Simpson Desert – Communications

Along with water and shelter, reliable communications in the outback is essential. This article will focus on short range communications as well as long range and emergency communications.
During our trip out to and across the Simpson Desert access to regular cellular communications networks will be quite limited. There may be patches of coverage from time to time, however the majority of the time your mobile phone simply won’t work.
In my view this is actually a good thing, provided the necessary steps are taken to ensure that the trip is a safe one.

Long Range Communications 

There is really only 2 kinds of long range communications available that will work in many of the places were travelling to on this trip.

The first is a HF Radio. HF Radios are used extensively in outback Australia, by stations, emergency services, outback travellers and the Royal Flying Doctors Service. While a HF radio is a good option there are a couple of drawbacks.

Firstly, they are quite expensive, there are multiple parts, the antennas are massive and you need a licence to use them. On the upside you can communicate with others for free and their range means you can talk to people on the other side of the planet.

However unless you already have one, I wouldn’t be rushing out to get one.

The other option is obviously the Satellite Phone. These have come along way in the last few years and there are a number of options available for both purchase and hire. Some have quite expensive call rates and some are quite reasonable.

We currently have a Thuraya satellite phone, like the one pictured above, which offers reasonable call rates and monthly service fees. We’ll be taking this along as based on the places we are travelling to, it is essential that that we have at least one Satellite phone at a minimum to use in the case of an emergency situation.

The other long range emergency option are called emergency beacons. These come in various form factors such as the humble EPIRB, as used by offshore fisherman, or smarter options like the Spot personal beacon.

The Spot beacon allows you to communicate back to a central point to allow you to keep family up to date with your location, but also has an emergency option that will act like an EPIRB.

You can find out more about these devices here:

It would be ideal to have either an EPIRB or Spot beacon on the trip as a backup to the satellite phone so if anyone already has a registered EPIRB, then please confirm that it is valid for use in the outback and bring it along.

Short Range Communications

The most popular for of short range communications is the UHF. Unlike HF, UHF doesn’t require a licence however the range can be quite limited. In order to maximise the transmit and receive distance a 5 Watt, vehicle mounted UHF is essential for this trip. 

If you don’t have one I can certainly recommend the GME series as I’ve had both the 40 and 80 channel versions and they’ve been pretty good.

To get the best possible range, your UHF wattage, type of antenna and its position on the vehicle are key contributors.

UHF antennas work best when they are surrounded by a metal base. The best possible location for a UHF antenna is in the very centre of your vehicle roof, however this is often not practical.

Most people mount the antenna on the bull bar, which will take advantage of being mounted over the metal bonnet.

As I mentioned, the type of antenna also plays a role, most UHF kits come with a 6dB antenna. You can also get 3dB or 9dB antennas, and anywhere in between. The difference in these antennas comes down the the pattern of the broadcast signal as the diagram below demonstrates.

The higher the dB, the further the signal will go however the pattern of the broadcast narrows, meaning that unless you are in direct line of site to the other vehicle, a higher dB antenna may not be the best option.

Personally I have both a 3dB and 6.5dB antenna, which I purchased as a kit. The antennas are interchangeable so you can switch them over as required. For long flat roads the 6dB option is the best option, for hilly country a lower dB antenna is better.  This is the one I have:

If you already have a 6dB antenna, then that will be quite sufficient for this trip.  We’ll be calling out frequently on the appropriate channel as we cross the desert so we shouldn’t run into any surprises. The antenna 6dB option also allows for a nice gap between vehicles when we’re driving at higher speeds on the bitumen and dirt roads to get to the desert.

That’s about it for this post, please let me know if you have any questions.



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