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Communications for Your Overlanding Vehicle

Welcome to the eighth article in this series on building an Overlanding vehicle. In this article, we will look at the communication options that are available, including telephones, radios and satellite.

In previous articles regarding mountain safety, we have talked about the importance of making people aware of your plans and leaving instructions on what actions to take if you are overdue.

A mobile phone is a great way of keeping in touch when you’re out Overlanding, as long as you have reception. During our 2019 European trip through the Alps and the Pyrenees, we were frequently surprised to have reception in some very remote locations, mainly due to the high altitudes that we were at.

In New Zealand however, it’s a very different story. Although cell phone coverage is improving, there are still major “dead spots” and you should not rely on your cell phone for communication.

Photo 1 of Communications for Your Overlanding Vehicle

On the 4x4Explorer vehicle, we have a cell phone booster. (It’s the fat antenna mounted on the bull bar). This will enhance the signal where it is marginal, but will not detect signal where it is non-existent. It has been quite useful on many occasions and many travelling buddies love it to get reception, when they have none.

If you’re out, either on your own, or in a convoy, a UHF radio is a very useful piece of equipment of to have. These can either be “hard wired” or hand held.

Hardwired sets are more expensive and have various advantages and disadvantages. The main, and probably only disadvantage, is that you have to be in your vehicle with the engine running to use it. This however, is a small price to pay. A vehicle mounted radio will never run out of battery and will generally be more powerful than a handheld. Ours is a GME unit with a 5W transmission power. You need to remember that UHF stands for “Ultra High Frequency”. Without going into too many technical details, this means that it works on line of sight. Antennas come in a variety of lengths, with some being better for range and other shorter versions being better in close country.

Having radio communications between vehicles in a convoy is crucial, so if you go out with friends or are a member of a club, they are worthwhile investment.

Always remember that UHF is not a secure means of communication and that you have to always assume that someone is listening to your conversation. Many people, including myself on a long road move, will have the radio set onto “scan” mode, which means that, as soon as someone transmits on any channel, they can be heard.

Photo 2 of Communications for Your Overlanding Vehicle

I have heard some choice conversations over the radio, where the people were quite clearly oblivious to the fact that I was listening in to their every word. Also note that many farms will have a base unit on scan, so never say anything over the radio that you wouldn’t say to someone’s face.

In a convoy and particularly on our guided trips, radios can be great fun and there is always a lot of banter going on.

Handheld radios also have their place. These tend to be a much cheaper option and we always carry half a dozen or so to hand out to anyone who doesn’t have one. The handhelds that we use, are basic Uniden models with a transmission output of only about 0.5W. This doesn’t sound like much, but in a convoy, where we are only a few hundred metres apart, they work fine. The kids also love them because they can be passed around the vehicle and kids love chatting away on them.

Handhelds also come in handy in other situations. During a recovery, or a tricky section, if you are guiding someone, you will not be in your vehicle. Having a hand held will enable you to talk to the driver being guided.

We also quite often use them if we stop in a town to do a bit of shopping. My partner and I each take one with us and enables us to stay in touch without using the phone.

When you’re looking at buying a hand held, think about how long you are going to be away. The reason that I say this is because some have rechargeable batteries and others use normal disposable batteries. I recently went away with a friend who had a set of reasonably expensive 5W handhelds which use rechargeable batteries. In his haste to get away, he had forgotten to put them on charge and they were completely dead. Most of these types of radios can be charged using the 12v plug in your vehicle, but they take time to recharge, so think about this before you head out.

So that’s all good, but what happens if you’re on your own and don’t have any comms via your phone or UHF. The solution is a satellite communications device.

As well as a standard PLB (Personal Location Beacon), we also carry a Garmin InReach mini. This can be used as a GPS, but the screen is very small, so we use ours exclusively for communications. Devices, such as the InReach have come down in price and there’s really no excuse not to have one when you head out “bush” where you will be out of comms.


Photo 3 of Communications for Your Overlanding Vehicle

The InReach allows us to send texts via satellite using our mobile phone. This can be extremely useful for a number of reasons. I can inform my partner of my location at the end of each day, inform her of any change of plans and reassure her that we are all safe. I have also used it on a couple of occasions when I have become stuck and unable to effect a self-recovery.

Perhaps the most important reason that we carry it is when we are running our guided tours. If we suffered a mechanical failure and needed assistance, I would not want to activate the PLB, unless the party was in grave danger.

Where I see its most important use, would be in the case of a medical emergency. Being able to, not only, notify SAR (Search and Rescue) of our location, but also the nature of the emergency could save valuable time as the SAR team would “hit the ground running”, knowing what they were going to encounter while on route to treat a casualty. This could literally be a life saver!!!

So those are the most common forms of communication that are carried in an Overlanding vehicle. We strongly recommend that you carry all three. Overlanding is a potentially dangerous activity, with a heavy reliance on self-sufficiency, so always be prepared for the worst, if it should happen.

Once again, we hope that you have enjoyed reading this article and have taken some of the points onboard.

Happy trails and we look forward to seeing you out there!!!!!

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