The Complete Guide to UHF Radios for 4WDs and Outback Travel

UHF radio sitting on desk

“Never let someone else define your adventure, or tell you how to do it. Not even us.”

This is the message we put at the beginning of each post. 

The Rough As Guts mandate is that we must always tell it like it is, regardless of popular opinion. Sometimes it may seem like we’re trying to gate keep the word “adventure” when we say things like “real four wheel driving” or “real camping”. That’s not our intent, but what we damn-sure are hell-bent on, is to make sure people are never putting their limitations on others, advising against reasonable risk and lowering the bar for people who just might have gone and done something incredible if they hadn’t been talked out of it.

Your life is your adventure. Live it however the hell you want.

Table of Contents

Types of Two-Way Radios – UHF, VHF, HF, CB, Handheld etc

Generally, unless we’re talking about aviation or marine use, “two way” or “CB” refers to a UHF radio. Ultra High Frequency (UHF) simply refers to the waveband that the radio operates on, a bit like describing the difference between an FM or AM radio station. Citizens Band (CB) is a broad, and fairly deprecated term that refers to two-way radio frequencies that the public are allowed to use, which encompasses UHF.

Very High Frequency (VHF) is a lower frequency waveband that works across a greater distance, though still limited to line of sight. That’s why these are primarily used for aviation and marine. Most VHF use is regulated and requires licensing.

High Frequency (HF) is an even lower waveband that can follow the earth’s curvature and transmit for thousands of kilometres. While it’s still in use, it’s tricky to use and largely superseded by modern satellite communicators.

Ultimately, more than 99% of the time when someone is discussing two-way radio use, particularly in the context of 4WD and overland travel (in the 21st century), they’re referring to UHF radios.

 

Handheld UHF

For vehicle-to-vehicle communications, the UHF handheld radios we’re considering should have a transmission power of 2W (Watts) or greater. Preferably 5W.

A vehicle mounted UHF is a better option, but sometimes you might only be going for one trip where you think you might need one, in which case a handheld will suffice.

If you see a handheld radio labelled as a “walkie talkie”, don’t bother reading any further, this is a children’s toy. Similarly, if you see a 1W UHF, even from a reputable brand such as GME, these are for short-range communications in busy areas where you’re not trying to broadcast on a public channel any further than you need to, such as building sites. These don’t suit our needs as four wheel drivers.

 

5W Handheld UHF

If you’re buying a hand held with 4WD use in mind, including just for spotting, then it is worth springing for the 5W option, such as GME’s TX6160. And if you’re going to get multiple, then they’re also available as the TX6160YTP, a kit that comes with car chargers, earpieces, handpieces, and a waterproof case. This kit is what we take on tours with us and I’ll explain why:

A 5W handheld will usually outperform a vehicle mounted UHF if it hasn’t been installed properly or the coax cable from the antenna has been damaged. Handhelds are impervious to cable or installation issues, so even though they don’t have the performance of an in-car radio, they’re quality is reliable.

The coax cable that is used for vehicle mounted antennas is shielded, so that it doesn’t pick up interference. If there is any damage to the shielding, the performance is affected dramatically. Because of the design of coax cable where the shielding wire and centre wire have different impedance, varying the length of the cable will create a different capacitance and ultimately affect the signal quality also. So while a vehicle mounted UHF will typically outperform a handheld dramatically, sometimes a bad installation or damage to the antenna cable will result in it performing worse than a handheld.

We take the TX6160YTP kit with us on every tour and have to use at least one of them, almost every time, because of issues with client’s vehicle mounted radios. This is one upside to a handheld, but choosing a good brand of vehicle mounted radio and installing it properly usually circumvents these dramas. Unless you’re like one of our recent clients, where his brand new bull bar snapped at the mounts after only 400km of corrugations and his antenna had been mounted to it. There was nothing he could have done to prevent that, but luckily we had handhelds.

The TX6160TP kit. Also available in yellow (TX6160YTP).

 

Vehicle Mounted UHF

A vehicle mounted UHF (see our recommendations at the bottom of the article), is the ideal solution for 4WD touring and the like.

Better signal quality, no need for keeping batteries charged, and always having it conveniently located at the ready, are some of the reasons why they’re generally a better option than a handheld.

These two-way radios are usually wired to an ignition feed, so that they switch on and off with the car. This way, you don’t need to remember to turn it off to save battery when the car isn’t running. You can have it wired straight to a battery feed if you prefer.

Antennas will typically be mounted on the bull bar. Most bull bars these days come with a specific antenna mount, but you can also get antenna mounting brackets to suit bull bars that don’t.

If you want a compact UHF that’s out of the way when you’re not using it (which is most of the time), then there’s also options for that:

These days, there’s two common styles of vehicle mounted UHF radios. The traditional style of radio has the controls on the unit and the handpiece acts only as a microphone and speaker, such as the GME TX3100.
The newer style which is increasing in popularity, has all the controls built in to the handpiece, so that the radio unit can be installed somewhere out of the way, such as underneath the dashboard, which can be seen in the GME XRS370. These often have Bluetooth, GPS and all sorts of new-age features.

 

80 Channel UHF Radios

ACMA changed the regulations in 2011, to increase the UHF band from 40 channels to 80, with a set date to make use of 40 channel radios illegal. The government, does after all, love making things illegal. They previously changed the allowed wavebands of VHF and wireless microphones when they introduced Digital TV and changed their minds in 2001, 2002, 2003, 2007 and again in 2011. And, in typical government fashion, every time they change or ban something that they previously stipulated would be fine, it was up to the individual to cover the cost of the replacement gear, no matter how much you own.

Fortunately, in 2017, the government changed their mind again and decided that people operating 40 channel UHFs were not criminals. They would leave that sort of attitude to be administered by the WA government, so they could start criminalising tattoos.

Ultimately (as anyone with even the most basic understanding of radios could have told the government), if you don’t change the frequencies of channels 1 to 40 when introducing channels 41 to 80, then an 80 channel UHF will still be able to talk perfectly to a 40 channel UHF, using the first 40 channels.

All that is to say, the 40 channels on a 40 channel UHF, are the same as the first 40 channels on an 80 channel UHF. Something it took the government 6 years to discover…

 

UHF Radio Brands Popular in Australia

GME

GME is an Australian made, and Australian owned brand.

They are unequivocally the best UHF radio manufacturer. The only problem I have had with GME radios, over the 20+ years I’ve been using them, is when the nation-wide change to 80 channel two-ways, made my 40 channel model redundant.

Some may argue that tother brands can offer better value, because they can be cheaper, but anyone arguing that GME’s quality isn’t wildly better than Uniden or Oricom, is dreaming.

Oricom

Oricom is also an Australian owned brand, but not Australian made.

I don’t believe that being made in Australia, automatically means higher quality. However, the reality is that making something in Australia is a lot more expensive, so if you want to charge a higher price it does need to be better quality. This is clearly the case when it comes to UHF radios made for the Australian market.

There are countless numbers of reviews from various online retailers, that clearly signal a buyer beware, when it comes to Oricom.

Uniden

I have used Uniden in the past and while I do find that they tend to be more consistent in quality than Oricom, they are still in that same category.

 

UHF Aerials

The Best UHF Antenna for 4WDs

Radome Antennas

Radome sounds like it could be an important characteristic, when considering different aerials for UHF radios. It’s not. Radome is simply a portmanteau for “radar dome”, and just means that the antenna is protected by an external housing that doesn’t interfere with the signal.

Essentially, it’s just used as a marketing buzzword and there’s no real implications between having a radome antenna or not (other than the radomes generally look cooler).

Some argue that radome antennas are stronger than conventional antennas and less prone to damage. That may be true to a point: The radome antenna has “printed circuit board” components inside and if you break one of these antennas, you’re not going to be able to fix it on the side of the track. I think, like most products these days, they’re being sold on form rather than function. At some point in the last twenty years, looking cool became an important thing for a lot of consumers in this market, and that has affected the products being offered. Don’t get me wrong, I do like the look of the GME AE4701B aerial that I have, but I got it because it came as part of the pack I bought, I wasn’t particularly looking for a radome.

 

Elevated Feed Antennas

Elevated feed antennas, are simply antennas that have the broadcast/receiving part of the aerial, at the top.

Elevated feed antennas usually provide greater range than radome antennas, but to achieve this, they stick out more prominently and are more susceptible to damage.

 

Understanding dBi and Antenna Gain – Is Higher Better? (the Short Answer)

Antenna gain (different to electronic gain), ultimately refers to how the signal gets shaped by the antenna. To achieve a stronger signal in some directions, it results in a much weaker direction in others. This is most noticeable in undulating terrain, as per the graphic below.

showing how antenna gain affects signal in hills

 

Understanding dBi and Antenna Gain – Is Higher Better? (the Long Answer)

Gain, is essentially the amount that the signal gets amplified. (This is not the case for “antenna gain”, but we’ll get to that.)

Amplification, means power added to a signal.

dBi is the unit of measurement, when referring to antenna gain. Much like, how decibels (dB) refers to the volume of something, or Watts (W) refers to power.

dBi stands for Decibels, Relative to Isotropic. Meaning it is a relative figure, unlike Watts or decibels.

A very common mistake is to assume that antenna gain is similar to “gain” in electronics, which describes the ratio of out to input, or simply how much a signal is amplified.

The UHF radio unit itself, which is powered by the car, can amplify a signal. This is why you can get radios with different wattages/power-outputs. The antenna however, is essentially just a passive instrument and can not actually amplify anything. The 1st law of thermodynamics which states that energy cannot be created or destroyed, means that unless we’re getting external power of some sort, we cannot add power and amplify, therefore it is impossible for the antenna itself to add anything to a signal.

This is why dBi is a relative measurement, and not a measure of power or signal strength. All an aerial can do, is shape a signal, concentrating it in some areas which consequently diminishes it in others. The “isotropic” referred to by the “i” in dBi, is a theoretical antenna that radiates in all directions. If you take all that energy and focus it only in a narrow direction, you might have a signal that is four times stronger than the theoretical omni-directional antenna, in that one spot. This would be the case for a 6dBi antenna. The downside is that there will be a much smaller area covered by this signal.

The green circle is the pattern of the isotropic, and the dark grey oval represents a high gain antenna.

The signal shaping done by these higher dBi antennas, is relative to the horizontal plane. The signal still gets broadcast/received in 360 degrees, but it doesn’t radiate up or down, only straight out. So while a 9dBi antenna might be great when driving across a flat highway, it quickly becomes quite useless in the hills. As soon as you’re on an incline, you’re broadcasting only into the sky in front of you, or the base of the hill behind/below you. If you’re on a decline, you’re broadcasting only into the valley below and the sky behind you.

This is why 3.0dBi antennas are generally recommended for most 4WD use.

showing how antenna gain affects signal in hills

 

Using a UHF Radio in Australia – Legalities & Best Practices

Roger?

Over?

Copy?

No need to worry too much about this one. If you’re not an airline pilot or ordering in an airstrike, there’s no real need to worry about specific terminology. This is largely an outdated thing.

Legalities

  • Channel 5 – Is for emergency use only
  • Channel 35 – is for emergency use only
  • Channel 22 – is for telemetry only. This is usually disabled on an 80 channel UHF.
  • Channel 23 – is for telemetry only. This is usually disabled on an 80 channel UHF.

Conventions

Some people really overthink this one. Anyone that emphatically proclaims “channel 18 is for caravans”, as if this somehow settles something, obviously never got used to the fact that after we leave school, we’re allowed to live our lives without all sorts of rules and bylaws. They probably live in a strata and attend all the body corporate meetings.

Channel 18 is often used by caravans, but this is merely convention. Feel free to live your life, towing a caravan and using a different channel. You can even bring this up in conversation over the cheese platter at the next caravan park you go to, if you really want to ruffle some feathers.

  • Channel 18 is often used by people towing caravans.
  • Channel 40 is the default go-to for most people you might be trying to get in touch with such as trucks and oversize convoys. This’ll be you go to if you’re chasing a heads-up on good chances for overtaking.

 

Best Vehicle Mounted UHFs Available in Australia

We wrote a whole article on the best UHFs, but here’s the key takeaways.

If you want to go all out, we recommend the XRS range from GME:

The XRS Connect Outback Pack from GME
The XRS Connect Outback Pack from GME

The 4WD Pack, Outback Pack, or Touring Pack, all use an XRS Connect radio, but come with different antennas for different terrains/uses.

If the ~$650-700 price tag of these XRS packs are out of your budget, you may have looked at Oricom’s UHF390 Bundle for ~$350.
Or maybe instead, you might have looked at Uniden’s UH5060NB for ~$450 or their flagship ATX970S for ~$600.  I suggest you don’t.

I strongly suggest saving money on features and not by choosing a cheaper brand.

GME’s very basic TX3100 kit, can often be found for under $300. Like I said, it’s very basic, but it will last a very long time.

The basic, yet reliable TX3100 from GME.

The TX3100 is solid as a rock and let’s not beat around the bush: It’s a UHF radio. You don’t need Bluetooth, or pre-programmed scanning functions or GPS in a two-way radio. They’re cool features, but they’re really not fundamental to the operation of a UHF.

I wholeheartedly believe that the most important thing about any UHF is that it works, and that if you want to save money, do it by sacrificing features instead of quality.

Freedom does not come automatically, it is achieved. And it is not gained in a single bound; it must be achieved each day”

– Rollo May, Man’s Search for Himself

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4WD Tours in Western Australia

Rough As Guts offers guided tag-along tours through WA’s rugged Outback.

two four wheel drives driving on the holland track

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Challenge yourself just enough, as we take you through the Golden Outback and on the Holland Track.

Adventure starts here.

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Rugged, pre-historic desert landscapes that look like they’re from another world.

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