Overland Communications Guide – FRS Vs. GMRS Vs. CB Vs. HAM (Amateur Radio)

Overland Communications: How To Communicate When Overlanding or Off-Roading in Your 4Runner

Overland Communications: How To Communicate When Overlanding and Off-Roading – A Quick Guide to FRS, GMRS, CB, and HAM (Amateur Radio)

Communication. It is one of the most important aspects of life. Without communication, it would be very difficult to interact with others. Having proper communication gear for overlanding and when out exploring is essential. Whether you are rock crawling the Rubicon or Fordyce or out on a 50-mile forest road with some friends enjoying the scenery, every rig should have some form of communication with them at all times. Communication not only makes your trip safe, but it also makes it enjoyable. Being able to communicate with others gives everyone a sense of community when out on the trail. It’s a must-have addition to the overland and offroad explorer in all of us and today we’re going to cover your top 4 options; FRS, GMRS, CB, and HAM (Amateur Radio).

In this article, I will cover some of the tested and proven methods of communication that I have personally used. For the most part, everything pictured here is from Midland. They make very dependable communication equipment in all categories; from overland to biking and hiking to business as usual, Midland has you covered.

Let’s get started!

In my opinion, there are four main forms of communication that can be used while out on the trail, such as:

  • Verbal and hand communication
  • Cell Phone
  • Satellite Communicator
  • Radios

In order to better understand the application, use, and effectiveness of each method I will discuss each form of communication listed above.

#1. Verbal and Hand Communication

Technical Spot towards the peak of the ridge

This form of communication might seem like an easy one to think of, but it is one of the most widely used forms of communication on the trail. Talking or using hand signals to directly communicate with someone is a surefire method that has stood the test of time. If possible, this is the best method of communication as no batteries, electricity, satellites, or repeater towers are needed.

There is one big drawback though…you have to be within very close proximity to someone in order for verbal communication to be effective. This rules out vehicle-to-vehicle communication or any sort of communication over miles of terrain. In addition, hand signals are not quite universal. While there are some hand signals that are understood by most offroaders when wheeling hard, there are a lot of hand signals that you might not know, or might mean something different to someone else.

In summary, verbal communication from person to person is best, but it is limited in range. Obviously, it’s best when spotting someone through a section of a trail. It will be utilized for that purpose forever. Outside of that, let’s look at some technical communications.

#2. Cell Phone

Air Vent Phone Holder for the 5th Gen Toyota 4Runner

The next best form of communication in my opinion is cell phones. Cell phone coverage is getting better each day. Cell phones allow verbal communication and text messages as well. Not only this, but many modern smartphones can offer various tools and apps to help you out with navigation, weather forecasts, etc. Without a doubt cell phones are a great form of communication if you have service. In my opinion, you should never leave home without a cell phone…they are such a great resource.

The big kicker with cell phones is when you are in a remote area that doesn’t have cell service. Not only this, but sometimes one person might have coverage, and another does not.

All in all, cell phones are great, but they are limited by coverage.

#3. Satellite Communicator

Overland Communications: How To Communicate When Overlanding or Off-Roading in Your 4Runner

If you venture off the beaten trail often or are routinely in areas where cell phone coverage is not available, you might be familiar with satellite phones and communicators. Satellite phones are common knowledge to most folks in the overlanding industry, but satellite communicators are not as well known, although they are making a huge shift in momentum over the past several years.

A satellite communicator, such as the Garmin InReach Mini, allows you to send text messages from practically anywhere in the world. These devices are awesome if you want to keep your loved ones updated on your journey periodically. I use a satellite communicator quite often when I go kayak fishing in remote locations to let my family know I am safe and keep them posted on any big fish I have caught. In the case of an accident, you can also trigger an SOS message that will notify and send first responders to your exact location. In addition, you can receive weather alerts.

Satellite communicators are pretty nifty, but they do have some drawbacks. First, they require a subscription for use. Subscriptions vary in costs and type of service. Next, thunderstorms or heavy cloud cover can impact their effectiveness to obtain a satellite signal as a clear view of the sky is important for a strong signal. Last, they are not a fast means of communication. You are essentially texting your message, sometimes with a device that only has 3-4 buttons. You can link a satellite communicator such as the Garmin InReach Mini to your cell phone via Bluetooth in order to text quicker and more efficiently, but it is an additional step you have to take in order to send a message. When you are out in the middle of nowhere it is worth it though.

I think satellite communicators are a great method for folks who truly go off the beaten path and I never leave my Garmin InReach Mini at home.

In my opinion, satellite communicators are a must if you go in areas less traveled…especially if you go on your own without another vehicle or group of people. I highly recommend the Garmin InReach Mini as a good, affordable option.

#4. Radios

Overland Communications: How To Communicate When Overlanding or Off-Roading in Your 4Runner

Radios have been around for quite some time and are used in a plethora of applications: military, security, law enforcement, events, etc.

Not all radios are the same though, there are a few different types:

  • FRS
  • GMRS
  • CB
  • Amateur

Radios are great because you can communicate over distance (sometimes quite a bit of distance) with a relatively small, cheap device. Now, this isn’t to say that radios can’t get expensive, because you can quickly spend some money on high dollar equipment…but you definitely can get a good product at a reasonable price.

What is the difference between all of these radios though?

Let’s find out!

FRS – Family Radio Service

Overland Communications: How To Communicate When Overlanding or Off-Roading in Your 4Runner

Family Radio Service (FRS) radios are debatably the most common and cheapest option on the market. They operate at a radio frequency of 462 – 467 MHz. FRS radios are your standard “walkie-talkies” and are most notably known for being a recreational use radio. You can find FRS radios at most sporting goods shops and even big-box supermarkets. The maximum power output allowed for FRS radios is 2 Watts. This maximum power can only be utilized on certain channels though, in accordance with FCC regulations.  The following breakdown shows what channels FRS can operate at and at what power:

462 MHz Main Channels (Channels 1 – 7)

  • Maximum power transmission of 2W

467 MHz Interstitial Channels (channels 8 – 14)

  • Maximum power transmission of .5W

462 MHz Main Channels (Channels 15 – 22)

  • Maximum power transmission of 2W

In short, you want to use the highest power channels if possible, as these will give you the best range and clarity.

Overland Communications: How To Communicate When Overlanding or Off-Roading in Your 4Runner

I use FRS radios frequently for multi-vehicle trips where we are all in relatively close proximity (about 1 mile), mountain biking, hiking, and kayaking. They are also great fun for kids to play with.

If needed, FRS radios (like most radio types) have the capability to reach NOAA weather channels so you can get current weather updates and forecasts.

Another great use for FRS radios is off-road spotting. Hand signals and yelling have been the standard for spotters when you are traversing across rough terrain, but FRS radios allow a spotter and driver to communicate with each other verbally, without yelling.

Overland Communications: How To Communicate When Overlanding or Off-Roading in Your 4Runner

In addition, no licenses are required to operate FRS radios! This means no classes, tests, or fees.

Last, FRS radios are cheap…. the cheapest option for radios available.

I just got back from a trip to New Mexico and the FRS radios I had come in handy while traveling on the road so I could communicate with family members in another car. In addition, when we found some good hiking trails, the radios provided a great means of communication.

All this said, FRS has some shortcomings.

For example, there is potential for much more noise/chatter when working with FRS radios because they are easily available to almost anyone since they are cheap and do not require a license. There are privacy channels that help with this, but in a crowded space, you might have some interference. At the end of the day, you can more than likely find a channel that isn’t occupied…you just might have to hunt for it.  I haven’t run into any radio chatter with FRS, but it definitely happens.

The range of FRS radios is not ideal. They are highly dependent on the structures around them. In general, don’t expect to get much more than ½ – 1 mile of range out of FRS radios. A range of ½ mile is very usable for a lot of scenarios though. You just need to be aware of the range and not expect to receive transmissions over 1 mile away.

So, what radio should you get if you want FRS technology? I utilize Midland X-Talker radios. They come in a pair of two, have 121 privacy channels, 36 channels (but really only 22 that are applicable), and a proven name to back their product.

These are great radios for all of the purposes I mentioned above. These are a must-have for any adventurist. While they may not have top-of-the-line technology, the technology they have works well and will definitely assist you on your journeys.

No doubt about it, you need to have a pair of FRS radios like these Midland X-Talkers as they will come in handy for a variety of purposes. I keep some in my car at all times, and they are great because I can hand one out and use the other.

Top Pick for FRS: 

  1. Midland X-Talker T71VP3 Two-Way Radio: Check Price

GMRS – General Mobile Radio Service

Overland Communications: How To Communicate When Overlanding or Off-Roading in Your 4Runner

General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) is similar to FRS, but with much better performance. GMRS operates in the same 462-467 MHz range; however, they can operate at much higher power output and have the capability to utilize repeater channels. Essentially, GMRS is a much more powerful FRS radio. GMRS radios can transmit up to 50 Watts whereas FRS can only have a power output of 2 Watts…this means GMRS radios will have a much better range. Here is the breakdown of what power output is allowable per each channel:

462 MHz Main Channels (Channels 1 – 7)

  • Maximum power transmission of 5W

462 MHz Main Channels (Channels 15 – 22)

  • Maximum power transmission of 50W

467 MHz Main Channels (Channels 15RP – 22RP)

  • Maximum power transmission of 50W

GMRS’ are great, but they also have their downsides.

For one, GMRS radios require a license. Don’t worry though, the license is only $70, lasts 10 years, is good for your entire family, and doesn’t require an exam. Not too shabby!

Overland Communications: How To Communicate When Overlanding or Off-Roading in Your 4Runner

Due to the larger power output, GMRS radios are almost always hard mounted. There are handheld units available (max power output of 5W), but hard-mounted mobile units are most common. A typical application for a GMRS radio is on the dash of a vehicle with power running directly from your car’s battery or a DC outlet.

Overall, even when considering a license fee and hard mounting, GMRS radios are awesome!

GMRS radios simply offer an advantage over FRS radios due to increased range and clarity from its more powerful output. 50W of output in comparison to 2W of output is a huge difference!

The great thing is GMRS radios and FRS radios can communicate with each other on certain channels. This means you could have a GMRS radio hard mounted in your vehicle and hand out FRS radios to your friends and be able to communicate. The only issue could be range. Your GMRS radio will be able to communicate over much further distances than an FRS radio.

Overland Communications: How To Communicate When Overlanding or Off-Roading in Your 4Runner

In my opinion, GMRS radios are for the person who wants more capability than an average radio. They want more range, more capability, and better quality. GMRS radios are a great choice for folks who frequent trails and want quality communication gear, but they do cost more than FRS and typically require mounting.

My choice for a GMRS radio is the Midland MXT275. This is a hard-mounted option at a cost affordable price.

Top Picks for GMRS:

CB – Citizens Band

Overland Communications: How To Communicate When Overlanding or Off-Roading in Your 4Runner

Citizens Band (CB) radio is one of the earlier radio inventions. It was created in the 1940s and is vastly used for military purposes. Midland Radio Corporation became the first CB radio manufacturer in the US during the 1960s. The general public started utilizing CBs, and the rest was history. CB’s were and are often used by truckers and the general public to communicate amongst one another and for emergency scenarios.

While CBs are still utilized and quite popular, it is my opinion that they have many superior competitors, such as GMRS and Amateur radios. CB’s are great, and they definitely have a place; however, they are old technology and newer, greater technology is on the block now.

In addition, CB radios are very unregulated – which is good and bad. No license is required, but you can find a lot of chatter on CB radios as a result. Especially in crowded areas near highways. CB’s can also be finicky if the antenna is not mounted properly. Furthermore, CB’s can only have a power of 4 watts. This is twice the amount an FRS can have, but over 12 times less than GMRS can have.

All this said, CBs are a good option and lots of people use CB radios on the trail, but I’d lean more towards GMRS or Amateur Radio if you are starting from scratch…even FRS.

Top Pick for CB: 

HAM – Amateur Radio

Overland Communications: How To Communicate When Overlanding or Off-Roading in Your 4Runner

Amateur Radio is the most powerful consumer option in general. You can have up to 1500 watts of power…30 times more powerful than GMRS. I’m going to quickly cover Amateur Radio, but I won’t dive too deep because there is a lot.

The first item to be noted is licensing. Unlike GMRS radio, Amateur Radio does require an exam which you can get on My Offroad Radio in addition to a small fee. However, Amateur Radio is extremely powerful. As noted, it can be up to 30 times more powerful than GMRS radios. This means more range.

Overland Communications: How To Communicate When Overlanding or Off-Roading in Your 4Runner

In addition, you are less likely to have interference/radio chatter because Amateur Radio is not quite as common amongst the general public.

You will also need to hard mount an Amateur Radio in your car.

If you are someone wanting the best equipment, Amateur Radio is for you. The only problem is unlike GMRS which can communicate with FRS too, Amateur Radio can only communicate with other Amateur Radio users by law. This is a substantial downside in my opinion because GMRS gives you a lot of flexibility for simply handing out some cheap FRS radios to folks who don’t have anything…but you can’t hand out an Amateur Radio.

Overland Communications: How To Communicate When Overlanding or Off-Roading in Your 4Runner

Amateur Radio is awesome if you have several rigs that you want to set up to communicate with one another, but you should definitely consider the potential of not being able to communicate with other folks who do not have Amateur Radio.

Top Picks for HAM:

  • Boafeng Radios: Check Price
  • Midland Currently out of stock on HAM radios

Final Thoughts

Overland Communications: How To Communicate When Overlanding or Off-Roading in Your 4Runner

Communication is an essential aspect of life. Overland communication equipment could be essential for saving your life. At the end of the day my recommendation is to have the following gear with you:

  • Cell Phone
  • Satellite Communicator
  • Two (2) FRS Radios
  • One (1) Hard Mounted GRMS Radio

The cell phone is a must-have and nearly everyone has one. Satellite communicators are needed because they can literally send a signal almost anywhere in the world…no radio has this capability. Last, I choose to utilize GMRS over CB or Amateur Radio due to versatility. While Amateur Radio offers more power and privacy, it lacks the flexibility to communicate with folks who only have FRS or GMRS radios. GRMS allows me to communicate with other GMRS radios and FRS radios… which is pretty cool.

At the end of the day, there are a lot of options. I choose Garmin for my satellite communications and Midland for radios. Garmin is well known for GPS devices, and they know what they are doing. Midland has been producing radios in the US for a long time and makes excellent products. You can’t go wrong with Garmin or Midland…but you can definitely go wrong with not having either. My personal choice for Midland Radios is the Midland MXT275 15 Watt GMRS radio. I have my radio mounted below the dash, near the emergency brake. The radio itself is wired to my sPOD BantamX and I have the handheld radio stored in my glove box until I need it. Then all I need to do is plug in the ethernet cable and I’m good to go!

Make sure you have good sources of communication while out on the trails. Become familiar with FCC regulations, what channels have the most power to transmit a radio signal, and general dynamics of using radios and other forms of communication. It will help you out on the trails and potentially be a lifesaver if the unexpected happens.

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Mike
Mike
18 days ago

Not bad, but not totally accurate either. The military has never officially been allocated in the CB band. Before CB became a thing, the CB band (27 MHz, or 11 meters) was a ham radio band.

Also neglected was amateur HF communications. There are places in the world where VHF (2-meters) and UHF (70 centimeters) will not produce a contact. But HF can reach worldwide, and there is nearly always someone somewhere who is listening.

Presently, in the desert south-west, I agree with the cell phone being #1. Satellite toys are a given, provided you can afford it. The rest are a toss-up. Along major highways you may find truckers monitoring on CB. The farther you get away from cities, the less likely you’ll get help from GMRS outside your own group. There are GMRS repeaters, but most are privately owned and closed. Amateur Radio has a very extensive repeater system, many of them networked together. But V/UHF being regional, there is the possibility no one is listening in the wee-hours.

Best solution – one of each! That is what I and my entire family did. Cell phones, satellite communicators, CB, GMRS, and HAM. And while most of the 4X4 club are dumping CB for GMRS, we’re a long ways away from that being universal.

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