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4WD Communications for Outback Australian Travel

In my opinion, carry at least two forms of communication equipment during your travels in Australia. Both for redundancy in the event one fails, and to provide short and long-range emergency contact solutions. Ideally, a short-range and a long-range device should be carried, allowing local contact with nearby travellers to share road conditions or seek assistance, and distant contact for emergencies. With technology ever developing we are spoilt for choice in the 21st century.

**Please note that due to the complex nature of radio propagation,  the below range distances are just estimates, with range depending on many factors such as equipment, antennas, atmospheric conditions and terrain.**

SHORT RANGE COMMUNICATION

CB (Citizen Band) radios are for short-range vehicle to vehicle contact. Their transmission power is low, ranging from 1 to 12 Watts. They are most effective for line-of-sight communications, and you cannot rely on them as the sole means of seeking emergency assistance.

The Radiocommunications (Citizen Band Radio Stations) Class Licence 2015 is the federal legislation that allows citizens to use transmitters without holding a licence for the frequencies used. https://www.legislation.gov.au/Details/F2015L00876

Using a CB radio means acceptance of the conditions within. More info: http://www.acma.gov.au/


UHF CB Radio (Ultra High Frequency)

Frequency: 476.425 MHz to 477.4125 MHz

Max output: 5 Watts

Range: 5km to 40km line of sight (100km+ using repeater stations)

Emergency Channel: 5/35

Available Channels: 80

Licence: Not Required

A UHF is a MUST HAVE for travelling Australia! It is your primary vehicle to vehicle short-range communication device. A UHF allows contact with nearby travellers, truckies, stations, miners or garages for assistance.  The range is dominantly line-of-sight using Simplex mode (Single channel). Using repeaters to extend the signal in Duplex mode (relayed over two channels) can cover 100+km, though repeaters are not likely available in many outback regions, so can’t be relied upon for extending range.

Vehicle and handheld radios are available, though a vehicle unit offers superior antenna options for transmission/reception. I carry both a handheld and vehicle radio, allowing me to take one bushwalking so if I injure myself, I can try contacting nearby travellers for help before activating a PLB (Personal Locator Beacon).

uhf radio

Handheld UHF

Handheld radios vary in transmission output from 1W to 5W. Invest in one with the full 5 Watt output. They will usually have a 1W low power option for chatting with friends nearby.

handheld uhf radio

Options

CTCSS (Continuous Tone-Coded Squelch System) is an option on some radios that adds an underlying tone to the transmission. This tone allows users to selectively mute all received traffic on a channel, except for other radios set with a matching CTCSS tone in their transmission. It does not offer any privacy as all radios will hear every word spoken, but the two radios with matching tone can only hear each other. This is useful for convoys if everyone has CTCSS enabled radios with a matching tone, so no confusion arises from receiving conversations from other convoys nearby. The downside then being that no other transmissions such as from oncoming traffic can be received.

For safety, regular transmission of your location during dune crossings to avoid head-on collisions is good practice.

27 MHz AM CB Radio

Frequency: 26.965 MHz  to 27.405 MHz

Max output: 4 Watts (12 Watts SSB)

Range: 5km (SSB 5km to 100km+ depending on atmospheric conditions)

Emergency Channel: 9

Available Channels: 40

Licence: Not Required

AM CB radios are no longer used much in Australia as UHF replaced them. For emergency communications, they are ultimately pointless, as its unlikely there will be anyone around with one fitted to hear you. If you want a private vehicle to vehicle solution, then AM CB’s may offer that now, though with the advent of 80 channel UHF’s there’s plenty of free UHF channels available.

A Single-sideband radio will be a better solution if you want to fit one due to the superior range of the higher transmission output.

AM CB Radio Uniden Pro5050
AM CB Radio – Image courtesy of Uniden Australia

4WD Antennas

The antenna fitted for your AM or UHF radio will depend on the terrain you intend to travel through dominantly. The dB rating, aka gain, will guide you as to what antenna to choose. The lower the gain, such as 3dB, the better performance in hilly regions. The higher the gain, such as 9dB, the better performance in flat terrain. A gain in the middle, 6dB, is a good all-rounder, which is what I have fitted for general touring, plus I carry a separate 3dB antenna for mountainous regions.

The higher the gain, the more horizontally compressed the radiating pattern of the signal, meaning the further the signal can travel. The lower the gain, the more spherical the pattern, and the shorter the distance the signal can travel.

UHF Radio antenna difference in gain wave propagation


LONG RANGE COMMUNICATION

HF Radio (High Frequency)

Frequency: 3 MHz to 30 MHz

Max output: 100-125W

Range: 100km to 3000km+ depending on atmospheric conditions

Available Frequencies: Endless. (Depends on licence authority)

Licence: Required

HF radios are for long-range communication capable of transmitting 3000km or more dependent on frequency, equipment specifications and atmospheric conditions. These require a licence or membership to an HF club to legally use due to the high transmission output, around 100 watts. Codan and Barrett Communications  are significant manufactures of HF radios. They are quite expensive to buy new, so it would be wise to look for used units and have them serviced. Once licenced, dependant on which HF club you have subscribed with, you may contact base stations Australia wide for assistance or call other members directly.

An HF radio provides both short and long range communication thanks to the signal carrying over ground and sky waves. Ground waves may allow for vehicle to vehicle contact within 100kms. Sky waves reflect the signal off the ionosphere in Earth’s upper atmosphere, back down to the ground achieving greater distances.

It is not recommended as a vehicle to vehicle option as the signal is transmitted great distances, congesting the frequency making it unusable for other users. Someone 3000km away doesn’t need to hear your daily chit-chat, but the option is there if travelling in convoy and the UHF does not reach.

Each network licences its members for various frequencies. I am a member of VKS-737 which permits me to transmit on seven frequencies 5455kHz, 8022kHz, 11612kHz, 14977kHz, 3995kHz, 6796kHz, 10180kHz. All members receive a callsign, for example, VKS-737 Mobile 0000.

codan ngt hf radio handset

Radio Telephone Interconnect

Some networks and HF handsets allow phone calls to mobiles and landlines, through a telephone interconnect. Usually an additional paid option, the calls however, are not private as all voice is transmitted openly across the network. If you need to keep in contact with family or do business and don’t own a satellite phone, this is an option. Additional connection and call fees are charged.

Data Transmission

Email, Fax, text messaging and GPS location logging are options available with some networks. Additional equipment may be required.

RFDS, Police, Roadside Assistance, Customs, Quarantine, SES Direct Selcall

Some networks offer direct contact via a telephone interconnect with various government, corporate or private services if needing assistance, including the Royal Flying Doctors Service.

Receive Only Frequencies

Some networks offer numerous receive only frequencies programmed into handsets free of charge.  They include access to broadcasts from BBC world service, Voice of America, Amateur radio, and time and weather updates. A useful way of getting news and weather in the bush.

Australian HF Networks

The best option is to join one of the following HF Radio clubs to be licenced to use a radio.

land rover defender

Satellite Phone

Emergency number: 000 or 112 (Check with provider) (Older phones may require +61 before number)

Considered the ultimate communication device it is the easiest way of contacting family or emergency services directly. The phone operates like any other offering private calls to any phone number worldwide via satellites. This ease comes at a significant ongoing cost. Call charges are expensive as well as the initial phone purchase price.

Coverage is provided by either Geostationary (GEO) or Low Earth Orbiting (LEO) satellites. GEO satellites remain in a fixed position above the earth, while LEO satellites rotate around the Earth.

There are four satellite phone networks available; Iridium, Inmarsat, Thuraya and Globalstar. Each have their pros and cons , though Iridium is the only provider with complete world coverage.

To use their services in Australia, you must connect through a plan with either Telstra, Optus , Pivotel or one of several other private plan providers.

Mobile Phone Telstra 3G/4G

Emergency number: 000 or 112

A mobile phone may be vital around the developed coastline of Australia, or in larger country towns, but 30km or so outside of these, they become useless. Telstra is the best option for remote regions as they are the primary telco for Australia, owning the most infrastructure, providing service in small country towns.

Bear in mind a typical smartphone is prone to screens smashing from a small drop, rendering the phone sometimes useless. Carry a spare handset preferably a ruggedised IP68 as a backup when your expensive phone succumbs to the outback.

Map of Telstra Network Coverage

ruggedised mobile phone ip68

GPS  Trackers

Range: InReach – Global coverage; Spot – Most areas

Licence: Subscription required

GPS trackers like the Garmin Inreach (formally owned by DeLorme), and Spot Messenger are subscription-based services, allowing near real-time tracking of you or your vehicle via satellite. Your location is updated online, providing those you permit to track your progress. They have a built-in distress beacon much like a PLB to notify rescue authorities of your position.

The Spot also allows three pre-set custom messages to be sent to your contacts via email or text message, to check in or request for non-life threatening help. The InReach allows for 2-way text messaging, along with receiving local weather updates, and provides GPS mapping. The downside of both units is if the subscription lapses, the distress beacon function will not work. This is where a PLB is a better option for life threatening emergencies.

For a detailed review of the SPOT GEN3 Messenger view this post.

spot tracker for gps tracking of position and plb


EMERGENCY USE ONLY

Personal Locator Beacon

Frequency: Digital 406 MHz. 5 Watt transmission plus 121.5 MHz homing signal

Range: Worldwide operation via COSPAS-SARSAT

Licence: Registration required

A PLB is a life or death emergency only device that sends a distress signal via satellite and radio signal. Latest models come with a built-in GPS sending your lat/long location within 100m accuracy to rescue authorities, allowing faster locating. They are self-contained units with a long-life battery, which is preferable over a GPS tracker where the batteries could be depleted using tracking functions, resulting in an inoperable device when the SOS function is needed in an emergency.

They are excellent to keep in the vehicle or your hiking pack in case the worst happens. Get one, it may save your life!

For a detailed review of the GME MT410G PLB view this post.

Personal Locator Beacon


As a solo traveller, I carry multiple communication devices so I always ensure I can call for help. I have a UHF and HF radio installed on the vehicle, and have a handheld UHF, Spot Tracker and PLB for when I’m hiking. Be sure to carry at least two of the above!

Do you have any questions regarding my overview? Please leave me a comment below.

**Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. Any purchases you make via these links help to support this blog at no additional cost to you. Thank you for your support!**

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Brett

Brett is a film maker, hiker, adventurer and Defender owner. He loves the outdoors and feels most at home travelling remote outback places in Australia. The idea of waiting till retirement to begin exploring Australia is not the path Brett has chosen, instead choosing to live life now. Join him on his adventures.

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