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Published Jun 24, 2022 8:19 AM

Comms are dark sorcery, and “long-range walkie talkies” can sound like an oxymoron, but the best long-range walkie talkies are actually quite simple to use, based on their ability to address different frequencies, accept better antennas, and increase output power.

One of the most amusing things about watching Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in early 2022 was their use of unencrypted Baofeng radios as their primary mode of communication. For those listening, it’s led to hilarious comms exchanges, but it’s also been linked to the deaths of several Russian generals. This is because they did not have properly established comms, and were not using proper encryption keys, like modern militaries.

Thankfully, you, the average Joe or Josephine, have access to better comms than the Russian military, and with this article, your own radio, and maybe a HAM radio class or two, you will have communications for your next wilderness adventure. Because when you’re in the mountains of West Virginia, the forests of the Pacific Northwest, or the scorching bright heat of the Sonoran Desert in California, cell reception isn’t always reliable, but emergency assistance can be imperative.

How we tested

In testing these radios for this article, I wasn’t content to trust my own limited knowledge on the topic of long-range communication, so I consulted with Marine Corps communication specialists, Army signal soldiers, amateur HAM radio operators, and experts on digital signal transmission. 

In addition, I experimented extensively with the radios on this list, as well as the antennas that are needed to capitalize on the radio frequencies used to get the long-range capabilities that readers of this article are looking for. 

And finally, I coordinated with HAM radio operators to test the full potential of these radios, since using certain frequencies and encryption requires a HAM license to do without legal trouble. 

Ultimately, we stretched these radios to the limits, and I drew on the years of experience that the people I interviewed had to ensure that these choices reflected the little things that you pick up through long-term use in the elements and various terrains.

Best Overall

“If you’re really serious about radios, don’t worry about Baofengs. Go with the Ailunce HD1.” Those were the words that my friend Ian, who recently finished his stint as an Army signals intelligence soldier and who is an amateur radio enthusiast, told me when I asked him what he recommended for handheld radios for personal usage.

The Ailunce HD1 isn’t just a good walkie talkie, it’s one of the best walkie talkies, and particularly one of the best walkie talkies for long-distance communication. This is due to the fact that it’s a Digital Mobile Radio, or DMR. Digital frequencies allow for clearer voice quality, longer transmission ranges, and the ability to send things like GPS data, text messages, and encrypted transmissions. The HD1 is capable of being programmed using included computer software, meaning that you can load several radios with frequency charts and contact lists to ensure 100 percent compatibility. This is a full-featured radio with many capabilities that make it, overall, the best walkie-talkie for long range use.

Calling an item a powerhouse is a common way to describe it as “good,” but for the Ailunce HD1, it’s a reference to the bonkers output power of 10 watts, which might not be much compared to military radios or dashboard-mounted radios in a vehicle, but for a pocket-sized handset, it’s very good, especially at this price point.

The water resistance is another important point for this radio, allowing you more peace of mind, especially if your journeys take you near or across the water. It’s only IP67, so it’s immersible in a meter of water for 30 minutes. That’s not fully waterproof, but if you want to be able to pull your radio out of a waterproofing bag or box while on the water to make a call, you can do so with a bit more confidence.

The fully-digital nature of the Ailunce HD1 also means that you can store things like contacts and talk groups, rather than having to manually enter frequencies every time, and even offers a modicum of encryption to not only keep your communications private, but also ensure voice clarity. Topping this off, the HD1s full-color backlit screen and ability to swap on aftermarket high-end antennas mean that this radio can be used for more emplaced communications with much larger antennas, which is essential at lower frequencies. But more on that later.

The digital encryption on the Ailunce HD1 isn’t great, and while that’s not as much of an issue for some people, it’s not 100 percent reliable, and it’s only compatible with other Ailunce HD1s. So even though this radio is Motorola Tier I and II compatible, you won’t be able to use encryption with them, and you’ll have to transmit in the clear. The amount of digital contacts and talk groups that you can store is also not especially impressive, especially when you compare it to models like the Anytone 878 later on this list. It’s still a lot, but eventually, you might run out of space.

Finally, the 10-watt output ought to have an asterisk next to it, because yes it can put that power out, but it doesn’t mean that the HD1 is stable at that power output, with some users experiencing power fluctuation, especially on higher UHF frequencies.

Using the Ailunce HD1 for long-range communications will be contingent on taking advantage of the terrain, using VHF rather than UHF, using digital signals, using the proper antenna for the job, and making sure you know your local repeater stations, so that in the event of an emergency, you can effectively communicate with minimal hassle when seconds count.

Product Specs
  • Frequencies: VHF 136-174 MHz, UHF 400-480, other frequencies possible through advanced programming
  • Maximum power output: 10 watts
  • Battery life: 3200 mAh
  • Water resistance: IP67
PROS

Good water resistance

Excellent power output for long-range use

Full-color screen

CONS

Digital encryption is so-so

Not as many digital contacts as other models

Power unstable on UHF

Best Value

The Baofeng, pronounced “Bow-fung,” is arguably the name in affordable Chinese-made radio handsets, and that’s because the amount of features that you get for a very low price makes this probably the best affordable entry into portable radio handsets. The Baofeng UV-5R Gen 3, also known as the BF-F8HP, is a radio that features many of the things that more expensive handsets offer, like compatibility with high-end antennas, rechargeable batteries, and the ability to use computer software to load frequency presets onto the handset. The Baofeng isn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but if you’re looking to get into the world of portable radios, and you’re short on cash, or you’re not sure that you want to invest in a $300 radio yet, then it’s a good option to consider.

The biggest advantage of Baofeng radios is the low price point. There’s a reason why they’re the choice of radio for airsofters, militia weirdos, and the Russian army, and that’s because they can be had for well under $100. They’re also popular in the modification community, so you can find extended batteries, better antennas, and other kits to further enhance the utility of this super-affordable radio. Finally, enhancing the beginner-friendly price of the Baofeng is the fact that these radios have simple controls, and there’s a wealth of knowledge out there on forums, YouTube, and Facebook groups, which means that you won’t be alone in your Baofeng adventure.

Baofengs are very common, but they’re also very commonly maligned as being cheaply made and low on capabilities, and that’s not without merit. For starters, Baofeng radios are not meaningfully water-resistant or ruggedized in any way, so they’re not suitable for hard use, especially as an emergency communication tool. Baofeng radios are also prone to overload, which can become an issue if you’re receiving strong signals. They don’t offer any digital communication capabilities either, so you’re stuck with analog, which makes the signal shorter range, and more prone to interference. The batteries are low capacity as well, relative to other options, giving them only roughly 18 hours of operation on max power, according to the manufacturer.

Using a Baofeng for long-distance communication is less than optimal, given that you’re already starting from a position of disadvantage due to the lack of digital communications capability and the temperamental radio receiver, but it can be done. Luckily, the Baofeng can be used with better antennas, and people have even been able to contact the International Space Station with these, depending on atmospheric conditions and frequency choice. This radio is a good choice in a pinch, or for beginners to familiarize themselves with radio communications past standard walkie talkies.

Product Specs
  • Frequencies: VHF 136-174 MHz, UHF 400-520
  • Maximum power output: 8 watts
  • Battery life: 2000 mAh
  • Water resistance: N/A
PROS

Affordable

Easy-to-find parts

Very simple

CONS

Prone to overload

No digital communication or encryption

Poor durability

Honorable Mention

The AnyTone 878 UVII DMR is my personal favorite of all the radios on this list, for a variety of reasons. It’s not that it’s a spec monster, having both a lower frequency range and a maximum output than the other options here, but it nails the stability and richness of features to make this probably the most flexible radio on the list in terms of situations that it can cover, at least for the price. This is a radio that gives you features similar to much higher-priced options, but at a cost that’s still relatively attainable.

The AnyTone 878 UVII DMR is a radio that lets you maintain communications with many people in absolute privacy. This radio uses AES-256 encryption, which is the current military encryption standard for Top Secret information, to ensure that your digital transmissions are private and as free from interference as possible. The amount of features that this radio packs is great as well, considering that you can store literally half a million contacts in the device memory, adjust minutiae like the built-in microphone gain, and accurately transmit GPS location data for use in emergencies. It’s a true Tier II DMR, meaning that you can make use of things like repeater stations in your area without any additional equipment needed to greatly improve the range, and you can take advantage of various encryption groups so that you can further refine your signal to be between yourself and who you want to talk to. You can use a Bluetooth headset to communicate with the AnyTone 878 UVII in lieu of a wired headset, which is excellent if you want to use this as a car radio and interface it with your car’s Bluetooth receiver for hands-free use. The list of features gets further extended, beyond even what I can talk about here, but luckily the 878 UVII comes with a training program from American AnyTone distributor Bridgecom, which outlines every feature of the 878 UVII and teaches you how to use it.

The major issue with the 878 UVII is that it’s lacking the sheer specs of other options on this list. For starters, the max output power is six watts, and while the output power is totally stable there, it’s much lower than either the Baofeng or the Ailunce in terms of sheer wattage. Another issue is the durability, and while the AnyTone 878 is far superior to the Baofeng in terms of actually carrying an IP rating, that IP rating is only IP54, which is fairly low and makes this only splashproof, which is fine for casual users, but means that users who want an emergency radio will need to keep this in a waterproof bag for transit in wet environments. One of the issues that many long-term users have reported online and to me directly is that when using GPS tracking to locate teams of users, the GPS data packets don’t always arrive in a timely fashion or at all, which is a more niche feature for some users, but especially if you’re trying to keep coordinated for things like search and rescue, knowing where people are in a timely fashion is imperative.

Using the AnyTone 878 UVII for long-distance use is a little trickier than others due to the lower output power, but it’s definitely doable due to the stability of the signal and the flexibility of transmission options. In general, relying more on frequencies that carry further, using the digital encryption to keep your frequencies private, taking advantage of the Tier II repeater stations, and investing in a good antenna will go further than having a higher wattage that may have stability issues.

Product Specs
  • Frequencies: VHF 136-174 MHz, UHF 400-480
  • Maximum power output: 6 watts
  • Battery life: 3100 mAh
  • Water resistance: IP54
PROS

Top-tier encryption

Includes comprehensive training software

Stable at high frequencies

CONS

Lower power than other options

Less water-resistant than other options

GPS location doesn’t always work

Best Heavy-Duty

Yaesu purists exist for a reason, and that’s because this Japanese brand is hard to beat in terms of features. That high perch comes with a high cost, but many radio enthusiasts argue that Yaesu is one of the only acceptable choices when it comes to DMRs. This radio offers things like an incredibly wide reception range, great durability, and the high level of finishing that people have come to expect from Yaesu. This radio offers all the flexibility of other options on this list and then some, making it not only one of the best heavy-duty walkie talkies, but also one of the best waterproof walkie talkies, and just an overall great premium choice that didn’t necessarily fit into our framework.

The Yaesu FT5DR is a singularly flexible radio, offering truly incredible transmission ranges that range from below HF to above what is even considered UHF, with the capability to extend into cellular frequencies if unlocked. Furthering the premium features of this radio are the intuitive controls which include touchscreen functionality, cementing this as a decidedly modern handset.

The FT5DR also features two discrete bands, allowing for quick switching on the fly between bands, frequencies, or digital vs analog, depending on your preference. Topping all of this off, the quality control of Yaesu radios is well-regarded for a reason, so you can be sure that investing this kind of cash into a radio won’t have you ending up with a lemon.

The primary hurdle with purchasing a Yaesu is going to be the cost, given that these radios are regarded as being the cream of the crop. Many casual users are going to scoff at the idea of spending more than $500 on a five-watt handset, and won’t appreciate the finer features that this radio offers, especially when you compare it to radios that offer 10-watt output for less than half the price. A legitimate issue is the fact that the included battery is pretty paltry when compared to 3,000+ mAh batteries that come with other radios, and is definitely going to be a part to get duplicates of.

Using the Yaesu FTDR for long range is possible by taking advantage of the features that this radio uniquely offers, in spite of the low output power. By offering HF handset transmission and reception capacity, users can bounce radio waves off the atmosphere and get extremely long transmission distances, at the risk of higher interference levels and signal lag. Additionally, the output and transmissions will be extremely stable, which means that you can always count on this to output what it says on the package. This is the handset for enthusiasts, and we’ve included it as a nod to them.

Product Specs
  • Frequencies: Continuous from 0.5Mhz to 999.99Mhz, with controls for U.S. Cellular band
  • Maximum power output: 5 watts
  • Battery life: 2200 mAh
  • Water resistance: IPX7
PROS

Incredibly wide band range

Touchscreen controls

Independent dual-band function

Cream of the crop quality

CONS

High cost

Lower output wattage

Lower battery life

Best Long-Range Walkie-Talkie Antenna

This pick for a long-range walkie-talkie isn’t a walkie-talkie at all. Instead, it’s a “blade” type antenna that’s compatible with every radio on this list. The antenna choice will make the difference between having communication capabilities at long range and attempting to transmit blindly in a potentially dangerous situation. This is where we get into the territory of why so many Marines and soldiers refer to comms as “dark sorcery” because of the length of the antenna, relative to the frequency that you’re transmitting on, the wattage and impedance you’re using, and the range that you want to reach.

The formula for determining the appropriate antenna length requires several steps, but it’s essentially wavelength equals 300,000 kilometers/frequency. So for example, if you’re trying to transmit on 420 mhz (dude weed lmao), your wavelength would be 71.3cm. Divide this number by four, and that will be the approximate length of the antenna to use for a full-wave transmission or an antenna that’s approximately double the wavelength for a half-wave, which in this case is 17.3 cm, or roughly six inches, meaning that the 13-inch antenna is the right choice. In the case of your desired antenna length being half the length of the antenna you have, simply fold it, which is the beauty of using blade-type antennas. Use this calculator to find your wavelength if you’re in doubt.

Our verdict on long-range walkie talkies

Using a handheld radio at a long distance takes more than just a solid radio. It takes knowledge of waveforms, proper antenna choice, and knowing how to take advantage of the terrain around you. The Ailunce HD1 is the best overall, with a great balance of features and specs, as well as a fair price. The Baofeng UV5R is the budget choice that’s great for beginners or those tight on cash, as long as you don’t mind low durability and no digital transmission capabilities. The Anytone 878 has some of the best encryption of any of the choices here and adds other features like a huge address book and super stable transmissions.

What to consider when buying long-range walkie talkies

When purchasing a long-range radio, you have to take into account the trinity of features that determine how far your signal will travel: output power, wavelength, and terrain. Two of these factors can be controlled with your buying decisions, but the third is a matter of how you choose where to transmit from physically.

Key features of long-range walkie talkies

Output power

The output power is what it sounds like, and for longer-range transmissions, the higher output power is desirable simply to ensure that the signal has a higher chance of reaching the recipient. The disadvantage to using a higher output power is that not all radios are capable of high power, it consumes more battery, and if used for closer range transmissions with certain radios, it can cause receiver overload. Generally, larger radios powered by vehicle amplifiers will have higher outputs, but for handheld sets, it’s more limited.

Wavelength 

The wavelength of a signal determines how the radio waves interact with the atmosphere and terrain, as well as how they carry the signal itself. Lower frequencies with narrower bandwidth will travel further but are less capable of carrying digital frequencies. So for instance, high-frequency, or HF, bands can travel very far by bouncing off the ionosphere and the bottom of the ocean, but the antennas have to be very large, they get very hot, and you will experience signal lag where the transmission can take dozens of seconds or even minutes to reach the receiver. UHF, or ultra-high frequency, transmits very quickly and transmits data well, but is basically only useful with a direct line of sight, which is why it’s commonly used for transmitting to aircraft. 

Analog vs digital transmission

Analog waves transmit sound or data by modulating an electrical or radio signal, and digital converts the signal into a series of ones and zeroes. The advantage of analog is that it can be received by anyone with a conventional radio, whereas digital requires the use of a digital radio receiver; otherwise, the signal sounds like an electrical tone. Digital offers the advantages of communications security due to encryption, and clearer transmission due to the receiver only needing to get the ones and zeroes to receive the signal, so it can have a longer transmission distance due to being a simpler signal.

Pricing for long-range walkie talkies

In general, the pricing of radios is determined by their features, the quality control, and their country of manufacture. Chinese-made radios will likely be cheaper, compared to their Japanese brethren. The low pricing bracket is $50 to $100, and basically encompasses Baofengs and other less reputable inexpensive radios. There are plenty of radios in this bracket, but their output power may be unstable, they might be unreliable, and they’ll often be fragile. 

From $100 to $250, you’ll find the beginning of DMRs, which will feature digital transmission capabilities, higher output wattage, and better durability. From $250 on up, premium DMRs, vehicle radios, and high-end options like Yaesu are available, and you’ll find premium features and build quality.

Tips and tricks

  • Fold your blade antennas once, and only in one direction, or risk them losing their rigidity and bending in multiple locations. 
  • Do not touch an antenna while transmitting, due to electrical shock hazards. This is more important for bare metal antennas but is a good precaution to follow.
  • When trying to transmit over longer distances, ensure that the antenna isn’t fully masked by your body or the terrain to maximize range potential.
  • If in a stationary location, take the time to plug the radio into a larger antenna for greater range.
  • Coordinate ahead of time with people who you want to communicate with, which frequencies you’ll be using, and make a note of the emergency frequencies in your area in case you have to send distress signals in the clear.
  • Always bring extra batteries. The day you don’t is the day you’ll run out of power.

FAQs about long-range walkie talkies

You’ve got questions, Task and Purpose has answers.

Q: What is Family Radio Service and General Mobile Radio Service?

A: Family Radio Service, or FRS, and General Mobile Radio Service are sets of frequencies that are open to everyone to use, regardless of what licenses or certifications they might have. Outside of these frequencies, you’ll need a HAM license, and advanced certifications may be required to use certain frequencies, wattages, or encryption protocols.

Q: How much distance can walkie talkies cover?

A: This is determined by the waveform, output power, and terrain, but GMRS frequencies with a stock antenna usually have a line-of-sight transmission distance of five miles. Using better antennas or different frequencies available to HAM licensees is important to increasing range.

Q: Do walkie talkies run out of battery?

A: Um, yes?

Task & Purpose and its partners may earn a commission if you purchase a product through one of our links. We independently evaluate gear by putting products in the hands of subject matter experts. The products we test may be purchased by Task & Purpose, our staff, or provided for review by a manufacturer. No matter the source, our testing procedures and our assessments remain free from third-party influence. Learn more about our product review process.

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