Gear Chronicles: Midland Radios

Photo By: Nick Jaynes

“Stop! Stop! You’re wedged on a boulder! Do not move!” Eric screamed into the handheld walkie-talkie pressed against his frosty whiskers. He white-knuckled the radio in his left fist as he attempted to guide his longtime friend, Robert, up a steep hill climb. Robert’s first-gen, two-door 1991 Mitsubishi Montero was halfway up the 16-degree grade of loose, powdery light brown dirt, littered with basketball-sized rocks that obscured 20-inch-deep holes.

Eric was standing just five feet to the right of Robert’s Montero atop a couple of skull-sized stones that rocked back and forth in the soft, dry dirt, as he breathlessly heaved his commands at Robert through the radio in a huff. The radio steamed from Eric’s breath in the 30-degree Oregon high-desert air. 

Eric’s voice pierced the rolled-up windows negating any reason to carry a radio. In fact, Eric was so close to the Mitsu that his breath could have fogged up the windows, too.

Nevertheless, Eric shouted into the radio. “I am going to move this boulder!”

Close up of a Midland Radio
Photo by Nick Jaynes

“I think something is broken. I can’t turn my wheel all the way,” Robert said. His unflappable tone took me by surprise. If something were indeed broken, this would be an awful spot for a trailside repair.

Eric furiously rolled his eyes. “I am telling you, you are on a rock!”

Maybe he was aggravated by Eric’s tone. Maybe he didn’t understand the situation fully. Regardless of the rationale, Robert gave up on waiting. He let off the clutch and pinned the throttle. The little Mitsu’s V6 roared. The nose of the rig popped into the air, and the front right tire tossed the boulder that, just seconds before, impinged the 30-year-old 4×4, hurling it past Eric’s shins down the hill.

If Eric’s fury could have levitated him off the ground in that moment, it would have. I watched as Robert caught traction and bucked the Mitsu up the remaining 20 yards of the hill climb up to my left. In my periphery to my right I could see Eric vibrate with rage.

READ MORE: Industry Spotlight: Midland Radios

Eric puts safety first and foremost on overlanding trips, especially when he is spotting for a friend next to their vehicle. He also has a quick-firing temper. And no one enrages Eric like Robert. So, what I was witnessing at that moment was a perfect storm. Robert flouted Eric’s instruction and then endangered Eric’s safety all in one hasty, throttle-happy moment. I knew well enough to let Eric cool down before saying another word to him. Silently, I trudged up the hill to my truck, leaving Eric on the hill to cool down.

No one has the same radio

When I got into overlanding 15 years ago, citizen band (CB) radios were the must-have item for overland communication. Because of the ubiquity of CB while I was cutting my overlanding teeth, I’ve added CBs to all of my rigs since. In the last handful of years, however, the prominence of CB has fallen off. From where I stand, there are a couple of factors that led to this.

The radio-based communications field has splintered. In one camp, you have overlanders who leaned onto Amateur radio (AKA ham radio) like high frequency (HF), very high frequency (VHF), and ultra high frequency (UHF). Others went for your classic walkie-talkie on Family Radio Service (FRS) or something a bit more powerful on General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS).

Simultaneously, other overlanders skipped installing radios in their rigs altogether, relying solely on cellular- and satellite-based communications. That or shouting.

In the last 36 months, I’ve found myself on trips with overlander friends, new and old alike, with disparate radio technology onboard their rigs — if any at all. One guy may have a GMRS, another a UHF, a third nothing at all. And virtually none had CB like me.

Frustrated with no reliable and repeatable communications solutions for my various voyages, I bought a handful of cheap FRS and threw them in all my buddies’ rigs just so I knew I could always talk to the convoy when they were close together. Eventually, trip by trip, most of my FRS radios disappeared.

Rather than spend another $80 on a heap of FRS radios my dumb friends would lose, I decided to upgrade to something that’s both powerful and a bit more universal (roughly speaking). This is how I came to own the Midland MXT115VP3 micromobile kit.

Man sitting in truck on a Midland Radio
Photo by Nick Jaynes

It’s a GMRS radio but one that will allow me to speak with other GMRS users as well as my friends with their $15 FRS radios (those cheap SOBs).

Best of all, this Midland doesn’t have to be permanently hardwired like other radio types. I mean, you can if you’d like. But it’s not necessary.

Power comes from a cigarette-lighter-style plug. The compact but powerful antenna can be quickly affixed to a vehicle’s hood. And the unit itself is small enough it can be tossed up on a dashboard without protruding much into your forward vision or stowed in the glovebox or center console.

These features are particularly appealing to me because I own two overlanding rigs, and I also test drive other brand-new vehicles for Overland Expo’s The Compass. So, having a radio that will work with whatever I am driving is essential. This Midland MXT115VP3 hits that sweet spot between useful portable and powerful hardwired units in one.

Best of all, on the trip I embarked upon to review this Midland radio, I discovered that my buddy Robert already had the same unit bolted into his truck. So, communication was a cinch. You know, when Eric and I weren’t screaming at Robert while we were spotting for him.

Hardly talkative

Man sitting in truck on a Midland Radio
Photo by Nick Jaynes

Both Eric and Robert are from Columbus, Ohio. As a result, they’re both pretty quiet. They play it pretty close to the vest. On the flip side, I am rather chatty. Since Robert and I had the same high-quality Midland radio in our rigs, I attempted to keep chatter high.

I know Robert could hear my running commentary; he later remarked how clearly my voice came through the Midland radio — even when he had his stereo on. Could have fooled me by his responses. They were delayed and monosyllabic or nothing at all.

“OK.”

“Cool.”

“Yup.”

Midwesterners are world-class conversationalists, let me tell you.

Close up of a Midland Radio
Photo by Nick Jaynes

Having boned up on the GMRS radios before leaving for this trip, in order to evaluate it, I discovered that users need to have a license to operate them. This was news to Robert, who had been using it illegally.

I directed him to the FCC website on which you can obtain a GMRS license. For $70, you get a 10-year license, barring you’ve not been convicted of any felonies. To get your license, go to the FCC Registration page. Once you’ve registered, you can then apply for a license here. Choose Radio Service Code “ZA – GMRS” at the bottom of the dropdown list, pay your $70, and eventually, you’ll receive your license. It’s that simple. Rather than passing a test, like you have to do when receiving an amateur radio license, you just need to have a social security number and $70.

Now that Robert and I are running the same radio and are fully licensed until 2031, I can travel with him with the confidence that he’ll be able to hear me no matter what. Granted, I may not get a proper response from my closed-mouth midwestern chum. At least I know he’ll hear me, though.

As for the rest of my overlanding compatriots, they can just keep running their cheap-o FRS radios. Hopefully, when those break, Robert and I can convince them to upgrade to a Midland GMRS.

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