Two-way radios, a common sight in the hands of police and firefighters, are becoming a popular way for families to communicate and a backpack essential for hikers and climbers. In situations where cell phones are too costly or impractical, two-way radios offer the ability to stay in touch at the push of a button, and new designs have made two-way radios easier than ever to use. Pronto’s Two-Way Radio Buying Guide will match you to the two-way radio best suited to your needs.
Choose a two-way radio that will operate at needed distances, using higher wattage as the best indicator of transmission range. Remember that ranges are based on direct line of sight measurements, so buildings and natural features will reduce the usable range.
Family Radio Service (FRS) radios allow for up to two miles of transmission, do not require a license and work right out of the box. General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) radios have more range and channels and require all users to obtain an FCC license before they begin transmitting. Hybrid two-way radios transmit and receive both FRS and GMRS channels and are used for long- and short-range communication. Like GMRS radios, hybrids require an FCC license.
Spending more will get you a two-way radio with more channels, which may be needed in densely populated areas. Look for dual-channel monitoring or channel scan for easier communications with multiple two-way radios and try to find a model that monitors weather and emergency channels.
Better two-way radios use privacy codes that will keep outside conversations off your channel and scramble your conversations to keep eavesdroppers from hearing them. For business applications where privacy is essential, consider leasing a private channel and getting two-way radios that can use it.
Most families will be happy with replaceable batteries for home use and occasional outings. Daily two-way radio users should look for built-in rechargeable batteries that can be refreshed in a docking station. For remote locations, avoid built-in batteries in favor of rechargeable batteries that can be replaced.
A two-way radio feature that tunes the radio to a specific channel for quicker communications. Some two-way radios include advanced channel lock that lets you assign a number to a frequently used channel, making operation similar to using a telephone.
A feature that allows a two-way radio to search all available channels for incoming communications.
Communications from multiple, unrelated users on a single radio channel.
Family Radio Service, a set of low-range two-way radio frequencies that are free to use.
General Mobile Radio Service, a set of frequencies that work for both short- and long-range communications. An FCC license is required to use frequencies with a range of two or more miles.
Technically known as Continuous Tone Coded Squelch System (CTCSS), this feature divides a single channel into several code-protected zones for clearer communication and privacy and may include scrambling that makes your conversations unintelligible to outside listeners. This feature requires two compatible two-way radios that can share a single privacy code.
The farthest distance at which a two-way radio can transmit. Range is limited by a two-way radio’s wattage and by the presence of obstacles, such as buildings, mountains or trees, between the units.
Most consumers hold the false belief that there are just two kinds of two-way radios: the expensive models used by first responders like firefighters and EMTs and the toy walkie-talkies that kids take into the woods. In reality, there’s a full range of two-way radios available to consumers that offer easy setup and use, as well as high-performance two-way radios designed to withstand extreme weather conditions.
Two-way radios transmit and receive radio signals directly through a built-in transmitter. The range of a two-way radio is the maximum amount of distance that two units can have between them and still work. Range measurements assume a direct line of sight; if a two-way radio has a 10-mile range, it can transmit 10 miles in an open field. Obstacles such as trees, buildings and natural features like mountains reduce the range of a two-way radio.
When choosing a two-way radio, consider the places and distances where you’ll be using it. Outdoor adventurers may need a two-way radio with an extended range, but most families will do well with less. If a two-way radio has a range over two miles, you need to register with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and get a license to use it.
When comparing two-way radios, find out if you need a license and include the cost of FCC fees. Most basic models fall within the one- and two-mile range, so you don’t need to worry about licenses.
There are two sets of frequencies used by two-way radios: Family Radio Service (FRS) and General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS)
Family Radio Service (FRS) radios allow for up to two miles of transmission, do not require a license, and cost nothing to use. In fact, you can use these two-way radios right out of the box. These are great for use around the house or at the mall, but their limited channels and range makes them less than ideal for the back country.
General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) radios are designed especially for long-range communication. The longer range of these two-way radios is ideal for job sites and remote outdoor environments, but each user will need to pay a one-time fee to get an FCC license before you can start communicating. Pay attention to wattage when comparing GMRS two-way radios, as higher wattages indicate longer communication ranges.
Hybrid two-way radios can transmit and receive both FRS and GMRS channels. These two-way radios also require a small licensing fee and can be used for both long- and short-range communication, making them a good choice for outdoor enthusiasts.
You’ll need to keep an eye on power, reception and battery life, so look for two-way radios with large, backlit LED screens that will work in darkness as well as daylight.
When you use a two-way radio, you need to lock in a certain channel between both units to maintain communications. Two-way radios arrive with a preset number of channels for transmitting. Paying more usually gets you more channels. If you live in a densely populated area, you may find that you need the extra channels for clear communication and privacy.
FRS two-way radios can transmit on 14 channels and GMRS units can transmit on 15 channels, 7 of which are shared with FRS radios. Look for a channel scan feature or dual-channel monitoring that lets you use multiple channels. This helps you to communicate with several two-way radios at once.
Most two-way radios include the ability to monitor weather and emergency channels. This is necessary for a two-way radio you’ll take into the wilderness and a good idea for family radios in areas prone to severe weather.
Two-way radios use public airwaves, and others can eavesdrop on your conversations. You may also find yourself occasionally sharing a channel with someone else. Privacy codes filter out unwanted noise from other conversations on a channel by dividing the main channel into code-protected subchannels. Other people can still tune in to your channel, but the code will scramble your voice so that your conversation will not be understood.
More privacy codes offer greater protection and a wider selection of channels. For example, a 7-channel radio with 38 privacy codes offers 245 subchannels to choose from. To use these privacy features, both users must have the same two-way radio, channel and privacy code.
Businesses may not want to communicate on public channels to protect internal communications. Ultra-High Frequency (UHF) and Very High Frequency (VHF) channels are private and may be leased for business use. You’ll need specialized two-way radios that can operate at these frequencies.
Most families will be satisfied with off-the-shelf batteries for two-way radios used around the house or for occasional outings. You’ll talk greener if you use rechargeable batteries, just be sure they’re charged before you need to use your two-way radios. Most two-way radios with LED screens include a battery meter, and some models will vibrate or emit a quiet beep if the batteries run low.
Workers and users in remote outdoor locations need to give careful consideration to batteries. If batteries fail, your two-way radio won’t work, and you’re cut off from communications. For daily use around a job site, look for two-way radios with built-in rechargeable batteries. These two-way radios plug in to a base station at the end of the day that keeps the batteries fully powered.
If you’ll be using a two-way radio far from civilization, avoid built-in rechargeables in favor of removable rechargeable batteries. This gives you an added measure of safety if your trip lasts longer than expected and the batteries in your two-way radio fail. Don’t forget to pack some extra batteries.
Mastering clear communication on a two-way radio can be tricky, and some models include features that can make a novice seem like a seasoned pro. Look for a vibration setting and auto squelch that will keep your two-way radio quiet until you need to use it. Channel lock keeps you tuned to a specific frequency while you move around, saving the need to retune a two-way radio. If you have a tendency to respond too quickly, choose a two-way radio that uses a beep or tone to let you know when the other user has finished talking.