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Ham Radio Use Off-Road Ham Radio Use Off-Road
In this special to ModernJeeper from contributor Tom Severin, a lot technical language is used that goes with the turf of being an amateur... Ham Radio Use Off-Road

In this special to ModernJeeper from contributor Tom Severin, a lot technical language is used that goes with the turf of being an amateur radio operator, ham.  Do not let that scare you off.  Tom is quick to point out that hams love talking about radio and helping others.  Ham radio can save your day — and even your life.

The Editors


I had just pulled into a gas station in Big Pine, Calif. Tim and I were scouting for a trip and agreed to meet at the gas station mid-morning. Tim arrived ahead of me and was chatting with a guy. We learned that this individual, Dave, had suffered two flat tires the previous day while driving in a part of Death Valley National Park. He had walked 27 miles into Big Pine to get help.

Of course, we couldn’t leave him there. As I drove Dave back to his vehicle we chatted about many topics, including ham radio. Dave wondered about the ham radios I had installed in my vehicle, two Yaesu 8900s.

Plugging his tires was no big deal. Dave was anxious to rejoin his group, so we shook hands and parted ways. After he drove off, I realized he had left his backpack and laptop in my vehicle. I didn’t know his number, and didn’t have cell service out there anyway.

Dave got all the way to the Nevada border before realizing his loss. Remembering that I was a ham radio operator, he drove to Bishop, Calif., and pulled into a Radio Shack store. One of the clerks knew a ham radio operator, Jon, NW6C. He called Jon, who was chatting with a ham on the area repeater. Jon asked this ham to pass a message to me should he hear me on repeater anytime soon. I happened to be monitoring the repeater, so I chimed right in.

Tim and I would return to Big Pine by 5 p.m. that day, I said, and could meet with Dave then. I asked if they could call Dave’s cell phone and let him know. We did connect later that afternoon, and the (now-relieved) owner was reunited with his possessions.

Making Ham Radio Part of Your Trail Life

That’s just one example of how ham radio plays a vital role in four-wheeling. Here are other ways to incorporate amateur radio into your 4WD trips.

Two 8900’s for backup. Plus using one for vehicle to vehicle and the other to monitor a repeater. Make sure you grab the correct mic!


 Vehicle-to-vehicle communications:

Vehicles are usually close to each other, even within visual range. Simplex (non-repeated, direct radio-to-radio) operation is ideal in those situations. (And a flat out waste of a repeater.)

As for the frequency, try to keep conversations off 146.52 MHz, the national calling frequency. (More on that in a bit.) Check the band plan for your state (or region for larger states). It will identify all the viable simplex frequencies in your area. There are sufficient frequencies for you and your buddies to find an open one.

The standard 2m/70cm antenna works well for most operating. You might consider packing a small directional antenna to hit a distant repeater. Various models are available in stores, or you can build one.

Great for emergency in a backpack or go bag.

I recommend purchasing an aftermarket antenna for the HT. A longer antenna offers far superior performance to the standard “rubber duck.” Other possibilities include a directional antenna (Elk brand, for example), a dipole, or a J-pole antenna. A small compact commercially available antenna is the Slim Jim roll-up J pole antenna.

While the Elk antenna is perfect to carry as backup in the vehicle to hit distant repeaters, the Slim Jim makes a great backup in a backpack or go bag. You can make one or buy it for about $20 on ebay at


All the parts to assemble the Elk antenna.


As a personal tracker

A popular tracking system on ham radio is APRS (Automated Packet Reporting System). The amateur radio operator connects his APRS-enabled rig to a TNC (Terminal Node Controller) and GPS receiver. The radio transmits a packet of location information at regular intervals including your Lat/Lon. These digital signals are routed through a nearby “digipeater.”

People can monitor these movements through a particular website and ‘pin’ the vehicle as it moves. This is great for family members concerned about someone going off road. Hams off-road can keep track of the other vehicles that are similarly equipped. APRS tracking is very useful if the group splits up or a late arrival is trying to find camp.

A multi-faceted system, APRS allows operators to send images, bulletins, and other types of messages.


Elk assembled. Place it on a pole, connect your coax and point it at a repeater. The far end in the picture is pointed at the repeater.


Stay on top of the weather

NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) broadcasts weather information continuously over seven VHF frequencies. Which frequency to monitor depends on where you’ll be. Search for the appropriate frequency(ies) on the NOAA website

Remember to program the appropriate frequencies into your radio or memorize the starting frequency of 162.400 MHz. Each station is 25 kHz higher with a top frequency of 162.550 MHz.

How do you easily monitor NOAA and your vehicle to vehicle frequency? Flip to VFO mode and dial up the nearest NOAA frequency. You should hear the weather broadcast. Now return to memory mode.

To listen to the NOAA broadcast, simply hit the button that takes you to VFO mode. In essence, you toggle back and forth between memory mode and VFO mode.

Coordinate communications with vehicles outside the area

Repeaters allow you to stay in touch with buddies joining you along the way. Establish a call-in frequency, then chat periodically to monitor the other person’s progress. If and when they get close enough, you can switch to a simplex frequency.

Ham radio operators in California and Nevada can take advantage of some nice systems located in the mountains. At that altitude, coverage is naturally wide. But some systems, such as the units at Silver Peak and Mazourka Peak in California, are linked. This allows hams to communicate throughout the entire Owens Valley.

 Research repeater frequencies before leaving is a great resource for all VHF and UHF bands. You start by selecting the state, then choose the band you’ll be operating on.

In addition, do a browser search for nearby repeater or ham radio clubs. Contact a club member for advice, especially if the city has more than one repeater.

It’s really important that you program the repeater frequencies and related information (CTCSS/PL tone and such) prior to leaving. You don’t want to be stuck trying to dial up a frequency if you need help. By programming those frequencies in advance, you simply click through the channels until you find the one you need.

I also recommend printing out the list of channels. That makes for a quick reference while driving along.

And while off-road, take a few minutes to scan for repeaters near your destination. Consult your user manual for this step, including how to determine the CTCSS tone.

Need Help?

If you need help, try 146.52 MHz (the national calling frequency) and any nearby repeater. If a conversation is in progress, wait for an opportunity to break in. Under normal circumstances, you would say “break” and give your call sign. In extreme emergencies, call “Mayday.”

As noted below, the amateur radio community encourages hams to help out by monitoring 146.52 MHz .

Make the Wilderness Protocol a part of your daily operating

Though a part of ARRL’s ARES program, all hams are encouraged to participate whenever they can. Wilderness Protocol entails monitoring the national calling frequencies (VHF and UHF) at various times throughout the day. The intent is to help a ham who may need assistance or information. Hams sometimes try the calling frequency when they’re unable to access a repeater.

Consider monitoring 146.52 MHz whenever you can. Wilderness Protocol suggests the ham in need call during certain times, to save battery power. But try to monitor throughout the day. For more information, go to

There are a lot of ways to make use of your ham radio ticket while off road. Load up your radio(s) the next time you go four-wheeling. You can enjoy two fun hobbies: ham radio and four-wheeling.

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New to ham and need buy and  install tips?  Check here.

Did You Know?  Amateur radio operators are also known as radio amateurs or hams. The term “ham” as a nickname for amateur radio operators originated in a pejorative usage (like “ham actor”) by operators in commercial and professional radio communities, and dates to wired telegraphy of days gone by.  “Hams” jammed up frequencies talking to each other and were considered a nuisance in the early days of communication. The word was subsequently adopted by amateur radio operators and it complimentary these days.


Tom Severin

Tom Severin is an International 4-Wheel Drive Trainers Association© certified professional 4WD Trainer and a Wilderness First Responder (WFR), and President, Badlands Off Road Adventures.

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