Guide to the Best Two-Way Radios

Two-way radios often work where cell phones won't, providing instant communication in remote areas. They're also a cost-effective alternative to cell phones for families, since you won't be paying for airtime each time you need to communicate. Whether you're hiking the back country or just trying to find a meeting place at the mall, a little research will reveal the best two-way radio for your needs.

How Two-Way Radios Work
Two-way radios have a built-in radio transmitter, antenna and speaker. They're essentially miniature radio stations that you can carry with you.

The range of a two-way radio is the maximum amount of distance that two units can have between them and still work. Range measurements assume a direct line of sight, so a two-way radio with a 10-mile range will transmit 10 miles in an open field. Things that interfere with radio signals, such as trees, buildings, hills and rock formations reduce the broadcasting range.

If a two-way radio has a range over two miles, you need to register with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and get a license to use it. There is a one-time fee of $75 for this license.

Service Types
There are two sets of frequencies used by two-way radios: Family Radio Service (FRS) and General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS).

Family Radio Service (FRS) radios allow for up to two miles of transmission, do not require a license and cost nothing to use. In fact, you can use these two-way radios right out of the box. These are great for use around the house or at the mall, but their limited channels and range makes them less than ideal for the back country.

General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) radios are designed especially for long-range communication. The longer range of these two-way radios is ideal for job sites and remote outdoor environments, but each user will need to get an FCC license before they can start communicating. Pay attention to wattage when comparing GMRS two-way radios, as higher wattages indicate longer communication ranges. A longer range can be helpful in areas where buildings and mountains dominate the landscape. You won't get the full range through buildings and rocks, but you'll get better performance than you would from a shorter range radio.

Hybrid two-way radios can transmit and receive both FRS and GMRS channels. These radios also require a licensing fee and can be used for both long- and short-range communication, making them a good choice for outdoor enthusiasts.

Features
If you're out in the backcountry, you'll need to keep an eye on power, reception and battery life. Look for two-way radios with large, backlit LED screens that will work in darkness as well as daylight.

When you use a two-way radio, you need to lock in a certain channel between both units to maintain communications. Two-way radios arrive with a preset number of channels for transmitting. Paying more usually gets you more channels. If you live in a densely populated area, you may find that you need the extra channels for clear communication and privacy.

FRS two-way radios can transmit on 14 channels and GMRS units can transmit on 15 channels, 7 of which are shared with FRS bands. Look for a channel scan feature or dual-channel monitoring that lets you use multiple channels. This helps you to communicate with several two-way radios at once.

Look for a vibration setting and auto squelch that will keep your two-way radio quiet until you need to use it. Channel lock keeps you tuned to a specific frequency while you move around, saving the need to retune the radio.

Most two-way radios include the ability to monitor weather and emergency channels. This is necessary for a two-way radio you'll take into the wilderness and a good idea for family radios in areas prone to severe weather.

Privacy
Two-way radios use public airwaves, and others can eavesdrop on your conversations. You may also find yourself occasionally sharing a channel with someone else. Privacy codes filter out unwanted noise from other conversations on a channel by dividing the main channel into code-protected subchannels. Other people can still tune in to your channel, but the code will scramble your voice so that your conversation will not be understood.

A larger number of privacy codes offer greater protection and more channels to choose from. For example, a 7-channel radio with 38 privacy codes offers 245 subchannels. To use these privacy features, both users must have the same two-way radio, channel and privacy code.

Battery Life
Most families will be satisfied with off-the-shelf batteries for two-way radios used around the house or for occasional outings. You'll talk greener if you use rechargeable batteries; just be sure they're charged before you need to use your two-way radios. Most radios with LED screens include a battery meter, and some models will vibrate or emit a quiet beep if the batteries run low.

Workers and users in remote outdoor locations need to give careful consideration to batteries. If batteries fail, your two-way radio won't work and you're cut off from communications. For daily use around a job site, look for two-way radios with built-in rechargeable batteries. These two-way radios plug in to a base station at the end of the day that keeps the batteries fully powered.

If you'll be using a two-way radio far from civilization, avoid built-in rechargeables in favor of removable rechargeable batteries. This gives you an added measure of safety if your trip lasts longer than expected and the batteries in your two-way radio fail. Don't forget to pack some extra batteries.

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