Call it in...
The ability to interact with others while riding is as important as being able to chat over big distances.
Getting a message across on the trail can take many forms, from the most ridiculously basic to high-tech and expensive electronics.
Get a Loud Horn
Okay, it sounds a little strange, but we all know that modern bikes run horns that couldn’t out-dB a duck. That brrruuup! that sounds like a strangled frog does no-one any good and is useless. Around $20 gets you a horn to be proud of, loud enough to alert a mate just in front that you’re changing plan, to guide your mates to you in thick bush, and to warn traffic of your presence. It’s the cheapest and easiest form of communication in the bush.
If you ride alone, or are heading somewhere remote in a group, you really should invest in an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon. These units save lives every year, calling in the cavalry in times of emergency. They work by transmitting a distress signal that is most often picked up by commercial air flights then relayed to Australian Search and Rescue, who notify local authorities to begin a search.
The old 121.5MHz units brought the search teams within 20kms of the target, but the newer 406MHz models reduce this to 5kms. Some models include an inbuilt GPS that will send enough information to enable the search team to land a chopper slap on the top of your helmet, or at least in a 45m radius of it. Owners of the 406MHz units also have the option of registering their unit with Search and Rescue, so that in the event of it being activated, they know who they’re looking for, where they live and what their phone number is – well worth doing.
Note: the old 121.5MHz EPIRBS are no longer being monitored and the newer 406MHz units are required now.
The drawback with an EPIRB is that while it lets emergency services know that you’re in trouble, it can’t relay the type of emergency involved. Nothing beats a sat-phone for relaying concise information in an emergency, but an EPIRB is cheaper, more portable and more reliable, both in terms of signal and construction. Typical battery life is seven years, so an EPIRB can be left in a backpack and forgotten until it is needed.
Most riders have them, and most of us carry them. Coverage is reasonable along much of the Great Divide, with reception available from some surprisingly remote hill tops. Choose your carrier though. Telstra still has the best coverage, while some of the others are almost useless outside of the major centres. The choice of phone also makes a difference. Some units are built for city use and have low power transmitters, while others were made specifically for the Australian Next-G roll-out with considerably higher signal capabilities. Check it out before you sign up.
Mobiles are mostly useless in the desert unless you are very close to a town. Again, Telstra will give the best chance of getting a signal in the spinifex.
Unless you’re in remote areas a lot, it pays to hire sat-phones. They are expensive and susceptible to water and vibration damage, and are also expensive in terms of call costs, so they aren’t an every day use item. Again, check who your carrier is before hiring or buying. One … global … company has access to so few satellites that a workable signal is rare and brief, which is not what you want in an emergency.
Put the sat-phone’s number on its case so that it is easy for everyone to find; emergency services will ask for it so they can contact you back. Similarly, if the phone has a security code this should also be attached to the case so there is no delay if it is needed in a hurry.
UHF Handheld Radios
UHF radios are the trail rider’s friend, because they’re an affordable, easy to use and a practical way for a group to communicate internally. UHF radios work best in line-of-sight but can still operate reasonably well in thick bush and hills.
There are a range of units available, with tiny .5-watters, 1-, 2- and 5-watt handhelds. All work, but you get what you pay for. The bigger the wattage, the more powerful the signal and the greater the range. The bigger units also have better speakers which deliver clearer speach. The range of the various units depends greatly on terrain but in line-of-sight, mountain top to mountain top applications, look at 8-10kms from a 1-watter and up to 50kms from a 5-watter.
While 10kms sounds a long way, remember that this takes just six minutes at 100kph, which means someone riding sweep needs to get a message through to the lead rider pretty quickly in an emergency. And that’s under ideal conditions. The 5-watt units are a very good investment, particularly in the desert where a little elevation can give a call signal a 50km radius, covering a huge area. There are very few places in Australia where you won’t find a UHF user within this range – there are a lot more people in the bush these days.
To be really useful, UHF handhelds should have a good quality remote speaker/mic clipped to the collar of the rider’s jacket. This allows him the hear – up to about 80kph – and even transmit without having to stop and fumble around in his backpack or pockets. Speakers mounted in the helmet are better, but become a hassle when you take the helmet off, and the leads are more likely to snag in tight going. Being able to constantly monitor a scanning UHF radio will give you advance warning of other groups in the area.
Please, do not use UHFs for idle chatter, especially if several riders in the group are using them. The lead and sweep riders need to slow and check the nature of the talk every time their radios receive, so save the yabber for after the ride.
Smoke and Mirrors
These forms of communication are a lot more simple. Smoke is an excellent signal that can be seen over huge distances on still days, and is an accepted way of pin-pointing a crash site to a rescue helicopter. A flashing mirror will also attract attention from a surprising distance, as will a flashing headlight at night.
On Charge and Protection
All of the technology-based communication systems require power. Most have their own batteries, and most of these will last at least through the daylight hours. A 12-volt outlet plug on a bike is easy to rig, enabling recharging in the bush, and most bike batteries can recharge a couple of phone and radio batteries overnight without affecting starting power.
There are plenty of small cases designed to keep phones and radios dry and dust-free. Hard cases will give good crash protection but are heavy and bulky; soft clear cases work best.