I am almost always near a radio listening for any emergencies, but often do not reply to general radio traffic. If you are looking for me on the radio, ask for me by name. If you are planning a day trip, let me know and I'll listen for your specific radio traffic until I receive an "all clear" from you. If you choose to use me as your emergency backup, you should know that my home base station goes off around 9PM every night unless I know someone is still out and has yet to check in. So, either let me know to listen or have your emergencies at a more convenient time. Email for a list of the repeater frequencies I commonly monitor.
We're well off pavement upwards of two or three times mid-week. Very rarely will we ever come across other people and they are usually as surprised as we are. Don't rely on luck for your safety. At the very least, get yourself a network of friends with vehicles capable of reaching you in an emergency and give them your travel details.
Knowing that we travel remote and alone, I'm obsessive with our vehicle maintenance, but even with the best of planning, emergency issues can't always be avoided. For those situations, you need to communicate.
We originally went with one of the Spot Connect devices that sends pre-written text messages by satellite to people we've selected in advance. As the message is released, it also provides the recipient with current GPS coordinates. The idea was appealing to us because we almost never have cell service in the mountains and we liked the idea of using satellites.
The problem was it often took too long to connect to a satellite and we'd get too impatient to wait. It would often take several minutes to connect and later we would find that many messages were never received. It's possible that the new releases of the SPOT devices have corrected the connectivity issue, but the failure to reliably connect and communicate did not offer the safety confidence we required and we began to research for a more reliable and immediate form of communications.
There was a time when CB radio would have been a good choice, but it has a low 4 watt maximum output and even with amplification (which is illegal), the chances of someone listening and within range when you needed help would be very slim.
Licensing for ham radio operation requires a small fee and an exam. If you do not have a ham radio license, you can still legally own a ham radio and listen to ham frequencies, but you are not permitted to transmit on ham frequencies. Transmitting on ham frequencies without a license is only allowable in the event of an emergency. I know people who have owned ham radios for many years without a license.
Another radio option available is GMRS. General Mobile Radio Service transmits in the FM UHF spectrum. You may be familiar with GMRS from store shelves advertising outrageous transmission distances of 20+ miles. Even with line of sight, don't expect much more than a mile with them because those bubble-pack radios are limited to around half a watt of transmit power. Realistically, expect about a quarter mile from them.
If you get a GMRS license from the FCC, you are allowed up to 50 watts of transmit power and access to other frequencies. There is no test to obtain the GMRS license. The license costs around $80 and it covers your entire immediate family. If you need reliable, clear, long distance, repeater-capable communications, but do not have an interest in amateur radio or wish to study and test for the ham exam, GMRS is a great alternative.
Obtain your FCC GMRS license here.
Register for an FCC account and sign in.
At the top left of the page, select "Apply for a new license".
Under "Select Service", scroll through the options and select code:
"ZA - General Mobile Radio (GMRS)"
Follow instructions to complete the process.
For most people these days, cost is an issue. With so many businesses and agencies using the newer digital radio technology, you can find great deals on used equipment. Try searching Ebay for "UHF Mobile Radio" and make sure it covers 462 and 467 Mhz if you plan on communicating with the rest of our group. A Mobile Radio is mounted permanently or semi-permanently in your vehicle. You can purchase brand new Chinese made UHF mobile radios in the $150 range, but I would prefer the quality of a used Motorola, Kenwood, or Icom in the $50 range because they were designed for constant duty, reliable use.
There are several local GMRS high elevation repeaters able to receive and repeat a signal over the entire Las Vegas valley and well beyond with enough elevation and clear line of sight. My <5 watt GMRS handhelds can reach the high elevation repeaters from over 10 miles away. My 50 watt GMRS mobile can easily and reliably reach the high elevation repeaters from anywhere in the LV valley, Lake Mead, Goodsprings, Ivanpah, Nelson, Red Rock Canyon, and Tecopa with enough clearance and elevation.
My furthest contact using a local repeater was with someone in China Lake, CA. About 120 miles away. My furthest simplex (radio to radio without the use of a repeater) contact was with someone just North of Palm Springs, CA which is roughly 150 miles away. Admittedly, I was near the peak of Potosi Mountain at an elevation of just over 6,000 feet and the other station was near another peak at close to 4,000 feet, but that will give you an idea of the reach in ideal conditions.
Whatever form of communications you decide, just make sure you use it and use it often. Communications only work when someone is listening. I almost always monitor local GMRS open repeaters while driving and from my home base station.
Our 2 Meter, 70 Centimeter, GMRS Mobile Amateur Radio System
After a lot of research, we settled on a ham radio option. The Yaesu FT-7900. It's a dual band radio with a maximum 50 watt output on VHF and 45 watt output on UHF. More than enough to reach others many miles away and there are still many ham radio operators. Using local and linked repeaters, our range was extended to across the country and around the world.
We purchased this radio just as technology was transitioning between analog and digital. Had we known of the pending changes and trends in radio technology, we would have waited for a more affordable digital radio.
One of the factors in finalizing my radio decision was the size of the radio. It would be mounted in a Jeep Commander. It's a larger vehicle than our previous Wrangler, but for some reason it felt like it had less mounting options. Some of the Yaesu models feature an option to separate the control face from the CPU. It took me a while to decide on a mounting spot for the control face.
After much positioning, I decided on a spot above the rear view mirror. I chose that spot because it was out of the way, but visible. I also found that my peripheral vision was better looking up than looking down.
There was a deal where the kit to separate the control face from the CPU was included in the sale. Strangely enough, the separation kit did not include a way to separate the microphone from the control face and Yaesu does not sell a cable to remote mount the microphone. The microphone plug is on the right side of the control face. I tried wrapping the mic cord around the rear view mirror, but it kept falling and I didn't like the sloppy look of it.
After a day of tucking the mic cord, I went to Radio Shack and bought a 6-pin RJ cord and a 6-pin cable connector. There are cords with a reverse or straight wire pattern. If you go with this radio and choose to remote mount your microphone, you'll want to get the
cord with the straight through pattern.
Using my handy rotary tool, I found a good spot to mount the cable connector forward of the gear shifter. The cord passes through the console, finding its way up the passenger side A-pillar to the control face. Try to find a shielded cable if you can. I was not able to locate one locally, so I was careful to avoid other wires that may create interference.
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The problem with using that location to mount the head unit was the speaker of the FT-7900 is built into the case. I was able to hear the speaker, but volume had to be high and even at high volume it was muffled. I bought a small external speaker made by MFJ that I mounted forward of the rear view mirror. The box directly in front of the mirror would be used for the headlight auto-dimmer and/or the auto-cruise range finder if this Commander were so equipped, which it is not. The speaker is mounted just forward of that, closest to the glass.
The heart of the radio was remote mounted to a location under the driver side dash. There is a panel that flips down that offered concealment, access to wiring, and ventilation. The Yaesu FT-7900 has a built in fan, but still should be mounted in an area allowing free air exchange. Being so close to the fuse box, wiring was simple. Using a fuse tap in an unused fuse port provided more than enough power for the radio to transmit at full power without dimming or fading.
For foot travel, I have a set of six handhelds programmed for simplex (direct connect) and local repeaters. You can see them charging at the bottom left. With the handhelds, we're able to communicate directly for a few miles and activate various repeaters depending on elevation and conditions.
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GMRS is the preferred radio communications of VegasUnderworld.
Being at ear level without obstructions, the speaker can be extremely loud. I barely turn it up to around an eighth of volume and often find that too loud. At all volumes, audio comes through extremely clear.
Antenna's and mounts can get very expensive, but that's not the place you want to try to save money in a radio system. A great radio with a bad antenna will result in a bad system. I chose the Comet CA2X4SR based solely on the great reviews at various ham forums. I
won't pretend to know why it's such a great antenna. People much more experienced and smarter say it is, so I trusted their judgement.
Ideally, I would want to mount the antenna dead center of the roof, but I'm in and out of parking garages almost daily. The antenna I chose was 40" tall. After the lift and tires, our Commander stands about 6 inches over stock. I would eventually forget to remove the antenna and it would be destroyed. At a cost of $70 for the antenna, that would be an expensive mistake.
I chose convenience over performance with the mounting location. It still clears well over the roof line, so any loss is minimal. Since there are so many repeaters in and around Las Vegas, I didn't think I would notice any performance loss. I can't remember the brand of antenna mount I went with, but it's the lip and fender type of mount. The cost of the mount was in the $40 range. It sits opposite the radio antenna and compliments the look of the Jeep well. It doesn't stand out like antenna's do on some vehicles. From my position, it's mostly blocked by the A-pillar, so I never notice it.