I am looking for a reliable and reasonably priced communication system primarily for backcountry skiing purposes (I assume that if it is good for backcountry skiing it is good for summer backpacking or MTB trips as well). The qualities I am looking for is the ability for reliable coverage in mountain environment, moisture and cold resistance, long battery life and low interference with avalanche transceiver (e.g., Mammut Barryvox).
We have tried a few different walkie-talkie brands ordered from amazon, and their performance almost falls short of their specs which might be met in the desert with the clear line of sight, but nearly useless in the mountains below tree line.
REI and other specialized outlets sell BCA BC Link 2.0 system which stands out from what I have seen so far, it is (I believe) sold in 1 piece set (we need at least two) and is substantially more expensive than anything I've see. It is a two-piece device which makes it kinda more attractive than hand-held devices, but I am worried about the potential interference with avy beacon.
Any suggestions and notes of experience?
Not sure if it's an option that you're interested in or not but I'm a HAM radio guy and always take a handheld radio with me. Mostly to tinker with but it's also viable and very reliable for emergency communication. The equipment can range from a $50 Baofeng BFF8 HP (an 8w VHF / UHF radio that's decent for voice over a couple of miles) to a $350+/- Yaesu FT3d (a 5w VHF / UHF + tons of digital cool things). Again, not sure if that'd be something you're interested in but it's definitely an option.
Thanks for the feedback.
Ham radio is a possibility, from what I read so far this has a bunch of benefits, e.g. best range and possibility of sending SOS to a monitored channel (or so I read). It takes some learning curve and certification to avoid problems with FCC, but benefits might be worth the hassle.
@Dmitry I still carry a mobile phone and PLB with me but (if two is one and one is none, what is three?) but still consider my HAM radio necessary gear. The learning curve is far easier than most folks realize (you can see the test questions and lot's of study tools for free at https://hamstudy.org ). Suffice it to say, I'm a huge fan :).
Great question! This led me down some really interesting reading, which I will tag at the end of this post in case you want to take a look. Firstly, I've used many different radios over the years in varying conditions (from backcountry trips to outdoor concerts to amusement parks), and, for the most part, all of them are going to struggle with coverage when there are obstacles in the way (anything from trees to buildings). I've used the Motorola Talkabout T800 2 Way Radios, the Midland GXT1000VP4 2 Way Radios, and an older version of the Motorola T110 2 Way Radios and, while they all have interesting differentiating features, for the most part they all performed similarly in rugged terrain under tree cover. Namely, I found that when hiking/biking through wooded areas, we could get reliable communication for about a mile or two and after that it was very hit or miss. When I was using these, the radios were on the FRS (Family Radio Service) band, which uses .5 watt of power. Some of them also have GRMS (General Radio Mobile Service) capability (which requires a license from the the FCC) but can give you up 1-2 watts of power. You can read a lot more detail about this in the Expert Advice article, How to Choose Two-way radios.
In terms of the Backcountry Access BC Link 2.0 Group Communication system, it seems to me that because it is designed for backcountry touring, it has a lot of the features you are looking for. Namely, durability, good performance in the cold, long battery life, and the ability to use it with gloves on.
I encourage you to read a couple of partnered studies done on this topic:
Those will likely provide significantly more information than you wanted, however, they are pretty interesting. Essentially, the papers indicate that you should defer to manufacturer's instructions on how far your radio should be from your avalanche transceiver when traveling in the backcountry.
Hopefully this helps, thanks!
One perk worth mentioning that you likely won't find with other two way communication options that you will fond with HAM radio is access to repeaters. Like the FRS and GMRS radios, the handheld HAM radios are line of sight but a repeater on mountain can extend line of sight out to 30+ miles (my record with a handheld was an 80+ mile contact in Maine from a $35 Baofeng). As long as both radios have line of sight to the repeater, you should have comms. Also, there will likely be others listening to the same repeater (handy if you get into trouble).
I decided to go with HAM radio option and will take the Technician license exam soon. In the meantime I am looking for the first HT. What would you recommend for a winter backcountry use? I am considering TYT MD-UV390 (has IP67 water resistance rating but reportedly not the best sound quality), Wouxun KG-UV7D (more powerful, 7W in UHF) and Yaesu FT-65 (overall favorable ratings, better battery). Do you have experience with any of these?
Also, have you tried MURS radios? MURS bands are not covered by the standard ham range (but many HTs transmit on these frequencies anyway), and cannot use repeaters, but might be a good option for at-resort communication.
Congratulations on the plan to get your HAM Radio License. I've enjoyed mine very much since getting it and have met folks literally all over the world through HAM radio. One thing that helped me tremendously while studying was the website hamstudy.org so, if you're looking for info on study guides, I can't recommend that one enough (and, it's free).
Regarding the radios, I'm definitely not the right person to ask for what one radio to buy :), but I'll give it a shot.
I use an Anytone AT-D868UV with a SignalStick antenna when I go backpacking. I use that one because a) it's fully field programmable (including DMR), so I can do anything I need to do to it without a computer. I also like programming them directly versus using a computer, b) it's an 8W radio, so I've got a little more umph when I need it, c) it's VHF, UHF and DMR and d) it's got excellent APRS support (I typically beacon APRS the whole time I'm on trail).
I don't have any experience with the TYT MD-UV390 but I did have a TYT MD-2017 and, after having it for a year or so, I sold it at a significant loss and didn't lose sleep over it. I just didn't like it. I don't know that there was anything specifically wrong with it, I just didn't like it.
I don't know anything about the Wouxun KG-UV7D but it looks pretty solid.
I don't have any expeience with the Yaesu FT-65 but I do have an FT-70D that I *absolutely love* (the battery life stinks, but I love the radio). I also have 2 Yaesu mobile radios and a Yaesu HF radio. It's safe to say that I'm a fan. I've seen a lot of folks that swear by the FT-65.
I don't have any experience with MURS. If you're looking at at-resort communications with a fellow HAM, I'd stick with HAM frequencies.
At the end of the day though, find a radio that you like and that you can program. The real-world difference between 5W and 8W is much less significant than the real-world difference between the stock 'rubber duckie' antenna that comes with most radios and a good antenna I am a huge fan of the SignalStick antennas and, in the back country, I typically carry a "roll-up j-pole" that I bought off of eBay for around $20.
I am also gravitating towards Yaesu. I checked the Amazon for Anytone, and it appears that there is a newer model, Anytone AT-D878UV with a higher price range and overwhelmingly positive reviews. I will chew upon this option.
I actually managed to talk a friend into getting the license as well. In the are of interest, there is a VHF repeater sitting right at the top of the ski resort, and that's the are where I will poke around next season in the side/backcountry.
@Dmitry I messed up with my copy - paste and can confirm that the 878 is the one that I have, I didn't notice that earlier. Definitely an awesome radio. If you've got a Ham Radio Outlet in your area, they're typically an excellent resource for everything eating free donuts , asking questions and buying gear. They've also usually got stuff on consignment, so you may be able to save some money or at least put hands on the gear before buying it.
As far as Yaesu, I really don't think you can go wrong. I do carry my Anyone on trail with me but just because of the battery life of the FT-70D is so low. I've got my eye on a Yaesu FT3D, which takes the APRS one step further by allowing you to easily send and receive messages including text messages to and from mobile phones via your HAM radio, so if there's no phone service but you can hit an APRS node 'out there' somewhere.