Two-Way Radios for Backcountry Safety
Why a Long-Range Radio Is Essential Gear
For skiers headed into the backcountry, safety is paramount. And communication breakdowns are a common cause of many backcountry skiing accidents. That’s why carrying a long-range, two-way radio can save your life. In places where WiFi is unheard of and cell phone service is as unreliable as friends on a powder day, a radio can alert ski partners to potentially life-threatening hazards, ensuring everyone goes home safely.
Benefits of Two-Way Radios in the Backcountry
In high-consequence terrain, two-way radio communication is a critical avalanche safety tool. A radio allows you to let partners above know about terrain and conditions below, steer them away from hazards, tell them when it’s safe to descend, or simply clue them into where the best snow is.
In mellow trees, backcountry radios are helpful for directing your partner to the correct line or regrouping if you get separated.
And in the event of an “oh crap” moment, handheld two-way radios can play a vital role in guiding your group away from danger or coordinating a rescue.
Important note on range: Despite the advertised range of your walkie talkie, backcountry radios work best when they’re within sight of each other. If you need to call emergency services for help, you’ll likely need another device. If you’re in an area without cellular service, consider carrying an emergency communication device like the SPOT or inReach Mini, or an emergency locator beacon such as the inReach Explorer+.
Respect the Radio: Roger That
Fight the urge to share your stoke about the chute you just shredded over your backcountry radio. Protocol frowns upon unnecessary chatter, so limit radio communication to informing your partners about potential dangers and snow conditions. Save the psych for in person.
Mastering basic walkie talkie lingo is not only useful for efficient communication, it’s also kind of fun. Terms such as “over,” “out,” and “copy” offer a simple way to clearly and concisely communicate with your group. Before heading into the backcountry, practice using long-range two-way radios and establish a consistent lingo your group will use. Remember to speak slowly and in an even tone.
Two-Way Radio Guide
The majority of handheld two-way radios have 22 available channels on two bands: FRS (family radio service) and GMRS (general mobile radio service). These bands are monitored by the FCC (Federal Communication Commission).
FRS: FRS-only ski radios are allowed a maximum output of two watts. FRS walkie talkies work best when they’re within sight of each other with minimal interference—trees and large snowdrifts can affect the quality of the signal.
GMRS: GMRS and combo FRS/GMRS ski radios typically have an output between one and five watts. Greater power output allows GMRS radios to provide a higher-quality signal that works better than FRS devices when your line of sight is obstructed, as well as a wider walkie talkie range. To operate a GMRS radio, the FCC requires a license—it costs $70 and is good for 10 years.
Protecting Your Privacy
Busy Areas: If you’re using your radios at the ski resort or in busy backcountry spots like Teton Pass or Wolverine Cirque, the 22 channels can get consumed faster than the freshies. Privacy codes (also called interference eliminator codes) reduce the amount of chatter you’ll hear from other radios.
CTCSS & CDCSS: Ski walkie talkies reduce the amount of jabber you hear with either a Continuous Tone Coded Squelch System (CTCSS) or a Continuous Digital Coded Squelch System (CDCSS), which only let you hear transmissions on the channel you’re using that include the code. While privacy codes cut down on the unwanted banter, they don’t completely eliminate it—higher-powered radios will often still come through.
Scanning: Another way to keep communications clear is by avoiding busy channels. Two-way radio gear with a scanning function makes it easy to find unused channels.
Features of the Best Two-Way Radios for Skiing
Battery-Powered: Long-range two-way radios that can run on both rechargeable batteries and standard batteries allow you to carry a backup power source for increased backcountry skiing safety.
Key Lock: You move around a lot in the backcountry. Because of this, the best ski radios feature a key lock to prevent you from accidentally changing your radio’s settings while skinning, skiing, or transitioning.
Weather Channels: If you take overnight tours, you might be interested in an avalanche radio capable of listening to NOAA’s (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) receive-only weather channels.
Don’t Forget to Use Your Head
The use of high-tech backcountry ski gear such as two-way radios and beacons has made getting out to the mountains safer, but batteries die, channels jam, and ridgelines disrupt communication. Make a plan before heading into the mountains and constantly discuss it while touring. Here are a few other tips for strong backcountry communication to practice in addition to handheld two-way radio use:
Gather Your Gear: Pull your backcountry ski gear together the night before a tour to ensure you show up at the trailhead with all the necessities. Always bring all avalanche safety tools—a beacon, shovel, and probe—and check your beacon’s battery before leaving the house. And coordinate with your partner—your beacon isn’t very useful if your partner forgets theirs!
Read the Reports: Check the weather and avalanche report the night before your tour, so there are no surprises. If avy danger is high, stick to low-angle terrain or head to the resort.
Make a Game Plan: The night before a tour, you should have a clear idea of where you’re going, along with a backup plan if conditions don’t cooperate. Create a pre-plan, including your intended route, expected avy and weather conditions, and an estimated return time, and emergency numbers to call if you don’t check in by a set time. Leave your pre-plan with a responsible person who will follow through with the plan if they don’t hear from you.
Partner Up: Backcountry skiing is inherently risky. There are all manner of hazards lurking for the unprepared. Make sure you and your partner are in agreement about what constitutes backcountry skiing safety. From trip planning to touring, communicate with your partner on what you think is safe, what isn’t safe, and why you feel the way you do.
Be Smart: A conservative attitude can keep you and your ski partner safe and mean the difference between your last run or living to ski another day. The mountains will be there—erring on the side of caution helps ensure you will be, too.
A former child model, Tim spent a portion of his youth gracing the pages of Sunday paper advertisements for many now-defunct department stores. Living responsibility/rent-free with his parents into his thirties, Tim pursued climbing, skiing, and biking while accumulating an impressive amount of time in the mountains (and gear). Relentlessly pursuing the dream, Tim’s modest life ambitions are to ski all 12 months of the year, to climb 5.12, and to live in a van.