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GMRS Radio for Desert Explorers Trips

GMRS Radio for Desert Explorers Trips

In our November DE newsletter, Chairman Lindsay Woods closed his column with “Just as a reminder the Desert Explorers are now using GMRS radios for communications on our trips. If you have not yet switched over do your research and put the GMRS radio of your choice on your Christmas list.”

 Some of you are ahead of the curve and already using GMRS on our trips, others, particularly newer members, may be wondering “Why bother?” Here’s why, the short version:

Why do I need a (another) radio? When we have a trip in the backcountry, radio is the most effective way to point out turns, hazards and interesting tidbits as we move along. On tracks that may have few (or no) signs or obvious landmarks, our group can move along safely and without losing any stragglers. Communications from the lead vehicle to the tail or “sweep” vehicle keeps everybody on the same page and is vital should an emergency arise.

What about CB radio? We have used CB radios for years. They’re cheap and easy. They also have a very limited range, have severe static around powerlines, have periods of long-range interference from other users, lots of background noise, and poor voice reproduction. Chances are if you have used CB you have been frustrated by these issues. In a group traveling in the backcountry, these problems can easily become a hazard in an emergency that requires clear communication to the whole group. CB has become less and less effective as the channels have become more and more crowded.

How about ham radio? Great solution, but not everyone wants to study and test for an amateur radio license. Ham radio is a terrific hobby and covers a broad spectrum of technical topics, few of which apply to our trail needs.

So why GMRS radio? It’s easy, it does what we need and does it well. It has many of the advantages of ham radio for trail use: it has much less background noise, clearer voice reproduction, less interference and covers longer distances than CB. It is also fairly inexpensive and super easy to use. Many GMRS radios are “plug and play” right out of the box. They are licensed, but without a test, much like purchasing a fishing license. Just a $35 fee and online registration.

GMRS will also do some very nice long-distance radio tricks with repeaters just like ham radio, but that’s really not needed for our trips. For more info on that feature, a quick trip to YouTube will give you an idea of how that works and why you might want to know more about it. Just know that you can use GMRS and repeaters to talk to folks at great distances if you need to.

OK, now what? Purchase a GMRS radio. They are available in mountable models and handheld models. Mountable models give you better sound, better controls and a better antenna. Handheld models have antennas mounted on the unit that are less effective inside a car since the body of the car interferes with the radio signal, both transmitting and receiving. If you do choose a handheld unit, be sure to get one with a detachable antenna and consider buying a magnetic mount antenna for the car roof or hood you can attach to the antenna plug. Walkie-talkie style GMRS units with non-detachable antennas won’t let you do that and they are also limited in power and range.

Here is an example of a mountable unit: Midland Micromobile MXT-275.

It comes with everything. Radio, antenna, cables and power plug. Plug the provided power cable into your cigar lighter power port, put the antenna on the roof or hood, plug in the mike and select a channel. That’s it. All the controls are in the microphone hand piece, as well as the speaker. There is also a speaker on the radio itself and you can choose to use either one or both. You can be up and running in less than five minutes and if you don’t want to mount the unit you can set it anywhere you have space in the vehicle and remove it after the trip. This unit is available on Amazon (https://www.amazon.com/Midland-MicroMobile-Two-Way-Integrated-Microphone/dp/B07FN2FBML) and other retailers for about $165. It has 15 watts of power which is plenty for trail needs.

There are also many handheld units available. One particularly good one is the Radioddity GM-30 for less than $30 on Amazon (https://www.amazon.com/Radioddity-GM-30-Handheld-Receiving-Overlanding/dp/B08SLR7W7F/ref=sr_1_9?crid=1W3D7AS71Y99K&keywords=handheld%2Bgmrs&qid=1701813381&s=electronics&sprefix=handheld%2Bgmrs%2Celectronics%2C180&sr=1-9&th=1). The manual can be a bit daunting, but as long as you know how to charge it, turn it on and set the channel, you’re ready to go. It has a boatload of features that you may never need or use, so be warned. An accessory magnetic mount antenna is recommended for in-car use. Charging is by USB-C, just like many laptops and cell phones.

Most of the walkie-talkie, fixed-antenna style GMRS units have lower power, usually only two watts, and may be limited to channels 1-7. Fine for hikes around camp and short distances, poor for vehicle use.

Once you have experienced the clarity and reduced static of GMRS you will wonder why you didn’t have one long ago. ~Jay

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