Our family carries two-way radios when we go dirt biking. It started out as a safety precaution, but over time, it has become an important part of our family biking experience. We got into biking as a way to spend quality time together as a family. The radios allow us to stay in contact while we ride, which has really added to the enjoyment.
Entry Level Radios
We started by buying a set of cheap FRS (family radio service) radios which we carried on a lanyard around our neck.
When our children were small, these radios came in handy a number of times. If one of the children crashed or were unable to start their bike, they could call for help.
But we quickly learned the limitations of such a system. If I were riding more than a few miles per hour, I would likely not hear their call, and I had to stop in order to talk on the radio. The FRS radios also have a very limited range. This led to our first upgrade.
Radios With Helmet Headsets
I upgraded to higher power GMRS (general mobile radio service) radios and helmet headsets. I purchased a set of Midland GXT-1000 radios and Midland headsets.
The headsets consist of three parts; 1) the helmet mount speakers and microphone, the body harness, and the push-to-talk (PTT) harness. With this setup, we could talk while we ride, and I was more likely to hear when my family called.
This setup is relatively affordable. GMRS/FRS radios are reasonably priced at about $30 each, and the Midland headsets were only about $30 each.
Although this setup improved our ability to communicate, it was still far from an ideal solution. When they worked, they were great. But when they didn’t work, it caused frustration.
The primary frustration was due to the multi-pin DIN connectors used to manufacture the headsets.
To use the system you have to connect the body harness to the radio, the PTT button, and the headset. The PTT and helmet connections used these multi-pin DIN connectors. You have to perfectly align the two halves of the connector and plug them together. If you did’t align it properly, it would bend one of the pins, making it impossible to make the connection. On numerous occasions we had to find something to straighten the pins while out on the trail.
The next problem was volume. With the radio turned up all the way, we could communicate just fine if we were stopped or riding slowly. But when riding at about 20 mph or faster, the radio volume was too quiet to hear over the wind and motor noise.
One day I was riding with friends that had a similar setup, but with a different brand radio and MotoComm headsets. They could communicate much better than I could. I thought it must be because the MotoComm headsets were better than the Midland, so I ordered two sets.
It turned out that the sound quality of the MotoComm headset was no better than the Midlands. My friends system performed better because his radios were better.
The MotoComm headsets used slightly thicker wires, but they also included several more connectors. The harness is very modular so you can replace faulty speakers, the microphone, PTT, or radio connection without replacing the entire setup. But these extra connectors decreased the reliability. We frequently had to stop and wiggle the connectors to get the system working again.
I finally cut out the unnecessary connectors and soldered the wires together. But this also caused problems in the field. The constant vibration from riding would cause the solder joints to break.
Professional Grade Headsets
I finally got fed up with all of these failures and decided to spend the big bucks and order some high quality headsets – the kind they use in desert racing like Baja.
These headsets are not cheap (almost $200), but they are very durable and easy to use.
I ordered two headsets from Rugged Radios so I could test them out.
The radio is connected to the body harness with a high quality locking connector that won’t wiggle loose while riding. The helmet an the PTT plug in with multi-ring connectors that are similar to the old phono jacks. They are very easy to hook up. The headset also comes with an accessory input to hook up your MP3 player if you want to listen to music while you ride.
As you can see by the photo below, the Rugged Radio setup uses much higher quality connectors and wire.
When you order a headset from Rugged Radios, you get to choose the adapter type needed for your radio and the type of PTT button. They have several to choose from. Here is the perch mount PTT mounted on my bike. The switch is well built and appears to be waterproof.
Here is the handlebar mount I used on my children’s bikes.
The other significant difference with the Rugged Radio setup is the microphone. They use a dynamic microphone which helps eliminate wind and motor noise. To get full advantage of the better microphone, you need to use a radio that is compatible. I therefore decided to upgrade my radios as well.
UPDATE: I have been on a few rides now with the new radio setup. I have encountered one problem. On occasion, one of the radios will be transmitting full time, jamming the channel so that no one can use their radio. The radio in full time transmit mode gets pretty hot too. I finally figured out the cause of this problem. The right angle connector that plugs into the Vertex VX231 radios has a mini phono plug and a retainer screw. Even with the screw put in tight with a screwdriver, any pull on the cable can cause the plug to loose proper connection. This is easy to test – you simply tug the cable slightly away from the radio body and see if the red transmit LED comes on. If so, the connector is coming loose. To help avoid this problem I intend to install a rubber band or something to tie the cable to the antenna. This should reduce the likelihood of the cable getting tugged too far while riding.
Professional Grade Radios
Jason Plough of Rugged Radios was very helpful with my research about radios and headsets. He allowed me to try three different types of radios before I settled on the type that would best fit my needs. I ended up buying a set of Vertex VX231 5 watt UHF radios.
As you can see in the photo below, the VX231 is about the same size as the Midland radio, but it has a much better antenna, which should increase its range.
This radio and headset combination has plenty of volume. I only have to turn the volume up a little over half way. The voice quality is far superior to that of my older setup. If I close my helmet visor, I can easily hear my family talking when I am riding about 45 mph. Without the visor closed, I would be able to hear if I turned the volume up louder, but then it would be too loud when stopped. I am very impressed with this setup.
Update: These UHF radios have different channel frequency assignments than the more common GMRS/FRS radios, but there is some overlap. I compared the Rugged Radio frequency mapping table with the GMRS table and found three channels that should be compatible.
GMRS Rugged Radio UHF
16 DCS 01 9
18 DCS 01 10
20 DCS 01 11
VHF vs. UHF
Many of the desert racers use VHF radios. According to my research, VHF should penetrate tree leaves better than UHF. But my experience found that VHF is basically worthless in a mountain setting. I did a side-by-side comparison of a 5 watt VHF radio with my 5 watt Midland GMRS UHF radios. In a mountain setting, the VHF radios worked fine for about 150 yards while the UHF worked for almost one mile up the canyon where our test was performed. If I climbed onto a hill that had almost line-of-sight, they both performed well at over one mile. My conclusion was that UHF bounces off the mountain better than VHF. VHF may be fine in an open desert with line-of-sight, but not in a mountain.
Radio Power Level
Power specifications can be misleading. Two radios with same power specification may perform significantly different. The real issue is how much power is actually radiated out of the antenna. The specs may not tell you that.
Nevertheless, the power rating is an important specification to consider when buying a radio. A general rule of thumb suggests that each one watt of power will give you up to one mile of range under ideal conditions.
A standard FRS radio will provide 1/2 watt of power. If your riding group stays close together, this may be sufficient.
Some GMRS radios provide 2 or 5 watts of power. Since I often ride with large groups I opted for a set of 5 watt radios. We tend to spread out to let the dust settle, so it is not uncommon for my wife to be 2 or more miles behind me. With the high quality radio setup, we can now keep in touch even at those distances.
In order to mount the headset inside a helmet, it is necessary to have a helmet with removable lining. The first step is to mount the microphone. Rugged Radios uses a boom microphone that can be bent to align just in front of your mouth. Be sure to mount the mic with the nipple facing away from your mouth. You can use tape or glue to attach the mic to the helmet. I used electrical tape at first, but then made a more permanent installation with hot glue.
The speakers mount with velcro pads.
Speaker alignment with your ear is very critical to sound quality. I found it helpful to hook up the MP3 player and listen to music while I tested the sound quality. By moving the helmet around I could find out if the speakers were properly aligned with my ears. I also found that adding a small spacer under the speaker placed it closer to my ear, which increased the sound volume. It is important to get both speakers properly aligned, or while out on the trail you may think one speaker is not working.
Battery Charge Station
Because my family requires 5 radios and headsets, I decided to build a little charging station so I could charge all 5 radios while only using one power socket. I mounted each charging base and a power strip to a scrap of wood with rubber feet on the bottom. I even have one power slot available to charge my helmet camera.
Having reliable communications has really been appreciated by our family. It is especially useful when we have a large group. By keeping my family informed about where we are going, or when someone is having a problem, we can more easily spread the word to the rest of the group.
Not only does this offer an increased level of safety, it has been fun for the entire family. It is nice to point out wildlife, scenic vistas, trail junctions, and potential trail dangers while we ride.
With our old setup, the most common thing said on our radios was; “what did you say?”. Now we can communicate much more effectively with this high quality gear.
The equipment is expensive, but it should last for many years. All it will take is one emergency – or an emergency avoided – to make it money well spent.