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Which Two-Way Radio Is Best for Outdoor Adventures?

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The author is a licensed amateur radio and GMRS radio operator and avid outdoor adventurer.

A selection of two-way radios to choose from

A selection of two-way radios to choose from

Why Two-Way Radios Are Essential Outdoor Gear

There are many places in the great outdoors where cell phone service is still not available, and that's not expected to change anytime soon. In the meantime, two-way radios can help keep outdoor enthusiasts in touch with family, friends, and even the outside world when in remote areas.

In this article, we'll take a look at three types of two-way radios and see which might work best for you. Each type of two-way radio has its advantages, as well as drawbacks.

3 Types of Two-Way Radios

  1. FRS Walkie Talkies
  2. GMRS Radio
  3. MURS Radios
Example of an FRS radio by Motorola.

Example of an FRS radio by Motorola.

1. FRS Walkie Talkies: Inexpensive and License-Free

FRS stands for Family Radio Service, a group of channels set aside by the FCC in the UHF part of the radio band for non-commercial use in the US, without a license. You'll find these radios for sale in most outdoor stores, typically costing under $100 for a set of two.

Recent changes in FCC rules have added to the number of available channels, as well as the amount of power that an FRS radio can use to transmit.

There are 22 FRS radio channels available for use, and the maximum allowed output has been increased to 2 watts on all channels except 8–14, where only ½ watt is allowed. FRS radios are not allowed to use any kind of external (detachable) antenna.

Range of FRS Radios

FRS two-way radios may have a range of up to 30 miles, but only under ideal, line of sight conditions. An example of where this might be possible would be from mountaintop to mountaintop, on a clear day. Manufacturers often use this ideal range in their advertising, however, you should take such claims with a grain of salt.

The typical range of FRS radios in the outdoors, with minimal obstructions, is up to about five miles. FRS radios use UHF (ultra-high frequency) radio waves, so their range is highly affected by any obstacles in their path.

In an urban setting, FRS radios may only work for half a city block or so.

Best Feature: No License

Perhaps the best feature of FRS radios is the fact that they require no license to operate. Also, they're typically less expensive than other kinds of two-way radios and fairly simple to operate.

Privacy Codes

Most FRS radios on the market offer the ability to choose "privacy codes" which can mute the radio so that only transmissions using that code can come through. You may be able to choose a combination of privacy codes that will all but eliminate the chance of hearing any other radio traffic outside your group, yet these codes don't really ensure privacy in the usual sense of the word. So-called "privacy tones" or codes only stop you from hearing others and don't prevent other FRS users from hearing you.

Who FRS Radios Are For

FRS two-way radios are for anyone who needs to keep in touch up to five miles or less, and who doesn't want to deal with FCC radio licenses and expensive equipment. We recommend these radios for most outdoor pursuits, as they are interoperable with the thousands of other FRS radios out there, as well as with GMRS radios, which we'll discuss next.

A Midland GMRS mobile radio.

A Midland GMRS mobile radio.

2. GMRS Radio: A More Powerful Option

GMRS stands for General Mobile Radio Service, a set of UHF channels set aside by the FCC for personal, non-commercial use. GMRS radio users are allowed to use the same 22 channels as FRS, along with 8 extra channels for repeater use.

Also, GMRS radios are allowed to use more power: 5 watts on channels 1–13, and 50 watts on channels 15–22, as well as utilize external antennas. Like FRS radios, GMRS radios often come with the ability to use privacy tones or codes, which keep the radio silent until a member of your group using the same code calls.

Repeaters Greatly Extend Range of GMRS

Some GMRS radios come with the ability to utilize a growing number of "repeater stations" which pick up your signal and rebroadcast it over a much wider area. Some of these are now even linked into nationwide networks, allowing a GMRS radio user in Texas to talk to another user in New York.

The fact that GMRS mobiles can transmit up to 50 watts (on channels 15-22), and utilize repeaters and external antennas, makes them the obvious choice for those wishing to keep in touch over a wider area.

Range of GMRS Radios

Without using a repeater, a GMRS mobile radio may be able to communicate to another mobile unit up to 20 miles or more. The range from base station to base station may be up to 60 miles or more. Handheld two-way GMRS radios have a slightly longer range than FRS radios, and like them, are subject to decreased range where there are obstacles in the signal path.

Who GMRS Radios Are For

GMRS radios are often used in off-road vehicles and by hikers and campers who want the ability to be able to keep in touch over longer distances than they could with FRS radios.

License Required

GMRS radios require a license to operate. An FCC license is mandatory and costs $70. A license is good for 10 years and covers the whole family. Users must add their call sign to their transmission at regular intervals.

GMRS: Our Choice For Outdoor Adventure

For our off-road adventures, we rely on GMRS radios to keep in touch with other vehicles, as well as each other when hiking and exploring away from base camp. The FCC license is easy to obtain, and the extra power these radios offer compared to FRS radios makes them much better suited for use in remote areas.

Midland, one of the largest makers of GMRS radios, offers a line of products that includes the 40-watt Micromobile fixed-mount unit, which we use in our overland vehicle, along with a couple of handheld GMRS walkie-talkies for use when exploring on foot.

A MURS two-way radio.

A MURS two-way radio.

3. MURS Radios: Another Option

MURS stands for Multi-Use Radio Service. The FCC has authorized five channels in the VHF radio band for both business and personal use. Maximum power is limited to two watts, and external antennas are allowed for a longer range.

The Upside of MURS Two-Way Radio

MURS radio, despite having fewer channels, may have fewer users in the outdoors, since radios are not as widely available, meaning less chance for interference. Also, VHF radio waves tend to cover longer distances in the outdoors, allowing a two-watt MURS radio to transmit farther than a two-watt FRS radio.

The Downside to MURS Radios

If you're looking for a two-way radio for the outdoors that is interoperable with both FRS and GMRS radios, unfortunately, MURS radios are off the table.

Who MURS Radios Are For

MURS two-way radios are a good choice for those who want longer-range communication outdoors without having to get an FCC license. They offer better outdoor performance than FRS radios, but typically at a higher cost.

The Bottom Line

For most outdoor pursuits, an FRS radio will work just fine. There are many rugged models on the market that can withstand almost anything that you or mother nature can throw at them. The downside of them is the lack of range outdoors. This is also the main disadvantage of MURS radios, which offer slightly better performance.

If you're looking for a long-range two-way radio for the outdoors, GMRS—with 50 watts of power—is hard to beat.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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