Outback travelling

Communication tips

by Rudi Schwartz

The main reason is safety. Communication means that others know where you are, and you know where others are. This means you can exchange information.


Our society is one of communication.  15 million people in Australia are reported to have a mobile phone!

We have email, Skype, web-chat, blogs, text messages, telephones, snail mail—to the point where most young people now don’t even know what a telegram is.

When these services don’t work, we feel lost, and forgotten.

Prepare yourself:  if you want to go out beyond-the-black–stump, this what you are going to experience—unless of course you’ve got good, reliable communication designed for the terrain.


I think the main reason is safety.  Communication means that others know where you are, and you know where others are.  This means you can exchange information.

When the Rev Dr John Flynn started the Australian Inland Mission (out of which the Presbyterian Inland Mission grew), he talked about a “mantle of safety”, that included radio communication to other things like spiritual needs (and sent patrol padres on camels through the outback) , medical needs (and created the Royal Flying Doctor Service) and educational needs (and created the School of the Air).

He, with his good friend Alfred Traegar, invented the pedal radio.  This invention not only helped those living in remote areas in medical emergencies, but being able to contact one another helped with feelings of isolation and loneliness and was also vital part of the establishment of the School of the Air in Alice Springs in 1951.

Since then technology has leapfrogged in the last few decades.  We have a variety of communication modes which can be helpful to the outback traveller.

Mobile phones

The technology behind mobile phones, and especially after the introduction of Next Generation Mobile Networks, has improved vastly in the last two years.

But beware:  mobile phone networks might use phrases like “90% of the Australian population covered”, which does not mean that the same amount of the landmass is covered.  Most of the outback is still out of reach for mobile phones. Telstra probably provide the best coverage.  Check it out before you think of relying on your mobile phone for communication. I visited the Corner Country recently and was surprised by the coverage, but was equally frustrated to, more often than not, find no coverage just a kilometre or so away.

You would do well by visiting your local Telstra Shop or radio communication dealer to have an external antenna fitted to your vehicle for your mobile phone.

My advice?  Take your mobile phone along; but never rely on your mobile phone.  It is too risky!!

Satellite phones

ExplorOZ states:  “Sat phones are best suited to people who wish to enable other people (family/work) to make direct dial voice calls to you whilst you are travelling. Call charges are still a little higher than regular mobile phone charges, however the use of the satellite phone would be limited to essential communication only. Most satphones will have a voice mail box and many have SMS. ”

The phrase “limited to essential communication only” is important.  Two reasons:  cost and (not mentioned in this site), radiation.  These phones operate on high power.  Because of uncertainty in regards to the effect of radiation I would be very careful to use it over long periods of time.

I personally use a Inmarsat IsatPhone Pro, very economical and you can use the text function to post to Twitter and Facebook. (Steve Dyer)

You can buy or rent these phones.  See e.g. Pivotel, Satellite Phone Sales or Telstra.

UHF radios

UHF radios are great and relatively cheap, but you need to know its limitations.  The golden rule for reception in UHF radios is “line of sight”:  as long as you can see someone, you will be able to talk to him. In mountainous areas this can become a bit of a problem, unless there are repeaters installed somewhere near.  Problem:  there are not many in remote outback.  Check out where these repeaters are situated in each state.

Olbis states:  “UHF Radio is a form of ground wave communication that is highly recommended for coastal, outback, warehouse and business communications in Australia. This form of communication is on the FM Band which supplies superior voice quality and less ambient background noise. Definitely a more professional type of communication than the 27Mhz CB. The other beneficial factor with UHF Radio is the public repeater system throughout Australia. With these repeaters, range of UHF Radio is improved drastically allowing far more flexible use of the radio. Features like scan, selcall and scrambler mode once again gives the user far greater flexibility for any given situation. UHF radio is available in handheld or mobile units.”

What radio should you buy? “Today the major swing is towards UHF radio, due to its quality of sound, long range ability and the repeater systems located throughout Australia. With most farms and remote stations now fitted with UHF, many travellers are changing over to UHFdue to this factor alone. Trucking companies are also almost totally using UHF.”

The major players in the market for UHF is GME, ICOM, and Uniden.

A very important tip: ask your dealer to supply the correct antenna type for your application.

Visit 4Wheeling Australia if you want more information.

HF Radios

Some people refer to these radios as the Flying Doctors Radios.  In a sense this is true, but only because the RFDS use some of the frequencies available for these radios.

HF Radios are great and very reliable.  They are not cheap to buy, but if your trip is going to be a short one, you can always rent one.  You need a license to operate a HF, which is usually assigned when you become a member of a FH Radio network.

The advantages of being a member of a network is that you will have access to the other users of the network, and in some cases access to manned base stations to take emergency calls from people who cannot reach you otherwise.  The network will try to chase you up and relay messages.

Calls are free, while the duration of your call might be limited by the rules of the network.

The National 4WD Radio Network (also know as VKS737) was established in 1993. The network is managed by Administration, Staff, Committee Members and Volunteers including Message Coordinator, Base Station Operators and Show Representatives.

They are licensed by the Australian Communications Media Authority (ACMA) and subscribers must comply with all provisions of the Radio Communications Act 1992.  Membership is for a year.  An interesting feature of VKS737 is its bulletins, which are broadcast daily at certain times.  You may tune in and listen to get advice on roads and weather.  You will be assigned 6 frequencies ranging from 3-17 MHz.

For more information on HF Radio checkout HF Radio FAQs.

The major players in the HF market are Barrett and Codan.

To use HF radio’s use this simple guideline:  use higher frequencies for longer distances and on hot days; use lower frequencies for shorter distances and colder days.  It’s good policy to  begin with the medium range frequency; if not successful, use common sense to work out if you should go higher or lower.  Easy!


This is the short for Radio telephone. If you are the owner of a HF Radio and you want to make telephone calls to any phone, this is your alternative.  And of course, anyone can contact you from a telephone to your radio through this network. 

Different plans are available, ranging from $120 to $545 per annum, with no calls included in the cheaper plans and up to $400 worth of calls included in the expensive plans.  Calls can cost between 99c and 69c per minute.

For $120 p/a you will be entitled to use the service to contact Emergency Assistance 24hrs, Message Service, Position Logging/Reporting Coast Guard, Coastal Patrol & Sea Rescue - Selcall Direct*, RFDS, Police and Emergency Service - Selcall Direct*,( NRMA, RACV, RACQ, RACT & RAC - Selcall Direct*

*These Authorities are linked to a selcall number and are FREE Phone Calls)


E.P.I.R.B is an acronym for Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacons.

For more information on E.P.I.R.Bs checkout EPIRB: What are they, cost and which one should I buy?.

Lakecomm states: “In the event of breakdown or accident which could isolate you from ready access to help you may have a radio, GPS or even both; but in some types of terrain, the radio you have may not be able to communicate. Although a GPS system will tell you where you are, it will be useless if you are unable to relay your location to rescuers.

E.P.I.R.B. can help.  The EPIRB once activated, will transmit signals to satellites which are then transmitted back to receiving stations on earth and conveyed to the Rescue Co-ordination Centre where your position is calculated. The appropriate rescue authorities in that particular area are notified to send help on its way.”

These units vary in cost with the most expensive around $600.