Something new is on the slopes at ski areas across the country, and it isn't fresh powder or some bad El Nio wind.
A new breed of two-way radios is a big hit with skiers this winter, thanks to a recently opened range of frequencies called the Family Radio Service (FRS)
For Jeff Smith, a Grand Rapids father of four girls, the radios he bought in November have become an invaluable tool for family outings.
Recently Mr. Smith took his 12-year-old twin daughters up to Nub's Nob Ski Area in Harbor Springs, Mich.
Using a pair of family-service radios, Smith was able to do some quiet snowshoeing off the groomed trails, while the twins skied. The radios have a range of up to two miles, so Smith could find some solitude deep in the woods while keeping in constant contact with his daughters. The girls can go all over the ski hill without getting out of touch, Smith says.
In 1996, the Federal Communications Commission established the FRS on a little-used part of the radio spectrum.
FRS radios are a different animal than the hand-held radios that police officers, construction crews, and ski patrollers use. The family radios are on different frequencies, so there is no danger of interfering with official transmissions.
Also, the family radios don't require a license. Plunk down $140 to $400 for a pair of FRS radios, pop in the batteries, and you're ready to go.
This ski season, Winter Park Resort in Colorado has 300 radios for rent or sale to its guests.
Most FRS radios have 532 channel combinations. Each family or group at Winter Park is assigned its own frequency, so it doesn't have to listen to everybody else's chatter.
Karen Gadberry, guest services director at Winter Park, says the appeal of FRS radios goes beyond mere practicality. They are cool, she says. You feel as if you are in the Secret Service or some other high-prestige job. They even come with headsets and shoulder holsters.
Winter Park officials had initial concerns the new radios would be abused by Beevis & Butthead-types who might jump from channel to channel using offensive language. But, so far, skiers have used the radios responsibly.
About the only problem Gadberry has seen with the radios is their line-of-sight limitations. If you are way down in a valley and a friend is on top of the mountain, there will be some dead zones, she says.
Skiers may have been the first group to embrace the FRS, but they aren't alone. Groups of friends driving together in caravans, boaters, hikers, mountain bikers, and anglers are finding the radios enhance their group outdoor adventures.
A northwest Alaska family even used the radios to keep their dogs from eating the groceries in the car while the wife finished running errands, Pamela Thomas, a Motorola spokeswoman, says.
The wife, Ms. Thomas's sister, had to leave her two black labs in the car while she ran into the pizzeria to pick up dinner. One of the dogs had already gotten into the groceries on a previous stop, so the wife radioed her husband at home for help. While she ran in to pick up the pizza, her husband kept the dogs at bay using the radio.
He kept repeating, "No, Sam! Sit! Don't you dare!" When his wife got back into the car, the groceries were untouched, and the two labs were just sitting there staring at the radio.
Motorola has sold the most radios so far, but there are about a half-dozen FRS radio manufacturers, including: Cobra Electronics Corp., Midland Electronics, Maxon America Inc., Kenwood Communications Corp., and DSI Toys.
Doug Marrison, president of Chicago-based Wireless Marketing Corp. (which makes the Cherokee Radio), said the skier market is only the tip of the FRS iceberg. The Matterhorn is not far away. Big potential exists for amusement parks, he says.