Filmmaker, Radio/Overlander newbie plan help

Really happy to find this forum! I am a filmmaker with my own production company. We’ve always rented pretty much all our gear, but now I am building an overland-capable 2-ton truck with all the core tools I use (cameras/grip/electric/misc), as well as a travel trailer towed behind it to give me a base camp / mobile housing (I bring my family with me). All of this is to allow me to be more nimble and quick to get into production anywhere, including off-grid, and branch into some different sort of production I’m interested in (i.e. wilderness settings, etc.). I’ve been thinking and researching this for a couple years, was all set to do it, and then COVID-19 really put me over the top on definitely wanting to do it.

In my truck I was thinking to put an Icom IC-7100, and then a second unit (another IC-7100 or something else compatible but more portable?) that I could put in the trailer (so wife can communicate me from the trailer when I leave basecamp in my truck), or else that I could loan to a second vehicle when we’re in a convoy (because not everybody have radios, of course). I gather I need to get a HAM radio license of some sort (I know there is such a thing - that’s the limit of my knowledge). This would also be nice to get a unit for my mother who lives 20 miles away in case there’s a disaster that has wiped out cell phones, so I’d have a way to talk to her.

Secondarily to that, I also need walkie talkies for my crew and I to use when we get to location. We work in a variety of locations, from urban to wilderness. Typically i have about 20-30 walkies, I only recall seeing Motorolla as a brand, simple 16-channel ones with a channel selector, volume control and a tap for the surveillance-style ear pieces we all get. I’m guessing they were analog. Anyway, I want to buy some 2-way walkies, maybe a dozen or so. Only I would really like it if they were compatible with the units I put in the truck, so that in the cab I could use one system to communicate both overland and to production, if that’s practical to do. Searching Motorolla’s web site, I see models like the XPR3300e. But I’m too much of a newb to figure out if I can make some Motorolla walkies talk to these Icom truck radios. Or maybe I should consider sticking with Icom and getting something like the Icom F1100D for walkies? That said, I don’t plan to buy 30 walkies, so I’d like a system I can augment with rentals when I have a bigger crew.

Finally, I’d really like a better monitor for myself when on set. I’ve been using the surveillance mic in one ear, an earbud plugged into a Comtek receiver in my other ear, and then taking one or both out frequently because I need to talk to people directly and I hate having my ears plugged.

I hope I’ve explained clearly what I’m trying to accomplish. I’m technical and can help myself with research, but it’s academic and not real world. I would be very grateful for some sage advice from people with actual expertise here.

PS - I’ll be working in both USA and Canada, if that matters.

Thanks in advance!

Hi there @mazerrackham. My name is Rob, and I am the sales manager at www.BuyTwoWayRadios.com. First things first, let me apologize for the original response by one of our (former) forum members, which has since been deleted. His views and remarks do not reflect Buy Two Way Radios in any way, and the situation has been handled quickly by our web team.

That being said, I believe there are a few different ways you could make this situation work for you, your family, and your crew. However, I’m not sure ham radio is the best option in this case. Ham would be ideal for communication between you and your family in a disaster scenario, but for day-to-day operations, a business radio solution will be your best option.

I’d love to speak with you a bit more in regards to some more details, and will be happy to make some recommendations on equipment as well. If you have time, please feel free to contact me directly by phone and we can discuss further. My number is 1-800-584-1445 ext. 230, and I look forward to speaking with you soon.

Thanks so much!

There is a reason why virtually every single film set uses rental radios. The business who rents you the radios has a licence for those specific frequencies, and within a specified geographical area. Obviously, even with the newer narrow-band business radios, radio frequencies are limited, and this is why a business MUST be licenced to use the frequency assigned to them, and why they are confined to certain geographical areas. This way, they can reuse the same frequency in other areas where they will not interfere with each other. I will leave it up to other experts such as our hosts at buytwowayradios to comment on business radios and the possibility of national and international business frequencies being assigned to you. You really need to speak to business radio experts such as them before you go ahead. For example, Canada does not have a collection of what they call itinerant business frequencies like they do in the U.S. (where you share business frequencies with others.) Canada also does not allow MURS radios, as the frequencies of most MURS channels have already been assigned across the country.

I also agree that amateur (Ham) radio is not a good option for you. Every single person using your radios would need to be licenced as a Ham operator.

You could try FRS radios if you are looking to do this on a budget. Out in rural areas, you will probably not get every kid and drive-through in a two-mile radius interfering with your transmission.

Also, be aware that 20-miles for a two-way radio without repeaters is really pushing it. That distance is beyond the horizon, so it would require both users to be on hills with nothing in between. It really depends on local conditions, and there is no way anyone can say for certain if that is possible in your area without actually trying it out.

One option to look at if you want very high quality business radios that don’t require a licence in either Canada or the U.S. is the DTR or DLR series from Motorola. They are great radios, and if you do some research, you can see if their advantages for you can justify their cost.

As for the ear plugs, I would suggest that you take your surveillance earpiece and replace the ear bud with an ear mould. They are great, and you can wear your Comtek earphones right over top of it. Unlike the ear plug that comes with the surveillance headest, they do not block your ear canal.

I spend 12 to 14 hours a day on film sets with headsets, and every time I order a new batch of ear moulds, I get an extra two dozen and hand them out to the rest of the crew as gifts.

Talk to experts like buytwowayradios, and if you don’t use ear moulds, get some. You will thank me for it.

@Chickenhawk Thanks for your help and advice. I figured it was more complicated than I knew.

@Rob I left you a voicemail and would love to talk through solutions with you.

For clarification, I was only thinking of the Ham radio use for my wife and I, and maybe my Mother (I’d decide after I’ve gone through it myself if that was practical for her to do). It’s so we can talk to each other when in the wilderness and I go off in the truck leaving her at base camp with the trailer. I’d never use HAM for crew, etc. That is also the context I was referring to when talking about wanting to get 20-30 miles range, not crew comms.

For my crew needs, it’s pretty simple. I just need crew on set to be able to talk to someone at the truck, which might be a couple blocks away, or on the other side of a convention center, or thirty floors down and around the corner, or just around the bend down a gravel road, etc. In an urban setting if it occasionally fails due to parking garages, signal interference, etc., then we could adapt and use cell phones.

I am fine continuing to rent for my medium-to-large sized shoots that are pre-planned. I do want to own a 2-way comms system for when we’re going in the wilderness or doing a more impromptu shoot with a small crew (<20). So perhaps I get something to take care of those smaller shoots and still rent for the bigger ones.

For that deleted post that was very grouchy, I searched these forums pretty well before posting to try not to waste anyone’s time. I felt that my specific application (production + overlanding) wasn’t really addressed in the posts I found, or else the posts were from years ago and it seemed like there’s been a lot of changes in wireless recently that might obsolete the old advice. Hence my post. With respect, I’m a veteran businessman in a tough industry, not a dummy.

Welcome to the forum my friend. We are in the same business. 25 years for me.

Hopefully, my advice helps. I use rental radios for the big Hollywood productions, and own my own fleet of Motorola DTR and DLR radios for smaller shows. In my line of work, safety is a huge priority, and I need good and reliable communications. I am not that bright, and when I am not working on big shows, I help new, young and student filmmakers with their projects. I donate a lot of my time to helping keep the next generation of filmmakers safe, and I have travelled across Canada and as far as Hollywood to do workshops on what I do and how to stay safe. I also wrote the online training course in my field for all IATSE stage and film members in North America. Like yourself, I love what I do!

Back to radios. The DTR and DLR radios are not cheap but the clarity of digital radios is unmatched. They have about the best range you will get with any UHF two-way handheld, licence-free radio. They also cannot be monitored by anyone unless they have the exact same radio PLUS the radio ID (of which there are hundreds of thousands of combinations.)

But when you talk to the folks at buytwowayradios, they can tell you about some of the newer GMRS and FRS radios now on the market that are higher-quality than the Walmart radios (we often refer to the big-box retailer radios as “bubble pack” radios.) In remote areas, and with the short range of UHF radios anyway, it is unlikely anyone will interfere with your comms.

Legally, you are fine in Canada and the U.S. If you go to GMRS, you will need a licence in the U.S. but not in Canada. (In Canada, just reduce the power to 2-watts.) If you go FRS, then there is no licence needed in any country.

And, trust me on the ear moulds versus the ear plug for surveillance headsets. If you don’t use them, you should.

Thanks again for the help. I talked it over with Rob and DTR sounds like the way to go for me for sure. No licensing, good enough range, clear signal, can have private one-to-one conversations, plenty of channels. If I get a couple dozen of those, that’ll cover a lot of my shoots, definitely the more impromptu ones. I just didn’t want to have to run by a rental house for a spur-of-the-moment shoot just to get wakies.

For bigger productions, I’ll decide if I want to buy even more, or just rent a separate system for those. Also going to give those ear moulds a try - I was surprised how inexpensive they are. I’m going to take your suggestion and give them away to crew.

They will love them. In the past few years, our rental houses are renting surveillance headsets with the radios so everyone has the same headset. I especially like them because I can wear ear muffs over top when I deal with loud bangs, and Comtek headsets when I need to hear dialog. But the stock headsets come with the standard ear plug and it blocks all sound from that ear. The ear moulds do not block off sound.

Ear moulds (buytwowayradios calls them earloops) come in three sizes. Here’s a tip: most males are medium, and most females are small. It’s not the size of the ear, it is the size of the inside of the ear. After that, it is a personal choice for right ear or left ear. I use right ear most of the time, but it’s nice to switch to left ear for a day or two.

I usually order about 10 small, 30 medium and 4 large. At $5 each, it is a cheap way to get a more comfortable fit and not block off the ear canal, especially when wearing them for 12 hours a day.

Scrub ham radio - the purpose is to communicate as a hobby, with strangers. Business use is frowned on, and even for the basic class licence takes some study, and unless radio is your fun hobby thing - it’s pointless. I’m in the UK, but here, our radio use is split into categories and I understand the US system is similar. I use lots of radio kit for multiple things we do. When we add our people to an outside broadcast, we reprogram the radios to approved TV/broadcast channels that we have licences for. If we need to communicate with a new OB truck, we find out in advance what the spec is and we can be up and running quickly. Our stock is mainly Icom and Kenwood, with a few Motorolas. The only pain is the different chargers! Other job require use of the UK short term frequencies - but they’re in the same band, so quite a few radios have our own licence channels in, plus the TV channels and also the short term hire channels, so we can operate across all of them. The simple channelised systems the UK and US has rarely allows cross system comms, and if you have these radios they’re usually locked down so adding a broadcast comms channel is impossible. I have licences for VHF and UHF, and I have a dual band radio (an Icom, designed for ham radio) programmed with all the channels I need in my van. Strictly speaking, I should NOT use this radio. It is NOT approved for marine operation and I should have a separate radio, but one is better for the van. As I’m also a ham (but an inactive one) I also have a few ham channels programmed in. That’s four separate licences I hold. I have aircraft radios too, and these are licensed separately. The choice in the US is very similar, but again, the official legal situation is a little cloudy. Certain popular radios cannot now be sold, and you need advice from people like Rob, who know the legal side. There ARE dealers who do not follow the law. That, to me is rather unprofessional. A one-size fits all solution is difficult. Ham radio really is NOT for family. Callsigns, procedure and lack of privacy make it a difficult one. Calling out to family with family questions will bring out the worst in local ham ops.

So far I’ve learned that the Motorola DTR radios are probably my best solution for the crew comms being unlicensed and reliable for my purposes. Also that ham radio is not really for my use (not its purpose and too much study / licensing).

What I’m still looking for then is the overland communication from my truck to my trailer that I leave at base camp and to other overlanders I may have in my group. I’d seen some overland YouTubers recommending the Icom 5100 or 7100, but I’m not sure what they were using (Ham, VHF, UHF, CB?). I guess I’ll reach out to them and ask.

Continuing the discussion from Filmmaker, Radio/Overlander newbie plan help:

Hey man it sounds like you are going to have quite an adventure! Your questions were very concise so I won’t get too detailed in my recommendation.
The 7100 is an awesome radio and a good choice for a base radio. I’d look at at Midland for the rest of your commo needs. I use the MTX400 for my mobile requirements and the smaller 10watt hand helds. I bought my MTX in a kit with a VHF/UHF ant and two hand helds with chargers. I’d look at GMRS system with these radios. I have very similar requirements except for the numbers and the need for a surveillance system. The Midlands come with a pretty decent earpiece/mic and I think it will serve your needs.
I recently retired from the Army and I’ve got plenty of available time on my hands. If you need, my email is devereaux45@gmail.com and I’d be glad to talk more in depth. My background and training was as an 18E and not with any HAM experience. My views and methods may be somewhat unorthodox or “out of the box” when compared against most others from what I’ve noticed. Safe travels!