BC Link — Snowsports Walkie Talkie

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I’ve now got about 10 days using the BC Link radio. Durability so far so good. Battery life is terrific, I did one test that involved leaving the radio switched on for the bulk of 4 days, with moderate use each day. Battery was still going strong at the end of that period. Only gripe is I’d like the radio base unit to indicate when it’s getting a charge, because when you charge from USB other than the provided wall-charger you have no way of knowing if the radio is getting juice. Thus, if you’ve got a defective USB cable or connection (not uncommon) you could merrily be charging along only to find out the next morning you’ve still got a dead battery. At any rate, charge every night and you never need worry about using the radio heavily all day long. (But for battery life insurance, still use good radio technique such as speaking clearly and concisely instead of rambling or fooling around, as well as turning the unit off when not in use.)
This thing is cool. From the plain black-on-black styling to the waterproof connectors, the new BC Link 2-way radio from Backcountry Access reeks of quality and downright functionality. I got one of the first retail units, figured this first-look was appropriate. Field testing commences immediately (see below for some results from later today).
The grand unboxing of BC link. I have a feeling a few of these will be opened Christmas morning.
Grand unboxing of BC link. The sound of heavenly radio transmissions came down from on high as we lifted the lid. I have a feeling a few of these will be opened Christmas morning.
The concept is bold. Instead of trying to match the bloviated “blister pack” FRS/GMRS SL4000 radio market with a Battlestar Gallactica electronics toy lookalike, BCA came up with an understated black moisture sealed radio that only works with the attached speaker-mic on a dedicated coil cable. Idea is you carry the base unit in your backpack or perhaps a jacket pocket (also has a belt clip if you want to totally geek out). Controls for normal use are on the mic, while you set your background settings (channels, beeps-on-off, etc.) on the base unit.
I’m about as familiar with FRS/GMRS walkie-talkies as you can get (as well as licensed Amateur radio operator KC0FNM). Thus, only surprise here is that without a PTT (push to talk) switch on the base unit, I expected it to be smaller. But the base unit has to carry a fair sized lithium rechargeable battery, which probably drives the form factor.
Link base unit is designed to run inside your backpack, with external handmic providing enough control for normal use.
Link's base unit is designed to run inside your backpack, with external handmic providing enough control for normal use.
Link handmic (otherwise known as a speaker mic) has necessary controls. Small dial at top right
Link handmic (otherwise known as a speaker mic/microphone) has necessary controls. Small dial at top right is on-off and volume. Lower dial with letters is the channel pre-sets. A series of LEDs at top left indicate the radio being powered up, transmitting, etc.
Speaking of the battery, per current pop electronics you can only charge the BCA Link via USB. This requires the usual USB wall-wart adapter if you want to juice from residential wiring. You can presumably plug directly into your computer, or into whatever source you’re using to feed USB current to say, your smartphone. Mixed emotions about this. In an ideal world, USB would simplify things. But shucks, with a dozen or more different types of USB connectors out there (was this designed by Microsoft?), I still carry a spaghetti mess of cables and adapters, so really, things are just as complicated as in the old days. What is more, I still feel the ideal DC current standardization is the >< 12 volts of automobiles. But that's another story.
Of more importance, you'd better have a good charging strategy for BC Link if you're on a multi-day backcountry skiing trip without electricity. I'll do the official WildSnow begging to BCA for an AA battery pack, but something tells me this won't be forthcoming any time soon. Instead, look to any of the aftermarket auxiliary USB chargers, such as those by Anker and Goal Zero.
If you’re familiar with Motorola FRS/GMRS Walkie Talkie, changing channels and such on the Link base unit will be easy. It’s done exactly the same way. Ditto for disabling all the annoying beeps and noises these types of walkie-talkies seem to think would make our lives better. The all important LOCK mode is obvious; designated by a graphic on the base unit face: push MENU and OK buttons simultaneously and you get a nice countdown to when the unit is locked. The only thing non-standard is setting the channel memories that correspond to 6 settings on the handmic, switched using a small dial marked with letters A through F. This is too easy. Just get the base unit set to the channel you want, then press the OK button. There you go, you have a pre-set for whatever letter you had the handmic dial set on. (Link comes with pre-sets that will probably become standards, but I’d recommend figuring out a few pre-sets specific to your usual group of backcountry skiers to prevent channel crowding once these radios are in common use.)
Note: There are no FRS/GMRS channels “officaily” designated for various uses, but convention designates channel 1 for general public chat, and channel 20 (with quiet code 22) for emergencies. That said, in most areas the FRS/GMRS channels are NOT monitored in any way that would help you call for help. In reality, channel 1 tends to be overused due to it being the easiest channel to get to on a new radio, as well as being easy to remember. Thus, when setting your radio we recommend not using channel 1. But perhaps keep channel 20 as a setting and don’t use it for day-to-day comm.
Likewise, bear in mind that the FCC requires these types of walkie talkies to lowest power on channels 8 through 14. Thus, when picking channels for general backcountry use it’s advisable to pick a channel from 2-7 or 15-22 (Link transmits at one watt on those channels, 1/2 watt on the other ones). Furthermore, the antenna on this type of radio can be assumed to be tuned to the midrange of frequencies (channels), with performance falling off at either end of the channels. Thus, for a bit of extra umph in your distance range I’d recommend using channels 6,7,15,16,17.
Conversely, if you want to conserve battery and know you’ll always be close to your compadres, try using the Link’s lower power (1/2 watt) channels 8-14. These will perform better than you might think. The Link radio doesn’t have a low/high power setting, so using these channels will significantly extend your battery life if you’re doing much talking. In other words, this is a way of forcing the radio to lower power.
IMPORTANT: To get best performance from any 2-way radio, all users must have their antennas oriented in the same position. Convention for this is to orient your antenna vertically. Since the Link base unit is presumably buried in your backpack, it may end up in a random position (BCA packs will have a radio mount, presumably vertical). I’d recommend all party members figure out a way to carry/mount their radios to the antenna stays somewhat vertical. By the same token, the higher the radio is above the ground the better it will perform.
Water resistance
We’re assuming the Link is robust and “waterproof.” Word from BCA is it conforms to standard IP56. In my research this indicates the unit is sealed against powerful gushing water, but is not immersion proof. From what I see when physically examining the Link, my take is it’ll hold up fine to normal humidity and moisture encountered in backcountry skiing, but might not be the radio for commercial fishing. That said, BCA told me they actually tested the radio at full immersion and it passed. All connections have obvious seals. Both the hand mic and base unit cases are assembled with small, confidence inspiring metal fasteners rather than being snapped together or glued as with toy radios. These fasteners cause us to fantasize about modifications such as a better antenna. Yet again, another story.
Ease of Use
Some of the blister pack FRS/GMRS radios are so loaded with features they become difficult to use unless you’re on them every day. BCA’s approach to this is perfect. In my opinion the Link has enough features for effective use, but by lacking dodads such as scan and VOX it’s much less confusing when you step through the menus. Such features can be useful, especially scan, but simplicity is key if we want radio use to become more common in our sport. Which leads to our next thought.
Inter-group communication is just as important to avalanche safety as is your beacon or airbag. The 2-way radio enhances such communication to a stunning degree. More, beyond avalanche safety you’ll still find that using walkie talkies can make a huge difference in situation such as navigating complex terrain. Yes, there is indeed a geek factor to these things. Get over it. Hide the Link base-unit in your backpack, discreetly mount the handmic on your pack strap, turn off all the beeps, don’t chatter, and you’ll be able to live with it.
Base unit is basic. Smaller would be nicer, but whatever. A small lanyard mount on the top enables hanging from the inside of your pack in the recommended vertical position. You could also do this with the included belt-clip if you could find (or mod) a way to attach it. In either case, our testing indicates that to keep the unit vertical you need more than just a basic attachment inside your backpack. I rigged up some bungie cords that stabilize the position of the radio in one of my packs. BCA backpacks will of course have a dedicated Link mounting system.
Handmic (BCA offical name “Smart Mic”) is designed to locate on your pack strap with the coil-cord feeding up over your shoulder, operated with either hand. I find the PTT (push-to-talk) is a bit awkward to press, but I’m getting used to it. Looking down at the Smart Mic, you can see the volume/power dial as well as the pre-set channel selector dial with its A through F markings. The movement of both dials is adequately attenuated to prevent accidental changes. Nonetheless, per good radio technique glance down when transmitting to make sure you’re on the correct pre-set, and check your volume once in a while by calling for a radio check. (Some 2-way radios have a volume self check. Link doesn’t have this as an obvious option. Still, you can do a volume self-check by turning on any of your weather channels, which will result in either static noise or voice you can check. I’d recommend programming your local weather broadcast to one of the pre-sets, perhaps the last one, F.)
The base unit has no charging indicator in the LCD. Instead, the light on the wall wart goes red when charging and green when done. To me this situation is a big detriment, as I can see myself charging the Link in a variety of situations when the wall wart is not used. Indeed, if BCA is keeping a list of recommended improvements, let me recommend “charging indicator in LCD.”
One other ergonomics take: We really like the LED flashlights built into some FRS/GMRS radios. Carrying two light sources during big backcountry trips is an important safety consideration (main headlamp and some sort of tiny auxiliary light). Link LCD can be used as a light source by pressing the MENU button. It’s dim and turns off after 3 seconds, but would be adequate to illuminate swapping batteries in a headlamp, or finding a lost hat in your sleeping bag at 2:00 in the morning.
Big consideration, especially for those of you who presently don’t carry 2-way radios. The better blister pack FRS/GMRS radios we use weigh around 7.3 ounces, 207 grams with lithium AA batteries installed and a set of spares. (They’re easily waterproofed by carrying in a ziplock, though doing so is a bother. Waterproof blister pack radios are available, and weigh a bit more. ). Link total on our scale (handmic and base) weighs 11.4 ounces, 322 grams. Add a handmic to your blister pack radio and you up the total by at least 3 ounces, to at least 10 ounces, 284 grams. That’s still lighter than BC Link, but not by much. What that extra ounce or so gets you is the key: Link is waterproof, apparently durable, and has what I’m assuming is significantly longer life battery than what we get with the 3 AA cells (and a set of spares) for our blister pack unit.
Real World Test
I took a Link out skiing today, paired with Lisa carrying a regular name-brand FRS/GMRS. We tested while separated by a small hill. Transmissions were clear as ever. We then tested by talking from top of ski resort to the base area, about 2,000 vertical feet and not line-of-site. A bit of static, but totally audible. I’m not sure Link is any better than another good quality FRS/GMRS, but it’s certainly no worse. Tomorrow I’ll do a brutal comparo by having a person drive away in a car while continuing to talk, using the Link as well as another radio. I doubt we’ll find anything significant.
If you’re a big radio user I’d think the small weight penalty would be worth going with BC Link. If you’re the type of user who keeps the radio stashed in your backpack, turned off, a smaller/lighter rig might be more appropriate (some blister pack FRS/GMRS radios are quite small). Me, I’ll probably use both types depending on situation. Have to say I really like the Link handmic with controls, and not worrying about moisture is a big plus. Four WildSnow.com ski tips up to BCA Link!
Size of Link, from BCA:
Mic: 3.3” x 1.0” x 1.8” / 8.0 x 4.0 x 4.5 cm
Base unit: 2.5” x 2.0” x 6.0” / 6 x 5 x 15 cm