Buyer's Guide to FRS Band Two-Way Radios

FRS band two-way radios are ideal for family camping, hiking and other outdoor activities where cell phone coverage may be sketchy at best, or for keeping in touch with family members on shopping trips to the mall where the group won't be too widely dispersed. With FRS, or Family Radio Service, you don't need a license, and there are no call charges. A basic buyer's guide: Urban range of FRS can be less than a half-mile or up to two miles in open spaces. If you need more range, you'll need a General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) handset, which requires a license but can offer ranges of up to 18 miles in ideal conditions.

FRS, GMRS or dual-band handsets

Family Radio Service was originally set up for short-range consumer communications, while the GMRS was geared towards longer-range commercial communications. FRS radios have integrated antennas and transmit with a half-watt of power. GPRS handsets typically transmit 1 to 2 watts of power, and may have external, detachable antennas.

FRS radios can transmit on up to 14 channels, depending on the manufacturer. GMRS units have up to 22, consisting of up to seven FRS channels, seven FRS/GMRS shared channels and eight GMRS-only channels. Typically, while GMRS or dual FRS/GMRS models are more expensive, they are also more fully featured, and are capable of transmitting on FRS channels using only the half-watt of power allowed. Although this reduces the range on those channels, you still have the extra features, and the option to switch to longer-range channels if the need arises.

Privacy and security

If you're using your radios in a sparsely populated area, you probably won't have too much trouble finding a clear channel to communicate on. If you're in a resort or an urban setting, though, the airwaves may be a little more crowded. Look for handsets with both privacy codes and eavesdrop reduction functions. That's because the privacy codes are something of a misnomer. They allow users to subdivide channels and suppress the speaker on the handset unless the sending user's privacy code matches the receiver's, but they won't prevent anyone from listening in to all subchannels with a privacy code of "0." Eavesdrop-reduction functions scramble the transmission so that only users on the same channel and subchannel with the same scramble code entered will be able to hear them.

Rechargeable or replaceable batteries

While some units work on disposable alkaline batteries and others exclusively on nickel metal hydride (NiMH) or nickel cadmium (NiCad) rechargeable batteries, it's always a good idea to look for a model that can accommodate either. It's also worth investing in a solar charger for batteries if you plan on an outdoor excursion of more than a few days. Carry spare batteries in a pocket close to the body, as cold weather drains all batteries more quickly.

Focus on features you need

You probably won't need every feature, so think about where and how you're likely to use your FRS two-way radios, and concentrate on the features most important to you. For example, if you plan to use them at the mall, then altimeters, stop watches and weather channels are probably not going to be deciding factors. Instead, you might want to look for a handset with vibration alert, texting functionality or the ability to speak privately to one member of the group. If you're more into adventure sports, then waterproof and rugged handsets with buttons you can manipulate wearing gloves may be more appropriate than changeable face plates.

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