Can You Hear me? A Guide to Backcountry Radios

Communication has always been an important factor to safety in the mountains. These days there have never been more options to connect with the outside universe, yet the perfect one-stop device, that can assist in all scenarios, does not exist. 

A rider wishing to increase their connectivity must make choices as to what is best for them. Weight, space, cost, and functionality all play a role in what device choices a rider makes and many have more than one. A group that intends to mitigate risk using communications technologies will want to have a selection of the following devices.

Two Way Radios

GMRS (General Mobile Radio Service) radios are the most common tools used by sledders to increase inter-group communication. In any scenario where riders are out of ear shot or just out of sight from each other, having a way to communicate can literally be a life saving tool. Stuck in a tree well? In a no-exit gully? There’s basically no excuse for not being able to hail your group.  You can buy two of these for less than $100 but the good ones may be upwards of $200 each


• Cheap –the most affordable communications tool available
• No license need and no recurring fees
• Allows group to talk with each other


• Won’t connect to commercial VHF channels
• No SOS function
• Radios with only simple channels can get busy
• Radios of different brands don’t sync well with each other
• Short range (0.5 watt maximum)

BC Link Radio from BCA - $179

BC Link Radio from BCA – $179

Satellite Phone

It’s rare that an average group will have a satellite phone but when push comes to shove in a rescue situation these tools can be invaluable. There’s just no substitute for a live voice communication when things really matter. In non-emergency scenarios where you are camped out, making calls to satisfy the outside world demands, like reporting a road washout or selling stocks so you can stay longer, can be a nice touch. Typically you are able to get a connection within 5 seconds of powering up your device.


• Voice communication with outside world


• Ongoing monthly fee
• No radio capabilities

SPOT Global Phone - $549

SPOT Global Phone – $549

VHF Radios

VHF radios are one of the best communications tools you can have but there are limits and regulations to how you should use them. These professional-grade devices are perhaps the best bang for your buck as they cover the largest base of possible needs and there’s no on-going fee for their use, but they must be used appropriately. The first thing to know is that technically, you need a license to operate one, which can be obtained from The cost is $41/year. The next hurdle is that it is illegal to program these radios yourself. Which means that you have to do your homework and work with your provider to make sure your device is working well for where you’re going. There are 5 road channels that can be used by anybody across BC and very soon (in BC), there will be 35 standard road channels. Sign posts up forest service roads should specifically post which channel you should use to communicate on them.

With these radios you can call up the road to prevent accidents and dialogue with other industry professionals in the area. They also provide a much longer range than UHF radios when communicating with companions.

Inter-group coms are usually done on ‘simplex’ which is transmitting and receiving on the same frequency, or on ‘duplex,’ which is via a repeater that receives and transmits on different frequencies


• Long range (5 watt maximum)
• Communicate with professionals in the area


• License required to operate
• Not legally allowed to program yourself
• Short range (0.5 watt maximum)

Icom F1000S - $375

Icom F1000S – $375

Satellite Device

In recent years, personal satellite communicators have increased in ease of use and function offerings. A favorite of spouses and caring significant others, these devices can put anxious thoughts to rest with a simple pre-made text, which can be sent from anywhere there is a connection. In emergency situations an ‘SOS’ button will notify authorities and the response processes are mobilized almost immediately. These tools can also provide many features that a GPS device does. Options range in this category from setting crumb trails to interacting with downloaded maps on your mobile cellular device. These products are typically popular as a safety net tool but are not intended to support conversations between a group in the field.


• Small and lightweight
• SOS button mobilizes SAR process almost instantly
• Text communications with outside world
• GPS capabilities


• Ongoing monthly (or yearly) fee
• No voice communication
• No radio capabilities
• No inter-group communications

InReach Explorer - $379

InReach Explorer – $379



– Tim