The Best Radio For Off-Road Use – HAM, GMRS, FRS, or CB Radio?

Since the dawn of time, Jeepers and other off-roaders have been using CB radios for communicating on the trail. CB radios have historically been very cheap and easy to use, and they don’t require a license. Occasionally amateur radio (ham) operators will show up on the trail and use their ham radios while off-roading, but unless everyone in the group has a ham license and a ham radio, using a ham radio is not very effective. Because of this, whenever The NotaRubicon leads a group, we have always used CB, channel #16 as our primary method of trail communications – Until now.

I explain the difference between CB Radio, ham radio, GMRS, FRS, and MURS radios.

Radio Communications On The Trail – CB, FRS, MURS, GMRS

Over the last year or two, mostly while leading large off-road runs, and particularly ‘beginner’ 4X4 runs, we’ve noticed more and more new off-roaders showing up on the trail with inexpensive “race radios“, or walki-talki / handi-talki type radios. These are the type of radio that you find advertised as having an “10 mile range” and can find on Amazon or at Walmart for $20 – $60 dollars. When comparing these radios to more expensive hand-held CB radios, these “bubble-pack” radios seem like a great deal – and in reality these little FM/UHF radios work great, have better audio quality, often have a further range than CB radios, are usually less expensive, and are a great deal. They seem perfect! Except for one problem: Getting them all to talk to each other

Long Live CB Radio! or not….

Let’s clear up one thing first: A CB radio cannot communicate with any of these other types of radios – FRS, GMRS, MURS, ham, and visa-versa – and as of September 2020, we are no longer using CB radios for communications on our trail/off road events.

Switching From CB Radio To FRS / GMRS

Rugged Radio “Race Radio”

In making the switch from CB radio to FRS/GMRS we faced one big challenge: What kind of radio should we get that can talk to all of these different types of hand-held race radios, ham, FRS, GMRS radios and we decided to get a full fledged FCC compliant programmable ham radio (2meter and 70cm). This will allow us to monitor and listen to those that come out with ham radios (until we get an amateur radio license) and will also allow us to talk to all of the FRS/GMRS & Race Radios – and because we are now FCC GMRS licensed, we can operate at a higher output power (up to 50 watts) and have a larger antenna than what is allowed on the smaller walk-talki radios – something that will come in useful when leading large groups of Jeeps.

What Radio Should You Get For A NotARubicon Off-Road Run and what channel/frequency should you use

If you have a ham/Baofeng radio, the official NotARubicon frequency is: 462.575 (simplex) – Note that 462.575 is in the GMRS band so many ham radios may not allow you to transmit on this frequency.

If you have a “bubble wrap”/inexpensive FRS walki-talki, the official NotARubicon channel is: FRS 16 – with no “tones” or “Privacy” settings

If you have a “GMRS” hand-held, the official NotARubicon channel is: GMRS CH16 (no tones, or privacy tones/settings)

If you have not yet purchased a radio, then a small programable handheld such as the BTech GMRS V1 is our recommended hand-held GMRS radio. If you want something more simple to use (less buttons/non-programmable) then the Motorola Talkabout or Midland FRS hand-helds are both great, simple to use inexpensive radios. One of our favorites is the inexpensive Radiooddity FS-T1, 22 Channel FRS walki-talki. All of these should work on our new channels.

FCC Licensing For Off-Road Radio Use

FRS radios (the small, inexpensive, non-programable hand-held radios with a fixed antenna) do not require any license to operate. Just grab one at Walmart or from Amazon, charge-up the battery and start talking.

Transmitting on a “GMRS” capable radio, which may have a removable antenna and usually costs more than FRS radios, does require a GMRS “ZA” license from the FCC. If you are only listening/monitoring, no license is required, and a license is not required to purchase a GMRS radio. There is no test required for a GMRS license, you just fill out a form and send money ($70) to Uncle Sam. You can create an account and apply for a GMRS license at the FCC website. You only need one GMRS license to cover your entire immediate family.

Programmable radios such as the BAOFENG UV-5R or BAOFENG BF-F8HP are capable of transmitting on FRS, GMRS and ham frequencies, as well as other frequencies such as police and fire. Although it is legal to purchase this type of radio and listen to any frequency, it is your responsibility to ensure that you transmit only on frequencies that you are licensed to use and within the power limits set for that frequency. To operate on any ham-radio frequencies you will need a ham license which requires passing a test. To learn more about how to get a ham radio license check out AARL.ORG.

If you have questions about using any of these new radios on a trail run with The NotARubicon or if you have any general FRS / GMRS radio questions please post them in a comment below and we will do our best to answer.

Note: All links above are affiliate links – if you purchase something after clicking one of my links I will receive compensation.

12 thoughts on “The Best Radio For Off-Road Use – HAM, GMRS, FRS, or CB Radio?

  1. Chris says:

    Good choice randy. Have the rugged handheld with extended wip and the 5amp. But going to the 50amp it’s like 150 for a truck mount.

    Reply
    1. ROGER SMITH says:

      Christian- I think you must be referring to watts, not amps. There is no such thing as a 50 amp radio!

      Reply
  2. Louis Prijatel says:

    How do you program the Baofeng, or should I just wait and have someone help me at the event.

    Reply
  3. Zelda Ella says:

    Hi can you recommend some murs radios? I want to buy it for using for my enterprise but I don’t know about it weil. Hope you reply to me. Thank you

    Reply
  4. Bill says:

    You should check your facts. Beofeng radios are NOT legal to use to transmit on FRS, GMRS or MURS frequencies. You should check with the FCC to check which radios are Part accepted for transmitting on the service you are interested in. I question the legality of Rugged Radios without proper licensing. There are manufacturers who produce legal Part accepted radios for GMRS (license required $70 for ten years) and FRS radios like Midland, Motorola etc. If you should get caught transmitting on frequencies that you are not licensed for you can receive a hefty fine from the FCC.

    Reply
  5. Tom7020 says:

    Seem like Radio Communications are still kind of new and not that popular as other radios.
    What are the Different Types of MURS radios?
    What are the most trusted MURS radio brands?

    Reply
  6. NotBill says:

    @Bill, the FCC doesn’t care about a dozen people on a jeep trip. They will not follow up on complaints, foxhunters etc
    Why don’t you go to the FCC site, where by law they have to publish on a database every single enforcement action they take.
    Not one single enforcement against people using handhelds on jeep adventures, overlanding, camping, hunting, hiking etc. Not one.

    If you set up a 50 or 100 watt in your home, run a commercial station etc and step on everyone, or issue 150 handhelds to all your hospital university, warehouse or other static location staff, the FCC may come knocking. Otherwise they will not.

    Reply
  7. Paul says:

    Just a heads up the cost for the license dropped to $35 now I believe as of Jan 2021

    Reply
    1. Randy says:

      No, the price has not yet dropped – look it up. It has been announced that it will be dropping, but as of 2/22/21, the drop has not yet gone into effect.

      Reply
  8. Andy says:

    FRS is totally license free. Short range with 22 channels limited to 1/2 watt and others 2 watts. Very , very rare to get more than about 2 miles unless wide open mountain to mountain. Cheapest and easy to use. Many, many choices and some are very cheap.

    MURS is also fully license free and is VHF with only five channels and a max of 2 watts. Maybe 3-4 miles at best. Not very many radio choices. More expensive.

    GMRS is very similar to some UHF ham bands. NO test license is required. Lots of channels ,power tops out at 50 watts and you can use repeaters to increase your range. Handheld radios typically max out around 5 watts , mobil rigs start at 5 watts and increase up to 50. Handheld range is usually 2-3 miles or so while the mobil radios can do 20-30-40 or more miles depending on power , antenna and terrain. Fair amount of choices but more expensive than FRS.Can be set up as a base station.

    CB.Is found in the noisy AM ham band and gets a fair amount of interference. Handheld are bulky and you are lucky to get a mile. Mobil rigs with outside antennas may get 2-4 miles. All limited to 4 watts and 40 channels. If you can find an expensive SSB radio ,they can do 12 watts but can only talk to other SSB radios. License free. Basic radios can be found cheap used.

    900 mhz UHF band. Very few radio choices , low power and license free. Radios are expensive.

    Ham. Three levels of licensing ,the entry level is not hard to pass the test. Allows many different types of frequencies and initially the power is limited to 200 watts , with higher levels it reaches 1,500 watts. Much more civilized and structured than any of the FRS/ GMRS / MURS or CB. Lots of choices but the equipment gets more expensive.

    FRS MURS GMRS handheld radios ads are VERY misleading. They claim outrageous distance claims which are EXTREMELY exaggerated. 20 30 40 50 miles is highly unlikely.
    We are back to 10,000 foot mountain top to 10,000 foot mountain top with no obstructions. Ifyou dont expect much,you wont be disappointed. Maybe a mile at best on the FRS.

    Andy N3QZF

    Reply

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