Gear Talk: Radios in the Backcountry

using radios for Backcountry Skiing and Mountaineering
Matt Jones checks in using the BCA Link Radio before dropping in, Jones Pass, Colorado- photo by Bianca Germain

Over the last few years I’ve realized how important being able to quickly and clearly communicate with my partners in the mountains is. So much so that I’ve added a pair of hand-held radios to my “essentials” list. I started using BCA Link Radios while working on Mount Washington to stay in touch with other guides who worked for the same outfitter I did. After missing this reliable way to communicate on a recreational ski tour I started taking them with me on every ski trip. I also find them well suited to alpine and ice climbing gullies with long technical pitches that end at anchors out of sight (Pinnacle Gully and Black Dike are perfect examples).

The ease of being able to clearly communicate without yelling over the roar of the wind or interpret “rope tugs” adds greatly to your risk management strategies. Other benefits include being able to monitor National Weather Service current conditions and forecasts for your regions, summon outside help outside of cell phone coverage, and even tune into local FM stations on some models. I’ll share a few models worth looking at if you need to pick up a set of radios to improve your capabilities in the mountains.


Backcountry Access BC Link

BCA Link Radio

We had a fleet of these at the guide service I first worked with. They are simple to use, rugged, and convenient. The “Smart Mic” allows you to access all the controls you need without having to take the radio out of your pack. Equipped with 22 FRS and GMRS channels and 121 sub-channels it is compatible with all standard FRS/GMRS radios.

  • Group Communication System with Smart Mic and base unit
  • Water- and dust-resistant to IP56 standards
  • Compatible with all standard FRS/GMRS radios
  • 2.5-mile line-of-sight range ensures adequate coverage
  • 140 hour maximum battery life keeps unit running all day (3.7 Volt Lithium Ion)
  • Temperature operating range between -4F to 158F
  • Smart Mic is compatible with 3.5mm TS or TRS earphone plug
  • Battery charger included

Pros: Super user friendly to first time radio owners. No licenses needed to operate. Rugged and Water Resistant (IP56). Convenient Smart Mic. Can program local NWS channel for weather updates. Integrates well with BCA line of Airbags and Stash backpacks. Removable battery means you can bring extra batteries on a trip.

Cons: A little pricey but discounted now that there is a new version out! Can not program channels that would require a license to use outside of emergencies.


Backcountry Access BC Link 2.0

BCA Link 2.0 Radio

The new version boosts some significant improvements over the time tested original. More power means greater range, with the 2.0 offering up to 6 miles (line of sight), more than double the range of the original. A stronger battery (2300mAh lithium ion) also gives you more time between recharging (400 hours vs 140 hours in the original). A redesigned Smart Mic claims to better shed snow when you’re riding in face shot territory.

  • Two-way radio built for backcountry touring
  • Smart Mic offers glove-friendly handling
  • Rechargeable battery offers 400 hours of standby power
  • Recommended line-of-sight usable range of 6 miles; max of approximately 40-miles

Pros: Super user friendly to first time radio owners. No licenses needed to operate. Rugged and Water Resistant (IP56). Convenient Smart Mic. Can program local NWS channel for weather updates. Integrates well with BCA line of Airbags and Stash backpacks.

Cons: Pretty expensive, but this is a high-end choice in the realm of FRS/GRMS radios. Can not program channels that would require a license to use outside of emergencies. Battery is no longer removable so you can’t bring extra batteries (but you can charge with a standard charger or USB)


BaoFeng BF-F8HP

radios for backcountry skiing

The last few years I’ve been using the BaoFeng BF-F8HP and have been quite happy with them. With up to 8 watts of output they have great range. They can be programmed for FRS/GRMS. They can also be programmed to monitor and broadcast on licensed channels so care must be given you do not break FCC rules. You can listen to FM radio while the radio still monitors the channel your group is using, so if a communication is received the radio automatically mutes the FM radio station you were rocking out to while skinning up that non-consequential slope. You can also monitor National Weather Service regional weather.

Pros: Affordable. Dual band (monitor two channels at same time). Listen to local FM radio while hanging around camp or moving through no risk terrain. Can program local State and Federal frequencies to be used in case of emergency*

Cons: Not as water/weather resistant as the BCA Link Radios. I’ve ruined two in accidental immersion incidents (waterfall rappelling). In heavy rain I would want to keep this in the pack, maybe in a dry sack. “Boom mic” is not included and not as glove-friendly as BC Link Radios. I keep this radio out on my shoulder strap. Care must be given that you do not broadcast on frequencies that require licensing. If you need a fleet of them it’s good to have someone with a data cable and the PC software “Chirp” to program them.


What is legal?

Navigating what frequencies don’t require a license can be tricky. The BC Link Radios are quite powerful FRS/GRMS radios that keep it simple. The BaoFeng can land you a $15,000 fine if you are caught using licensed channels. Because of this I’ve decided to pursue an Technician license. An even easier to get license is the “Amateur” license and would probably make these issues even clearer.

You are allowed to monitor (listen) to channels that require a license to transmit on. You are also allowed to transmit on these channels without a license in the case of a real emergency. From the FCC:

Part 97.403: Safety of life and protection of property.

No provision of these rules prevents the use by an amateur station of any means of radio communication at its disposal to provide essential communication needs in connection with the immediate safety of human life and immediate protection of property when normal communication systems are not available.

All that said I’m looking forward to pursing a license so I can better answer these questions.


Summary

While some of the details of licensing can be unclear (without proper education) one thing that is clear is that handheld radios like these help us travel more safely and efficiently in the mountains. Here is an example of a conversation that could not happen with out radios from the top of a backcountry ski run:

“Dropping in 3” – alerts group I’m starting the first pitch of my ski run.

“Clear”- let’s group know next person can follow, I’ve stopped at a safer spot.

Even outside of avalanche terrain radios can assist with conveying hazards as they are discovered.

“Stay hard right at first corner to avoid a water bar”

In an alpine climbing scenario easily talking with your belayer when 50 meters apart and out of sight is comforting. None of the “Did he say off belay or OK?”. Was that three tugs or does she just need more slack?

Having both NWS weather updates and FM stations (BaoFeng) on long trips can help keep you informed and improve morale if stuck in your tent for an extra day waiting for good weather.

All of these reasons are why radios have become a part of my “essentials” every time I go into the mountains. Once you start using them you’ll wonder why you haven’t been using them all along!

Disclaimer: I do not have any level of radio license and information provided above may be incorrect. I will update this post after I have acquired a license but would love any comments from current licensed operators below and will make suggested edits where appropriate!

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start

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