When traveling in the backcountry with a large group, chances are good, especially when skiing or snowboarding, that skill levels will vary and the group will splinter into smaller parties. While cell phones might work out there, coverage may be patchy at best. Consider these waterproof and rugged radios to stay in touch with the rest of the group. I won’t get into range and battery life since there are a number of variables effecting those results. Suffice it to say, each of these units lasted a reasonable amount of time and did well enough on range in my use.
BCA BC Link
The folks at BCA are all about backcountry safety with their line of beacons, probes, shovels, air bag systems and now, radios. The BC Link is designed to be easy to use while in the field with big glove friendly buttons and dials.
Like many other aspects of traveling in the backcountry, the radios require some pre-trip planning and checking. The radio has six pre-set channels which are easily selected on a large dial on the microphone/speaker (Smart Mic) piece. Ideally, all your pre-sets match the other radios in your group but you can probably get away with just a few of them matching so it’s easy to change channels if another party is using your first choice frequency. If nothing matches, you can easily re-program in the field, you’ll just be burning time not skiing.
The bulk of the radio including the antenna is meant to be stashed in your pack and forgotten. The beauty of this design is it removes the antenna from your body which does a good job at blocking radio signals. Larger packs will help with raising the antenna higher for better transmissions. I also liked the turn-dial power/volume switch on the Smart Mic to prevent the radio getting turned on while stashed in a pack on the way to the trailhead. The BC Link is IP56 waterproof rated which is more than sufficient for working in the snow and rain but not intended for full submersion. For longer trips, the micro-USB port lets you recharge the battery without having to take a separate charger and stand along. This makes the BC Link compatible with any USB style battery you might have with you for your other devices like charging your phone, lights, GPS and more. And, if those ringer/call buttons found on most FRS radios annoy you as much as they do me, you’ll be glad to know the BC Link has no such feature. $150; backcountryaccess.com
Motorola Talk About MS350R
Motorola has been making radios for a long time and they built the MS350R specifically for the outdoor enthusiast who may encounter some weather along the way. With an IP67 waterproof rating, I took this radio on a number of kayak and SUP trips (see photo above) where it was repeatedly dunked and splashed. The clip did a great job of holding onto my PFD and there’s a loop for a safety cord as well.
The MS350R comes with a host of features including pre-programmed NOAA weather frequencies, an integrated flashlight, optional headset/external mic (not waterproof), the unit floats and it has that annoying call button. The power button is susceptible to being pressed while the unit is in your pack so remove the batteries when not in use to prevent discharging the unit inadvertently. $100; motorolasolutions.com
Stepping down a price point we arrive at a radio set from Cobra Electronics. These compact units claim 28 miles of range, but we all know that is reserved for totally ideal conditions which nearly never happen. Nevertheless, these radios perform as expected. They come with the standard host of features including a silent vibration alert for those unique hush-hush situations. The radios are nice and small and fit nicely in a pocket to stay out of the way, but like the Motorola model above, the power button is on the front where it can get depressed while stowed and getting knocked around some increasing the chance of draining your battery before even getting to where you need to use radios. The buttons for all the other features are mostly totally un-intuitive. It takes a significant amount of time sitting with the manual before getting out on your adventure to get familiar with the functions that are important to you.