Everything You Need to Know About Handheld Radios and Camping Communication

Handheld radios are useful for camping, trekking, fishing and sporting events. For road warriors or casual RV enthusiasts, having a CB radio for your passengers aside from the vehicle transceiver is useful in various situations. Parking your RV, for example, is easier when someone is outside and relaying instructions to help you. 

There are two types of handheld radios, the low-powered and high-powered two-way radios. Low-powered radios have a range of 2 km without interference. Meanwhile, high-powered radios can reach up to 5 km.

Aside from parking, handheld UHF radios are also useful to communicate with the driver when your RV gets stuck in mud. Knowing the road condition of the path ahead can also prevent you from being stuck in mud or going into very narrow roads.

Since we will be diving more into UHF and Handheld Radios, this is going to be a long blog post, so sit back and read on to learn more about handheld radios.

What Is A UHF or HF Handheld Radio?

UHF (FM) CB radio provides a clearer communication with less interference from such things as power lines or atmospheric noise. However, it can only have a range of up to 5 km. An HF Radio, on the other hand, is a high-powered radio transmission and reception system designed to cover large distances. It is a high-frequency single side-band communications system. High Frequencies radio waves are part of the electromagnetic spectrum and are commonly referred to as Short Wave radio A radio wave is an electromagnetic transmission composed of electric and magnetic fields vibrating together.

These two fields are aligned in a perpendicular arrangement and travel as a wave. The energy in the wave moves back and forth between the electric and the magnetic fields. The frequency at which a radio wave cycle per second is measured in units of “hertz.” 

A handheld radio has an antenna that is built into the device and modern handheld transceivers now have numerous features. Such features may include a rechargeable battery packs or lithium batteries, charging cradle, 12V car charger, headset, a squelch system which is used to eliminate annoying background noise when there are no signals present, call function, voice activated operation for hand-free use, ear microphones and an LCD screen that displays modes of operation.

Some familiar brand names for handheld UHF radio transceivers are GME, Uniden and Icom.

The GME TX675 is one of their latest in the line of compact UHF 80 Channel Handheld radius. The TX675 has numerous features and its circuit design incorporates a super sensitive receiver with front end filtering and a powerful 2-Watt transmitter. If you are using solely for close range communication the transmitter can be switched to 1 Watt to increase the available talk time. The TX675 comes with a removable and flexible antenna, desktop and 12V charger adaptor and 1600mAh Li-ion battery (14 hours operation).

What Terms Should You Know Before Communicating Through Radio?

Here are some of the words that you should know:

  • MHz – refers to the radio frequency on which the equipment operates.
  • Simplex – UHF transceivers transmit and receive on the same channel. To communicate through repeaters, your transceiver must be able to transmit and receive on different channels (known as duplex).
  • Duplex – allows transmission on a different frequency to that which it receives.
  • Repeaters – is designed to receive signals on a designated channel and re-transmit them on another channel. Repeaters are normally located on hills, mountains or tall buildings.
    • Channels 1-8 and 41-48 are designated repeater output stations and channels 31-38 and 71-78 are designated input channels. These designated repeater channels can be used for single frequency communication provided they are not used in the locality of repeaters.
    • A repeater that transmits on channel 1 will always receive on channel 31. The CB radio automatically selected the corresponding transmit/receive frequencies.
    • Channels 5 and 35 are dedicated solely for emergency communications.
  • Single Side Band (SSB) –comes in three modes AM, Upper Side Band (USB), and Lower Side Band (LSB). The SSB is better for long distances and/or when signals are weak as power is directed to one side band and the radiated power is increased.
  • Selcall – this stands for selective calling which enables you to call a friend over the air. In addition, it can be used on either UHF or HF radios. The device also has its own unique Selcall Identification Number (Ident). This number identifies your radio from others in your area. This works similarly to mobile phones wherein the person who wants to call you must know your phone number in order to contact you. Some radios come fitted with a selcall facility using Continuous Tone-Coded Squelch (CTCSS) system that is only authorised on UHF bands.
  • Radphone – or ‘radio telephone’ enables you to call through the public telephone network by using an HF radio. However, service fess and call costs may vary. A selcall is made to the provider’s base station, then the call will commence when your contact answers through their telephone. Another major drawback of this method is the lack of privacy.
  • SKEDS – morning or evening scheduled times where you can check in over the HF radio air, have a chat and pass on messages

What Is A Citizen’s Band (CB) Radio?

Citizen’s Band radios provide short-range radio communication. There is currently no license required to operate and it is also free to use. There are two types of CB radios, namely HF 26.965-27.405 MHz and UHF 476.4125-477.4125 MHz.

First introduced in 1970, the government initially allocated only 18 channels. An annual fee was also required to obtain a licence. In 1982, the band was extended to 40 channels, and in 1994 the government abolished CB license fees.

The Australian Communications & Media Authority (ACMA) finalized the changes on CB radio on January 2016. The agency provided 80 additional channels from the 40 that was in use since 1982. These new channels are available for narrow band transmissions.

What does some of these changes to the UHF CB channels mean to you?

  • If you own an old CB UHF radio, it will continue to work, and you will still be able to talk to another person but only if that person is on one of the current 40 channels.
  • The term ‘wideband’ will be used to describe older 40 channel and ‘narrowband’ for the new channels.
  • Only the new narrowband CB radios will have additional channels up to 80
  • You may notice that the sound may be a little distorted when you are using the wideband channels.

When having a conversation, always remember CB radio communication is not private. Another thing to note is that when communicating through CB radio, only one person can speak at a time.

What Is A CB Radio Transceiver?

A two-way UHF CB radio is a radio that can receive and transmit messages. It is common for 4WD clubs and RV travellers to have a CB radio in their vehicle or tow vehicle.

Two-way radios consist of a transceiver, microphone and an antenna (aerial) and operate on the vehicle’s 12V DC power. The transceiver is normally located under the dashboard or in a purpose designed roof console. The features of a UHF CB radio may vary but they generally have an LCD display to view channel numbers, a volume control, and scan button to name a few. A co-axial cable runs from the transceiver to the aerial and a thicker co-axial cable is favoured to prevent feedline loss.

Modern transceivers can scan channels and lock in on a channel when a signal is heard. UHF communication is often termed ‘line of sight’ communication as good communication is available where there are no obstructions such as hills between yourself and say another vehicle with whom you are communicating. UHF has a range, in good conditions, of about 20-30 kilometers. When in areas where repeater stations are installed this range can improve the range up to about 300 kms.

These days, dashboards are very cluttered with electronic equipment, so GME have come up with the GME TX3540 to address this problem by including the LCD screen and all the buttons on the handset. Some brand names of CB UHF radios are GME Electrophone, Oricom, Uniden and Icom. GME also produce and sell a UHF Two Way CB Radio Starter Kit.

How Do I Setup CB/HF Radio Aerials?

Care should be taken in selecting a CB radio aerial to suit your purpose as the aerial (or antenna) used will influence the transmitting and reception range and the same may be said for its location on the vehicle. The quality of the antenna and the cable can also affect performance. Larger CB aerials provide better range and are superior for long distance communications.

The antenna can also be damage through the vibration that can be caused by uneven road surfaces and the usual shaking of vehicles with diesel engines. To counter this, it is best to use a fibreglass whip aerial on a medium or heavy-duty spring.

The aerial should be mounted as high as possible, so attaching it to the roof would provide the best range in comparison to one mounted on the front bull bar. The reason for which is the reception from the rear (behind the vehicle) can be impeded by the vehicle body itself. However, due to the size of most aerials they are generally located on the wheel arch or bull bar of a vehicle which are then connected to the transceiver by coaxial cable.

Codan produces various models of an Automatic Tuning Whip Antenna for HF radios which are made to withstand harsh field and environmental conditions. In addition, Bushcomm manufactures a range of ‘Bushranger’ Multitap antennas. They also make an automatic tuning mobile antenna as well as a mobile magnetic loop HF antenna that is integrated into a custom-made roof rack.

To ensure equipment is working try calling a ‘radio check please’.

Why Would I Need A HF Radio?

Conventional methods of communication all rely on land-based infrastructures, compared to the HF radio network that only requires minimal infrastructure. This makes the HF radio the most reliable and effective form of communication anywhere on the planet. As a result, many institutions like the military, emergency response services, and disaster management organizations rely on it as their main avenue for communication.

Using select frequencies, (3 – 30 MHz) HF transceivers provide communication up to several thousand kilometres in good conditions. For those travelling in the outback, one of its important uses is the ability to contact the Royal Flying Doctors Service (RFDS) in the event of a medical emergency.

Additionally, HF radio is inexpensive to operate, and they provide excellent command and control for users in the field. This is because of its ability to communicate between fixed base stations.

However, since the advent of satellite phone solutions, HF radios have failed to keep up. The only advantage that it has compared to satellite phones is its simplicity, durability, and value especially if you are always travelling in remote areas.

For those seeking for privacy when communicating via HF radio, some services offer encryption to hide your conversation from the public. These services offer different levels of encryption according to an organisation’s needs. However, the cost of these services might be prohibitive for casual consumers.

Do I Need a Licence to Use an HF Radio?

The use of the airwaves is governed by Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA). The agency assigns transmission rights to frequencies and they also issue certain types of licences for groups or individuals that use these frequencies.

So, in short, you do need to be licenced by the ACMA for the frequencies you intend to use. Through your membership, you are permitted by the agency to use the licence of the network. To put it simply, it acts like a licence that applies to a whole group of people which is unlike common licences like a driver’s licence that is issued individually.

What Channels Are Available for RV Enthusiasts?

The most relevant radio network for travellers heading out to the outback or any remote area is the Australian National 4WD Radio Network Inc. (VKS737). The very reason why this network exists is to provide safety information and regular updates to travellers when there are no telecommunications services available.  In order to join the Australian National 4WD Radio Network Inc. (VKS737) you will need to purchase a 12-month Member Subscription.

As a member of the VKS737 network you will have access to numerous channels that provides track information and safety warnings. The network also airs predetermined broadcasts for members to listen to relevant reports (weather etc.) and other related services.

Tip! If you only need close distance communication or vehicle to vehicle communication a UHF radio may suit your purpose better than an HF radio as these are mainly used for people living and working in remote communities. If you are planning a road trip around Australia, and you’ve never used radio communication before, you may want to consider a satellite phone and/or an EPIRB.

How Does A Radio Telephone Call Work?

An HF radio is a large investment and requires a permanent fitting to the vehicle for best reception. In addition, you can’t just simply dial any phone number as you need to subscribe to a direct dial service. Learning how to use an HF radio will also take time.

There are several service providers in Australia that offer direct-dial HF Radio Telephone Network Services, so look for a network with enough base stations that will allow you to make telephone calls directly from your HF radio to any telephone or mobile phone in Australia. One provider is the Radtel HF Network. However, they do not allow incoming calls to the HF radio, instead they provide a ‘Message Service’.

Some call plans also include free emergency assistance, free RFDS, and direct selcall to the police. It’s important to note that these calls are still made over the radio network but connect into the telephone/mobile network. As we said there are various service providers who own a right of usage for a set range of HF frequencies, so you need to investigate these for the one that provides the coverage that suits your needs.

The Campervan and Motorhome Club of Australia (CMCA) have a HF radio club (hfradioclub.com.au) that use two base stations. The services provided include SKEDS, GPS tracking, phone calls, RFDS Direct. It also offers more channels and bases, events, and online services. Membership fees and travellers’ packages apply.

Note: Remember when you make a phone call from an HF radio it is broadcast over radio waves. Anyone with a radio tuned to (or scanning) that frequency can listen to the conversation.

Does It Cost Anything to Use A HF Radio?

Depending on the brand you choose (there are 3 main ones Barrett, Codan and Q-mac) purchasing a new HF Radio is a once off cost of around $3000-$4000. The HF radio installation package may include:

  • a receiver wired to the vehicle’s 12V system; 
  • a handset and microphone attached to a roof console or the dashboard;
  • an antenna/aerial;
  • the cost of professional installation; and
  • some basic training.

Tip! Before you purchase your radio check if the model has features such as auto-tuning antennas, modems enabling email/fax capabilities and GPS interfaces.

The cost for installing the equipment will vary depending on the store that you purchased it from. Like a car stereo which needs to be fitted in the vehicle’s dashboard, HF radios need to be mounted properly. The device’s receiver should also be installed by professionals because it uses high current when transmitting and needs to be wired to the vehicle’s battery. HF radios also come with a handset with a microphone that needs to be secured inside the front cab of your vehicle.

While there is a significant upfront cost, there is no call cost for using an HF radio. This is one of the most common reasons why people chose to use this form of communication. Radio calls are made through transmissions over the HF radio spectrum on channels. These channels are assigned to frequencies, that you have programmed into the HF radio. To change or add new frequencies, you need to pay to have a programmer reset your HF Radio. Any frequency may be added to an HF radio for listening purposes, however, you must be licenced (through a subscription) to use the frequency before you can legally transmit or talk.

This is the primary reason why joining a network such as VKS737 enables you to transmit on the frequencies owned by them – this is covered by the fee you pay to join the network. You can pay for add-on features such as sending emails and faxes, using GPS functions, and making direct calls to a phone line.

What Are the Limitations of A HF Radio?

The most obvious issue is, unlike a telephone, you cannot talk and listen at the same time. The second biggest challenge is learning to use the radio and master all its functions such as selcall, beacon call, making a voice call, and scanning. Using the multi-purpose buttons and knobs means you will have to read the user manual and familiarize yourself with all the details.

You will also need to learn the communication protocols and calling tips to get the call through. For vehicle-to-vehicle calls using HF, you will make use of the Selcall feature. Which means that you need to know the ident of the person you want to call. Fortunately, networks such as VKS737 will normally make the member list available. While this is not necessarily considered a limitation as such, it will require effort in learning all the features of an HF radio.

While calls are free, as mentioned many times in this blog, there is no security or privacy in the conversation. Be sure that you are purchasing an HF radio for the right reasons which should be for emergency or safety purposes only.  If you are using the HF radio for business calls or social radio discussions, then you should go for a CB radio instead. This is in fact regarded as highly inappropriate use of this service, particularly if using one of the assigned frequencies to a club or network. Take note of the protocols if you join a network, they will have guidelines for your use of the airwaves. Holding up the airwaves with unnecessary banter is irresponsible mainly because the frequency is limited for the number of people trying to use them.

Another downside is it can be affected by electrical Interference produced by some generators, vehicle wiring, overhead power lines, and power tools. This can usually be resolved by moving the vehicle away from the source of interference. An electrically charged atmosphere, electrical storms or having the antenna touching a tree can also cause your HF Radio to transmit ineffectively.

What UHF CB Radio Channels Should I Use?


  • 1-8 and 41-48 can be used when sending a signal to a repeater station
  • 5 can be used by anyone in the event of an emergency
  • 9 can be used for conversations
  • 10 used by many 4WD clubs (also known as the outback channel). To ensure equipment is working try calling a ‘radio check please’.
  • 12 used by 4WD clubs or ‘convoy’ vehicles
  • 13-17 used for conversations
  • 18 recommended for caravanners (although it is often used by road gangs and farmers)
  • 19 used for conversation
  • 20 used by the Campervan and Motorhome Club of Australia (CMCA)
  • 24-30 used for conversations
  • 29 trucks on Bruce Highway (Qld) and Pacific Highway (NSW)
  • 35 for emergency use only
  • 39 used for conversations
  • 40 Highway Road channel – mainly used by trucks (the language can be ‘colourful’), but many 4WD’ers and caravanners monitor or use this channel when travelling on the highway.
  • 41-48 new channels that can be used when sending a signal to a repeater station
  • 49-60 new channels for conversation
  • 61-63 temporarily unusable, reserved for further expansion
  • 64-70 new channels for conversations
  • 71-78 new channels, receiver stations for re-transmitting new channels 41-48
  • 79-80 new channels for conversations

Legal Channels:

  • 5 – Emergency channel (simplex and duplex)
  • 35 – Reserved for emergency use, not to be used in simplex (repeater input)
  • 11 – Calling channel – use to make contact then change to another channel
  • 22/23 – Telemetry and telecom and only (voice communication is not permitted)
  • 1/31 – Not to be used in simplex when in range of a Channel 1 repeater
  • 2/32 – Not to be used in simplex when in range of a Channel 2 repeater
  • 3/33 – Not to be used in simplex when in range of a Channel 3 repeater
  • 4/34 – Not to be used in simplex when in range of a Channel 4 repeater
  • 6/36 – Not to be used in simplex when in range of a Channel 6 repeater
  • 7/37 – Not to be used in simplex when in range of a Channel 7 repeater
  • 8/38 – Not to be used in simplex when in range of a Channel 8 repeater 

Emergency Channels:
The specific emergency channels are –
UHF band – channel 5/35 repeater (476.525/477.275 MHz)
HF Band – channel 9 (27.065 MHz)

Emergency channels are voluntarily monitored by organisations and may assist you in contacting the appropriate emergency services. However, the channels may not be monitored 24/7 by volunteers.

Calling Channels to Contact other Travellers
There are specific calling channels in the CB bands:
UHF Band – Channel 11 (476.675MHz)
HF Band – Channel 11 (AM – 27.085 MHz) and Channel 16 (SSB – 27.155 MHz)

Once you have established contact, switch to another agreed channel and continue talking. This then frees the call channel for other users. For clubs or those travelling in a ‘convoy’ of vehicles, a desired ‘working’ channel should be selected before setting out and all members of the convoy directed to use that channel.

Repeater Channels:
Channels 1-8 and 41-48 are designated repeater output stations and channels 31-38 and 71-78 are designated input channels. These designated repeater channels can be used for single frequency communication provided they are not used in the locality of repeaters.

A repeater that transmits on channel 1 will always receive on channel 31. The CB radio automatically selected the corresponding transmit/receive frequencies.

Data Transmit Channels:
Data can be transmitted on two UHF channels – Channel 22 (476.950 MHz) and Channel 23 (476.975 MHz). These channels are dedicated for data purposes only and should not be used for voice communication. The ACMA website states that transmission must comply with the restrictions imposed in the CBRS class licence.

Which Channels Should I Use for Simplex Communications?

Channels 9-10, 12-21, 24-30, 39-40 should be used when you want to communicate through simplex. It is best to avoid channels 31-38 completely unless you are sure there isn’t any corresponding repeaters in range.

A simple Google search can be done to locate other web sites that have a comprehensive Australian UHF CB Repeater List. Further information is also available from the Australian Communication and Media Authority (acma.gov.au). UHF CB Australia (uhfcb.com.au) is also a website with tutorial videos.

Related Questions

What Is the Range Capability of A HF Radio?

The HF can communicate over distances of 3000 km or more unlike the UHF radio and VHF radio which is typically used for line-of-sight or short-range only communications.

How does using the Emergency Transmission or RED Button Work?

The “Red” emergency button is designed for calling the nearest RFDS base. Recent changes to RFDS operations throughout Australia now mean that it only works when reaching Port Augusta and Broken Hill. Emergency calls at all RFDS bases (except for Broken Hill and Port August) are by Selcall as detailed in DOC 40 on the VKS-737 website.

Can HF Radios communicate with UHF and VHF?

Through developments in cross-patching technology, an HF radio can be used to communicate with other UHF and VHF radio systems. They can also communicate with land-based telephones and mobile phones.

Can I Receive Radio Broadcasts?

You most certainly can and because the HF spectrum covers the range 1.7 to 30 MHz, it means you can listen to BBC World, Radio Australia and the various frequencies to member and base operator communications on the VKS737 4WD Radio Network.

How Can I Reduce the Noise on My HF Radio?

Sometimes you may find there’s a lot of background noise on the line when you use your HF radio making the clarity of your communications challenging. Some models have noise-reduction technology like the Barrett 4050 HF SDR. Otherwise, there are a few things you can do to minimising the interfering signals causing the background noise. We often find electronics such as televisions and laptops produce electronic interference that shows up in the form of unwanted radio noise. A good way to test if you’re getting interference of this kind is by unplugging things one by one and seeing if the intensity or level of noise on the radio drops.


James Mitchell

Hi, I’m Jimmy Mitchell and I love exploring this great country with my wife and two boys. I have a 2015 Sterling LX that is the Mitchell Family camping machine. Lets Getaway is the website where I share things about my trailer as I learn them, and help other camper owners to enjoy their RV even more.

Recent Posts