How To Choose the Right Tools for Camping and Overland Communication

As any counselor would tell you, effective communication is perhaps the most important life skill.

Out camping or overlanding, it’s no different. Even in situations without cell service, communicating with your partners is critical in the field. Beyond leading to a fulfilling trip, good communication keeps people safe when pushing personal limits, or just playing and relaxing outdoors. Staying connected helps you and your partners, as long as you’re willing to do the work—and are equipped. From message boards to walkie-talkies, satellite communicators, and apps, here’s how to pick the right tools for the job.

Message Boards

It might be old-school, but a handwritten note on a campground message board can get the job done. Check near your campground entrance for a message board (not all will have one, but many do). Tack up a note there for your buddies, detailing your location or meet-up plans. 


The Bridgefy app lets you send messages offline to people within 330 feet. Turn on your Bluetooth and connect with other Bridgefy users to message without internet or cell service. The Broadcast feature will connect and send messages to all users within your antenna range, so can be particularly helpful in emergencies (flash flood, earthquake, avalanche) when information needs to be communicated to large groups quickly. Price: Free. Availability: iOS and Android.

Cell Signal Boosters

Strengthen and extend the reach of your smartphone, tablet, and other devices connected to cellular networks with a booster. Pack a mobile signal booster to increase your cell phone’s coverage range, experience a more-reliable connection, and speed up data streaming while you’re road tripping and once you’re at camp. One booster, WeBoost, offers mobile boosters that can serve a single or multiple people at once.


Radio communicators send and receive frequencies—some need licensing to operate, and others are regulated by law. With several types of radios on the market, learn what’s what, and which might be best for your needs.

FRS (Family Radio Service)

Designed for the casual or new two-way radio user, FRS systems are great for folks who want to communicate in close range (one mile, or less depending on terrain) outdoors and learn the basics of radio systems. If you’re not trying to touch base with a partner in a different mountain range, on a ship at sea, or underground in a cave, the FRS is likely the best place to start. 

Pros: Doesn’t require licensing from the FCC; great battery life

Cons: Short communication range; sound can be staticky 

GMRS (General Mobile Radio Service)

A GMRS radio has all the same capabilities as an FRS radio and then some. While requiring a license from the FCC, GMRS accesses special radio channels that FRS can’t access, providing an uncluttered and clear communication space in areas with more competition for a signal. With up to 5 watts of power, handheld GMRS will reach up to 2 miles, and mobile units can go up to 5 miles with an antenna.

Pros: Uses unique frequencies that don’t conflict with emergency or other recreational walkie-talkies; can reach longer distances than FRS and CB; less static than FRS

Cons: Requires licensing from the FCC; signals shorter than Ham radios

CB, or Citizens Band, Radio

These radios allow short-distance person-to-person bi-directional voice communication. To mount a CB on your rig, installation includes the main radio body and head unit, antenna cable, antenna, and antenna mount (CB antennas need to be a minimum of 102 inches long to work well). Handheld versions also exist but aren’t as powerful or clear as mounted versions. As required by law, all CB radios transmit with the same 4 watts of power. (Note: Radios equipped with Single Side Bands (SSB) let you transmit at 12 watts of power instead of 4 watts, effectively tripling the transmission range. However, for others to hear and reply to your transmissions, they too will need an SSB equipped radio. That said, all SSB radios can operate on standard CB channels, at the regular 4 watts.) 

Pros: Doesn’t require licensing from the FCC

Cons: Capped at 4 watts of power; range is a quarter- to a half-mile in hilly terrain; requires hardware installation; requires a long antenna, with fewer options for mounting

Ham Radios

With the ability to access higher frequencies, ham radios are more reliable at longer distances and in more complex terrain. Most hard-wired mobile ham radios (that you might install in your rig) operate at 50 watts, and most handheld ham radios operate at 4 to 5 watts, though it’s possible to crank them up to operate at up to 1500W, according to regulations—operating at such a power output will quickly drain your battery, so beware. Ham radios can operate VHF (very high frequency) or UHF (ultra high frequency) systems, and in either case require an antenna with a minimum length of 19.5 inches for good signal.

Pros: Capped at 1500W of power; requires a 19.5-inch-minimum antenna (more options for mounting); VHF works best over mountains and hills; UHF works better and goes farther over deserts or flat land or water; can tap into the wide range of repeaters (which rebroadcast and strengthen original signals) that exist around the world 

Cons: Requires licensing from the FCC; larger radio systems require mounting and take up more space; can be pricey, but some economical options exist

In general, look for durable materials in your walkie-talkies; consider water and dirt resistance; and evaluate battery life (plus how the battery will perform in the cold/heat). Pro tip: For climbing or ski-mountaineering, look for smaller, lightweight or handheld two-way radios to talk to your partner a rope’s length away, or to your base camp team on the ground.

Satellite Communicators

When you’ll be far away (out of radio range) from the party you need to communicate with, you’ll need to use a satellite communicator. These units can also help you get assistance in the case of emergencies and informational updates like weather forecasts. Lightweight, handheld GPS units are perfect for the backcountry and let you communicate not only SOS messages to emergency service providers, but also messages to loved ones or crew members. Some even allow you to receive messages as well. You’ll have to pay for all those global services though, with a more expensive up-front cost for the unit, often with subscription fees to operate as well.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.