When it comes to your truck camper rig, a good radio communications setup is important, especially if you like to explore remote locations. Yes, the cell phone has revolutionized mobile communications in a major way, yet you can’t always rely on good cell coverage. While GMRS is the latest rage in public radio, a good 2 meter ham radio setup provides the best coverage and range due to not only how well VHF radio signals propagate, but also through the band’s vast number of repeaters. But 2 meter ham radio has other advantages that GMRS doesn’t including a free digital locating service that we will discuss below.
First things first. In order to transmit on ham radio frequencies you will need to obtain a license through the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The FCC currently offers three classes of amateur licenses with each providing an increasing level of privileges: Technician, General, and Advanced Amateur. To get your license, you’ll need to take a test. A passing score (26 out of 35 questions) is required with a cost of $14 to take exam. Anyone with a sincere interest in the subject can pass the test with just a little study. The Technician exam covers basic regulations, operating practices, radio propagation, and electronics theory with a focus on VHF and UHF applications. Morse code is no longer required to get a ham radio license.
With a ham radio Technician class license you will enjoy ham radio privileges above 30 MHz, including the popular 2 meter band (VHF – 144 to 148 MHz), the topic of this article. Technicians may operate in Frequency Modulation (FM) voice, digital packet (computers), TV, Single Side Band (SSB) voice, and in several other interesting modes some of which will be described below. You can even make international radio contacts with satellites. Technician license holders also have additional privileges on some HF frequencies in the 10 meter band that can propagate for thousands of miles using skywave refraction via the Ionosphere. In this article, we will focus on 2 meter FM communications only.
Which 2 Meter Radio?
With so many choices, deciding on which 2 meter radio to buy can be daunting. Things like make, type (mobile or hand-held transceiver), radio band (HF, VHF, UHF), modes of operation/modulation (SSB, FM, PSK), and other features must be considered. As for the type of radio, we recommend going with a mobile fixed-mount transceiver due to the higher output power (generally 45-80 watts compared to 5 watts for a hand-held) and range. Some of the better, single-band mobile radios include the Yaesu FT-2980R, the Icom IC-3000H, and the Kenwood TM-281A. All three are affordable, compact, and easy to operate. On the other hand, the 5 watt hand-held transceiver (HT for short) offers a number of advantages, the most important being portability and ease of use. A HT can be used in your truck, in your camper, or on foot. The only real negative is the low power out. Good, affordable choices for walkie talkies include the Yaesu FT-65R, TYT UV-88, and the ever-popular Baofeng UV-5R.
For HTs, we recommend purchasing an aftermarket antenna. This is because the flexible, “rubber duck” antennas used with most HTs, while convenient, don’t work as well inside a vehicle due to the shielding affect of the vehicle. While, it’s true that the signal can radiate through the windows, the signal can be attenuated as much as 10 to 20 times. A much better option is to connect your HT to a mobile antenna mounted on your truck (you’ll need a BNC adapter to connect to your radio). We recommend going with a 5/8-wavelength antenna. Due to it’s extended length, the 5/8-wavelength antenna focuses more energy toward the horizon, thus improving range. Other options when operating an HT away from your vehicle, include a directional beam antenna, a 1/2-wave dipole, or a J-pole antenna.
Where to mount a mobile antenna on your truck camper rig can be a challenge. The best location is on the roof of your truck. The problem, of course, is that most campers won’t allow you to do this, unless you own a non-cabover model like those made by Alaskan or Capri. Mounting an antenna on the camper isn’t a good option either due to the excessive height to say nothing of the need for a metallic ground plane. The best place to mount an antenna on a truck is up front using a simple hood-groove fixed mount like the Procomm Fixed Mount or on the front bumper using a Hustler SSM2 Ball Mount. Another choice, of course, is to simply go with a good 5/8-wavelength “mag mount” antenna like the MFJ-1728B and place it on the hood or on your front bumper.
While both VHF and UHF radio signals propagate line-of-sight (LOS), the longer wavelengths of VHF signals travel further and tend to “hug” the earth better, thus providing better performance in hilly terrain. This alone makes it superior to GMRS which transmits in the UHF band. When it comes to LOS communications, the limiting factor is the curvature of the earth. Two vehicles at ground level using 5-watt HTs can communicate up to 6 miles; mobile 50-watt radios up to 30 miles. These ranges can be extended greatly by having the transmitter or receiver located on high ground, by using Tropospheric ducting (300 miles), and by using Sporadic E comms (low-band VHF only up to 1,400 miles). Variables affecting radio range include height of the transmitting and receiving antennas, gain of the antenna, power out and the frequency used.
Don’t expect miracles when it comes to LOS propagation. Terrain plays a big role on range when talking to others in your caravan. Hills and rough terrain can be a huge obstacle, literally. This is why many public service agencies use repeaters (more about this below). They are much more reliable and vastly extend the range of the mobile user. One example is an ham radio operator who drove his rig to Pike’s Peak in Colorado. He was able to talk to a repeater 150 miles away, but was able to talk only 2 miles ahead on a road that was deep in the valley at 50 watts using a 5/8-wavelength mobile antenna.
Vehicle-to-vehicle 2 meter communications operate in the simplex mode, meaning the same frequency or channel is used to both send and receive. Per the ARRL band plan, licensed operators can use frequencies for FM simplex from 146.400 to 146-600 MHz and 147.400 and 147.590 MHz, though operators should consult the local band plan before transmitting. Avoid using 146.520 MHz, the national calling simplex frequency, unless the freq is completely dead where you are located, which can happen a lot in remote locations. The most popular frequencies in the simplex sub-bands fall on even 20 KHz frequencies, which minimizes interference from adjacent channels.
Another reason why the ham radio 2 meter band is great. Sure, you can find repeaters on GMRS, but they aren’t as plentiful as they are on the ham radio 2 meter band. A single repeater can extend your range up to 50 miles and hundreds of miles when using linked repeaters. This extended range allows you to contact others joining you or your group along the way. A good practice is to establish comms on a repeater beforehand, before you QSY to a simplex frequency when within range. We recommend programing your radio with the applicable repeater frequencies before leaving on your trip.
Repeaterbook.com and the repeaterbook phone app are great resources for locating repeater frequencies online. A great hard-copy resource is the ARRL Repeater Directory which can be purchased on Amazon.com. If more than one repeater is listed in an area, you may want to reach out to local ham radio clubs to determine which one is best. Note most repeaters operate in a full duplex mode, meaning it has a transmit and a receive frequency. The frequency listed in a directory is the repeater’s transmit frequency. In order to communicate through a repeater, you must transmit on the repeater’s receive frequency, which is offset either 600 KHz above or below the repeater’s transmit freq. Most repeaters require a special CTCSS or PL tone to use it. The tone tells the repeater that your signal is intended for it and should be retransmitted. Check your radio user manual on how to determine the tone.
The Garmin Inreach is fine system, but did you know ham radio’s Automated Packet Reporting System (APRS) essentially does the same for free. APRS uses FM digital packets to transmit mobile position information using a Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver and a Terminal Node Controller (TNC) that converts data into audio at 1200 baud. Digipeaters and gateways forward the packets to a system of servers via the Internet. Along with Lat/Long position information, you can also transmit weather bulletins, images, and text messages free. APRS websites can access the data and show fixed and mobile positions on maps in various ways. APRS is great for family concerned about a family member going off-road. It can also be used to track late arrivals in your party. The freqs dedicated for FM packet use include 144.900 to 145.100 MHz, check your local band plan before using. The easiest way to get everything you need is to purchase either a Yaesu FTM-300 or a Yaesu FTM-400 mobile radio that have GPS and APRS already built-in.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) operates NOAA Weather Radio that broadcasts continuous weather information 24 hours a day. This information includes weather forecasts and warnings, including natural (such as tornadoes, earthquakes and tsunamis) and man-made causes (such as chemical releases or oil spills). NOAA Weather Radio broadcasts in the VHF public service band over seven VHF frequencies: 162.400 MHz, 162.425 MHz, 162.450 MHz, 162.475 MHz, 162.500 MHz, 162.525 MHz, and 162.550 MHz. Click here for a map showing all the NOAA Weather Radio stations in the area, as well as the frequencies on which they transmit.
Need help? Try the simplex 146.52 MHz national calling frequency or a nearby repeater. If a conversation is in progress, wait for an opportunity to break in. Under normal circumstances, say “break” and give your call sign. In extreme emergencies, call Mayday. On a radio net with a conversation in progress, break in by saying “priority” or “emergency,” followed by your call sign. Some 2 meter repeaters even offer an emergency patch option to talk to a 911 operator.
Compared to GMRS and CB radio, Ham radio offers more services and more modes of operation and is more enjoyable to use. In this article, we only touched on one digital service, APRS, but there are many more, including D-Star, System Fusion, and P25, and DMR. What 2 meter communications setup do we have in the Truck Camper Adventure Rig? For now, we have an Icom IC-2300H mobile radio connected to a Firestik 2 meter fiberglass antenna, with plans to purchase either a Yaesu FTM-400 or an Icom ID-5100A at some point in the future. We also carry a cheap pair of Baofeng UV-5R multi-band HTs to use when we are on foot.