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Handheld two-way radios

I've long noticed the pairs of small hand-held consumer radios on offer to allow for contact between persons/groups, and have on occasion used one as part of a group activity as well. They are of limited range, with two options available--FRS and GMRS, with the latter reportedly giving greater range, at the cost of requiring a license, or so last I heard.

As I understand it, all the FRS-spectrum radios have a maximum range of about 2 miles, and less in rough terrain. The GMRS radios, however, advertise ranges of "up to" everything from 10 miles to 35 miles, more or less. In addition, it seems as if every maker, from Motorola to Midland, makes about 5000 different models, many of which are indistinguishable by primary technical features except for perhaps claimed range.

So, query for those in the know--why the big differences in reported maximum range, esp. for products with minimal, if any, price difference? Why the plethora of models? Is the last primarily marketing?

It would seem reasonable to me for a company to make about a half-dozen different models, distinguished by things like presence/absence of GMRS, weather channels, VOX capability, and maybe battery type. When I Googled Motorola's consumer two-way radios, however, there were two pages of different models to look at. Yikes!

What are the pros and cons of features, etc., and how might one make a well-informed choice in the face of so many options?

i have used GMRS radios with some success. two sets, one by a company called Cobra, the other by one called Midland. yes, i went and got the license. they definitely work better and are clearer than the frs radios.

i can't explain all the models, and i don't use many of the features, but the range claims have to be based on a no-obstacle transmission, eg with a lake between you and the person on the other end. they don't work nearly as well in jagged terrain, mountains, etc. i have never gotten the kind of range these guys claim, and i haven't seen much difference between the "10 mile range" of one set and the "15 miles" claimed by the other. on hilly terrain, canyons, etc. expect a mile or less. if your hiking partners are further than that, it's not good anyway. i like the simpler radios with a smaller size.

weather can be a helpful function, they pick up NOAA transmissions. that's good. but so is on your cell phone....


The problems with on my cell phone are multiple. Firstly, if my cell phone is working, I wouldn't need a radio. (Not sure I do, anyway.) Secondly, my cell phone doesn't receive automatic alerts from NOAA. And thirdly, my cell phone is only that--a cell phone. No internet. No 3G, no 4G, no EDGE. It's a phone.

Sounds like the radios are pretty much all the same with regards to range, in spite of claims to the contrary. (Assuming one is using the GMRS spectrum.) I know the radios I've used have worked well within a mile or two, given clear line of sight, and occasionally (but not reliably) farther. But I've not had enough experience with 'em to know whether it's just my luck or what.


Both FRS and GMRS radios are limited to line of sight. If you look closely at their boxes and the websites, you find that the "30 mile range" is a mountaintop cartoon looking down at a flat plane much below. If you are in a valley/gully/canyon, you might only get a hundred meters. I occasionally use either a GMRS or FRS (have several of both types, picked up on sales or at ham flea markets from folks disgusted with the poor performance) when climbing. They are very helpful in windy conditions when it is hard for climber and belayer to hear each other. But even though you are no more than a rope length apart (70 meters for my longest rope, you can sometimes get in a situation where reception is iffy.

However, in the clear from a mountain top, I have been able to pick up transmissions from 50 miles away.

One thing to check is that your pair of radios have the same system of subchannels and encoding (practical meaning - same make and model). The different brands sometimes use proprietary endocing.

Frankly, a ham handheld is far better. You have to get a license, of course, but that is really easy under current rules, and cheaper than the GMRS license (which is a business oriented license, hence a bit pricier). The ham handhelds are significantly pricier, but are more rugged, more power, much better electronics, waterproof, and other significant improvements over the FRS and GMRS radios. And in many areas, you can hit repeaters that will give you hundreds of miles range. Line of sight, I have talked from the 17,000 foot camp on Denali to hams in Anchorage (simplex, not through a repeater, and thats about 125 to 130 miles).

Interesting bit on the handheld hams, Bill. Didn't realize the license is both easy and cheaper than GMRS. Would've guessed the opposite, had I thought just a bit about it, though given the nature of bureaucracies, such variation doesn't surprise me when it goes pretty much any direction, really.

The potential use we're looking at is for possible use on the Scout troop's Philmont trip. It was suggested to us that radios are a good idea, but, being the skeptic I am, I figured that the reality would be that we'd either be all in one place, or LOS limitations would preclude useful communication, and that if neither of the first two things were true, then the gear would probably crap out anyway. If I'm gonna be reliant on technology, I want it to work well, not kinda-sorta okay.

I think the recommendation stems, basically, from a person a bit over-enamored with technology, and that it's just not necessary. But, I will admit to having been curious about these inexpensive handheld two-way radios for more mundane use. When I have used them it's been when climbing with a relatively large group, when keeping track of everyone and everything is both a big job and potentially difficult. In those cases, having radios proved a significant benefit.

I agree with what Bill said about ham radios and licenses. However, for your purposes, you probably aren't going to get a bunch of Scouts licensed. No reason they couldn't -- I know some very young hams -- just probably won't.

So, GMRS vs. FRS -- there is very little distinction between them except GMRS allows more watts out. FRS is restricted to one-half watt. You can get GMRS handi-talkies with up to 5 watts. It does make a difference. That's why they advertise greater distances.

But GMRS is a licensed service. I am sure you could use them and get away with it; if the FCC were cracking down on millions of people who buy these at Walmart and Bass Pro Shops and all, we'd hear about it. But I don't know if the message you want to send a bunch of Scouts is "we will break the law because we know we can get away with it."

I am a ham. I have also used FRS radios a lot. For some events, it is great to be able to hand non-hams an FRS radio. In the clear, that is, level surfaces without many obstructions, they work over a range that is very usable. We've used them for up to a quarter mile, and being in the 440 mhz range, they can get in and out of most buildings without trouble.

At Philmont, your main restriction will be terrain. With a ridge between you, forget it. Otherwise, yes, very usable.

We are lucky to have some hams in Troop 13. One of them, our SPL, is also the guy who is always at the head of the pack when we go backpacking. Long legs, fast walker. So he has a HT, and I have one at the rear, and one of the dads has one in the middle of the pack, and we have very effective communications most of the time. Although terrain plays a part here, too -- on the AT we encountered dead spots.

While I use radios a lot (I participate in our area Emergency Communications Service), I have reservations about taking FRS/GMRS radios on a Philmont expedition. Part of the idea is to get the youth out in a wilderness situation, away from electronic widgets. I will agree that having a GPS receiver is handy (and note that the Philmont maps have the coordinates of many important locations on them these days, as well as an overprinted UTM grid. And a radio would be useful in an emergency (except for the range limitations). But the basic idea of a wilderness experience is compromised by having the widgets along. It would do them good to be separated from their electronic games for a week and a half. There is the idea of self-sufficiency that is needed as a vital part of a Philmont experience (despite the visits to multiple staffed camps during the expedition - which are also a vital part of the experience).

The small radios became popular at ski areas before cell phones for keeping track of friends and family around the mountains. But, as Bill S points out, there over use made them annoying. "Private channels" became harder to find as unnecessary yak came out of ski jacket parkas.

However, if Boy Scout leaders used them only in emergencies or pre-arranged safety checks, they could be useful. For example, on two separate hikes with AMC adults th radios culd have saved precious time and worry.

Case One: Descending form Mt. Katahdin on the AT or Hunt Trail, one leader and a few others stayed behind to go to the bathroom. The rest of us went on ahead, since it was windy and unprotected. We stopped in a clump of trees and waited...and waited. we created all kinds of scenarios about what went wrong, and three went back to search for the lost group. Nothing. We spit up, some went down others, stayed behind. Eventually we all met at the trailhead. The "lost" group was there first. The had just gone around the clump of trees where we were huddled. Both groups had been on trail. A bypass had been clearly marked. Radios would have saved a lot of unfounded worry and time spent going back to look for the others.

Case Two: Presidential Traverse in NH. Two members of the group including one leader decided not to go over a summit, but to by-pass it (Mt. Adams). They were to wait at the trail junction next to a large cairn. Guess what? They were not there. We were in thick clouds or a fog bank. When it lifted we saw them sitting less than 1/4 mile from us but at the wrong junction. We wasted over an hour looking for them back along the trail, ie. wrong direction. A couple of radios would have ended the problem. Cell phones had no reception.
Here we are hiking out of the fog bank: the sun came out!

Case Three: A well known Ne Englnd college had a freshman orientation backpacking trip. No cell phones. No gps. No hairdryers etc. allowed. A student fell was badly injured. One student had a cell phone, another a GPS. Helicopter was called in on a life saving rescue.
Leaders now carry phones and GPS.

Case Four: My daughter was a leader of Outwardbound and was given a satellite phone.
In the NH woods, the sat phone did not work (she was arranging for a group pick up), but her personal cell phone did work.

Electronics are great, but do not count on them.

A review by Bill S.:

PS My son and a friend used those small radios to keep in touch as both drove their cars across country.

My two reasons for asking about these little HHRs were that the idea had been brought up that we might want to use 'em at Philmont and that I was simply curious to learn a little more. Still don't understand why one GMRS radio will advertise range as "up to 27 miles" and the next "up to 35 miles", while the third will only be "up to 12 miles". But no matter.

My general inclination is the same as Bill's--minimize battery-powered technology along the trail in Philmont. Though I can see arguments for using them--but only in the hands of leaders, and only when necessary, not all the time or merely for convenience. Constant radio chatter has and will always drive me nuts. ("If he doesn't shut up, I'm gonna go shoot the sum-beach myself.....")

Right now I'm still inclined to remain radio-less for our expedition.

I've been trying to talk myself into one of these. vhf bluetooth. Maybe too much trail weight, but no problem on the water.

Perry, If you are planning to keep the group you are hiking with always together. The radios won't be needed. If you ever split up the group for whatever reason, radios would help the leaders of each group keep in touch. If you wish to keep in touch with another group hiking separately, but in the same general area, then the radios could be helpful, but certainly not necessary.
The radios, of course, are battery dependent which limits their use and air-time.

Oh no. More choices. Have you seen the Rino models that combine a GPS and radio?

Yeah, Rambler, I've seen the GPS/radio combos. Staying away from them at the moment.

I think your comment about geographical division of the group is spot on. The more I think about it, the less I think we're likely to be split much, unless of course it's unintentional and/or emergency, which is part of why we're still thinking on it.

September 27, 2020
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