Choosing the Right Two-Way Communications for Overlanding or Off-Road

When you are out in the country, way past the reach of a traditional cell phone tower, and the only way that you can communicate is through the use of two-way radio. Although there are a number of different two-way radios that are available today, not all of them are created equal.

You can purchase a CB radio at many stores, and truck stops throughout the country. In fact, not only can you purchase CB radios at truck stops, but you can usually find a large assortment of quality antennas that can be readily attached to your vehicle. Best of all, unlike a GMRS or HAM radio, there is no license required for their operation.

Both GMRS and HAM radios, require the operator to obtain a license before they can be used. The main difference between the two, is that a GMRS license can simply be purchased for an entire family for ten years, whereas an amateur radio license requires examination and certification for each operator.

Ham Radios

Before you can operate an amateur radio, you must obtain a license from the government. Unlike a GMRS license, you will need to study for and take an examination and wait for certification. If you pass the exam, a license number will be issued to you.

These licenses are good for 10 years and can be extended with ease. If you wish to obtain a higher grade license, you will have to take another exam and wait for certification.

Amateur radio equipment provides some of the most reliable and effective communications possible. A simple handheld 2m radio, can easily send and receive communications further than any other device. There are also a number of different bands in which you are allowed to operate depending on your license level.

CB Radios

One of the most common ways to communicate with others on the open road is that of the citizen’s band radio. The CB radio is a very popular 11m transceiver that will allow you to communicate for distances up to 50 miles, depending on the terrain.

Because of the popularity of CB radio, the channels tend to have a lot of noise from all of the users. CB radios are one of the the best communications system off-road.

Pros of CB

A CB radio is one of the cheapest and most cost-effective means of two-way communication.

Entry-level units may cost as low as $40, but good units that are capable of single sideband transmissions can cost well over $200.

They are very popular in the trucking community, which means that you can generally find all the parts that you need at a local truck stop. In standard conditions, you will be limited to a range of about 10 to 15 miles away.

Cons of CB

One of the biggest downsides of the CB radio is that you are limited to only 4-watts of transmitting power.

Although it’s possible to find “bricks” that are modified 10m signal amplifiers, these are illegal to use with CB radios. Moreover, because of the band in which the CB radio operates, the antennas are significantly longer than both HAM and GMRS radios.

CB Antenna Length

The citizen band radio operates on the 11m frequency band. Antennas for any two-way communication system are measured in eighths of a standing wave, which is the length of the wave from peak to peak. As the standing wavelength in the middle of the band is 433 inches, the quarter-wave is 108 inches.

The most commonly available antenna for a CB radio is also one of the cheapest. Aptly known as a 108-inch whip, these easy to mount antennas can be bent over when not in use and held in place with a simple bungee strap.

There are also a number of more compact designs, but these also require a little more effort to set up properly, as you will need to adjust the SWR before use in order to prevent any damage to your radio.

CB Range

Because of the limitation on the power output of a CB radio, the range is also limited. That maximum operating power output is capped at 4-watts. Because of this limitation, most of the CB radios that you can purchase from a mainstream store, actually only put out between 3 to 4 watts. In order to get the full power output, you will need to take it to a specialized service shop, or purchase units that have already been modified.

There is one caveat to the 4-watt rule, and that is the use of single-sideband operation. Very few CB radios have the ability to broadcast on SSB, and you will most likely not find them in your local big-box store. The most popular manufacturer of CB radios, Cobra, produces a radio that not only is capable of transmitting on single-sideband but can do so legally with 12-watts of power output. At 12-watts, a single sideband CB radio can transmit well over 50 miles, but the person on the receiving end must also have SSB capabilities.

GMRS Radios

One of the biggest benefits of a GMRS radio is the maximum power output. More power means that you will be able to transmit further than with a CB radio. However, its use of UHF frequencies reduces the overall distance that you may be able to send and receive signals at that power level. Moreover, you will need to obtain a license from the FCC in order to use a GMRS radio, but that license is good for your entire family.

Pros Of GMRS

One of the biggest advantages of the GMRS is the 50-watt power cap. With a well-designed antenna system, you can improve the distance you are able to transmit through a process known as the line of sight. These radios also feature privacy codes, which allow you to carry on one conversation with your friends or family, while another person or family uses the same exact frequency, without interfering with each other.

Cons of GMRS

Naturally, the biggest drawback of purchasing and using a GMRS is the requirement for a license.

Although the cost of a license is less than $100, it is good for an entire family. If you are going to be overlanding in a group with a friend who has a license, then you will not need one.

Antenna Length

The GMRS radios operate at UHF frequencies that are just below the 70cm band. As result, the standing wave of the middle of the band is extremely short.

So short in fact, that a quarter-wave antenna is only 6 inches long. Because of its shorter length, it is easier to purchase or even “homebrew” a directional antenna commonly referred to as a “yagi. These directional antennas will allow you to throw your signal even further.

Although a standard GMRS antenna might give you the ability to communicate up to 30 miles away, a well-tuned “yagi” can allow you to transmit and receive signals even further.

GMRS Range

One of the benefits of using a GMRS radio is its ability to transmit greater distances than a CB radio. Although it is possible to purchase handheld CB radios, they tend to be very heavy and bulky. A handheld GMRS radio, on the other hand, is easy to carry and can even transmit up to 15 miles away with a standard “rubber duck” antenna.

Just like working within amateur radio bands, it is not uncommon for an operator to make their own antennas. There are many great “homebrew” designs that can provide you with even more gain, the higher the gain of the antenna the further it can transmit.

In the end, you have a lot of choices when it comes to two-way communication while you are overlanding. If you are already licensed to operate in amateur radio bands, then your best option is to use a HAM radio.

However, if you are not properly licensed, then you’ll need to choose from either the CB radio or a GMRS radio. Because of their popularity, there are a lot more options for a CB radio than there are for a GMRS radio when it comes to upgrades. Moreover, CB radios can be easily repaired by local technicians that can be found in or around any major truck stop.

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