Top caravan communication gadgets for staying connected

Caravan gadgets for communication guide
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When you choose caravan gadgets, you want things that last and stand up to the varied conditions you encounter on the road. It’s rare that tech reviewers get to test out gear long-term, as we usually have to send loan devices back after a few weeks. So, it’s been a good opportunity to try out various devices in real-world conditions while caravanning across Australia.

In my recent travels, I’ve spent a lot of time with the devices I’ve reviewed. It’s given me more time to road-test how they go over a longer period. After three months of living with these caravan communication gadgets full-time on the road, here’s how I feel about them and whether you should get them for your road trip.

Recommended caravan communication gadgets

In some sense, it is sad that we want to be connected all the time, and this means fewer people chat with their fellow travellers. In another sense, communication is critical as it allows people like my wife and me to work from the road, communicate with family and friends, watch TV, socialise, book and research destinations, and seek help, whether from YouTube or an expert. 

These are the communications-based caravan gadgets I’ve tested recently:

Each product falls into three categories: satellite, mobile phone, and radio. Satellite technology will provide 100% coverage of Australia. Mobile phone coverage will work in most towns and major highways but only 27% of the Australian landmass. A UHF radio will transmit and receive anywhere but only at a range of around 20km. I explain these technologies in more detail in my guide to caravan internet connectivity.

To get the most out of this guide, I recommend you read the reviews of the products you are interested in.

Starlink is by far the biggest game-changer from a communication perspective of all the products I have reviewed. When powered on, it provides fast broadband anywhere in Australia you can see the southern sky without obstacles. It is portable and affordable, bringing internet to the outback. 

Starlink caravan communication gadget
Starlink dish sitting on the roof of a car. Image: Angus Jones.

The pros are that we have an internet download speed that is, on average, six times faster than we do at home in Sydney. You can use it in conjunction with Wi-Fi calling on your smartphone to make and receive phone calls and SMS anywhere. The setup is easy. I power my unit via a Bluetti portable power station, which I can turn the Starlink on or off via the Bluetti App on my smartphone. 

On the negative side, Starlink is power-hungry, and mine consumes between 80 and 120 watts per hour for booting to general operation. This is a lot of battery power if you always leave it on, which is why I like that I can turn it off at night from bed.

Setup may be simple, which entails setting up the dish facing south, but compared to a mobile phone or my 5G mobile router, which has zero setup after the first install, it does take a few minutes each time we move. Having mine in our car means that it happens a lot. Many people set up their Starlink from their caravan, reducing the number of times it must be set up.

More people are starting to permanently install their Starlink dish flat on their vehicle or caravan, which is more convenient, but at the end of the day, it is easier to move a dish and cable to avoid an obstruction like a tree branch than a caravan.

Netgear Nighthawk M6 Pro (MR6550) mobile 5G router 

This small router is permanently mounted in my dual cab ute. Whenever there is mobile phone coverage, it provides a Wi-Fi network that any of my devices can connect to, from phones to PCs to the Garmin navigator. 

Netgear mobile router caravan gear
Image: Angus Jones.

Our Starlink plan does not include internet on the move as that service is too expensive. Instead, we use the Netgear router. Indeed, we have the router connected by Ethernet to Starlink, so the internet is provided on the same Netgear network when Starlink is powered. This makes it super easy and means we have just one network to connect with when in range of the car. The Netgear draws around 5 watts of power an hour via a USB cable from our Bluetti, so it has minimal power draw. 

The only downside of this product is that when there is no mobile reception, there is no internet. The network still runs, enabling us to access any network device like the battery monitor in the caravan.  

RFI Hi-Gain 5G antenna 

In previous tests, this product, when connected to the Netgear mobile router, has extended our range and increased our speeds. The RFI antenna is directional, which means it must be pointed at the nearest mobile phone tower, which means this solution can only be used when you are stationary. I have it in the caravan as part of my array of gadgets, and I see many people using it, but with Starlink, we have not used it.

RFI Hi-Gain antenna
RFI 5G directional Hi-Gain antenna. Image: Angus Jones.

My advice is that if you do not have Starlink, definitely invest in this technology. You will be connected in many more places where others cannot get coverage.

Boost Mobile SIM 

Telstra has the widest mobile phone coverage of the three core carriers. The new alliance between Optus and Vodaphone will improve things, but Telstra is still the best. However, Telstra plans are the most expensive.  

Of all the resellers of the Telstra network, only Boost Mobile has identical coverage. Others only have a subset. I use a Boost Mobile 12-month SIM in our Netgear router, ensuring the best coverage at the best price. If you run out of data, you can recharge it or buy another SIM. We do not use any included unlimited voice as the SIM is only used in the Wi-Fi router.

We do have separate SIMs in our mobiles, in our case Woolworths, that entitles us to a 10% grocery discount once a month for each SIM. While on the road, we will most likely be out of the inferior Woolworths coverage. However, Wi-Fi calling through the Boost Mobile SIM in the Netgear router means we stay in touch.

Cel-Fi mobile booster 

To further enhance our mobile coverage on the move, we have a Cel-Fi mobile booster. This product uses a high-gain omnidirectional antenna (it looks like a UHF antenna) that we have mounted on our roof rack. This means it has the best chance of picking up a phone tower signal. The signal is then boosted and retransmitted in a small radius around our car. This means our smartphones and 5G modem will use this improved signal.

Cel-Fi on a car
RFI Cel-Fi antenna mounted on a roof rack. Image: Angus Jones.

If there is no mobile tower in range, it does not work, but if there is, it will provide a signal for your devices long after the device itself loses coverage with the phone tower. 

We find this product excellent, especially when trying to maintain a call on an outback road. However, our smartphones tend to hunt for a weak cell phone signal rather than connect to the Cel-Fi. This can be overcome by using the My-Wave app, which encourages your phone to use the Cel-Fi. You need to remember to use the app. 

Uniden Xtrak 80 UHF radio   

Breaker, breaker: I can talk to trucks. Caravans travel slower in most cases than trucks. Having a UHF radio means you can communicate with other vehicles, including trucks, assuming they also have one. UHF is also great for communicating with mates in a convoy.

Channel 40 is the common channel, and it is so much safer when you can communicate with a 130-foot road train if they want to pass you or you want to pass them. You also often encounter wide loads with pilot vehicles. They use the radio to warn you of their presence so you can move off the road to pass safely.

Uniden radios
Image: Angus Jones.

A UHF will not provide long-range communication but can be used to call for help if others are in range. Overall, the Xtrak just works and gives us extra peace of mind on the outback roads. Its replay function is great when you miss a radio transmission.

Uniden MHS157 Dual Band VHF/UHF 2-way radio  

For those travelling with a boat, this combined UHF/VHF handheld radio means you can talk at both road and marine frequencies with one device.  We use this handheld for communication when backing the caravan, with my wife issuing the appropriate instructions from outside the van.  

The unit comes with a 12-volt cigarette charger, so it is easy to keep the battery topped up. We also use the handheld in the car to listen to other channels, such as Ch18, the caravaners’ hail channel. If we had a boat, we could then use it to log our trips with marine rescue stations. 

GME Personal Locator Beacon  

I hope I never have to use this device, but it accompanies us on every hike. A PLB, or Personal Locator Beacon, is an emergency transponder that sends your location to emergency services. You would only activate this device in an emergency. 

GME personal locator beacon caravan tech

The unit is lightweight. The battery lasts for years, ensuring help can be contacted via satellites anywhere in the world. Image: Angus Jones.

Garmin Tread navigator

The Garmin Tread is an 8-inch tablet-like device we normally use in our car for navigation. This product features a satellite communicator through the Garmin inReach offering. This system allows an SOS message to be sent, as well as position updates, weather, and basic two-way text communication. 

Garmin Tread with InReach

This service is via subscription, and because we have other alternatives, we do not use this service, but if you do not have Starlink or a PLB, then this solution can be a cost-effective way to ensure you get help and can communicate anywhere in Australia. 

Top caravan communication gadgets you should take

If you are planning a big lap of Australia or simply a week-long road trip, I recommend you take these devices in order:

  1. UHF radio for inexpensive communication on the road.
  1. A Telstra or Boost mobile SIM in your phone or mobile router to maximise phone and internet coverage.
  1. A PLB if you are a hiker or plan to take the less travelled roads.
  1. Starlink: If you plan to work on the road, you want always to be connected or cannot miss your TV programs, then Starlink is a game-changer, provided you can afford the upfront and monthly fees.
  1. A Cel-Fi will benefit the road warrior who wants to maximise their phone coverage. It boosts the signal and keeps you talking.

Stay tuned for more recommendations for caravan gadgets while venturing the roads less travelled.