least 3 or 4 more ounces of weight as compared to a small FRS combined with a basic mic. Let’s hope that’s not the case. If so, smaller and lighter consumer models will continue to fill the gap, and when cared for correctly they do work.

Thinking about all this, I wouldn’t be surprised if BCA ends up offering several models of their Link, including one with a stand-alone base unit that doesn’t require a speaker mic, and one that does. Probably my biggest gripe will be that they don’t offer an AA battery pack — an accessory that can save your behind while traveling away from easily accessed wall voltage. (Solution for that is a generic auxilary battery pack with USB port–heavy for backcountry use, but good for the hut or automobile.)

In all, we’re experiencing shakes of joy seeing the backcountry skiing industry wake up to the efficacy of 2-way radio communication. It is for everyone, not just guides and helicopter pilots.

Shop for BC Link ski touring radio.


16 Responses to “Backcountry Access Link 2-Way Radio a Winner”

  1. Jernej January 26th, 2013 9:29 am

    If you want to be fancy then by all means go for something waterproof, voice activated, hands free etc. Or you could just hop over to the nearest electronics shop and buy the cheapest “toy” set you can find. I got my pair for something like 15€ and they’ve served me well both in skiing and climbing long routes. And they’re tiny! Probably even smaller than the mic unit on this one.

    Even when they fail or I drop them off a wall it will still be a minor loss. Granted the range isn’t huge (as in several kilometres) but that’s really not why I need them. Perfectly decent for solid communication at several hundred meters which should be more than enough in the backcountry. I even used them in-bounds to keep in touch with family members so we don’t have to ski together all day & every run.

  2. Clyde January 26th, 2013 11:26 am

    I’d be more impressed if they figured out a way for the radios to not interfere with beacon searches.

  3. Dirk January 26th, 2013 11:40 am

    Hey Lou, “the wizard” has some paparazzi pics of you up on his site from the OR show

  4. Lou Dawson January 26th, 2013 3:52 pm

    Dirk, that’s my new ‘regal’ pose I learned in a museum near Innsbruck (grin).

  5. Lou Dawson January 26th, 2013 3:55 pm

    Clyde, I asked, they didn’t seem to think it’s a problem. In my own testing, I’ve not found RFI from 2-way radios to be any life threatening problem. Depends on proximity of devices, brand/model/quality, all sorts of factors. I’m inspired to do some more testing since you asked… we shall see. We were just at Arva talking about this sort of stuff. They’ve upped their game in terms of noise reduction in order to increase range, I wouldn’t be surprised if that also cuts RFI problems to a non issue. Lou

  6. Jacob January 26th, 2013 5:09 pm

    Lou, you talked above about how modifying FRS radios into “ham” radios was illegal. I just wanted to point out an oft missed point with these radios, in that using the GMRS signals without an FCC license is also illegal.

  7. John Gloor January 26th, 2013 9:23 pm

    So what are the odds one would be busted using a GMRS frequency without a license, and what is the penalty? How much is a license, I have been pretty disappointed with the Motorola talk-about series of radios and would love a radio with a longer range.

  8. Lou Dawson January 27th, 2013 6:15 am

    As far as I know, enforcement is zero, and impossible in most situations. It appears the regulation is on the books in case FRS/GMRS gets abused, and so the FCC has something they can use to bust folks for commercial use if that gets out of hand. Interestingly, it is also illegal to use the FRS/GMRS radios for commercial use, but they’ve become the defacto standard for everyone from highway flagging companies to backcountry guides. Typical over-regulation and under-enforcement. The kind of thing that makes a Libertarian out of people (grin).

    Considering above, and the fact that you’ll still encounter all sorts of needs for frequencies when you’re traveling, owning and mastering a dual band ham type HT might be the best choice, but doing so is expensive and a hassle. Example: When we got the info sheet from Valhalla Lodge in Canada, right there on the sheet they had their commercial frequency and recommended the client bring a radio for that channel. It is not a freq you get in an FR/GMRS radio, so I brought one of our ham sets up there and it worked perfectly for the situation. Another person up there also had a ham set with all frequencies programmed in.

    Gloor, what’s ironic about FRS/GMRS performance is that if they sold those radios with a removable antenna, the aftermarket would step in with better quality and higher gain antennas that could easily bump up performance. But the FCC regs for how the radios are made require the antenna to be fixed. Modders try to get around this, but it’s tough. I’d suggest to BCA that they make their antenna lugs on the circuit board easily worked with, so modders can install a removable antenna connector. Them making the circuit board have that capability, but not shouting it out, would be legal as far as I can tell from reading up on the regs.

    Above is what many of the consumer ham radio makers do. They provide solder on the radio circuit board that can be cut to “open” the radio so it becomes useful for a full range of VHF and UHF frequencies. So long as they sell the radio with the full range disabled and the solder intacts, it’s legal. There is a brisk aftermarket in radio mods to “open” these radios. You can send them away to experts, or find instructions on the web if you’re handy with a soldering iron. I’ve heard some of the radios might open with a keypad code as well. And so on.

  9. John Gloor January 28th, 2013 4:07 pm

    Lou, do you have any opinions on the MURS radios? There are not a lot of channels, but user conflicts would be uncommon BC skiing I would think

  10. Lou Dawson January 28th, 2013 4:17 pm

    John, the problem is that FRS/GMRS has become ubiquitous. That’s why we’re running with that. I still use a ham set once in a while, but most of the time I just use a Motorola blister pack FRS because it’s so much easier programming in the channel and quiet code combos.

  11. Andy December 11th, 2013 10:45 am

    Any idea what kind of a range you might expect from these? Obviously it would vary depending on terrain, but I’m wondering in typical alpine terrain, say a group splits and a few folks head down (to car, camp, hut, beer, whatever) and some folks continue up and are say 4000′ up with typical buttresses and such, do you think these things would be reliable? possible? unlikely?

    Also, I would assume that you’d easily get 1 day out of the battery with “normal” use of these- is that true? The catch: Normally I wouldn’t actually use them much at all, but of course if something went wrong I’d want to know the batteries would last through a rescue despite the cold.

    I’ve been unsatisfied with range and battery life of too many blister pack radios and can’t decide if I should take the plunge to VHF or if these might work. Ultimately, if these did work, I’d much rather stick with this (presumably) more user friendly platform…

  12. Lou Dawson December 11th, 2013 11:03 am

    Andy, all I can tell you is that when used correctly our blister pack radios have done quite well in terms of range. Users have to know:

    1. When talking or desiring best reception, make a standard for everyone to keep their antenna oriented vertically.

    2. Be sure you know how to use the high power button, and which are the higher power channels. A real gotcha.

    3. Keep batteries fresh, for the best reliability use a radio that takes AA, and use lithium AA.

    4. Actually, a group should keep their radios on and use them on occasion throughout the day. Otherwise you get into a lot of confusion about when folks have theirs turned on or off. Most radios have a good standby battery save feature, they can be left on with that and don’t use much juice. When talking, keep transmissions short, Transmitting is what uses up the power. What I like best is to turn radio on when beacon gets turned on, and both off at the same time.


  13. Tim Vanhoutteghem January 4th, 2014 4:11 pm

    Will these be sold in Europe?

  14. Matt Gordon January 6th, 2014 1:06 pm

    One of the factors that would advocate for a ham-type radio over this (or blister-pack GMRS/FRS) is the generally higher power output (5 watt vs. 0.5-1 watt,) which in concert with the ability to use an aftermarket antenna (gain antenna,) is going to result in much greater signal strength and offer better receive. Consider also that a.) a ham Technician class license in the US is pretty easy to obtain, b.) in Colorado, at least, there’s a fairly robust FM repeater network that gets your signal out from the backcountry to civilization, and c.) per FCC rules, in an emergency any frequency (ham bands, commercial, public safety, air, etc.) can be used by a non-licensed user, and you have a compelling case for the ham-band HT being a greater value. Just my $0.02.

  15. Lou Dawson January 6th, 2014 1:17 pm

    Matt, the problem is that it’s not just one person who needs to get the amateur license as well as buying and learning a complex handheld radio. In theory, for your idea to work, nearly everyone in a group would need to do the same thing.

    As it is, in our experience the GMRS/FRS radios work surprisingly well and are all most people will ever need. For calling out “911” a SPOT is tiny and probably good enough (though I’m a fan of having a satphone no matter what).


  16. Dave Field June 12th, 2014 1:09 pm

    Hey Lou,
    Are you aware of the Baofeng UVR5 series of hand held ham radios? They are currently available for under $50 and have excellent battery life and decent performance, certainly much better than the blister pack FRMS/GMRS consumer radios. You’ve got all of the ham radio concerns regarding licensing and appropriate legal use, etc. (especially if you program in the FRS/GMRS frequencies) but they worked out very well for our group on a BC hut trip this Spring. The programming is a bit of a pain but allows for a lot of flexibility in use and is actually quite simple with a USB computer patch cord and the CHIRP program. I enjoyed being able to access the local repeaters if needed for potential emergency use and the cost effectiveness made it better for us to purchase them outright as opposed to renting.

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Welcome to Louis (Lou) Dawson's backcountry skiing information & opinion website. Lou's passion for the past 50 years has been alpinism, climbing, mountaineering and skiing -- along with all manner of outdoor recreation. He has authored numerous books and articles about ski touring 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 ski touring news and information here.

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