When I attended the 1st Annual Wheelers for the Wounded of Colorado trail event my CB radio quit working about 10 minutes into the run. I spent the rest of the day in silence (okay, admittedly my co-pilot/husband did provide entertaining commentary but only the two of us could hear it). Then the rest of the group went rip-roaring away on the trail back out and as I wasn’t quite prepared to take the whoop-de-do’s at such high speeds I got left in the dust, just hoping I took the correct routes back to the trailhead. Thus, I learned firsthand that having a way to communicate with other rigs on trail makes for a much better experience, so here’s why I think on-trail communication is important, and some product options to consider.
1. Maintain the group caravan. Inevitably some off-roaders in your group will get separated from the rest, and the chances of this multiplies if you’re caravanning through a town with stoplights. Having adequate communications allows the leader to pull over and wait for everyone to catch up when needed. And, it also allows for advance notice of exits and turns (in one successful caravan of 25+ Jeeps the leader broadcast every exit and turn which allowed us all to stay together, through highway and city traffic).
2. Maintain the group on trail. I know you’ve heard it before, and I’ve said it a hundred times – don’t wheel alone! Having adequate communications on trail allows the rigs at the back of the line to alert the front when there’s a hold-up or someone’s having trouble on an obstacle. And those near the front should always make sure everyone is ready to continue before moving on.
3. Alerts for oncoming rigs on trail. When the leader spots an oncoming vehicle the rest of the group can be advised to slow down or pull over as appropriate.
4. Alerts for speedier trail runners behind. Depending on the trail you might share it with other off-roaders such as side-by-sides or dirt bikes. It’s courteous to let them pass if they’re running a faster trail, and with adequate communications the person at the end of your line can alert everyone else to stop momentarily so the speedier folks can pass safely.
5. More fun! Especially if you’re wheeling without a co-pilot the radio can make for a much more entertaining experience. A little bit of comedy and bantering between rigs can make the day even brighter!
Some trail runs require that each rig have some type of radio for the event, but even if that’s not the case hopefully you see the value in adequate trail communications. Here are some options I’ve tried, or am considering:
1. Hardwired CB Radio – there are a ton of different CB radio options that are wired to your vehicle. One more recent rendition, that I’ve also tried, is Cobra’s unified design that contains channel control plus mike plus weather all in the handheld unit. This is wired in behind the glove box and since it’s compact it can be stored out of sight when not in use. Install requires coaxial cable, antenna and mount, and antenna spring if you’re so inclined. I had good reception and sound from this CB for about a year and then the wiring came loose, the antenna broke, and even after re-wiring and a new antenna it doesn’t work anymore so it’s possible I need a whole new unit. Although there are better options… (read on...)
2. Handheld CB – Another option I’ve used is the Cobra 38 WXST Handheld/portable CB. This CB has somewhat limited range – about half a mile in my experience - and the batteries run down very quickly (it takes 9 AAA’s so bring at least one full set of extra batteries if you use this radio). It may come with a 12V cigarette lighter plug for power also. I have had people tell me that their WXST “just quit working” for no apparent reason even with new batteries, and there are reviews to that effect on Amazon as well. Ours has worked fine for a couple years now and it seems to be a popular option on many trail runs I’ve attended. I’d say this option is better on the trail when vehicles are closer proximity, than on the highway, and if you get separated from the group by more than half a mile this CB may not do you much good.
3. Two-way Radio – One radio option we have used a lot is the Midland X-Talker two-way set. They perform well with loud and clear sound and my hub and I use these whenever we caravan anywhere since we’re a two-Jeep family. We’ve found the range to be decent, at least several miles in mountainous terrain. We’ve also got a pair of Motorola two-way radios which provide good range and clear sound.
4. VHF / UHF “Race” Radio – Another option for trail communications are Very High Frequency (VHF) / Ultra High Frequency (UHF) radios, which are often used for communication and safety during off-road recreation and racing events. Many people like these radios better than CBs for their increased reliability and sound quality, shorter antennas, and greater range. Here’s an informative post about VHF / UHF Radios and how they work. And, here's a good option if you want to purchase one for yourself (and you might also want to consider an upgraded antenna, bigger battery, and power adapter) - thanks to Bob at TNT Customs for these recommendations.
5. Ham Radio – Some off-roaders opt to get their Ham license and communicate that way, and Ham seems to be increasing in popularity. As far as radios, one good quality smaller size option that friends have recommended is the Baofeng UV-5R radio. If you’re interested in a Ham license, here’s a link to class and test info in the Denver metro area. Or if you prefer to self-study you might check out this prep site before testing.
Ideally you might want to find out before a trail run what type of radios the group will be using. Many off-roaders use CBs but given their reliability (or lack thereof) you might also want to bring along other communication options. At the very least a set of two-ways will allow you to talk to one other rig in the group. And, some off-road clubs looking to increase their clarity of communication and range have gone to VHF / UHF radios for all their members and have found increased enjoyment and safety as a result.
Do you have a preferred trail communication method? Comment below, and thanks for reading!
by Dawn Gallegos
Dawn Gallegos is the founding editor of the Chicks On The Rocks blog. When she's not working to fund her Jeep habit she's thinking up new ways to inspire others to explore the great outdoors.