Radio Communication Buyer's Guide

The push-to-talk feature on many cell phones is a handy innovation, but for the outdoorsman who traverses remote locations, where cell towers are nonexistent or severely limited by mountainous terrain, the best solution is a pair of portable radios.

If you haven’t looked at this product line in a while, you’re going to be amazed at the advances in this form of personal communication devices. One of the things that you’ll notice first is there are many brands on the market, and many of them have similar features. To determine which features are right for you, and which have the most value added, let’s separate the basics from the bells and whistles.

Once you understand the acronyms, sport radios are nothing more than "souped up" versions of the walkie-talkies you used when you were a kid. To narrow your search, the first decision to consider is band choice.

Band Choice – One of the main differences in sport radios is the frequency or bandwidth used to transmit your voice from one radio to another. Both FRS and GMRS radios share channels 1 through 7.

  • FRS: The Family Radio Service (FRS) is a series of 14 channels in the 462Mhz and 467MHz range, set aside by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for use by sportsmen and their families. This band is free of interference from business and government agencies. FRS radios are usually small, use low power output, and are ideal for communicating with hunting partners, family members back at camp, or for overall peace of mind. Also, an important issue for some, FRS band radios require no special license by the FCC. Depending on terrain, the range of FRS band radios can be up to two miles. But, keep in mind that two-way radios are dependent on line-of-sight transmissions. You don’t need a tower to communicate, but if the person you want to talk to goes over or around a mountain, your ability to communicate will be severely hampered.
  • GMRS: The General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) is a series of specific frequencies in the 462MHz range set up by the FCC. If you’re planning on hooking up with another group that uses GMRS radios, and talking with them, make sure you have the same frequencies installed. GMRS radios must have crystals or programming for each of the numerous possible channels, therefore channel 1 on any given radio may or may not be the same channel as channel 1 on another radio. Again it depends on terrain, but GMRS radios can have a much larger talk range, extending up to 18 miles. While usually slightly larger than an FRS unit, GMRS radios will give you increased range in a unit that is still compact enough to take virtually anywhere. However, to use the 10 available channels on the GMRS band, you are required to obtain a license from the FCC. Should you choose to purchase a license, they are available for a small fee at FCC’s Universal Licensing System page:

Interference Eliminator Codes – Portable radios have become so common that when used in well-populated areas, it is possible that someone else has chosen to use the same channel as you. Common FRS radios have from 38 up to 121 interference codes to help prevent this. The interference codes will help filter out static, noise and unwanted chatter on the two-way radio channels. All you do is pick a predetermined channel and code, and you can communicate only with someone using the same channel and code. While they do not guarantee privacy, with 22 FRS channels and 121 codes, you will have up to 2,662 frequencies to use for private communication.

Power – As with any radio device, the power of the transmitting signal is listed in watts. FRS radios vary in power from 0.2 to 0.5 watts, while GMRS radios range from 2 watts all the way up to 5 watts. The more watts, the greater the range and clarity at any given distance. To save on batteries when operating close, some units have the option to select low, medium or high power.

Battery Type – Portability requires an internal battery, and the most common source of power is AA alkaline batteries. However, if you use your radio a lot, battery replacement can become burdensome. Slightly more expensive models use a nickel metal hydride (NiMH) or lithium rechargeable battery. Both of these options are convenient, more economical over time and last much longer in the field. Depending on the radio model and available accessories, you can then use either a 120-volt power source at home, or a 12-volt power source to recharge your radio’s batteries and never lose touch due to loss of power.

VOX Operation – Voice Operated Transmission (VOX) is offered on some models in which the radio transmission is activated by voice tone only. This feature is extremely handy to allow hands-free operation when attention must remain on the task at hand, such as driving a vehicle.

Call Alerts – This is a handy feature in populated areas. Select radios will have a choice of different call alerts, or tones, to notify users of an incoming transmission. It’s a great way to get the user’s attention before starting to talk, and eliminates repeating messages. Some models offer wildlife ring tones that are less obtrusive in the woods. Certain models even have a vibrate alert, which works great in a hunting situation. With the alert, you can leave the volume turned down and avoid the unwanted intrusion of drawing on the buck of a lifetime, only to have your buddy buzz in and ask, "You ready for lunch?"

Eavesdrop Reducer – This unique feature uses voice inversion technology to help scramble transmissions among users using the same channel and code on FRS radios. Some models have a choice of three settings. You and your partners simply pick the same channel, interference code and eavesdrop reducer setting, and thus make it more difficult for other FRS radios to eavesdrop on your conversations.

Additional Features – In many of the higher-end radios, more features perfect for the outdoors are added. Some will have GPS, low-battery alert, roger beep, NOAA weather receivers and a battery meter in the LCD.

Accessories – Many accessories are available to make your radio as user-friendly as possible. Some of the more common ones are protective or waterproof cases, headsets, earpieces, shoulder and belt holsters, rechargeable batteries and various charging units.

Once you’ve purchased a pair of sport radios, you’ll find lots of handy uses besides hunting, fishing or hiking. I’ve used them to keep an electronic leash on my kids at large events. This gives them the freedom to roam, and I still have the ability to check on their whereabouts from time to time or issue a total recall. Radios eliminate a lot of yelling and worry as well. When you leave camp with an expected time to return, if you get delayed it only takes a minute to adjust your ETA and let everyone know you’re okay. They’re also handy when caravanning with another vehicle on a long trip. In fact, once you have a set of sport radios, you’ll wonder just how you got along without them.