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Roger That! Backcountry Two-Way Radio Protocols

April 2, 2018

Jim Sarge Conway outfits all of his clients with a BC Link two-way radio, and when he recommends two-way radio protocols for backcountry travel, we listen. With a lifetime spent in the mountains and a degree in engineering, hes one of the BCA ambassadors we count on for heavy technical feedback.

Jim Sarge Conway outfits all of his clients with a BC Link two-way radio, and when he recommends two-way radio protocols for backcountry travel, we listen. In this post, you'll learn from Sarge the benefits of using a radio in the backcountry, the protocols you should follow, and some technical pointers for pros on how to get professional-grade UHF/VHF radios to talk to the BC Link in emergencies.

Known as Sarge for his paramilitary but fun-loving style, Conway owns and operates Tordrillo North, a heli-ski and snowboard operation and lodge. He's been a mountain guide and heli-skis guide for over 20 years from his early years with Doug Coombs Valdez Heli-Ski Guides to a 10-year stint as lead guide for Teton Gravity Research.

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Conway holds the record for the most vertical feet skied in one day in Valdez, Alaska. In 20 runs, he and his clients logged 78,000 feet. It wasn't a stunt or an abnormally big push; it was just a particularly good day in the life of this pioneer in Alaska heli-skiing.

With a lifetime spent in the mountains and a degree in engineering, he's one of the BCA ambassadors we count on for heavy technical feedback.

Maximizing Your Safety

Where this all starts is the need for better communication in the mountains, said Conway. Oftentimes, accidents can be avoided with better communication, and radio communications are valuable in terms of prevention and response. For example, if you notice an avalanche hazard as you ski down, its good form to radio up and direct your group toward a safer route.

A two-way radio in variable terrain is more reliable for intra-party communication than cell phones, which have spotty service in the mountains. While it's important to note that terrain features will affect the transmission capabilities of any device, radios are still more apt to work than cell phones in that environment.

In case of emergency, a two-way radio becomes an efficient tool to communicate directives within a group for self-rescue and to decipher who may still have cell phone service should search and rescue be required. In that case, the radio can be used to get information to the person who has cell service (for example at the top of a pass). They can then relay the info to authorities, as shown in our BC Link product video. This is especially useful for snowmobilers, who can cover lots of ground to find the right place for cell service.

If you're a professional with a five-watt UHF/VHF radio, you can communicate with the BC Link in an emergency by programming your radio to the same frequencies. To do this, download the frequency chart from our website.

Maximizing Your Line

Radio protocol (covered below) prohibits a bunch of jabber about sweet lines and cheering on your buddies. But there's nothing wrong with a quick radio transmission about the best snow conditions and where to find them. If skiers left is crusty and skiers right is a blower, call out quickly on the radio where to find the best turns.

Technical Capabilities

Wattage (power) and the antenna determine how well your radio transmits and receives. The BC Link transmits at up to one watt and has a range up to five miles.

The BC Link falls into a category of radio called FRS/GMRS, which effectively means its a consumer radio transmitter and receiver that operates between a select range of frequencies and at a capped wattage, as governed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). According to Conway, The BC Link raised the bar. It's really the gold standard for FRS/GRMS technology and communication. The BC Link is fully compatible with other FRS/GMRS (also called a family band) radios like Motorola Talkabout.

What makes the Link unique is that its a professional quality radio, he explained. It has a super long battery life (80 hours under normal conditions), really great speakers, and unlike [other well-known consumer-quality two-way radios on the market] it is really clear for communication.

Its also designed for skiers and riders. The battery stays near the body's core for warmth, and the external Smart Mic with microphone, power, volume control, channel selector, and speaker provides one-touch operation without removing your gloves or digging for the radio in your jacket or backpack. In an emergency, this time and energy efficiency are critical. As Conway noted, It doesn't matter how good it is, if it's hard to use. The BC Link is really simple and convenient.

Two-Way Radio Protocol in the Backcountry

For a complete description of two-way radio protocols, download our pamphlet BCAs Human Factors and Group Communication.

Ensure that your group is all on the same channel. Listen for 30 seconds to ensure that the channel is not being used. Channel selection is first-come, first served. If someone transmits over a channel you're using, politely let them know it is in use and request they choose another.

Two-way radio uses in the backcountry fall into three general categories:

  1. Sharing condition information,
  2. Sharing warnings of hazards and dangers, and
  3. Facilitating rescue operations

Ask yourself: Does my communication fall into one of those categories?

  • If yes, speak clearly and concisely.
  • If no, there's no need for radio communication. A few examples of what isn't proper radio chatter: dinner conversations, extended non-critical chats, or any non-emergency communication to a person who is moving (skiing down, snowmobiling, etc.).

A few best practices to adopt:

The old Smokey and the Bandit radio chatter wasn't just for Hollywood. Over, Out, Copy, and more constitute a real language that conveys important information to your group.

  • Always give directions in the positive: tell people where to go, don't tell them where not to go.
  • If you can, designate one person to remain in a spot with both cell and radio coverage. This person can relay emergency calls to search and rescue in an avalanche.
  • First, identify to whom you are speaking, then say your message. End each segment of communication with, Over.
  • Compose your thoughts; speak slowly and in an even pitch.
  • Confirm understanding of communication aimed at you by replying with, Copy, or Roger.
  • Never speak over the radio to someone who is in motion. The only exceptions are when that person is in imminent danger (e.g. avalanche, cliffs, etc.) or is expecting direction from a designated leader.
  • Practice with your BC Link to determine how far you should hold the speaker away from your mouth and how loudly you need to speak to be understood.
  • Remember that everything you say is public, so keep it pro and keep it clean.

Over and Out!


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