How To Choose A Two-Way Radio

Rilor Staff
Update: August 23, 2021
Table of Contents

How to choose a two-way radio?

For hikers and off-the-grid explorers, two-way radios are essential equipment. They allow quick and uninterrupted communication with other people who are currently situated in other areas. 

Since we are talking about outdoor applications, it is necessary that the radios should be durable, rugged, and compact. But of course, they aren't the only features that you need to consider. If you want a high-quality two-way radio, the following features should be taken into account. 

How To Choose A Two-Way Radio

The best way to know these two-way radios is by understanding their anatomy. Fundamentally, you need to have a grasp on how they operate and the things that make them function the way they do. 

Below are some of the essential features of two-way radios. Be familiar with them so that you will be able to refine your choices. In this way, you can narrow your selection and get the two-way radio that suits your needs and budget well. 

Essential Features Of A Two-Way Radio

  • Weight and size - In buying a two-way radio, it is crucial that you check its size and weight. You should be conscious of these factors, primarily if you intend to use the radio for backpacking and ultralight hiking. A lightweight and compact radio is undoubtedly beneficial, as it allows a single-hand operation. 

For those who are winter hiking and skiing, make sure that the radio has an ergonomic, slip-free architecture. In this way, you can hold it even while wearing gloves. 

  • Channels - Unlike your typical radios, a two-radio has a different mechanism for its channel. Specifically, these channels are used for two-way communication. These days, most two-way radios have at least twenty-two channels. They come as either General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) or Family Radio Service (FRS) bands. However, keep in mind that you need an FCC license before you can use a two-way radio with GMRS channels. 
  • Privacy mechanisms - If you are situated in a high-traffic area, a two-way radio with only two channels can easily get full. You'll receive multiple receptions from other radio owners that you don't know. To prevent this problem, a lot of radios today have the Continuous Digital Coded Squelch System (CDCSS) or Continuous Tone Coded Squelch System (CTCSS). These mechanisms enable you to utilize the channels without traffic through the use of privacy codes. 

In a general setup, you can communicate to a person using a channel. For example, you talk to your friend via channel 6. With the privacy codes, you can have an isolated line in the said channel. An example would be talking to a friend on channel six and code 7. Through the CDCSS and CTCSS, radios can reduce the unwanted traffic off the channels. With the codes, your reception would be free from unwanted noises. 

Keep in mind that a privacy code doesn't necessarily encrypt your communication. It is still public but has been isolated. That's why other radio manufacturers refer to these codes as interference eliminators. 

  • Coverage - There are a number of two-way radios that are claiming that they can communicate to other radios that are as far as 25 miles--as long as the conditions are right. Well, we are not the ones that can judge the veracity of these claims. However, what you need to know is that the real settings are not always optimal. Hence, the most reliable range for these radios would be around two miles or less. You are already lucky if you can get a 5-mile reception. 

Radios that are exclusively FRS have a maximum output of half a watt on average. Their range usually extends from five to six miles. While it is true that GMRS models are capable of high outputs (as high as 50 watts), most of their recreational counterparts only offer one or two watts of output. In this way, their weight and bulk would be reduced. Their range can extend up to 25 miles, and the optimal range is 8 miles. 

There's a benefit if you choose these high-output radios. They can compensate for the dropouts, especially if you are surrounded by tall buildings or hills. As long as the radio is powerful, the signal that it generates remains strong. But at the same time, keep in mind that a high-output radio also eats a lot of power. Moreover, they are expensive to purchase. 

  • Noise filter - It is also beneficial that you get a two-way radio that has a noise filter. They can refine the signal and further improve your effective communication range. 
  • VOX - Interestingly, the VOX or voice-activated feature is not present in the older models of two-way radios. It became a thing just recently when manufacturers of these radios want their devices to be savvy and user-friendly. With the VOX, the radio automatically operates every time you speak on it. In short, it enables a hands-free operation. Hikers and bikers can benefit from this function. 
  • Lock-on keypad - It is pretty annoying if the settings of your radio get messed up due to accidental presses. This usually occurs if you put the radio in your pocket or pack. To prevent this nuisance from happening, some manufacturers integrated a keypad lock on their radios. 
  • Scanning capability - This feature exists to simplify the usage of two-way radio. With a scanning function, you will be able to go through all the channels within your radio. It lets you find the channel that your company is using quickly. At the same time, you can also utilize this function to detect channels that are free for you and your team to use. 
  • Weather channel - It would really be great if your two-radio includes a weather channel, such as NOAA so that you can stay updated with the latest changes in your area's atmospheric condition. The information that you can get from these weather bands might help save your life one day, especially while you are doing some adventures in hazard-prone areas. 

Other Factors In Choosing Two-Way Radios

  • Pairing compatibility - You see, it is better that you buy two-way radios as a pair. After all, if you want to fully utilize the full features of the radios, you need them to have the same specifications. In fact, even if your two-way radio is different from the two-way radio of the group, as long as they have the settings and features, you can make them sync with one another. But if you want to avoid the extra fuss, just go with radios with similar build and maker. 
  • Region of use - Keep in mind that two-way radios that are designed to be used on American soil are not allowed to be used outside the United States and Canada. In 2005, the frequencies of Canadian and American two-way radios had been synced together, ensuring that they are compatible with each other. In other countries, the North American frequencies can be used for military and government-related settings. 

In Summary

As you can see, it is not that difficult to learn how to choose a two-way radio. You simply have to know all the distinct features of these radios so that you can refine your selection based on your needs and personal preferences. 

In a nutshell, two-way radios for outdoor applications should be lightweight and compact. They should also be rugged and offer hands-free mechanisms, if possible. Also, check if the radio you get requires a license to operate or not!

That's it for now. If you have other related inquiries, feel free to ask me in the comment section below.

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