It’s been almost a year and a half since my last adventure on the west side of the country and
despite the threat of ballistic missiles and what will likely be some pretty chilly areas in the February high desert, flights are booked.
The map for our upcoming adventure is 95% complete and now that I’ve got a good idea as to where we will end up each night, it’s time to drill down a level on the logistics. Such things include surveying the hotel situation, distances/drive times and expected temperatures. Add that to sunset, moonrise and moonset times and you start to get a pretty good picture of what each night and day holds.
One of the things I’ve noticed is that at least half the trip puts us in what I believe will be cell phone dead areas. What happens if something goes wrong or a logistic issues arises?
Having proven the value of having access to photographer to photographer communications in similar circumstances while deep in the heart of West Virginia, I’m packing three small hand held radios for this trip. Examples of times in which these could be useful include injury, threats from animals or suspicious human activity nearby. Also, simple logistics such as figuring out where someone else is on the property or requesting access to a locked car to get equipment or to pack up.
Let’s dive into that for a few paragraphs because communications are often an overlooked but important component when shooting with other photographers in or out of cellular accessible areas. It’s not something the average person thinks about much until you’re in one of those spots where it’s not working. And like anything else, it’s better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it.
The obvious point of reliance for most people is a cell phone. Everyone has one capable of sending text messages. It’s like the morse code of cellular radio in that it’s a lot easier to get a small data packet to surf a weak signal than it is to complete a voice call. Most phones might even make multiple attempts if a signal is not immediately available or “spotty.” However , it’s not very helpful if members of the group don’t all have a little bit of signal. I’ve been on locations in which Verizon is fine but AT&T is inaccessible or vice versa. You might be able to get your message out but how do you know it was received? Up to this point, phones have worked well for us in most places over the years. An example of texts we’ve sent on such trips include:
- Headlights inbound.
- Where are you?
- Need to get into vehicle.
- Wrap up at 2?
- Are you done shooting the _____?
- Did you hear that?
- Expect a visit from the police. (Yes, this happened after another photographer spotted a sheriff’s deputy pulling up next to where our rental car was parked. The officer ultimately did not investigate further.)
If you’ve ever strolled through your local Wal Mart’s sporting goods section, you’ve probably seen a blister pack of two small radios including a free set of batteries costing somewhere around fifty dollars. These are Family Radio Service Radios. They’re cheap, popular among outdoor enthusiasts and do not require a license. There’s a good chance that if you take one to a national park, some sort of large outdoor event or even to a mall, that you’ll hear someone talking. They are great for very short range communications (limited to a quarter to a half mile outside). Claims that users can enjoy up to 35 miles of clear transmissions are reserved for very rare circumstances in which you and your friend are on mountain tops without any obstructions. FRS radios have short, non removal antennas and operate on the UHF portion of the radio spectrum. UHF, short for ultra high frequency, has a hard time getting through things like walls or metal structures. They also tend to not propogate as well in outdoor environments. Their most useful feature is the ability to tune into one of the local NOAA weather radio frequencies and to have access to a common set of channels. I’d suggest having one of these little guys in your hiking or go bag when venturing out alone but for point to point communications and special events, they would not be my first choice.
Multi User Radio Service
MURS is a little known option that is open to both individuals and businesses. It uses five VHF (very high frequency) in the 150mhz range and like the UHF FRS radios you can buy at your local sporting goods store, is limited to two watts and does not require a license.
The benefit of MURS over FRS is twofold. First, VHF channels propagate farther than UHF
channels using the same power. Under rare conditions known as tropospheric ducting, a VHF signal can travel hundreds of miles. VHF transmits easier through obstructions or within buildings. You don’t have to be as “line of site” as you would on UHF and your signal will bounce better off of your surroundings. Second, MURS radios are far more robustly constructed compared
to their FSR counterparts. Motorola, to name one, produces commercial versions of these units that are more durable and resistant to drop damage and use lithium ION batteries that can operate continuously for well over twenty-four hours of regular use.
The disadvantage to MURS is that it is less likely that someone outside your own group is carrying a similar radio and would hear you like FRS. Also, as these radios are commonly used by businesses to avoid paying for commercial licenses, the five channels can become pretty congested in populated environments. For example, Wal Mart employees across the U.S. use MURS radios. This doesn’t matter if you’re a few people in the middle of the desert. Otherwise, you might find yourself interfering with a cleanup on aisle five at the local super store.
These units are very simple to operate once programmed. As a radio guy, I can pick up almost any radio and know how to use it. But for folks who aren’t as nerdy as I am, MURS radios require almost no training. They are designed to be passed out to employees and to be used without much help. They’ve got a volume and channel knob along with a push to talk button. That’s it.
I found my MURS radios on EBAY via a pawn shop. I picked up a set of three Motorola CP110 units with drop in chargers for $159. The CP110 VHF series are commonly used in factories, malls and power plants. They often appear on Ebay in varying condition as businesses upgrade their own communications. Some Ebay sellers will offer to program them for MURS use if you request it as some of these radios are programmed for “real” business frequencies. However, don’t assume you can program these on your own. Motorola uses an expensive and proprietary software so unless you are lucky enough to have access to it, you’ll be out of luck. You also don’t want to be talking on frequencies other than MURS or you could be in hot water with the FCC.
I’m also a license amateur radio operator and with that comes a lot of equipment access that permits even longer rang communications. When shooting alone, I sometimes will bring an ICOM
handheld radio which gives me access to ham frequencies in the VHF and UHF bands, weather radio and will tell me my coordinates thanks to an internal GPS. A network of mountain top ham radio repeaters extend my radio’s range up to one hundred miles on just five watts. A minor modification to the radio also allows it to transmit outside of the ham radio frequencies on both MURS and FRS frequencies. While the radio is not type acceoted by the FCC for that type of usage, remember that you can transmit on any frequency available to you for help in an emergency.
In addition to a handheld radio, I also have a small portable unit that is similar in size to an old VHS cassette tape that transmits on the high frequency bands closer to 14mhz. With a simple wire antenna, I’ve talked from Massachusetts to Georgia and westward as far as Kansas on five watts. No, that’s not a radio I carry with me for the purposes of photography but it’s my “plug” for what you can do with amateur radio equipment.
In conclusion, having a set of two way radios available when shooting in odd locations far away from civilization is certainly not bad idea. I chose to go with the MURS units because of the commercial grade options and the better distance that can be had with VHF. However, I also consider myself a “radio snob” so those Wal Mart FRS radios may work just fine for you. Either way, it’s better to have them and not need them than to need them and not have them.