Out hiking in the backcountry? Managing a lodge in the wilderness? Out of cell phone range? One of the best ways to keep in constant contact with friends or employees is a two-way radio system. Two-way radios work best in rural settings where there isn’t a lot of interference. They have an incredible range; with just the sets are good upe push of a button, you can communicate with someone who is miles away. If you’re shopping for two-way radios, you’ve come to the right place. On our site, we’ll introduce you to two-way radio basics and help you to compare popular brands and top-selling models. We’ll also be giving you tips in our blog for using your purchase!
Below, you can view a comparison chart for current top models of two-way radios. Scroll down below to discover the basics of these handy devices, including types, range, channels, and more!
If you are looking for more detailed information on the handheld two-way radio models above, please read our reviews. Before you do, though, we suggest reading on to learn more about two-way radios. That way you will know what features are important to you and will be able to make an informed purchase decision.
What They Are
Two-way radios are also known as walkie talkies. They are small handheld devices which transmit and receive radio signals for short-range communication. This allows you to stay in touch with family, friends, employees, or co-workers even in remote locations with no cell phone signal. Two-way radios may also include additional handy features such as NOAA weather alerts. These alerts can help you to stay safe while you are out in the wilderness.
How They Work
Two-way radios send and receive information through radio signals, which means they rely largely on line-of-sight for strong communications. While they can to some extent transmit through walls and other obstacles, they work best in a wide open unobstructed area. This is why their range is limited, especially in urban and suburban areas as well as densely-wooded regions.
Types of Two-Way Radios
There are two main configurations for two-way radios:
GMRS (General Mobile Radio Service): These high-power models operate on 1-2 watts and can use up to 22 channels. You need a license to use these. Originally GMRS was only available for commercial use, but you can now buy recreational GMRS radios. You do not need a license to simply purchase a GMRS radio set.
FRS (Family Radio Service): These models operate on a half-watt and can transmit on a total of 14 channels (though 22 channels are available). You do not need a license to use these, which is why most consumer models are FRS radios.
Additionally, you can break down two-way radio categories like this:
Hand-held: Your standard walkie talkie devices.
Vehicle mounted mobile: These mount on your vehicle, just as you would expect, and are able to take their power from your vehicle’s battery. You can augment their range with an external antenna.
Desktop base station: These can draw energy from your wall and function on AC power. Once again, you usually need external antenna to boost the range.
So those are the basics—now let’s talk about the range of a two-way radio set. Then we’ll talk about how that relates to power and antennas. We will then talk about channels and codes, compatibility, features, and batteries. We’ll wrap up by discussing cost.
Range can vary quite a bit on handheld two-way radios. Some sets are good up to 8 miles, while others may be good up to 20. Be very wary of that “up to” language that you see on packaging. These are best-case scenario claims. If you are standing on a flat plain right across from someone, you might actually get the full range. Otherwise, with trees or buildings in the way, disrupting the signal, you will probably get a fraction of that range.
Here’s the bottom line: No matter what range you see on a package, you generally will only get reception for up to 2 miles. And if you are planning on using your radios in an urban area, good luck—you will have a very tough time getting good reception. Open wilderness conditions are best, preferably with flat terrain like plains, a desert, or a valley. Believe it or not, even your own body can block your signal.
One thing that is helpful to know about power is that it can boost your range! The higher the wattage, the better the range of your radios. For that reason, if it is very important for you to have a high range, it may be worth it for you to get a license to operate on GMRS channels.
Note that if you have GMRS radio, when you transmit on the FRS channels, you will automatically drop to a half-watt while you are operating on those channels. The higher wattage on the GMRS channels are exactly why you need a license to operate on those channels. You get a much stronger signal as a result. FRS channels will be sufficient for many purposes. Say for example that you manage a ski lodge and are distributing radios to your employees. Since they will be operating them mostly within a small square radius, there will generally be no problem using the FRS channels.
The antenna is also important when you are considering range. The rule of thumb here is pretty simple: the bigger the antenna, the better. Larger antennas will have a higher “effective radiated power,” which may extend your range. The only reason to go with a small antenna is if you have to in order to conveniently carry or stow the device. Otherwise, look for a model where the length of the antenna is the same as the length of the actual radio or close to it. And remember, if you are using a base station or vehicle-mounted unit, you will get much better transmission and reception if you add an external antenna.
This isn’t really an option with handheld models. Why not? Some models may give you the option of replacing the antenna with a different one, but if the new antenna isn’t properly tuned to the radio, your range may actually wind up being lower instead of higher.
No matter which type of radio you get, it will probably come with 22 channels, each with up to 121 “privacy” codes. These reduce interference on the same channel. The FRS band was created back in 1996. If you are an FRS radio user, you can use the 7 FRS channels as well as 7 channels that are shared with GMRS users, for a total of 14 channels. GMRS users can use these 14 channels plus the 8 channels designed exclusively for GMRS use.
If you are in a busy area where a lot of people are using two-way radios, you may hear interference on all of the channels. This is very common in resorts and on park grounds. For this reason, radios come equipped with privacy codes called CTCSS or CDCSS (Continuous Tone-Coded Squelch System or Continuous Digital Coded Squelch System, respectively). These allow you to use the same channels as other users, but speak privately without interference. So four users could all use Channel 4, for example, but the first two could use Code 2 and the second two could use Code 3.
The conversations will not be completely private; you may still occasionally pick up chatter from other code channels, but it will be greatly reduced. Snatches of your conversation may also be overheard by other users. And don’t forget—any user can call up your channel and code and listen to your entire conversation! Note if you and another user try to simultaneously transmit on one channel, nothing will be transmitted.
There are of course situations where you want everyone to be able to hear each other on one channel, and not just two people. If you are purchasing these radios for your ski resort staff, for example, each department will probably use one channel, and you may also have a channel for lodge-wide communications. You want your entire team to be able to communicate, and the fewer channels you make use of, the better, since that way everyone will be tuned to the right one.
What about compatibility? Radios with the same set of features will be able to transmit to one another with ease. So all modern radios should be compatible. If you have an older radio, it may not be able to send out the same tones as your newer models. If this is the case, try setting your new model to code 0 on channel 1. By default, it is probably set to code 1, which your old model cannot necessarily pick up or transmit on.
Now let’s talk about how you will keep your radios running. The majority of two-way radios function on AA and AAA batteries, usually your regular alkaline variety. Others include rechargeable battery packs (NiMH or NiCad). The most flexible option is to purchase a radio that can use both. Why? Rechargeable batteries are excellent for saving you money, but they tend to lose their charge quickly. This is particularly true in cold environments, so for skiers and hikers in cold climates, regular batteries may offer superior performance.
If you get a model which is compatible with both types of batteries, you can use your rechargeable batteries, but switch to regular alkaline batteries as a backup if you need to. You may also find a model which includes a solar charger that you can use while you are out in the wild. We also recommend that you look for a battery-saver mode as an extra feature; this will drop your radio into a low-power mode when you are not using it.
Waterproofing is an important feature for a two-way radio if you plan to use it outdoors. But not all “waterproof” radios are fully waterproof. Pay attention to the IPX rating. This will tell you what kind of wet conditions the radio can actually withstand. The higher the IPX rating, the more waterproof the radio set:
- IPX0: No water resistance.
- IPX1: Protection from vertical drops.
- IPX2: Protection from vertical drops and drops at an angle of 15 degrees.
- IPX3: Protection from spray up to 60 degrees.
- IPX4: Protection from splashes in any direction.
- IPX5: Protection from water jets from any direction.
- IPX6: Protection from powerful jets.
- IPX7: ACTUAL WATERPROOFING in up to three feet of water.
- IPX8: ACTUAL WATERPROOFING in more than three feet of water.
Here are some additional features you can look for in your two-way radio set:
VOX: VOX is also known as “Voice Activated Transmit.” With this feature, you can use the radio hands-free. When you speak, the radio will pick up on it and start transmitting automatically. These are excellent for everyone, but particularly makes a great choice for workers or for people doing sports.
MIL-STD or MIL-SPEC: If your radio is marked with either of these, it has been designed to meet military specifications. This means that it meets a certain threshold for reliability, durability, and compatibility, and that it will stand up to exposure to different environmental factors. If you will be skiing or hiking in harsh environments, the military rating is a good one to look for.
IP: This stands for “Ingress Protection.” It is a rating that tells you how effectively your radio is sealed against dust and moisture. If you know you will be using your radios regularly in conditions with a great deal of dust or precipitation, you may want to pay close attention to the IP rating of the model you are thinking of purchasing.
Noise filter: This feature will help to clarify and boost your signal.
Keypad lock: You can use this to lock your settings. That way you will not lose them while you are doing your activities.
Headset jack: Self-explanatory. You can use this to hook up a headset for hands-free operation. This is great for sports.
Weather radio: If you want to stay on top of the latest weather reports, this feature lets you check the NOAA weather band stations to see what conditions you can expect. If you are exploring the backcountry, this is a must.
GPS: Some radios actually offer GPS, so you can use them not only to communicate, but to find your way around as well. Better yet, you can use them to transmit your location to other users and check where they are. If you are out hiking or skiing with friends, this is a great way to keep track of each other, and an excellent safety feature. If someone gets too far ahead, falls behind, or takes a wrong turn, you will be able to locate them.
Two-way radios range widely in price. You will find cheap handsets as low as $20 and high-tech units which cost more than $200. A typical price range for a pair of radios is around $20-$80. You can get a pretty solid set which will offer you some nice features in the $50 range. The more you have to spend, the better you will get in terms of durability, reliability, power, and range.
Midland GXT1000VP4: Comes With Headsets
Midland has been making two-way radios for over 50 years. The Midland GXT1000VP4 is another good product from this manufacturer. It comes with excellent privacy features and boasts a very powerful mic that works especially well in whisper mode. Also, it comes with a free headset.
- Communicate privately. Set up private chat using one of this radio’s 142 privacy codes.
- Powerful microphone. With whisper mode on, listeners can hear very quiet noises.
- All day battery performance. You can use this radio on high for 8 to 10 hours without having to recharge it.
- Comes with two chargers. With the GXT1000VP4, you get an A/C adapter and a car charger that you can plug into a cigarette lighter jack.
- Alerts you when there is a weather emergency. It scans weather channels and alerts you if foul weather is approaching.
- Long range 36 mile communication. In perfect conditions, this radio has a 36 mile range.
- Comes with two headsets. The basic black “around the ear” style headsets that come with this radio are comfortable and work well enough.
- The rechargeable batteries wear out quickly because of a design flaw. The wall charger keeps running current through the rechargeable batteries even after they are fully recharged.
- It’s not waterproof. The GXT1000VP4 has a JIS4 rating. If it gets splashed, it’ll be okay. But if you drop it in water, it will break.
Midland LXT630VP3: Portable and Durable
The Midland LXT630VP3 is more portable and durable than Midland’s other two-way, the GXT1000VP4. Like Cobra walkie talkies, the LXT630VP3 has a rubberized shell. However, this radio is not quite as powerful as other walkie talkies on the market.
- Small and lightweight. This radio won’t weigh you down at all if you clip it to your belt.
- Very long battery life. This radio is extremely energy efficient and can last for several days without a charge.
- Voice activated sensor works well. When the VOX sensor is on, this radio does a good job of switching on when you speak.
- You can switch from high to low power. To extend the battery life even more, you can switch to power saving mode if you don’t need long range functionality.
- Confidential codes for private communication. Use one of this radio’s 121 privacy codes if you don’t want anyone to listen in on your conversation.
- Standard NOAA weather alerts. If a big storm rolls in, this radio will sound an alert tone.
- 30 mile max radius. This two-way is not a strong as some competing radios, but its range is still fairly decent.
- This walkie talkie will survive light rain, but will break if you drop it in water.
- This radio has no memory. You have to reprogram any settings that you changed each time you turn it on.
Motorola MH230R: Perfect For Any Outdoor Adventure
If you don’t want to risk damaging your smartphone on a camping trip but you still want to communicate, it makes sense to invest in a two-way radio. The MH230R from Motorola doesn’t cost much, but it is tough enough to survive any type of outdoor adventure.
- Very popular online. The MH230R is an online bestseller mainly because it works well, looks nice and doesn’t break easily.
- Performs well in difficult terrain. Some two-way radios struggle in challenging environments, but with the MH230R you can communicate up to 3 miles away pretty much anywhere.
- Good battery life. The battery will last all day no matter how much you use the MH230R to talk.
- Great value. Even though this walkie talkie performs quite well, it costs much less than the competition.
- Weather alerts. NOAA weather alerts clue you in when foul weather is on the horizon.
- Rubber coated shell. The MH230R is tough enough to take more than just a few dings.
- Compact size. Just slip this walkie talkie into your pocket and take it with you wherever you want to go.
- The MH230R’s buttons are hard to push, but that’s probably because they are designed to keep water out.
- This walkie talkie is water resistant, but it will take damage if you leave it floating in water for more than a few seconds.