So, you packed your gear and you’re all set to kick off a weekend of hiking, camping, skiing, or off-roading in the backcountry. What does your communication plan look like? If you just glanced at your cell phone, that’s the wrong answer. Our phones can connect us to the collective human knowledge, but they rely on signals that aren’t worth a damn in remote areas. Having a set of handheld two-way radios can keep you connected to the rest of your group and reach rescue crews in case of an emergency.
Before you dive into our gear guide, there are a few basics you should understand. First, not all two-way radios are the same. There are distinct categories for various applications, and they are defined by their power output, frequencies used, and licensing requirements. Frequencies are classified as high-frequency, very-high frequency, and ultra-high frequency. The most advanced radios require registration and licensing with the federal government, so we recommend sticking to the user-friendly options on this list.
The Motorola Talkabout T800 takes walkie talkies to the next level with a suite of premium features. It all starts with 22 radio channels backed by 121 privacy codes for extra security. Use the rechargeable battery included or swap it out for standard AA batteries. In ideal mountain-to-valley conditions, this radio is capable of transmitting voice signals up to 35 miles. As you’d expect from Motorola, the radio is built tough and ready for outdoor adventure. Beyond these basics, you’ll get more advanced features like real-time alerts from 11 weather channels and a built-in flashlight. By pairing this radio with an app on your phone, you can also access your location using offline maps, send messages, and receive emergency alerts. Vibrate mode also helps you stay in touch when noise discipline is a priority. A pair of these will cost more than most handheld radio sets, but there aren’t many options that can compete with the T800’s capabilities.
If you want quality two-way communication for a screaming bargain, check out the RT21 from Retevis. In addition to being the least expensive option on this list outright, this kit includes four radios instead of two, making it an incredible value. At this price, you won’t get data transmission, Bluetooth connectivity, or built-in flashlights. What you will get is a set of durable hand radios that can last up to 72 hours on standby, up to 12 hours of continuous use, and absorb impacts without missing a beat. It still provides an emergency signal and 16 channels for clear communication. Each of the four radios in this kit comes preprogrammed to the same frequency, so you’ll be in business right out of the box. For families and larger groups, this is a compelling option.
If you require a radio that’s as tough as you are, look no further than the beefy DeWalt DXFRS800. This two-way radio is designed for life in construction zones, and its robust housing absorbs impacts and protects against water and dust. The convenient auto-squelch feature produces the cleanest signal possible on its own. A beep signals when a transmission is complete, so you don’t have to deal with people talking over each other or waiting in silence every time someone forgets to say ‘over.’ After ten minutes without a transmission, this radio will automatically enter a battery-saving mode to extend the life of your battery up to 18 hours. Access to 22 channels helps ensure that you can find an open channel even in congested areas with large amounts of radio traffic. This is the most expensive option on our list, but if you dream about indestructible gear, this is the radio for you.
The Gocom G9 is a great walkie talkie for those who want a quality handheld radio without paying a top-shelf price. With 22 channels to choose from, you’ll have a good chance of finding open airwaves in populated areas. Use one of the 121 privacy codes to keep conversations between members of your group. This might also be one of the best options for emergency use. This radio isn’t just waterproof, it actually floats. If you do manage to submerge it, a dewatering system is capable of forcing water back out of the radio. Use a white LED flashlight to find your way, or call for help with a red LED that automatically flashes an SOS signal. Range is typically about three miles, but mountain-to-valley range in ideal conditions can exceed 30 miles. It’s great to see features like this available at such a competitive price.
Hunters will appreciate the Mossy Oak camouflage option available with this radio from Midland. The kit includes two handheld radios, two charging stations, and two earpieces for hands-free communication. The charging station can be plugged into a wall outlet or 12-volt outlet in your car. This radio comes with preprogrammed turkey, duck, crow, cougar, and wolf calls. Vibrate alerts also come in handy for hunting. Its 50 channels and 142 privacy codes provide the most signal options on our list. Like the other outdoor-oriented radios here, this one offers a weather scanner that monitors ten weather band channels and chooses the strongest signal to keep you up-to-date on the forecast. In addition to the rechargeable battery, you can also use disposable AA batteries.
Why should you trust us
During my time with Task & Purpose, I’ve reviewed outdoor equipment ranging from camping water purifiers to hiking packs – not to mention the daily essentials. The great outdoors offer more adventures than we could possibly explore in a lifetime, and I think we owe it to ourselves to spend as much time in the wilderness as we can. My adventures have involved radios as simple as FRS walkie talkies like the ones on this list and as advanced as satellite transmitters like DVIDS’ Norsat system.
The most common types of walkie talkies
Walkie talkies are categorized in terms of power output, range, and band usage. Family radio service radios are affordable and readily available, so that’s what we focused on for this gear guide. They typically have a power output of five watts or less, a reliable range of two miles, and use UHF bands.
In the interest of simplicity, we’ll stick to handheld radios that don’t require licensing. Popular Mechanics has more information on the various types of radio communication if you want to really geek out on this stuff.
Family radio service
FRS walkie talkies are incredibly popular due to their low cost and ease of access. They aren’t as powerful as commercial-grade two-way radios, but that saves consumers from having to deal with advanced training–let alone federal licensing and registration requirements. This category has some overlap with general mobile radio service, so make sure you can fulfill the licensing requirements before purchasing a GMRS radio.
The radios we chose for this gear guide fall into the FRS category. They have plenty of power for most applications, don’t require licensing, and can be used by people of any age. They’re designed to excel in harsh environments to keep you connected when it matters most.
Citizens band radios have long been the go-to for vehicle-mounted applications. CB radios are what you see truckers using, and they’re also popular in remote locations where range is a priority. Like the AM radio stations you can pull in with your car stereo, these signals sometimes reflect off cloud cover, allowing them to travel tremendous distances, albeit unpredictably. Boosters and relay stations can make this kind of radio an excellent long-range solution. No license is required to operate a CB radio.
Because CB radios use HF bands rather than the UHF bands used by FRS radios, the sound quality is noticeably inferior and you can expect more interference from external factors. They also aren’t as portable as the FRS radios on this list.
Air service radios are intended to be used between aircraft. At high altitudes and without interference from topographic features, UHF signals are not necessary and VHF bands can be used with success. Although power output is similar to FRS radios at about five watts, handheld air band radios generally have a practical range of about 35 miles. Panel configurations that are built into aircraft can extend range out to 200 miles. No federal license is required to operate this kind of radio.
On the ground, you’re better off with a standard FRS radio than one of these high-flying alternatives. You’ll experience less interference and find more affordable options.
Marine radio service
Like air band radios, marine band radios are intended for specific applications. Rather than communicating between aircraft, marine radios are used to communicate between maritime vessels and shore-based stations. Because they are used on the open water, where there is no terrain and minimal interference from other vessels, marine radios use VHF signals. That means that a six-watt marine radio can achieve ranges up to eight miles. Larger marine radios built into a ship’s equipment can transmit signals as far as 25 miles. As long as marine radios are used in domestic waters, no license is required.
As with air band radios, these are best left to their intended use. FRS radios will cost less and yield better results in ground-to-ground applications.
Multi-use radio service
Multi-use radio service is very similar to FRS in terms of power output, range, and lack of licensing requirements. There is also no age restriction associated with this kind of radio. They tend to be well-built and durable in extreme environments.
The drawback of MURS radios is the fact that they are limited to only five VHF frequencies. On the other hand, they are much less commonly used and those frequencies tend to experience less chatter from competing users when compared with FRS frequencies. Some MURS radio users prefer these more open frequencies and don’t mind having fewer options to choose from.
Features to look for in a walkie talkie
If you’re using a walkie talkie, odds are you need something durable. The options that made our list all have some degree of impact protection and water resistance. Rechargeable batteries mean all you need is a cord and either an outlet, power bank, or solar panel to keep them up and running. Size is also a factor since you’re most likely to use a handheld radio on the go.
Some handheld, two-way radios are required to be licensed by the federal government. Before you go searching for the biggest, most advanced radios out there, make sure you know what you’re getting into. Basic FRS walkie talkies can usually get the job done without a bunch of paperwork and fees.
The advantages of owning a walkie talkie
Walkie talkies were, in many ways, the predecessor to cell phones. They’re a far cry from today’s technology, but they still have a place in this world — namely, your emergency or backcountry gear. Two-way handheld radios don’t need cell service, wifi, or Bluetooth. If you have a charged battery and a clear line of sight, you can get your message out. The ones on our list also don’t require a federal license, so you can be up and running as fast as you can charge the batteries. Then, you’ll be able to establish communications with your family and friends no matter what kind of chaos life throws at you. FRS walkie talkies aren’t as powerful as professional-grade alternatives, but they’re much clearer and more portable than the CB radios you see truckers using and it’s nice to have a radio that doesn’t require you to register it with the federal government.
Sometimes the old way is best.
- Quick, easy, reliable communication
- No license required
- Remain functional when cellular service fails
- No service plan required
Pricing ranges for walkie talkie
- Less than $50: Walkie talkies that cost less than $50 have limited capabilities and are generally meant for kids to play with. There’s nothing wrong with that, just know what you’re getting.
- More than $50: Quality walkie talkies can cost as little as $50. These will offer reliable performance and durability. These are what we’d want for a survival kit or backcountry adventure.
How we chose our top picks
As much as we want to get our hands on all the products in our gear guides, that’s not always possible. Crowd wisdom is the next best thing. We scour hundreds of Amazon reviews of products from established brands to let you know what consumers think. If there’s a problem with any of these products, you can bet that it will make its way to an online review. Our team analyzes all the information available to make informed recommendations to you, the reader.
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