How to Choose Two-way Radios

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Picture of man with a two-way radio strapped to his chest

Once the ultimate tech for communicating with companions who were beyond shoutin’ distance, walkie talkies remain a valuable outdoor tool. Today’s rugged two-way radios are purpose-made for coordinating ongoing trip details when you’re doing activities like hiking, cycling, climbing or skiing. Cellphones may be everywhere, but cellphone coverage is not—and even a high-end two-way radio costs far less than a flagship cellphone model. Two-way radios can also be employed as communication tools during disasters when cellular networks are damaged or overwhelmed.

This overview offers buying and usage tips, and covers key two-way radio features:

  • Types of two-way radios: Most noncommercial outdoor users choose license-free Family Radio Service (FRS) units; General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) units offer slightly more power but require a license.
  • Transmission range: Advertised ranges help in comparing radios, but real-world range is often a fraction of claims; line-of-sight use is best because obstacles impede signals.
  • Communication enhancements: Features like voice-activated transmission, privacy codes, easy pairing, a settings lock and “ring tones” help make communication go more smoothly.
  • Weather and hazard alerts: These let your radio receive NOAA weather reports, as well as broadcast alerts for a broad range of civil emergencies and natural disasters.
  • Texting and navigation: Some models work in tandem with a phone app to allow you to send text messages and location coordinates to nearby group members with the same model of radio.
  • Rechargeable batteries: Most mid- and high-price radios have rechargeable batteries; many also let you bring along AA or AAA alkaline batteries as a backup.
  • Water resistance: Most radios are water resistant; some (expensive) models designed specifically for snow or watersports use offer higher water protection ratings.
  • Prices: Not surprisingly, paying more can get you more advanced features and better performance; radios built for snow and on-the-water use also have higher prices.
  • Weight/size: Radio size and weight varies, so check these specs carefully if you watch every ounce and cubic inch in your kit. The smallest, lightest model might not have the same level of performance or features, though, as a bigger, bulkier radio.

Shop two-way radios.

Types of Two-way Radios

This article focuses on short-distance Family Radio Service (FRS) devices, the predominant type of radio sold by REI Co-op and sporting goods retailers. Closely related to FRS are General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) devices, which have more power (which can help with range). FRS and GMRS radios utilize the same channels (see chart below), but GMRS radios are allowed to use a higher power in a designated set of channels that the two radio services share.

Maximum Power Levels for FRS and GMRS Radios

Channel FRS radio GMRS radio
1 2.0 watts 5.0 watts
2 2.0 watts 5.0 watts
3 2.0 watts 5.0 watts
4 2.0 watts 5.0 watts
5 2.0 watts 5.0 watts
6 2.0 watts 5.0 watts
7 2.0 watts 5.0 watts
8 0.5 watts 0.5 watts
9 0.5 watts 0.5 watts
10 0.5 watts 0.5 watts
11 0.5 watts 0.5 watts
12 0.5 watts 0.5 watts
13 0.5 watts 0.5 watts
14 0.5 watts 0.5 watts
15 2.0 watts 50 watts*
16 2.0 watts 50 watts*
17 2.0 watts 50 watts*
18 2.0 watts 50 watts*
19 2.0 watts 50 watts*
20 2.0 watts 50 watts*
21 2.0 watts 50 watts*
22 2.0 watts 50 watts*

*GMRS radios with this much power are big and bulky (not portable); most handheld GMRS radios have a maximum power level of 3 watts.

FRS and GMRS power limits: Thankfully, you don’t have to carry this chart with you in the field because tuning to a given channel typically also caps the radio’s power level (wattage) to prevent you from exceeding the channel’s maximum permitted power. FRS radios are capped at a maximum power of 2 watts on any channel, so you’d need a GMRS radio to broadcast at a power level greater than 2 watts (in a permitted channel).

License requirements: The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulates a wide variety of two-way radios, many of which require an FCC license. FRS radios require no license, one reason they are so popular with noncommercial users. If you buy a GMRS radio instead, you will need a basic license, a detail to note as you comparison shop.

Two-way Radio Compatibility

Two radios set at different power levels can still communicate with one another, so long as they are within range of the lower powered unit and are broadcasting on the same channel.

Communication is simplest when both radios are the same brand because transmission signals and channel numbers can vary from brand to brand. (Radios from different brands can still talk, but some research might be required to make it work.) In addition, to use certain advanced features you need to have the same type of radio as your companions. Thus it makes sense to buy in pairs—and most radios are sold that way.

Two-way Radio Transmission Range

Radio Power and Range of Coverage

Transmitting at 2 watts of power won’t give you 4 times the range of transmitting at 0.5 watts of power because many other factors also affect range, including the sensitivity of the receiving unit. A primary benefit of transmitting at a higher power is improving overall quality of the signal by filling in coverage dropouts behind obstructions.

The murky correlation between wattage and range is one reason why radio makers don’t often state exactly how much power their unit puts out on each channel or each power level setting.

Real-World Range of Coverage

Some radios state ranges of up to 35 miles in optimal conditions. Real-world conditions are rarely optimal, meaning statements like “1 mile in neighborhoods” can be found in the fine print. Achieving a good line of sight between you and the other radio operator is a key factor in achieving maximum transmission range.

Note, too, that the Earth’s curvature obstructs “straight line” transmissions, which is why you might see “up to 6 miles” for the open-water maximum range. Theoretical maximum range (like the 35 mile spec) requires your elevation to be several hundred feet above the other radio.

Several other factors can inhibit two-way radio performance: 

  • Topographic obstructions (hills, deep canyons, ridgelines)
  • Other obstructions (dense forest, built structures)
  • Weather (thick clouds, cold batteries)
  • Electromagnetic interference (lightning, nearby high-power transmission lines)
  • Large metal surfaces (a reason why two-way radios are a poor choice for car use)

Two-way Radio Communication Features

Privacy/interference-eliminator codes: In a busy area, such as a ski resort, 22 channels can quickly get occupied. As a result, many radios are designed so you can still use a busy main channel via the use of privacy codes. (Tech speak for this feature is “Continuous Tone-Coded Squelch System” or CTCSS.) Rather than trying to communicate with a friend simply by using Channel 5, privacy codes let you connect with a combination of channel and code—for example, Channel 5 and Code 3.

The name is a bit of a misnomer because anyone else on a given channel can still hear you. The code simply unclutters your communication because it cuts out chatter from all channels users other than the people with whom you are sharing the code.

Scanning: This allows you to cruise through channels in order to find the one that your group is using. You can also use this feature to quickly locate an empty channel for your group to use.

Easy pairing: This feature simplifies the process of simultaneously pairing all radios in your group to the same channel and privacy code.

Keypad lock: This allows you to lock your settings in order to prevent them from accidentally getting changed when you handle or stash your radio.

Calling and paging features: Preset calling tones let you grab the attention of other members of your party before you start talking. Some models can be set to vibrate instead.

Hands-free options: Radios typically operate using a push-to-talk button. Units with voice-activation capabilities (“VOX”) can begin broadcasting automatically when you speak, letting you operate hands-free. Some VOX-capable units have a built-in microphone or come with a rugged external microphone; others require you to plug in your own microphone and earphones.

Power boost: This push-button feature kicks the radio to a higher (or lower) power level. Using a higher power drains batteries more quickly, so it’s wise to use the lowest setting that allows you to connect with your radio partner.

Battery-saver mode: This feature sends the unit into a low-power mode after a certain amount of time has elapsed between broadcasts.

Two-way Radio Weather and Hazard-Alert Features

Many two-way radios let you tune to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) weather band stations for local forecasts. You can also receive hazard alerts for a wide range of weather events, civil emergencies and disasters—everything from AMBER Alerts to volcanic eruptions.

Two-way Radio Texting and Location Sharing

Certain high-end radios allow you to send text messages and share Global Positioning System (GPS) coordinates with others in your group—as long as everyone has an identical radio model. The feature works in tandem with a cellphone app that also offers access to maps and navigation features.

Using Two-Way Radios Outside the United States

It’s safe to say that a two-way radio certified by the FCC can be used within the United States. Beyond that, though, you must check the most current regulations of the country where you plan to use your radio. Canadian regulations for FRS radios generally match those for FRS radios in the U.S., but the radio still must be certified by Industry Canada, that country’s regulating authority, to be used there. Mexico has similar restrictions.