Small Upgrades #1 = Radio Communications

If you look back at some of the posts here at ECOA there are some pretty cool flashy upgrades.  Everything from tires and suspension to extended range fuel tanks.  With much of the big stuff taken care of, it’s time to turn attention to some smaller upgrades.

Redundancy layers are essential when it comes to communications.
Cell phones, radios, and satellite devices are a great way to have a backup for when one form or another fails.
In particular, radios are great because they all for easy interconnectivity within a group.

In the past I’ve written about how to prepare for your first adventure.  One of the things I covered was communications.  In that article I talked about how redundancy is nice, but it’s important to have layers of different types of communication.  The time has come to upgrade my radios a little bit in preparation for my next adventure.  Read on for the upgrades…

The Radio: Baofeng UV-5R (Rugged Radios’ version)

If you’re looking at a great entry-level VHF/UHF radio, you can’t go wrong with the Baofeng UV-5R.   It’s inexpensive (retails for under $30) for the basic version.  The version I have is resold by Rugged Radios and comes pre-programed with all of the most popular off-road race radio frequencies (like Best in the Desert, SCORE, Baja, etc).  Given I still shoot off-road racing from time to time, having those frequencies pre-programed is a nice feature.  Also, Rugged Radios has some great sales from time to time and the pair of radios I have were acquired during a buy-one-get-one-free sale.  Made the premium price for the Rugged Radios version a little easier to swallow.

It’s not much, but it gets the job done.
Very intuitive to use and comes in a small portable form-factor
.

The radio itself is pretty basic.  As a friend once said, it’s a great “Fisher Price: My First Radio” level radio.  Many seasoned HAM enthusiasts will scoff at the 5R but secretly they probably owned one back in the day.  It’s also a great radio to lend to a friend when they don’t have a radio (which is ultimately my plan and why I have two).

Time to accessorize.
Top = Long Range Antenna
Left = 12v Power Adapter
Right = Hand Microphone/speaker

Beyond that, I’ll have to admit I’m still very new and a total novice when it comes to radio communications beyond a push-to-talk level of use.  I know there are many things I don’t know but I’m eager to learn.  What I do know is these little handhelds are great, but have their limits. With that in mind, the radio could use an upgrade or two.  Luckily the 5R is very popular and there are a host of accessories for it.

Upgrade #1: 12v Power

The first limitation of the 5R is its battery.  As with any handheld device the primary limitation is going to be power.  While portability is nice, sustained use as a vehicle-to-vehicle communications device means the radio lasts only a few hours before needing a recharge.  Since I’m not ready to pull the plug (no pun intended) and drop money on a permanent in-vehicle mounted radio, the simple (and cheap) solution was a 12-volt power adapter.

The 12v power pack replaces the battery.
Sadly there is no backup battery in the adapter, so if it comes unplugged the radio shuts off.

The 12-volt adapter is very simple to install.  Simply pull out the battery and replace it with the power-pack.  Like any 12v vehicle accessory it simply plugs into a cigaret power outlet.  It’s really that simple.  Now the radio can be used without any fear of the radio’s small battery running out of juice.  It also means the battery can stay charged and ready to be used if you want to pull the radio out and take it for a hike.

Upgrade #2: Long Range Antenna

The second limitation of the 5R is it’s range.  While 2-3 miles sounds impressive (at least compared to something like a CB or Family-Band radio) it’s kind of sad when compared to larger (and more powerful) VHF/UHF radios.  Part of this is due to the limited power of the radio.  The other part is due to the small stubby antenna the radio is sold with. This isn’t to say it’s total crap, but like anything in like a small upgrade can go a long way.

Normal antenna on the left and the long range antenna on the right.
Easy to see the difference isn’t it?

The “ducky” long-range antenna is a nice cheap upgrade for the 5R.  It’s a thinner longer antenna increasing both the range and clarity of the radio’s signal.  When using the radio inside a vehicle like my Jeep it means just a little more usability when in a convoy or talking to basecamp.

Upgrade #3: Hand Mic

The best thing about a CB is the hand-mic.  It’s light and easy to use.  Using the 5R inside a vehicle can be a little awkward.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve poked myself in the eye with the antenna or dropped the radio into my cupholder and keyed an open channel.  I’ve also dropped it and almost stepped on it, had it fall into the passenger floor well.  I’ve never had those problems with a mounted radio.  The easiest way to mitigate those problems with the 5R is to get a hand-mic.

Push-To-Talk. It’s really that simple.
What’s nice is leaving the radio clipped and just using the mic.
Like the 12v adapter and the long range antenna, the hand-mic is a cheap and easy upgrade to increase the usability of the 5R.  It plugs into the auxiliary input on the side of the radio and BAM! the handheld now works like a mounted radio.  It also make talking on the radio while hiking a little easier since you can clip the radio to a backpack and have the mic clipped to a shoulder strap.
Fully upgraded and ready for the airwaves.
It by no means replaces, or compares, to a dedicated full-form radio, but it will do for now.
Plus it’s small and compact and can be removed when not in use.
It’s also still portable and can be lent to a friend when needed.

Future Upgrades: A big-boy radio

In the future I do plan to upgrade to a more permanent radio solution.  I doubt I will go full HAM and will most likely stick to GMRS.  I’m just waiting till I get a few this sorted out and decide how deep into this rabbit hole I’m willing to go.  From what I can tell, and this is nothing more than a casual observation, the tide seems to be flowing toward GMRS for the overland community at-large.
A lot more of an investment than a small handheld, but in the long run I think it will be nice.
Plus it can work with the handhelds if I lend them out which is nice.
For now, I’ll stick with the 5R.
While there will still be the hardcore HAM fanatics and those espousing the virtues of going fully headfirst into all things VHF/UHF, I think on a more practical and pragmatic level GMRS makes sense for overland enthusiasts who want a little more than a CB without the hassle of full HAM. Given recent developments with the FCC and the expansion of the GRMS channel offerings, and the lengthening of the GMRS license, this trend will likely continue.

Conclusion

In the meantime the 5R will continue to serve me well and I look forward to more usability out it with these small upgrades.  It’s hard to beat the combination of price point and features when it comes to an entry level radio.  All-in-all not a bad deal.

I’m still keeping both radios even if I get an upgraded full-form radio down the road.
If not I haven’t spent too much money on radios I won’t need.
It’s a great way to get started in the radio hobby without breaking the bank.

This article is just the first in a series of articles focused on communications.  I am by no means an expert, and I have a lot to learn.  With that in mind, it may lead to some specialized classes on radio communications at future events.  I may not be able to teach them, but luckily I know some people who can.  So stay tuned…

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Products featured in this article were purchased directly from Rugged Radios.  While ECOA is a fan of Rugged Radios and their products, no formal partnership or endorsement is implicit between East Coast Overland Adventures and Rugged Radios at the time of this article.

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