I have been doing some research trying to understand the FRS/GMRS radio better. I am wanting to get my HAM licence but I have been using an ICOM VHF radio and the FRS/GMRS radios as well as a CB radio. There seems to be some confusion whenever we get out on to the trail, sometimes the FRS/GMRS radio works the next time we can't hear a thing. Some of these radios are really simple and others have way more features that can confuse people. Maybe KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) is the best practice in this case.
I am going to try and clarify some radio bands that are used in Canada but try not to make it to confusing.
CB: (Citizens Band) This is one of the most common radio types, they are easy to find and they are relatively cheap ($40 - $200). They have 40 channels and they work on the AM band. They are fixed channels they can't be programmed. Off the shelf they put out between 4 or 5 watts. I have a top of the line Cobra model that I really like. These radios are still in wide use in the USA, but not so much in Canada. Cobra, Uniden and Midland are good brands, they can be bought used on line and some local truck stops sell them too. No licence required.
VHF: (Very High Frequency) These radios are what the logging, oil and gas companies and truckers use, they have a high output and work on the FM band, the mobile radios can put out 50 watts of signal and they are also using repeater towers to push a signal a long distance. As an example I can hear truckers talk as they leave Barriere and I can hear them from the brake check on top of the Inks Lake hill. The frequencies are regulated by Canada's Spectrum Management System and you have to have permission to use certain frequencies. The Canadian government has been making changes to the rules concerning VHF and it has caused confusion with the frequencies for the RR (Resource Road) use. Companies pay for the use of a frequency and if you work for a company that requires you to use a two way radio in your work, you use their licence, you don't have to have one yourself. There are 4 open channels that the truckers use and they are called the LADD (there are more LADD channels but I am trying to simplify the confusion) channels. There are other frequencies programmed into these radios but if you talk on the wrong frequency in the right location you could be fined and the radio could be seized as most of the channels are private. Laws have been changing and the rules have been relaxed an offroader can use some frequencies to use on the trail with a licence that can be obtained by the 4WDABC if you are a member as they have lobbied the government to free up a frequency without having to get a HAM licence. The LADD channels are regulated, but the use is not enforced. If you were really stuck and had one of these you could get rescued or at least have someone make a call on your behalf if you were out of cell range. I have an ICOM IC-5023 and it is a rugged dependable radio, I have also used Kenwood radios but the ICOM sounds better to me. These type of radios can be found used on Marketplace and other on line stores for $100 - $500 but I see then all the time for $300. Local shops will sell them if you have a licence but they are quite expensive new. ICOM and Kenwood are good brands. If you should happen to pick up one of these radios, Vernon Communications will program it for off road use. They are recommended by 4WDABC.
UHF: (Ultra High Frequency) Cab companies and some construction companies use these radios as they are better in built up areas as the UHF waves pass through buildings and obstructions better than the VHF frequency. The output is between 25 and 50 watts. The frequencies are regulated buy Canadian Spectrum Management System and you have to have permission to use the frequencies. Companies pay for the frequency and if you work for a company that requires you to use a radio you use their licence, you don't have to have one yourself. The interesting thing is that this is UHF is the band that FRS/GMRS uses. These radios can look exactly like the VHF model so caution should be taken before buying one as it does not communicate with the VHF band models. Plugging the model number into Google will tell you if it is UHF or VHF. For trail rides these are not common, I would avoid buying one.
HAM: (AKA Amateur Radio Operators) If you really want to know why Amateur Radio Operators are called "HAM" see this link I am not going to explain it here. HAMs can operate on multiple frequencies on both the VHF/UHF bands (as well as others however this topic is out of the scope of this article), but they can listen to many more frequencies than they can talk on.
HAM operators are regulated by the Canadian Spectrum Management System and you have to take a course then write a test and pass with more than 70% to be licensed, once licensed you have it for life. The HAM radio can be programmed for any frequencies you want to listen to (excluding scrambled police frequencies) and the mobile radios can also be programmed to put out wattage, from 5 watts to 65 watts and above, your level of licence depicts your power output and your frequencies you have access to. The big advantage of HAM is that if you are in an emergency situation you can call for help on the private VHF frequencies and the UHF frequencies. As with the other private VHF radios frequencies the HAMs have repeaters set up and they can cover a lot of range, not to mention that if you need help you can probably contact another HAM operator to assist by making a call for you or to relay a message over the radio. HAM has its benefits, but HAM operators are not allowed to chit chat on the LADD channels. The HAM operators help govern the rules for radio use in Canada. I think it is also important to mention that if there is a natural disaster and the grid goes down, HAM radio operators are part of the emergency response program, they are important to our communities as they can talk to other continents if we are involved in a natural disaster.
FRS/GMRS: (Family Radio Service/General Mobile Radio Service) These little radios have been meant to replace the CB, the one thing that they are limited to is that they are hand held only, you can't install a mobile FRS/GMRS radio in your vehicle. The USA has allowed mobile FRS/GRMS radios to be installed in vehicles, but Canadian law still forbids it. FRS/GMRS are meant to be low powered 0.5 - 5 watts hand held units. These radios work on the UHF band. They don't require a licence in Canada but the GMRS band does require a licence in the USA. In clubs I have been out with these seem to be the most common radio in use. I have covered some details here so we understand the radios a little better.
Depending on your radio you may or may not have CTCSS Privacy Codes or DCS Privacy Codes. If you press your "Mode" button you can cycle through your features. Shut this feature off when going on a trail run. If one radio has this enabled all radios have to have this enabled.
The table on the top (if you are on a cell phone)/top left (if on a computer) of this article probably needs some explaining, the more expensive radios will have 22 channels, some of the budget radios only have 15 channels. The first seven channels use the same channel/frequency, but after 7 it gets a little confusing.
The other noteworthy thing is the output wattage (W) the hand held radios only put out a max of 2 watts so the upper channels does not matter if you are allowed to broadcast at 50 Watts these radios will not put out that kind of wattage, but if you are stuck and alone use channel 20 on a 22 channel radio and channel 10 on a 15 channel radio to call for help, as this is the unofficial emergency/traveller assistance channel, there is a slim chance that a HAM radio operator scanning that frequency may hear you. One more bit of geeky radio information is that these radios use the UHF frequencies so the radio waves travel a long distance with very little power output. My FRS/GMRS radio is the Cobra CXT545 and I have an older CXT425. Canadian Tire sells these radios but they can be bought online too, Cobra & Uniden are popular brands.
FRS/GMRS Baofeng: (Programmable Radios)
The reason Baofeng programmable radios (and other Chinese radios) are illegal in Canada is that people can program any frequency they want into them whether they have permission to use that frequency or not. Imagine if someone decided to put in a frequency for the air traffic controllers (accidentally or otherwise) into a Baofeng radio and started talking on top of an air traffic controller while the air traffic controller was trying to help a pilot land a jumbo jet. There is a reason the Canadian government wants frequencies programmed into radios by authorized technicians and not any person programming in any frequency. It is possible to program frequencies into a radio to listen only and that is fine but, if someone starts talking on an emergency channel it could end badly. It should also be known that when you key a microphone on VHF & UHF radios there is a code transmitted that identifies the transmitting radio. If someone was abusing a frequency that radio can be tracked by the authorities. So be aware if you think you can trash talk over a VHF/UHF radio anonymously.
I hope you found this article helpful, if you have any questions you can email us here.