Whether you are hiking, backpacking, skiing or hunting in the wilderness, two-way radios (or walkie talkies) are an essential gear to carry for communication.
After all, you cannot always expect to get phone network coverage in the remote outdoors. These rugged, easy-to-use communication devices provide an excellent way to not only stay in touch with one or more people but can also act as a medium to receive weather and emergency information through NOAA broadcasts (for GMRS supported radios).
Two-way radios generally come in pairs to ensure that they operate on the same frequency band and support the same set of channels, without having to scan for connection.
Picking a working set of long range two-way radio is much more challenging task than picking a short-range backyard walkie-talkie set for kids. Factors such as supported frequencies, range, signal strength and design of these handheld devices play an important role in determining their suitability for your personal needs.
In this article, we will look at some of the best mid-range personal two-way radio pairs available in the market. It is worth mentioning that we would primarily look at consumer-grade radios and not consider commercial devices as they are generally costlier and sometimes bulkier to carry.
Best two-way radio listSome of the best two-way radio sets available in the market are listed below:
|Baofeng BF-F9 V2+ HP||4.0"x2.0"x6.0"|
|up to 30 miles||- This top of the line popular two-way FRS/GMRS supporting radio and tri-power settings of 1, 4 and 7/8 watts and wide frequency/channel support with 128 privacy codes.|
- The programmable radio has features such as bright LCD screen, VOX and Offset functions and noise-reduction features that block out noises caused by signal intensity changes
- Comes with rechargeable Li-ion battery, antenna, earpiece and belt clip among other things.
- Comes with 1 year domestic warranty and service in the US itself.
|Motorola MH230R FRS/GMRS||2.1"x1.1"x6.2"|
|up to 23 miles||- This water-resistant, bestselling radio pair offers reliable radio communication across multiple bands and 22 channels.|
- The radio set has features such as mini LCD screen, iVOX hands-free communication and compatibility with 11 weather (7 NOAA) channels.
- Can run on rechargeable NiMH(included) or 3 AAA alkaline batteries
- Comes with one-year manufacturer’s warranty.
|up to 36 miles||- This smartly designed radio pair offers as many as 50 channels and 142 privacy codes.|
- This radio set has bright LCD screen, 9 Levels of eVOX for hands-free Operation and compatibility with NOAA weather services.
- Rated water resistant with JIS4 rating – meaning can withstand mild splashes and showers.
- Comes with 3 years part replacement warranty.
|Retevis RT21 UHF||2.3"x1.3"x4.5"|
|up to 16 miles||- This solid-shell, screen less two-way radio offers communication across 16 channels |
- Has built in Built-in scrambler, VOX features, alarm and other standard features.
- Comes with 1-year part replacement warranty.
|up to 35 miles||- This top of the line, extremely durable radio pair from Motorola offers communication across 22 channels with 121 privacy codes.|
- Unlike other radios, this radio is waterproof with IP67 rating meaning it can withstand rain and even submersion.
- In addition to other standard features, the radio has a built-in LED light for emergencies.
- Comes with 1-year manufacturer’s warranty.
|Cobra Select CXT545||2.6"x1.7"x6.7"|
|up to 28 miles||- A smart looking and stylish two-way radio pair, which offers 22 channels and 121 privacy settings.|
- Features a hard rubberized casing for durability and weather protection. Also has a built-in LED light.
- Can run on rechargeable or alkaline batteries.
|BaoFeng BF-888S||2.0"x1.0"x 4.1"|
|up to 22 miles||-This budget, pocket size, screen less model offers 2 -watt communication across 16 channels.|
- In addition to other standard features, has a built in flashlight.
- Comes with rechargeable Li-ion battery and belt clip among other things.
- Comes with 1-year domestic warranty and service in the US itself.
|Midland LXT650VP3||2.4"x1.5" x7.9"|
|up to 30 miles||- A lighter, more stylish counterpart of the other Midland two-way radios, featuring support for 36 channels and 121 privacy codes.|
- Features include VOX calling, dual power settings and compatibility NOAA weather channels and weather scan
- Can run on rechargeable (included) or 3 AAA alkaline batteries
- Comes with 3 year part replacement warranty.
What are two-way radios and why do you need one?
As per Wikipedia, a handheld two-way radio (commonly known as walkie-talkie) is a transceiver that allows the operator to have a conversation with other similar radios operating on the same frequency (channel). These systems usually operate in a half-duplex mode; that is, the operator can talk, or he can listen, but not at the same time.
Two-way radios do not require a mobile network to operate and hence can be used in the wilderness. However, to communicate properly, they need a clear line of sight for transmitting and receiving signals.
Vegetation, buildings, terrains and metal obstructions can affect the transmission and reception while operating these. Since most of such obstructions are not present in the wilderness, except probably for terrain restrictions, they are an excellent economical communication device during an outdoor trip.
The most common systems operate in the VHF and UHF parts of the spectrum at specific frequency bands as specified in specific countries.
In the US and Canada, these services can be primarily classified into FRS (Family Radio Service) and GMRS (General Mobile Radio Service) systems.
FRS Radio Systems: The Family Radio Service (FRS) is an improved walkie talkie system authorized for use in US and Canada and uses channelized frequencies around 462 and 467 MHz in the ultra-high frequency (UHF) band.
Because of its operation frequency range, this frequency band does not experience interferences found on other lower Citizen Band devices.
Typical signal strength for FRS transmissions should not exceed 0.5 watts and no license is required for operation. Moreover, no antennas can be installed on FRS radios to increase their range.
GMRS Radio Systems: The General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS), like FRS, is a UHF service designed for short-distance two-way communication in the frequency band of 462 to 467 MHz. However, unlike FRS service, GMRS service requires a license in the United States, though some devices can be operated license free in Canada.
Such approvals are given for signals with a strength of up to about 7 watts. Another benefit of GMRS radios is that they can be fitted with optional antennas to extend their range.
These systems are an excellent medium for one-to-one instant communication. Just by pressing the “Push-To-Talk” key, you can connect to your receiving counterpart and communicate. In addition, modern systems also offer one-to-many broadcast communication within a range.
Moreover, as an additional benefit, most two-way sets listed above are capable of receiving weather information conveyed by the NOAA services in the US.
How to pick the best two-way radios?
With so much underlying technological details and fine points, picking the best two-way radio can often be a challenging task.
Before looking for the best option you should know the terrain where you would be using the system. You should not expect a very wide communication range in a dense forest or topographically diverse landscape.
Secondly, you have to decide if you need a set with or without a screen to display the frequency and channels. Finally, if you are going to opt for GMRS systems, you would have to register your device and get a license for using the system. Personal usage licenses are readily available.
Once you have determined these things, you need to consider a few more additional factors. These major factors are listed below:
- Operating range of the set set
- Number of channels and privacy codes supported
- Size and weight of the set
- Water protection
- Battery Life
- Additional Features
Operating range and signal strength the set
The correct operating range of the set is an important consideration. This range refers to the maximum distance between the two communicating sets for proper communication.
Most manufacturers advertise the operating range from 16 miles to as high as 36 miles. However, you cannot rely on just the advertised range even though longer advertised range generally means longer operating range.
The reason for the massive deviation from the advertised range is because this value is mentioned with reference to optimal operating conditions – no electromagnetic interference, ideal topography, and no weather interference.
However, in reality, factors such as geographical topography (canyons and valleys, dense forestation, tall formations), weather (rain, clouds, lightning) and obstructions (solid wood forests, buildings) limit the actual range that a set would support.
Typically, two-way radios listed above support at least 10% of the advertised range in normal wilderness environments – some trees, the topographical makeup of land, rain etc.
GMRS supporting devices such as Baofeng BF-F9 Tri-Power Radio Pair and Midland LXT650VP3 Two-Way Radio Pair when licensed can support the use of additional long distance antennas such as Nagoya UT-72 Magnetic Mount Antenna and repeater stations which increase their range to as high as 4-5 miles. Check the reviews and feedback on the sets to determine the operating ranges.
Another factor that improves the operating range of these devices is the strength of signal they can use to relay the message. FRS strength is fixed under 1 watt; however, for GMRS supporting sets, this value can go up to as high as 7 watts. High-end sets such as the Baofeng BF-F9 Tri-Power Radio Pair supports three power levels and hence can be used over wider operating range. It is also worthwhile to note that operating on higher powers would drain out the battery of the radio sets a lot quicker, so high power settings should be used only when needed.
Number of channels and privacy codes supported
If you are going to hunt, hike or camp in a popular destination, then the number of supported channels and privacy codes becomes an important consideration. After all, you would not want somebody to eavesdrop on your communication.
A combination of supported channels and privacy codes tells the number of unique combination of communicating lines that you can pick from. Simply multiply the number of channels with the number of supported codes to determine the maximum limit.
For example, the Midland GXT1000VP4 Two-Way Radio Pair supports 50 channels and 142 privacy codes meaning you can pick any of the 5800+ combinations( 42 operating channels excluding NOAA and 142 codes each) for communication. Generally, 2600+ combinations (16 channels and 121 codes each) is a reasonable number to look out for.
Size and weight of the set
Since you would like to carry the set with you at all the times, the size of the device is an important factor to consider. Unlike Personal locator beacons, these sets are more than 5 inches long and hence need to be clipped to the belt, instead of put in the pocket.
However, it is a good idea to consider picking a set which small enough and still ergonomically designed to make it easier to operate even with gloves on. The Baofeng BF-F9 Tri-Power Radio Pair devices are generally considered best for ease in handling and use.
If you are backpacking or hiking and carrying your own supplies, the weight of the device becomes important criteria to consider. Thankfully, almost all the sets are ultralight, with a weight less than 10 ounces and hence comfortable to carry along.
The advancements in water protection technology over past decades has helped in providing an extra advertising feature for two-way radios. However, you must be careful while evaluating an option as terms such as water resistant and water repellent have different meanings than waterproof.
Water resistant sets such as Motorola MH230R Two-Way Radio Pair are able to provide considerable resistance against moisture and even resist penetration of water, but do not provide full protection. So water resistant packs cannot be exposed to mild to heavy rain and you would have to protect your devices when in rain.
Water repellent sets are one level above the water resistant ones. Water repellant design refers to sealed coating that does not allow water to settle on the surface and hence provides additional protection against exposure to water and moisture. JIS4 rated sets such as Midland GXT1000VP4 Two-Way Radio Pair fall under this category.
Hard rubberized case waterproof sets provide true protection against water, including submersion. Waterproofing is generally represented by IP rating (Ingress Protection Rating) with a rating of 6 or above considered reasonable. Because of costly building material, such radio sets are generally costlier than water repellent sacks. IP67 rated Motorola MR350R Two-Way Radio Pair is an example of a waterproof set.
Check out the product description and reviews to determine the true water protection level provided by the sets before picking one for yourself. You can also consider getting an outer case to provide better protection to your radio set. Check the accessories section for some such options.
Most devices run on 2 AA or 3-AAA batteries. In addition, many sets are designed to accept rechargeable Li-Ion or NiMH batteries. Generally, these batteries come as rechargeable packs with the device pairs. As mentioned above, the higher the signal power, the lower the battery life would be. However, some radio sets such as the Motorola MR350R Two-Way Radio Pair have battery saving features that make the batteries last longer. Moreover, it is worth mentioning that the rechargeable battery packs ensure better waterproof operation than the alkaline batteries.
In addition to the factors listed above, there are some additional features that can make a radio set purchase attractive.
One of such feature is noise reduction features. Hind end sets such as Baofeng BF-F9 Tri-Power Radio Pair come with excellent features that that block out noises caused by signal intensity changes. This also helps in reducing interference from other signals and in extending the operating range of the radio set.
Another consideration is support for Voice Activated (VOX) and hands-free operation feature. With VOX feature, you can operate the radio hands-free when in active mode. This is especially useful if you are hiking or mountaineering in difficult terrain. Several VOX technical names – eVOX, iVOX etc. are used by manufacturers, so you can look out for these features before picking the most suitable set. The presence of earphone/headphone jacks also makes it easier to use earphones to operate the radio.
An additional feature offered by most sets is the LED flashlight for emergencies. Radio sets such as Baofeng BF-888S Two Way Radio Pair and Motorola MR350R Two-Way Radio Pair have such flashlights built in the devices. Look out for such additional features as well while picking the most suitable radio set.
Which are the best two-way radios and what our picks are?
Baofeng BF-F9 Tri-Power Radio Pair – Editor’s choice for best two-way radio set
The Baofeng BF-F9 Tri-Power Radio Pair is top of the line two-way FRS/GMRS supporting radio set which is an advanced version of the popular UV-5R V2+ model with the option of selecting tri-power settings of 1, 4 and 7/8 watts. Because of the ability to transmit at around 7 watts, this radio boasts of the one of the highest in-field operational range available in the market.
The Baofeng BF-F9 radio has nice features such as a bright LCD screen, VOX and Offset functions and noise-reduction chipset that blocks out noises caused by signal intensity changes. The Baofeng BF-F9 radio is fully programmable and also supports FM radio and has the ability to store 25 stations.
Out of the box, the Baofeng BF-F9 radio comes with rechargeable Li-ion battery, antenna, earpiece and belt clip among all other accessories. And in order to support the US customers, the latest Baofeng radio set comes with one-year domestic warranty and service in the US itself.
Motorola MH230R Two-Way Radio Pair – Best value pick for two-way radios
The Motorola MH230R Two-Way Radio Pair radio set is an excellent two-way radio pair for the money. With a decent advertised range of 23 miles ( around 3 miles in the real-world), this best-selling radio pair has 22 channels and 121 privacy codes, offering more than 2600 communication operating lines.
It also supports the 7 NOAA weather-alert channels. In addition, the radio set has features such as mini LCD screen, iVOX hands-free communication, and 10 call tones.
The Motorola MH230R runs on a set of NiMH rechargeable batteries (included with the pack) or a set of 3 AAA alkaline batteries. It boasts of a very efficient battery consumption with a battery life of 10 hours with alkaline and about 8 hours with rechargeable batteries. What’s more, the batteries can also be USB charged.
With respect to water protection, the Motorola MH230R has a rating of IP51 which means water resistant protection from dripping water. However, other radio sets such as the costlier Motorola MR350R Two-Way Radio Pair offers a hard rubberized case and IP67 waterproof rating. One way to circumvent this is to get waterproof cases such as Top Grit Motorola Talkabout MH230R Case.
Like all other Motorola sets, the Motorola MH230R Two-Way Radio Pair comes with one year manufacturer’s warranty.
Two-way radio accessories
One of the most commonly sought after accessory for radio pairs is a cover for extra protection. You should first check if the manufacturer provides a cover for the specific model, as this would ensure the best fit. If not, you can consider the following options for specific models:
- Top Grit Motorola Talkabout MH230R Case
- Baofeng Walkie Talkie Silica Gel Cover
- USA Gear Neoprene Two-Way Radio Cover
Another common accessory for GMRS type two-way radios are the antennas. These antennas help in extending the range of your two-way radio devices. In addition to the popular Nagoya antennas, you can consider the following options for antennas:
Final thoughts on the best two-way radios to buy
In this article, we looked at some of the best consumer-grade two-way radio pairs available in the market. These devices provide an economical mechanism for communication in the wilderness, where mobile network signals are not that prevalent. We also looked at how these devices work and also at the factors to consider while picking the most suitable options for your needs do let us know how you found this article and if you would want us to consider anything else. Happy wilderness exploration!!