A Beginner’s Guide to Backcountry Radios

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backcountry radios for use outdoors

Are you planning your next camping trip to the mountains? Well, having good communication should be one of your top priorities before leaving for the backcountry side.

There are a number of factors that will play an important role when it comes to purchasing decent affordable backcountry radios within your budget.

Top Ways to Communicate Outdoors

In this guide, we’ll walk you through some of the best ways to establish and maintain good communication throughout your outdoor trip.

1. Two-Way Radio Sets

Widely known as ‘walkie talkies’, these two-way radio devices are one of the most commonly used radio types for all outdoor trips including camping, hiking, sledding, etc.

These devices are equipped with all the basic functionalities like weather alerts, NOAA updates, ability to work on both GMRS and FRS frequencies, etc.

Two-way radio sets come in quite handy when you’re traveling with a group, as they allow you to communicate with each other from a distance with a lot of voice clarity. With decent battery life and convenient usage, these backcountry radios can be a good choice for your next outdoor expedition.

With a number of models available in the market these days, we advise you to go through a two-way radio shopping guide before buying one of these radio sets.

Pros

  • 100+ privacy codes
  • 20+ channels
  • LED backlit display
  • Built-in flashlight
  • Waterproof/water-resistant
  • Decent range with voice clarity
  • Lightweight and compact design
  • No license required

Cons

  • Commercial VHF channels not supported
  • Poor compatibility with other brands
  • No SOS functionality

2. VHF Radios

VHF radio is another great way to stay in touch with the ‘outside’ world while you’re up in the mountains or any other backcountry destination. However, these radio devices usually require the owner to obtain a license.

As far as maritime rules are concerned, this license is based on an MMSI (Maritime Mobile Service Identity) number. The 9-digit unique number is assigned to a DSC radio or an AIS unit.

Just like a vehicle VIN number or your cell phone number, this will be your unique calling number for all DSC radios and ASI units. In case of an emergency, you can send SOS or distress signals using your MMSI number.

Moreover, programming these radio devices yourself is illegal in most countries. In order to make sure they work in the area where you’re headed, you’ll need to contact the manufacturer.

Pros

  • Longer range than two-way radios
  • Better durability
  • Ability to send distress or SOS Signals
  • Waterproof
  • NOAA weather channels

Cons

  • Requirement of license to operate
  • Programming device yourself is not allowed

3. Satellite Communication

If you have a worrying spouse or a parent at home with whom you want to stay in touch throughout your outdoor trip, a satellite device might do the job!

These devices are able to send or receive messages, and can also notify authorities when you press the ‘SOS’ button.

Regardless of your destination, you can maintain communication even in areas where other devices might not work. However, these devices are not meant to communicate with other members within a group.

So if you are going on a solo outdoor trip, a satellite device might be your life-saver!

Pros

  • Lightweight and compact
  • Includes GPS
  • SOS functionality that notifies relevant authorities
  • Assists in search and rescue efforts

Cons

  • Higher cost of ownership due to monthly or yearly charges
  • Voice communication not supported
  • Can’t be used as backcountry radios

4. Satellite Phone

As compared to a satellite device that we discussed above, a satellite phone takes the game one step ahead by offering voice communication instead of just messages.

Since these devices are pretty expensive to own due to the monthly or yearly fee, you might not see a lot of campers or hikers having a satellite phone with them.

However, if you want to maintain voice communication with the outside world while you’re in the mountains, a satellite phone can come in quite handy.

Pros

  • Allows voice communication
  • Comes with a decent range
  • Assists in search and rescue efforts
  • Connection is established 5-10 seconds after power on

Cons

  • Expensive to own due to monthly/yearly charges
  • Can’t be used as a radio device

Things to Consider Before Buying a Radio Set

Before buying a radio set for your next outdoor trip, keep the following factors in mind:

Range

If you’re going for a two-way radio set, make sure it comes with sufficient range even under challenging weather conditions or on variable ground terrains.

Weight & Size

Since you’ll be carrying your outdoor gear with you, buying a radio device that’s heavy or too big to fit your pocket might not make too much sense.

Battery Life

You don’t want your radio battery to give up on you at the wrong time. Make sure the battery life of your radio set is good enough (usually you would get 8-20 hours for two-way radios or satellite devices).

Emergency Options

Never buy backcountry radios that don’t come with basic NOAA updates. Similarly, for satellite devices, SOS functionality should be a must. These features could play a vital role in your or your group members’ safety during a bad situation.

Final Thoughts

Various factors and aspects will determine which specific radio type or brand you should go for.

These factors might vary from one person to another, however, the basic elements in terms of safety features, battery life or price remain the same.

Always study and analyze your destination well so that you know what your requirements are and which radio device will meet those requirements within the budget that you have.

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