Anyone older than about 35 who has been tramping for a while will probably have remember the mountain radio.   I remember it being a pretty standard bit of equipment when I went on longer, more remote trips with my Venturer Scout group. The yellow box of electronics, the fun and challenge of stringing up the aerial over nearby trees, the trembling terror of talking to ‘the whole word’ and squinting to hear a kind voice and weather report which sounded like a world war 2 BBC broadcast.

I vividly recall a time where we got ourselves bluffed whilst descending into the headwaters of the Ngaruroro River, Kaimanawa Ranges.  Too far down to get back up in daylight, we struggled to find bivvy spots where the trees would stop us rolling down the hill. Putting up the aerial was quite the adventure; with one volunteer trailing the wire, we supported them to ‘swim’ through the foliage, laying the aerial as he went.  A call to the calm voice on the other end soothed our teenage nerves; mum and dad got a ring to know that the boys were ok, but might be home a bit later.

And doesn’t the sound of “Gale nor-westers and heavy rain” crackling through the speaker give so much more ambience in a wee tin hut than the ‘chirp’ of an InReach recieving a weather report?

Satellite based comms devices have largely taken over from the humble mountain radio, but the latter isn’t dead yet. There’s still several groups of volunteers around NZ who rent out the sets and tune in for the ‘sked’ each night.  We heard from Hugh Wilde, chairperson of the Wellington Mountain Radio Service to give our readers his take on pro’s and con’s of some of the gadgetry.

Dan Clearwater, FMC Development Officer (born 1982….. and owner of an InReach)

 

Mountain Radio

The mountain radio system in New Zealand is based around small, low-power SSB high frequency radios that communicate from remote areas back to a higher-powered base station usually located in an environment with low electrical noise. The base stations are usually remote from the operator, who are volunteers.

PROs: 

  • You talk once a day usually at night directly to an operator, usually with tramping and SAR experience.
  • The system is not dependant on direct line-of-sight communication (the signals ‘reflect’ off the ionosphere so communications are possible from valleys as well as peaks and ridges.
  • Many of the mountain radios have a built-in facility to make calls to emergency services via the public switched telephone network at any time of the day depending on reception.
  • A relatively low-cost system compared with satellite-based systems, both in terms of overall system cost and cost to the hirer. The technology is appropriate for its intended use in the hills. Wellington Mountain Radio charges $5.00 per day for radio hire which includes batteries. 

CONs:

  • The newer SR-3s in carry bag with aerial weight about 1.2kg and the smaller Codan radios about 900gm all up, though the weight can be divided somewhat for a party.
  • An aerial up to 40m long needs to be erected for use.
  • Communication depends to some extent on solar activity – though at the low frequency used, the ionospheric conditions rarely prevent communication altogether.
  • Radio skeds occur only once per day in the North Island, and twice in the South Island, though other skeds can be arranged if needed.

 

Cell phones

PROs:

  • Most people already own one.
  • Small and light to carry and easy to use.
  • Police comms can usually locate the phone by its GPS if the user agrees and is in contact with Police comms (which would be rare in a backcountry setting)

CONs:

  • Line-of-sight communication means that they may only work from high points in remote areas and not from valleys. Even high points with clear line of sight may not work if the distance exceeds about 35km. Cell towers on the lower land can be blocked by hills.
  • Many remote areas have no cellphone access – probably representing more than 60% of the land area of New Zealand

 

Satellite communicator devices 

PROs:

  • Compact, light and have a built-in aerial making operation convenient. No need for a long wire aerial.
  • Not dependent on the ionosphere for radio propagation.
  • Can be used at any time of the day, rather than during scheduled times.
  • Some of these devices have a texting facility where messages can be sent from the device. Some mobile phones can be connected to the device to make texting quicker and easier.
  • GPS tracking allows the tramper or hunter’s route to be automatically plotted on a map and available to friends or relatives at home.
  • Have an emergency (“help”) button for the device’s telco to advise the NZRCC of the emergency.

CONs:

  • Line-of-sight communication that rely mostly on orbiting satellites as well as a couple of geostationary satellites so if the tracking device is in a valley the geostationary satellites may not be ‘visible’ and satellites passing over may not be in line-of-sight with the device, causing delays in the GPS fix and transmission of the message. Delays can also occur from processing delays by the Australian satellite comms link  provider. 
  • No verbal communication is possible. Only texting either via the device keyboard or a mobile phone that can be linked to the device. 
  • The ‘help’ facility relies on human intervention to identify the emergency and notify the authorities. This will occur from overseas. There can be delays in this process.
  • Most require an ongoing paid subscription, whether you’re using it or not. 

 

406 MHz Personal Locator Beacons

These should not be considered as alternatives to any of the above since they are only for emergency situations where life is at risk. Solo trampers and groups should always carry one, regardless of any other devices, since they give immediate help. But they will be of no use to inform about delays caused by weather or the need for changed pick-up from roadends. Some of these delays may trigger searches when in fact none would be needed if communication were possible, such as by mountain radio.

PROs:

  • Very reliable with immediate notification to NZRCC of the emergency, the GPS position of the device, as well as the details of the registered contacts for the beacon.
  • Small in size and weight
  • No ongoing subscription

CONS:

  • Unable to communicate ‘routine’ messages like delays or plan changes.

 

In summary

There are several communication devices on the market designed for use in the hills to send and receive messages and others are designed specifically to call for help. Some use relatively modest technology while others depend on billion-dollar infrastructure, which needs to be paid for somehow, usually by the user although PLBs are an exception here. The mountain radio service is an appropriate technology for its intended use, and the hire costs are modest compared with other communication devices.. 


Learn more through the Wellington Mountain Radio Service  
www.wmrs.org.nz