Want to stay in touch with your skiing or hiking pals at
different spots on the mountain or trails? Two-way radios—rugged,
lightweight, compact—are designed for such tasks. Here are some tips to
help you decide which model is right for you.
Two-way Radio Features
Size and Weight: Shop units by size, shape and weight,
especially if your intended use is backpacking. You'll want a
lightweight radio that isn't bulky. If you're a skier or mountaineer,
look for an ergonomic shape so you can easily use it with gloves.
Consider a model where the antenna length is similar to the length of
the unit's body; this provides peak power in a small package.
Two-way Radio Channels: Most radios, especially those
used for outdoor recreation, have 22 channels available, on either the
Family Radio Service (FRS) band or the General Mobile Radio Service
(GMRS) band. To operate a radio that uses GMRS channels, a 5-year family
license is available from the FCC (look for Form 605).
Wattage and Range of Coverage: Many two-way radios claim
they have a range up to 25 miles in optimal conditions. Real-world
conditions are usually not optimal, and in roughly 90% of situations, a
radio's actual range will be about 2 miles or less.
FRS-only models put out the FRS maximum of a half watt and give
you a maximum range of 5-6 miles. Though GMRS technically allows a
maximum power output of 50 watts (used for base stations), most
recreational handhelds offer 1 or 2 watts to keep size and weight low.
These typically have a maximum range between 8-25 miles.
A chief benefit of higher-powered radios (1- or 2-watt models)
is their ability to fill in coverage dropouts (behind hills or
buildings, for example) that often occur within the line of sight of a
radio user. The higher power tends to improve the overall quality of the
Higher-watt radios use more battery power and are more
expensive, so consider your use and decide whether your need for range
outweighs your need for battery life. A low-watt FRS model may be
sufficient if your main goal is to simply keep track of your family on
Privacy/Interference-Eliminator Codes: In busy areas,
such as a ski resort, 22 channels can quickly get occupied. As a result,
many radios provide a Continuous Tone Coded Squelch System (CTCSS) or
CDCSS (Continuous Digital Coded Squelch System) that allows you to
subdivide main channels with the use of privacy codes. 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 use of CTCSS or CDCSS "codes" can minimize (but not
eliminate) the amount of unwanted chatter on the main channel the user
would otherwise hear.
Important: A "privacy code" does not make your communication private.This is why some manufacturers alternately call this feature an "interference-elimination" code.
Calling and Paging Features: Pre-set "calling" tones can
let you grab the attention of other members of your party before you
start talking. You can also set some models to vibrate instead of making
an audible tone.
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.
Keypad Lock: This allows you to lock your settings in
order to prevent them from accidentally getting changed as you go about
your outdoor activities.
VOX: The voice-activated (or "VOX") feature begins
broadcasting automatically when you speak in the direction of the radio,
thus letting you operate it hands-free. Mountain bikers and skiers find
this to be a useful function.
Noise Filter: This allows clearer signals and enhanced range.
Weather Radio: Tap into the NOAA weather band stations
for local forecast and conditions. This is a very handy feature for
anyone, but can be essential for backcountry adventurers.
Hands Free: Jacks for microphones, headphones and
microphone/headphone combos allow for hands-free operation. This is
ideal for active sports—skiing, kayaking, cycling—where you might not be
able to stop and answer the call.
Radio/GPS Combo Units: Though more pricey, some units
offer all-in-one nav/comm capability. A key advantage is peer-to-peer
positioning, which allows you to broadcast your location coordinates so
they appear on your fellow users' screens.
Two-way Radio Batteries: Most two-way radios run on AA or
AAA batteries and are designed to accept disposable alkaline batteries
or rechargeable nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) batteries. Others come with
their own rechargeable battery packs.
In general, the higher a radio's power output, the faster it
will drain your batteries. Look for models that send the unit into a
low-power, battery-saver mode after a certain amount of time has elapsed
between broadcasts. Or consider a solar charger for in-the-field
replenishment of rechargeable batteries.
Tips for Using Two-way Radios
Scattered trees and bushes are mostly transparent or
"translucent" to radio signals. So even in forested or hilly territory,
two-way radios generally do a fair to good job of transmitting
short-range signals. However, several factors can inhibit two-way radio
Topography (hills, deep canyons, ridgelines, tall formations)
Weather (such as thick clouds)
Electromagnetic interference (lightning)
Obstructions (dense forest, structures)
Large metal surfaces (inside a vehicle, range is usually less than 1 mile)
To optimize the range, make sure you achieve a good line of
sight between you and the other radio operator. You will increase your
ability to increase your range as you increase the elevation of your
position. Attaining a high point above an otherwise flat area can be a
huge benefit toward optimizing your radio’s maximum range.
The human body can also block radio waves. You may boost
reception of incoming signals if you attach a radio to a section of your
pack that remains away from your body instead of clipping it to your
Other Two-way Radio Considerations
Compatibility: Any two-way radios broadcasting on the
same frequency (FRS or GMRS) and supporting the same channels will work
together. Keep in mind, though, that to get full use of your radio's
other features, you'll need another radio with the same features. Thus,
it makes sense to buy in pairs.
Usage Area: USA and Canada: Two-way radios made for use
in the USA are generally not legal to use outside North America. In
2005, the frequencies used for two-way radios in the United States and
Canada were aligned, both meeting the same requirements. Mexico formally
allocates only FRS channels. Other countries may use these frequencies
for police, military or other applications.