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Tahoe Donner 4-Wheelers

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Club Use of Two-way Radio

Dennis R Austin | Published on 5/5/2020

Two-way Radios

On trail rides we communicate between vehicles using two-way radios.  The use of radios can immeasurably enhance the trail experience.  They help us to relay trail directions, to stay together, to organize pit stops, to handle minor emergencies, to call attention to interesting sights, to share historical facts along the way, and generally socialize.

Our Radios

We use radios designed for Family Radio Service (FRS) or General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS).  At present (since September 2017), both these services use the same channels (1-22) and can intercommunicate.  FRS walkie-talkies require no license from the FCC and are very inexpensive.  GMRS radios are permitted to use substantially more power and thus communicate over greater distances.  They are available as walkie-talkies, but you can also get models that use an external antenna.  A good antenna outside the vehicle can greatly improve communication distances.  Finally GMRS offers a capability to use repeaters on some additional channels.  A repeater is a high-powered fixed station that relays signals between portable units.  Repeaters, if available, are the ultimate range-extenders.

Our Channel

The club has adopted channel 20 for normal operations.  Again, this can be on an FRS or a GMRS radio.  On this channel, FRS radios may use 2 watts of power, but GMRS radios may use up to 50 watts.  


But there is an additional twist.  We say the club uses channel 20/20.  The second 20 in 20/20 is what is called the CTCSS code and it is set separately from the channel.


Both FRS and GMRS use a CTCSS system intended to reduce conflict between users on the same channel.  It stands for Continuous Tone Coded Squelch System.  That is a mouthful, but it is actually a pretty simple idea.  Each radio can select a CTCSS frequency to transmit and listen for.  They are low-pitched audio tones that you can’t hear but the radio can.  Your radio will reject, i.e. squelch, signals that don’t include the correct tone in the background.  Two radios using the same tone will hear one another but will ignore radios using a different tone.


CTCSS codes are sometimes called sub-channels or privacy codes, but they don’t really provide privacy.  If you set your radio to no CTCSS code you will hear all transmissions on the channel regardless of their CTCSS tone.

Older Rules

These 22 radio channels have been governed by different rules in the past.  Many of the radios we still use in the club were made at a time where hybrid FRS/GMRS radios were available.  At the time, FRS was only on channels 1-14.  Higher channels were GMRS.  The hybrid radios were handy to cover all 22 channels, but most users did not realize they needed a license to operate on the GMRS channels.  Now radios must be sold either as FRS or GMRS and operate in accordance with the rules of the respective service.  If you use a GMRS radio, you must have a license.

Choosing Equipment

You should be able to use any currently manufactured FRS or GMRS radio on club rides.  You can even use an older FRS/GMRS combination radio.  Just be sure your radio can tune channel 20 and CTCSS code 20.  


FRS is limited to 2 watts of power on channel 20.  GMRS can use up to 50 watts, although walkie-talkies cannot produce that kind of power.  


Midland Radio, a well-established name in the business, has recently brought some relatively high-end GMRS radios to the market under their Micromobile line.  These high-powered units with external antennas are highly suitable for use in vehicles.  Quite a few club members have already installed them.  


You can find more information about the Micromobile line at


There is no testing or qualification needed for a GMRS license, but there is an annoyingly high fee of $70.  The license is good for ten years, though, and it allows anyone in your immediate family to use your radio.  The process of obtaining the license is not difficult, but like all government processes it is needlessly confusing.  


First go to the FCC site at to obtain a registration number by filling out form 160. Upon receiving your registration number proceed to and choose online filing. You first will need to enter your registration number and password you got/did in step one. Then follow the instructions. After filing you will then use form 159 to pay with a credit card. Your license will arrive via email in about 24 hours.


How to talk on a radio

Using your radio is pretty simple.  Just press the PTT (press-to-talk) button and fire away.  To communicate effectively, though, there are a few things to remember.


  1. Don’t hold the microphone too close to your mouth.  Allow at least a few inches.  Some people think its best to keep the mic slightly to the side so you don’t spit at it.  These steps will make your voice much clearer over the air.
  2. Don’t press the button and talk immediately.  If you do, the first syllables of your words may be lost and you won’t be understood clearly.  Always wait one or two seconds after pressing the button to begin speaking.
  3. Number 2 applies in reverse at the end of a transmission.  Wait until you are completely finished talking before releasing the button.
  4. Speak loudly, as though you were talking to someone in the back seat.  Don’t shout--just be loud and clear.  


Protocol on the trail is pretty informal.  Don’t begin talking until you are sure the channel is silent.  If you are calling a specific person, say that person at the beginning (twice is the standard protocol) and then say who you are.  In a group you will normally be addressing the whole group so you only need to say who you are.  Even that may be omitted where context will suffice.  It is usually helpful to say the word “over” at the completion of your transmission so others will know they can respond.  The radios we use will typically add a little tweedle sound when your release the PTT, and that serves the same purpose as “over”.


At the beginning of a ride, many people request a radio check over the air to be sure their radio is working.  If you hear one you can respond by saying so and exactly how loud or clear (or muted and fuzzy) their signal is.  They asked.  Tell them.