Choosing the Best Two Way Radio
How to Choose Two-way Radios
Do you want to keep in touch with others while you are on a road trip? How about at a State Fair? A skiing trip? How about hunting or fishing? There are many reasons that you may want or need to keep in contact with others.
Well, that's exactly why two-way radios exist.
I have written some tips to help you set realistic expectations and decide which model is best for you.
Q: What types of two-way radios are available?
A: You can choose from 4 types:
- GMRS (General Mobile Radio Service) - These are higher powered
radios that typically offer 1 or 2 watts of power. GMRS signals can
travel on any GMRS or FRS bands for a total of 22 channels. Small, yet powerful, they tend to be the most versatile and popular.
- FRS (Family Radio Service) - These are lower powered radios that operate with a half-watt of power. They can transmit on 7 shared FRS/GMRS and 7 FRS-specific channels (which are channels 1-7) for a total of 14 channels.
- MURS (Multi-Use Radio Service) - This is an unlicensed two-way radio service between 151.820 and 154.600 MHz. It has 5 channels available. The power output is limited to 2 watts. These are the least commonly used radios.
- CB (Citizens Band) - Personal Radio Service between 26.9 and 27.5 MHz. CB was the first popular American radio service. The maximum legal CB power output level in the U.S. is 4 and 12 watts, depending upon usage. It has 40 channels available. It usually requires a very long antenna.
Most of the FRS and GMRS two-way radios available use all 22 channels available. They do this by taking advantage of the fact that GMRS channels allow for higher power output (between 1 and 5 watts) than do FRS channels.
Note: Any radio, even if it has 2 watts of power, automatically downgrades to a half watt of power when operating on the 7 FRS-specific channels.
You will find that most FRS radios also include the GMRS channels as well. Because of the lower wattage you will have the same maximum range (5 to 6 miles, even if it's on a GMRS channel).
Wattage effects range and clarity of the signal.
Range of Coverage
You will often see range claims ("Up to 25 miles") which are prominently displayed on the radio packaging.
So, what is the real-life range of two-way radios?
Ridiculously high claims about the effective range are based upon radio transmissions occurring in optimal conditions . This means that there would be an unobstructed line of sight between you and another radio operator, probably from a high vantage point and in excellent weather.
As we all know, real-life conditions are rarely optimal, so the range of a two-way radio is typically much less than the maximum possible.
So, what is a realistic range? Regardless of a unit's published optimal range, in roughly 90% of situations (including activities in wooded or hilly terrain), a radio's actual range could be 1 - 2 miles (or less).
Wanting to communicate between two cars driving on the highway? A CB may be your best bet when you are two or more miles apart. But you will likely need a long antenna.
Since CB radio uses High Frequency (HF), they have the longest range and is not as dependent upon having line of sight between the radios. However, since the Ultra High Frequency (UHF) band has different radio propagation characteristics, short-range use of FRS, GMRS, and MURS may be more predictable than the license-free radios operating in the HF CB band.
Several factors can impede two-way radio performance:
- Weather (fog or thick clouds)
- Topography (hills, deep canyons, mountains)
- Electromagnetic interference (lightning)
- Obstructions (dense woods, buildings)
- Large metal surfaces (inside a vehicle, range can be less than 1 mile)
The main benefit of higher powered radios (1 or 2 watt models) is their ability to fill in the gaps or coverage dropouts that often occur within the line of sight of a radio user. Also, the higher power tends to improve the overall quality of the signal.
Some areas, such as open-water (lakes, calm ocean, etc), will often provide better reception for two people communicating on or near the body of water, especially when surrounded by hills.
If needed, try to go to the highest point available in order to extend the range of your two way radio.
Privacy Codes are Your Friend
Inevitably, two-way radio users want more power, greater range and more channels.
In busy areas, such as a state fair or ski resort, 22 channels can quickly become occupied. As a result, many radios provide CTCSS (or CDCSS) "privacy codes", which allows you to subdivide the main channels.
Instead of trying to communicate with someone simply by using Channel 10, privacy codes, or "interference-elimination" codes, let you choose a combination of channel and a code.
For example, Channel 10 and Code 4.
When you have searched all the main channels and but cannot find a clear channel, CTCSS or CDCSS is your next best option.
Let's say you switch to Channel 8 and privacy code 0 (no interference code), you can hear all the chatter taking place on that channel — usually a cacophony of many voices speaking over one another. The use of an interference code, which essentially encodes your voice with an additional identifier, allows you to control what you hear.
Important: A "privacy code" will not make your communication private. Instead, it will lessen the amount of chatter. Any radio user, including those unknown to you, can dial up your chosen channel/code combo and listen to your conversation. This is why some manufacturers use a different term, such as an "interference-elimination" code.
Tips for Locating a Clear Channel
- Choose a channel and listen for activity. (Since many users do not bother to change channels, Channel 1 is usually very busy.)
- Listen for a couple minutes. Start at the middle or upper channels, such as 15 or 16 and listen. Keep moving down through the channels until you find a lesser used channel. Then pick a Privacy Code.
The Family Radio Service (FRS) band sparked the two-way radio resurgence in popularity (after CB radios died out in popularity in the 80's).
FRS radios are great fun and perfect for short range use. It is intentionally limited to a power output of half a watt, which provides a maximum range of about 6 miles, under optimal conditions. FRS users can also use the 7 shared channels with GMRS for a total of 14 channels, provided you broadcast using the maximum half-watt of power.
MURS radios are not as common as the other three, however you do not need a license. Since they are limited to 5 channels.
They may be a more appropriate choice for people that want better range than FRS, but do not care to acquire a license.
GMRS two-way radios tend to be the most versatile, as they have pretty good range and do not require a long antenna.
They are more powerful than the FRS.
The FCC does require a license to use legally in the USA. They grants five-year renewable licenses for GMRS Systems.
*CB, FRS, and MURS do not require a license.