Guide to Two-Way Radio Services (CB, GMRS, MURS, FRS, Amateur) for the Trail

Abend

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This is going to be a lengthy post. I’ve seen similar radio questions come up a few times. I’ve been an electronics and radio geek since I was in elementary school and I’ve had my ham radio license for over 25 years, so I thought maybe I’d spend a little time putting together a comprehensive post regarding radio communication options in the United States as it pertains to off-roading. Hopefully this can serve as a useful guide to someone.

Picking the Right Radio Service

Let me just cut to the chase on this one. If you’re joining an existing group, you can stop reading now and just buy what they use.

If you’re not joining a group but want to be able to talk to others on the trail or want to join up with multiple other groups for specific events, your best bet is going to be to install a mobile CB and have a handheld FRS or GMRS radio, as those are the most common choices. The reason I recommend installing a mobile CB rather than using a handheld is that shrinking a CB antenna to handheld size and putting it inside a vehicle shrinks your effective range down to something more like 1/4 mile or less. That being said, if you're mostly going to wheel in areas where GMRS has pretty much replaced CB radio, you probably will never use it.

If you run trails by yourself in desolate, quiet places, a SPOT or satellite phone is the simplest, most user-friendly, and reliable option to get help in an emergency. You can even rent them for short trips.

If you don’t fall into any of those categories or just want to know more, read on!

CB Radio Service

This is the most well-known, and at least in my part of the country, the most popular option. Under most conditions, you can expect around 0.5-3 miles of range, depending on the terrain. CB uses either AM or SSB modulation, which means that transmissions will come in both louder and clearer when someone is right next to you and slowly get quieter and more distorted as distance increases. If you buy a more expensive CB with single-sideband (SSB) capability, you’ll roughly double the effective range when using SSB, but everyone in your group needs to have an SSB-capable radio to take advantage of that.

Pros:
  • No license required
  • Inexpensive, readily available radios
  • Lots of other off-road guys already have one
  • 40 channels, usually easy to find an available one
  • Occasionally handy to find out what lane you want in a highway traffic jam
Cons:
  • While handheld radios are available (and work well for spotters), you really need to have a vehicle-mounted antenna to get any decent range
  • Large antennas are needed due to the low frequency
  • Relatively short range
  • Handheld CB radios tend to be larger and more expensive than handhelds for other radio services and there aren’t many options
  • Lots of noise and static, even at relatively close range
  • May not want to have the radio on if you worry about what words your kids will hear
General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS)

This is already the most popular option in some parts of the country and is slowly to replacing CB radios everywhere else due to its superior audio quality and range. This service requires a license, but it only costs $70 for 10 years, covers your whole family, and is granted within 24 hours of applying on the FCC’s website. It uses the same frequencies as FRS (which means you can use the two together for people who aren’t licensed) but you get higher transmit power, can use an external antenna, and can make use of repeaters for longer-range communication.

Pros:
  • Frequency overlap with FRS means you can talk to people who don’t have their GMRS licenses
  • Up to 50 watts of transmit power on channels 15-22 and 5 watts on channels 1-7
  • External antennas are permitted, so 50W mobile radios with properly installed rooftop antennas will have a range of at least 5-10 miles if you don’t have any hills, canyon walls, or mountains between you. The range will be somewhere around 25% to 30% of that for a pair of handheld radios inside vehicles, and about halfway in-between for a handheld to a mobile installation.
  • Can be used with repeaters to allow significantly extended range and communication over mountains and other obstacles (see https://mygmrs.com/)
  • FM, so voice communication is clear and without static so long as you are in range
Cons:
  • Finding an unused channel can be a challenge at times
  • The radio frequencies used by FRS and GMRS are more readily absorbed by dense vegetation than lower frequencies
  • License is required – no test, but it does cost $70 for 10 years and covers your family. Update: On 12/29/2020 the FCC announced that the fee will be reduced to $35, but the effective date for that change is still TBD.
Getting licensed – The FCC’s website doesn’t exactly have the most intuitive user experience, but the good folks at Midland have a fairly straightforward walkthrough of the process here: https://midlandusa.com/why-do-i-need-a-gmrs-license-how-do-i-get-it/

Family Radio Service (FRS)

These radios are sold just about everywhere. You can usually get at least about a mile or so of range on the high power channels and they have the distinct advantage of not requiring any sort of permanent installation.

Pros:
  • No license required
  • Inexpensive, readily available radios
  • Cheap enough to carry extras for anyone who needs one
  • Lots of other off-roaders already have one
  • 22 channels (channels 8-14 are low power (0.5 Watts) only)
  • FM, so voice communication is clear and without static as long as you are in range
  • Shared frequencies with GMRS
Cons:
  • External antennas not allowed – available as handheld radios only, so range is limited
  • The radio frequencies used by FRS and GMRS are more readily absorbed by dense vegetation than lower frequencies
  • These are probably the most common two-way radios in America, so finding an unused channel can be a challenge if you’re in an area with lots of jeep groups
Multi-Use Radio Service (MURS)

This service is relatively unknown. Like CB and FRS, no license is required. You’re not likely to be able to summon help from an outsider with one of these radios since almost no one has them. Expect a mile or two of range using the built-in antenna on a handheld radio, and about 4 miles if using vehicle-mounted antennas.

Pros:
  • VHF frequency travels through forest and vegetation better than FRS
  • Almost no one is using this on the trails, so you are unlikely to experience interference with other groups
  • Allows for an external antenna, significantly increasing the usable range if you mount one on your vehicle
  • FM, so voice communication is clear and without static so long as you are in range
  • Inexpensive radios are available
Cons:
  • Unlikely that a random group you want to join up with on the trail will also be using MURS radios
  • Only 5 channels to choose from, so if MURS suddenly gets more popular, it might be hard to find a free channel to use
  • You may find yourself accidentally talking to drive-thru employees or Walmart stock boys if you’re in town
  • Of essentially no use in summoning emergency help even if others are nearby, since they probably don’t have a MURS radio
Amateur Radio Service (AKA Ham Radio)

The Amateur Radio Service’s goals (as far as the US Government is concerned) are to maintain a pool of technical talent for national defense purposes and to advance the state of the art in radio communications. However, the most common use of the service is simply talking to other hams. To obtain a license, you must be able to pass a proctored test consisting of questions about regulations, operating procedures, and basic electronics and radio theory. If you have a good memory, you can memorize the question pool, but I’d encourage anyone looking to go this route to learn the basics to the best of their ability.

Pros:
  • Unlike any other radio service, you have a wide range of frequency bands from which to choose, each with its own unique propagation characteristics. HF frequencies (up to 30MHz) travel further and are reflected by the upper layers of the atmosphere, making direct long distance communication possible, even on modest power levels. VHF frequencies (30-300MHz) penetrate vegetation well. UHF frequencies (300MHz-3GHz) are preferred for urban environments with lots of buildings.
  • Power is capped at 1500 Watts on most bands, so realistically, power is not ever going to be your limiting factor
  • Widespread repeater networks on VHF and UHF mean that you can communicate and/or call for help from almost anywhere in the continental US with a relatively inexpensive radio
  • It’s extremely unlikely you’ll have trouble finding an unused frequency for your group to use
Cons:
  • Technical knowledge is a requirement both for being licensed and to effectively use most amateur radio equipment
  • The biggest obstacle to using this as your primary communication method on the trail with a large group is the testing requirement
  • Potential to turn into an expensive hobby that eats into your jeep fund
Getting licensed – You just have to pass a test. At present, no fee is charged for the license, but on 12/29/2020 the FCC announced that a $35 fee will be charged after a yet-to-be-determined date. You can find lots of resources online, or you can do it the old fashioned way and read books. Here are a few online resources:
Private Land Mobile Radio Service – Industrial/Business (Business Band)

Theoretically, if you have an officially incorporated club, you can apply for a license to use itinerant frequencies (these are frequencies that are licensed to people who intend to use them in lots of different places instead of specifying a specific area on your license). I don’t personally know anyone who has actually gone through the trouble to do this, mostly because there aren’t a whole lot of advantages over GMRS or MURS, but it is an option.

Pros:
  • One license covers everyone in the club
  • VHF and UHF frequencies are both available
  • FM, so voice communication is clear and without static so long as you are in range
Cons:
  • To be legal, you need a part 90 type accepted radio, which is basically useless for anything but communication on your club’s frequencies
  • Painful license process
  • Your assigned frequencies might be in use by someone else in the area you are wheeling in, in which case you’ll need to work out some kind of agreement with the other licensed user
Getting licensed - MORR has a writeup on the process here: https://myoffroadradio.com/private-radio-channel-for-my-off-road-club/

Other Options…

The options I mentioned above are the ONLY legal two-way radio options here in the US. I get that a lot of jeep folks are of a rebellious nature, but just be aware that if you are buying any other type of radio than what’s listed above you are taking on some risk of legal consequences. The things that will probably land you in hot water are…
  • Using public service (Fire/Police/EMS) or military frequencies
  • Using amateur radio frequencies without a license (there are tons of guys who enjoy the thrill of hunting illegal transmissions)
  • Using someone else’s GMRS repeater without a license
  • Transmitting with illegal power levels (though you would probably get away with this on CB)
  • Causing interference with legitimate users of a given frequency
If you avoid the above behaviors, chances are you won’t have any trouble, but with all the legal options that are available I would strongly encourage everyone to pick one of those.

Hopefully this long post helps folks who are trying to figure out the right radio to buy. If you have questions or if I got something wrong, by all means, let me know.





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Sting_NC_USA

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Excellent work, thanks for taking the time to put this together Jeremy!
 

MichaelAnthony

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I appreciate it very much.... going to get a ham license and just continue on.... It's crazy that people use all 3 of them now... i should say I just purchased the GMRS because of JJ and that is what a lot of people are using more often these days. While I was in Moab there were a lot of people using them so there was a lot of talk over (getting stepped on).
 

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While I was in Moab there were a lot of people using them so there was a lot of talk over (getting stepped on).
I'll add a quick reminder that GMRS/FRS does have the option to use "privacy" tones/frequencies that allow users with matching tone/frequencies to mute out all other comms.

Additional friendly reminder that said "privacy" tones/frequencies are not actual private (at all). Everyone else on the same channel (not using the tones/frequencies) will still be able to hear everything being said...but they won't be able to transmit/join the conversation without the matching tone/frequency.
 

Coops4284

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Great read and great job putting this together. I know that Jeep Jamboree is going to GMRS for 2021. The two clubs I wheel with all use GMRS. The license is easy to get from the FCC, and $70 for 10 years is not bad at all. I currently have a handheld Beofeng, but will be putting a mounted unit in the rig.
 
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Abend

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I'll add a quick reminder that GMRS/FRS does have the option to use "privacy" tones/frequencies that allow users with matching tone/frequencies to mute out all other comms.

Additional friendly reminder that said "privacy" tones/frequencies are not actual private (at all). Everyone else on the same channel (not using the tones/frequencies) will still be able to hear everything being said...but they won't be able to transmit/join the conversation without the matching tone/frequency.
I think that feature ends up contributing to the problem of people transmitting over top of one another since they can't hear the other people using the same frequency. With the increased range of GMRS over CB, radio etiquette (like using the minimum transmit power you need and making sure the frequency is not in use before transmitting) starts to get more important.
 

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Abend, Thanks for taking the time to put this FAQ together.

Coincidentally, My wife bought me a B-Tech GMRSv1 handheld for Christmas. I wonder if she saw your post. :)


- I saw an after Christmas deal on the Wouxun KG-805G, so I returned the Btech. The Wouxun has a highter TX power (5w vs. 2w) and the reviews seem to indicate better build quality as well.
 
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Ruby Mike

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Many thanks for such an informative read. I have the ham radio and about 15 years ago took the technician license then went ahead and upgraded to first general then extra. I personally went with the memorize the question bank, which is a lot of questions to remember. But once taken and passed, you never have to take the exam again, so long as you keep your license active. The actual cost of getting a license is free. The people who administer the test may have a small charge.
 

PillowFightr

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Thanks for the excellent write up! This is awesome!

So it looks like everyone is going the GMRS route instead of the Ham route.. Which makes sense..
No need for a billion channels and what not.. All we need is a good way to communicate on the trail with other offroaders. thats all!
 
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Abend

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So it looks like everyone is going the GMRS route instead of the Ham route.. Which makes sense..
No need for a billion channels and what not.. All we need is a good way to communicate on the trail with other offroaders. thats all!
GMRS is a great fit for off-road comms, though as others have noted, the limited number of channels becomes a constraint in areas like Moab during off-road events. I was in the Ouray/Telluride area over Labor Day weekend and used GMRS to stay in contact. I don't think we ever had a single instance of someone else using the same channel we were on and there were jeeps everywhere.
 
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Abend

Abend

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@Abend Great post. Lots of good info.

I posted this on another thread as well, FCC recently approved lowering the GMRS license to $35. It should hopefully go into effect soon. So may want to wait a few weeks if planning on getting yours.

https://www.buytwowayradios.com/blog/2020/12/fcc-approves-new-ham-and-gmrs-license-fees.html
Thanks, I missed that announcement this week. Looks like they haven’t scheduled an effective date for this yet. The bad news is that amateur radio licenses won’t be free anymore, but $35 isn’t too hard to swallow. I’ll update my original post with that info.
 

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