Walkie Talkie / 2-Way Radio Overview
What ARE walkie talkies, anyway? And what makes them different from radios?
To be exact, walkie talkies are UHF handheld radio audio transceivers.
“Transceiver” means that they can both transmit and receive radio signals, which is why they are also called two-way radios. This is opposed to the radio in your alarm clock, which can only receive.
“UHF” means “ultra-high frequency.” This refers to the 462 to 467 MHz frequencies they broadcast. Those frequencies are blocked out for FRS and GMRS use, which will be explained later.
“Handheld” should be self-explanatory. They’re not mounted to a vehicle or building, nor are they backpack two-way radios.
Walkie talkies default to receive mode, which is when the receiver is on and listening for a signal. Once a signal is received, then the radio turns the signal into audio for the speaker.
When you press the push-to-talk button, the transmitter turns on and the receiver turns off. Because of this, only one person can talk at a time. The signal propagates throughout the entire range of the radio signal and any radio in the vicinity set to that channel will receive the signal.
Once you release the PTT button, the radio ceases transmitting and enables receiving again.
UHF radio waves basically work over line-of-sight. They can penetrate some light obstacles, such as thin tree cover, but at longer ranges you need to see the recipient in order for them to receive your signal.
How to Choose A 2 Way Radio?
Walkie talkies come in many sizes and powers. All of the radios you read about above are good for hunting, but some are better under different circumstances.
So, let’s learn more about various walkie talkie features which can make a certain model a good or poor choice!
FRS and GMRS
First of all, a note about legality.
The FCC has created two personal-use systems, the FRS and GMRS.
FRS—Family Radio Service
Most people using walkie talkies will broadcast using the FRS. This system uses a specific set of frequencies and can be used by anyone for radio use, though other uses are prohibited.
So, if you’re designing a radio-controlled drone, don’t use an FRS frequency!
The only “problem” with the FRS is power. The FCC limits the amount of power you can use to broadcast on an FRS frequency to 2 watts.
GMRS—General Mobile Radio Service
The GMRS uses similar-yet-different frequencies to FRS. The main benefit of using GMRS is that you can use more than 2 watts of power. Transmission can use up to 5 watts, allowing for a much greater range, though not 2.5 times the range.
However, you need a GMRS license with the FCC to legally broadcast on GMRS channels. The FCC is unlikely to prosecute radio piracy in emergency situations, but it’s still highly recommended for you to acquire a GMRS license if you want to use those frequencies.
Walkie talkies these days are much easier to use than in the dark days of radios. Channels are, for the most part, standardized, and you can almost always communicate with any FRS/GMRS radio with any walkie talkie.
On 22-channel walkie talkies, 8–14 are typically FRS channels, while 1–7 and 15–22 are GMRS channels.
Some radios, however, have programmable channels. These are typically UHF radios which can use frequencies past those allotted to the FRS and GMRS systems. However, you’ll need a more expensive business license to use those frequencies!
You can also use privacy codes so other people listening to your channel won’t hear what you say, only the intended recipient.
Radios with privacy codes transmit a certain code with their messages, and receiving walkie talkies will remain unmuted unless they are set to that same code.
This provides a measure of privacy, though it’s not perfect.
Range and Power
As mentioned before, FRS radios broadcast at up to 2 watts of power and GMRS radios can use up to 5 watts of power.
It takes an ever-increasing amount of power to push the radio signal just a little bit further, so max-power GMRS has only a little more range than max-power FRS.
Many walkie talkies claim a range of over 30 miles. Sounds impressive, right?
Well, you won’t get that far unless one of you is on a mountain and the other in a valley, AND you can see each other!
The real-world range will be much shorter. A 35-mile radio may reach 7 miles across a flat field and 2 miles in a forest or suburban neighborhood.
So, while extra power does grant you extra range, it also comes at the expense of a much shorter battery life. If you expect a range of one mile then you’ll be satisfied with the range of all of the walkie talkies above.
Oh, and radio waves don’t propagate well through solid objects, so don’t expect your radio to work well when your friend is on the other side of a hill.
Battery life is both very important and not all that important when it comes to walkie talkies.
A longer battery life will keep you on the air longer before needing to recharge your batteries. However, most walkie talkies can also use AA batteries, and good luck getting to a wall charger in the mountains!
Still, if you have room for the gear, it might be a good idea to carry two radios. One short-range radio for battery life, and a long-range radio for if you get separated from the group and cannot raise them on the other radio.
Durability and Waterproofness
Rugged walkie talkies cost more than less-protected walkie talkies. However, if you’re camping, hiking, hunting, kayaking, or engaging in any other outdoor activity, improved durability could mean the difference between contacting your partner and holding a dead radio.
As for waterproofness, you don’t always need to pay for that feature. Waterproof radios tend to have a lower maximum volume and cost more. They’re good when you’re on a river, but if you’re in the woods, water resistance is good enough against rain.
Most radios come with more features than just transmitting and receiving radio signals.
As an outdoors person, certain extra features are good to have.
Weather alerts? Those can save your life!
Emergency flashlight? You should have a flashlight with you already, but two is better than one!
Some other features are conveniences, such as headsets and VOX. VOX enables hands-free transmissions. Start talking and the radio will start transmitting, though your first words will get cut off.
Whether you want these are up to you. Personally, I won’t buy a walkie talkie without a weather radio.
Top Walkie Talkie Brands
Kenwood produces a range of electronic products designed to handle constant, rough use.
They primarily focus on car entertainment and communication. Many of their radios are designed to be mounted in a vehicle. They’re used by airports, businesses, fire departments, and anybody else who needs a two-way radio system they can depend on.
Kenwood also produces handheld radios, mobile radios, and base stations for amateur radio enthusiasts.
Their focus isn’t on the average consumer or outdoorsman. That doesn’t make their products any less worthwhile. It means Kenwood’s products are designed for professional use and can hold up under stress better than the average consumer walkie talkie.
Oddly enough, Motorola Solutions is not the same Motorola which makes smartphones!
That Motorola is Motorola Mobility. They used to be the same company, Motorola, Inc., until the company split into two in 2011.
Motorola Solutions is the legal successor of the original Motorola, Inc. and is the producer of many consumer two-way radios.
They also produce both small-scale and large-scale radio systems for US government operations. In fact, Motorola was an original pioneer into radio research.
We wouldn’t have handheld radios if it wasn’t for Motorola.
Their technological expertise surpasses walkie talkies, though. They set up communication services all over the world. Motorola is also a leader in advanced video surveillance, for better or for worse.
Various industries such as mines and hospitals all use Motorola’s products to keep people communicating over long distances.
Another pioneering radio company, Midland USA was responsible for bringing CB radios to the public. They also made great strides into FRS technology.
Their focus is not in large-scale communications systems. Instead, Midland supplies radios to the smaller guys; farms large and small use Midland radios.
They are also popular amongst people who need durable and long-range outdoor radios. Campers, hunters, and survivalists all use Midland radios.
Midland is also partially responsible for the proliferation of NOAA-weather-compatible radios, which are a great boon to anybody who is spending more than a brief moment outdoors.
How do I find the right radio frequency?
In this day and age, finding the right frequency is easy with most walkie talkies.
Channels 1–7 are GMRS, 8–14 are FRS, and 15–22 are GMRS again. This has been standardized, though you can still find the occasional non-standard holdout.
In that case, you’ll need to look up the FCC frequency standards for the channel to which you want to connect and compare them to your radio’s user manual. You’ll be able to connect to the right channel.
What two-way radios do the military use?
The US military uses walkie talkies, but they are different from the ones usable by civilians.
For starters, they use vastly different frequency bands than FRS/GMRS, often in the 138–144 and 225–400 MHz bands. They also use special military radios such as the Motorola SRX 2200, which are generally not for sale to civilians.
You can monitor military traffic with some receivers, but unless you’re in the military yourself, transmitting on them is a bad idea.
Do two-way radios work on airplanes or cruise ships, and are they allowed there in the first place?
Walkie talkies do work in large, enclosed vehicles such as airplanes and cruise ships. They may have trouble with dense cabins in the middle of ships, but many people use them to keep in touch with their family.
As for aircraft, they might work within the plane, but it’s very illegal. You won’t be able to communicate with people outside the plane because the plane’s body will function as a Faraday cage and block the signal.
My recommendation is to take out the battery, store the two-way radio in your luggage, and save it for the mountains!
After you have purchased your new radio, you should also get familiar with walkie talkie lingo.