Short Range Communication Choices for Off the Grid Communications

Communicating off the grid, or without the use of conventional methods such as landline, cell phones, Internet, or WiFi can be a challenging prospect. You might ask why forgoing convention when the infrastructure and technology is ubiquitous. If you think about it, cell phones are everywhere and Internet technology is entrenched. But there can be certain situations when using two way radios are a superior choice.

HOG rally communications trailerMURS, GMRS and Amateur Radio: Our communication trailer had several bands in operation in order to keep volunteers in touch at a recent large scale event

Consider how will you communicate when:

  • A natural disaster such as a flood, hurricane, ice storm or tornado has disrupted cell communications.
  • A man made disaster such as a fiber line cut has disrupted telephone and Internet communications.
  • Hiking, camping or hunting in remote areas that aren’t served by cell towers.
  • Your family or party or individuals need to communicate and coordinate at an event.

All of these instances call for using short range communication methods such as two way radio. For effective short range communications off the grid, there are three viable radio band choices MURS, FRS/GMRS, and Amateur Radio. Each one has their own particular benefits and one or more service may work for your group.

MURS, or the Multi Use Radio Service is an unlicensed radio service that uses 6 discreet VHF frequencies in the 151-154 MHz VHF range. Radios are limited to 4 watts, but you may use external antennas, and handheld and mobile radios as long as they conform to the 4 watt limitation. You will need to use land mobile or commercial radios, the FCC doesn’t allow you to modify amateur radio equipment for this band, but there is a wide variety of new and used equipment on the market that will work.

With the 4 watt limitation, range is limited with MURS. But you should be about to communication in a 1-3 mile circle in open terrain. Heavily forested and urban areas will limit your coverage. You can extend your range by using an external antenna such as the MURS J-Pole antenna. Putting an antenna up 20 or 30 feet on a portable or mobile MURS band radio will allow your base operations to coordinate with members in the field by an extra few miles. With a MURS antenna up 10 feet, I was able to communicate with volunteers at a recent event up to 3 miles away in an urban environment. Biggest benefit of MURS band is that it’s unlicensed, so you can hand a radio to just about anyone and let them transmit.

GMRS UHF J-Pole antenna

GMRS J-Pole antennas. They may be small, but pack quite a bunch for the UHF radio band.

The FRS/GMRS band is a combination licensed and unlicensed radio band. A total of 23 channels in the 462-467 MHz UHF band are available for use. Unlicensed FRS radios are limited to 500 milliwatts, but the licensed GMRS radios can run up to 5 watts on portables and 45 watts on mobiles. GMRS radios can use external antennas, but FRS radios may not have removable antennas. A GMRS license is required for operation, but licenses require no testing and are good for your immediate family.

Range with FRS is very limited, although manufactures claim a range up to 35 miles, in fact you will never be able to reliably transmit that far with FRS radios. With their low power and lossy antennas, expect a 1/2 mile on a good day. GMRS radios, with more power will have similar range as the MURS band: up to 3 miles with stock antennas and 3-5 miles or more with an external GMRS J-Pole antenna. Repeaters are also allowed on GMRS, increasing range even more. A high profile GMRS repeater could give your party 30-50 miles of communication range. Biggest benefit of GMRS is that being on the UHF band, it has better penetration in urban environments, and the ability to use higher power radios.

That brings us to the Amateur Radio band. Ham radios are available in a wide number of bands and frequency allocations. Since the amateur radio service doesn’t have discreet channels like the other services, you have a wide variety of VHF and UHF frequencies to work with for short range off the grid communications. But the most common frequency ranges are the 144-148 MHz 2 meter band and the 440-450 MHz 70cm band. In order to use the ham radio bands, you need a license. Licenses are free, but require passing a Technician level or higher amateur radio exam (testing fee applies). Every person in your party, group, or family will need to take the exam and receive a callsign. But once you are licensed, you have a wide range of frequencies, modes and equipment that you can use for non-commercial or personal radio communications.

Ham radios are available in portables up to 7 watts and mobiles that handle 80 watts or more. Plus you can amplifiers and repeaters to extend your range 75 miles or more. Just about every ham radio will accept an external antenna so the 2 meter J-Pole antenna or the 2 meter Slim Jim antenna will work great for your base of operations. If you are setting up a mobile command post for an event, our 2 meter break-a-way antenna stores compactly, but has the same great range as the full size model.

KB9VBR J-Pole antenna hospital emcomm setup

Cell phones and landlines were out of service when our emergency communication group was deployed to an area hospital after a tornado outbreak in April of 2011.

The biggest benefit of the amateur radio band for short range off the grid communications is its flexibility and wide variety of frequencies available. But everyone must have a license and unlike MURS and GMRS, you are limited to non-commercial communications. You can’t run your business on the ham radio bands.

As you can see, there are quite a few choices for off the grid communications. But what is the best choice for your group? It depends on your particular needs. MURS and GMRS work great for coordinating your group over a short distance (less than 3 miles), but if you are really concerned about communications after a disaster or need to keep your group in touch over challenging terrain and longer distances, than the amateur radio bands are the best choice. Whatever your choice is, KB9VBR J-Pole antennas has an antenna that will work for you. We are also the emergency communications and off the grid communication specialists, so we would be glad to answer your off the grid communication questions.