If you backcountry ski or live in rural areas, a “police” radio scanner (meaning it works on UHF and VHF radio bands) can be a useful tool. Despite cell phones, 2-way radios are used as much as ever. Listening in can be beneficial or even life saving.
Examples: In some areas you can listen to logging truck operations dealing with narrow roads you’re planning on using. Or set your scanner for the “blister pack” FRS “talkabout” frequencies used in backcountry ski areas such as Telluride, Colorado (also used for BC Link radios). In our case we monitor the haul truck using the one-lane mine road where WildSnow Field HQ is located, and I’ve programmed in all the FRS frequencies since they’re used quite a bit in our backcountry areas.
We also run a variety of 2-way radios, but mounting a cheap scanner in our truck eliminates a lot of fiddling around with our 2-ways (our amature “ham” rigs can scan, but you have to be Einstein to set them up). Our scanner is rigged so it powers up when the truck starts. It’s fairly easy to operate (with a bit of practice), and easily utilizes an external vehicle antenna that can be key to receiving clear transmissions.
The Uniden is a reasonable deal on a scanner. Includes on-glass car antenna you can mount inside your windshield, and a small desktop antenna that attaches to rear of unit. Also included: home power adapter, automobile power for hard wiring or use of cigarette lighter. Manual is the usual confusing junk, but all you really need is the video below and a list of frequencies you need to monitor.
As with most communication radios, I found the Uniden front panel controls to be confusing at first, but they’re getting easier. Even so, this could be considered one of the simpler scanners you can get, so if you’d like to be up and running in a few hours, good choice.
How to? Main thing in my case was to realize that the “bands” or “banks” toggle on and off, but only if you have another bank invoked. In other words, to invoke the “Private” bank where you store your programmed frequencies (see video above), you need to have another bank showing on the LCD. Punch “Private,” which will then show on LCD, then punch the other bank button to toggle it off.
This is a slow scanner, so it’s somewhat useless to be scanning much more than pre-programmed frequencies. If you leave a bank switched on other than Private, the unit will be running through thousands of frequencies and may miss brief transmissions. Use the full scanning process to find frequencies in use, but program them into your Private bank once you find those you want to listen in on.
Listening to police on these things is somewhat useless, as anything important in law enforcement is communicated either on cell phones or encrypted radio. Fire department and firefighters are probably more useful, and in the case of rural areas could be essential. For amusement you can try to find aviation talk, as well as truckers using their CBs (latter could be useful if you encounter highway closures or accidents on truck routes, as the truckers will be talking.)
Regarding antennas, while practicing with the Uniden in your home you can use the included “desk” antenna that attaches to the back of the unit with a BNC type connector. For your car, first try the included glass mount antenna. If that doesn’t seem sensitive enough purchase a roof mount magnetic UHF VHF antenna, with a “BNC” connector. That’ll be around 16 inches tall and easy to configure. Amazon link to right is a good bet for an example of what’s probably an adequate external antenna (I did not test this specific antenna). The ones that work tend to be a bit long, around 16 inches. Keep that in mind if you’re mounting on a truck that’s already tall.
Link below is for a magnetic mount antenna with stronger magnet and thicker antenna that doesn’t whip around when you’re driving. From magnet base to top of mast is 19 inches and the antenna is tunable by cutting to length. This is a nice antenna and what we’d probably recommend over the one in the image link above. If used for only UHF scanning (435 MHz or above) we’d recommend finding a technician to tune it, as it’s probably a bit long for the higher UHF frequencies.
TRAM 1185-BNC Amateur Dual-Band Magnet Antenna with BNC-Male Connector
Downsides: The DC355N is not programmable using computer software, as many other Uniden models are. In this case we don’t think that’s necessary, but with more sophisticated scanners you’d definitely want a software option. The price seems a bit steep considering. On the other hand, simplicity is key with this sort of thing and I couldn’t find another scanner that seemed as straightforward. Interestingly, some of the handheld scanners cost less. They’re an option, but for optimal performance you’ll still need an external antenna mounted on your vehicle. With a handheld connected to power and an antenna cable you’re talking a spaghetti mess of wires. A semi permanently mounted scanner such as DC355N allows you to hide all the wires to one degree or another, and can still be removed and used indoors for fun or practice.
How to obtain frequencies? In an uncluttered environment such as the backcountry, just scan. When the unit halts on a “freq” in use, note the number so you can program it in later if it’s useful. You can also use websites that provide frequencies. For example, the mine trucks we mention above work with Colorado Stone Quarries. You can search that business name at radiorference.com and come up with this, which would get you going. Problem is that some businesses let their licenses expire or never have them in the first place. Again, solution is to just scan and listen.
For those of you in our area of Colorado, see this article about using a scanner for Quarry Road safety. If you’re a local backcountry skier and need help setting up a scanner, let me know as I’d be glad to assist in the interest of road safety (use contact link in menu above).
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.