How Far Do GMRS Radios Really Work?
A 50 Mile Range GMRS Radio?
I recently tested a pair of GMRS radios made by Uniden to see if they lived up to the "best case" range claims of 50 miles. If you have ever looked at personal two way radios such as the GMRS - FRS radios designed for outdoor use, you may have noticed that some manufacturers claim an incredible range from these devices. The longest GMRS radio range currently claimed by any manufacturer goes to the the Uniden GMR5089-2CKHS, which claims an incredible 50 mile range. Of course, all of the major two way radio manufacturers add a disclaimer such as "varies with terrain," etc. Despite these disclaimers, I believe that they mislead consumers into thinking that such a long distance is routinely possible.
We Test The Uniden "50 Mile GMRS Radio"
On a vacation to Colorado recently, my wife and I decided to test a pair of Uniden GMR 5089 two way radios that I had purchased at Cabellas. I already knew from using similar GMRS - FRS radios that range claims were often exaggerated, but I thought it would be amusing to see how they fared under an ideal "mountaintop to base camp" situation. The area we were headed to, Pike's Peak, is one of the most accessible of the "fourteeners" or mountains higher than 14,000' in Colorado. The elevation of Pike's Peak is 14,110', and we thought it would be the perfect place to test Uniden's 50 mile range claim. My wife and her friend decided to stay behind at the RV park near Colorado Springs and help me out with the experiment while a buddy and I drove to the top along the harrowing road.
The elevation of the RV park was around 6,000' and there was a "line of sight" view of the mountain. My intention was to establish contact via cell phone, and then try the Uniden radios. If we were able to connect, I would have her get in the car and start driving, stopping along the way in a clear area to get out and call me after establishing contact by phone. My wife is fairly patient with my geeky requests, and in this case agreed to play along.
Fires Ravage Area Around Pike's Peak
The Waldo Canyon fire had ravaged much of the forest near Pike's Peak. As we followed Highway 24 up the mountain we saw lots of loads of debris going down and construction materials headed up. The Waldo Canyon fire burned more than 18,000 acres and destroyed more than 300 homes.
Our GMRS Radio Range "Distance Test"
The summit of Pike's Peak, which has a direct view of the city below, was located approximately 12 miles from our RV park. We began our distance test by walking to the observation platform and calling the ladies back at the RV park on my cell phone. Cell phones work very well at the top of Pike's Peak. Soon we would see how well these "long range GMRS radios" would perform. We were able to pick up Colorado Springs NOAA weather radio station, as well as several other distant NOAA stations very well. There was no interference at the time on the GMRS channel we chose for our test, however we couldn't raise the party on the other end even when the squelch control was turned all the way down. All of the radio's privacy codes were at the same settings as the other radio, and the other radio was outside with a clear view of the mountain.
More Ridiculous Claims
I've seen the claim "6,270 channel combinations gives you many options for keeping your group together," placed next to this radio on various sites. This means absolutely nothing in terms of how many channels you have available to use or how well your group can keep in touch. I assume it refers to privacy code combinations across a number of channels, but it is still very misleading. There are a handful of channels, and adding privacy codes to them doesn't mean more channels, only that other parties on the same channel (who may still hear you) can't call you.
Are These Radios Still Worth Using?
Are these radios still worth buying? Absolutely, if you don't expect them to work at a distance of more than a few miles. GMRS radios are a very handy way for parties to keep in touch with each other in remote areas where cell phones don't work. The Uniden models are waterproof and shock proof, which make them more rugged than most cellular phones. I do think that it's time for some "truth in advertising" when it comes to two way radios. The FCC should order radio manufacturers to stop putting such ridiculous mileage claims on GMRS radios. These outlandish distance claims may lead some people who venture away from base camp into thinking they will be able to call for help at a given distance. If they are expecting to contact someone to rescue them at a distance of 36, or even 50 miles away, it's most likely that they will be greeted by static instead of a friendly voice.
In terms of survival communications gear, having a GMRS radio to use to connect you to a party on a predetermined schedule may be a good idea. However, in a real "life or death" situation, your best best is still to have a personal EPIRB or device such as the SPOT Satellite Messenger.
I concluded from my unscientific test that Uniden's 50 mile GMRS range claim is pretty much busted. As we returned to town, we were able to make contact at a distance of 2.5 miles, after we stopped the car and got out to make a call. Why do we continue to see these ridiculous GMRS radio range claims from manufacturers such as Uniden and Midland? If a car manufacturer claimed that their model got 120 mpg, and it only got 20 mpg, there would be lawsuits galore. The problem with GMRS - FRS two way radio mileage claims is that "hypothetically" they could be possible. I'm sure that if you were somehow to remove all of the moisture and dust from the air, and place two of these radios 50 miles apart in the far reaches of the upper atmosphere, aboard two helium balloons, then maybe you could talk between them.
For real world applications, such as hiking and hunting, GMRS radio range will usually be somewhere from half a mile to five miles, in most cases.
Final Note: Be advised that GMRS radios, even if they might look like toys, require an FCC license to operate. You can usually find license applications instructions with the radio owner's manual.
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.
© 2012 Nolen Hart