2-way radios: What's good, reliable and cost efficient?

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2-way radios: What's good, reliable and cost efficient?

Post by CannondaleKid » Dec 14 2010 7:12 pm

With the search for Joe going on using 2-way radios it got me to thinking it might be time to pick up a set. But of course, not having put much thought into it previously, I would rather hear the good, bad and ugly from fellow hikers before taking the say-so of a retail clerk, even if they may have solid knowledge.

Anyone want to kick in their :M2C: worth?
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Re: 2-way radios: What's good, reliable and cost efficient?

Post by kevinweitzel75 » Dec 14 2010 7:32 pm

I had a set of 20 mile Midlands for awhile till they got stolen. Pretty nice radios. Not really 20 miles, but more like a 2.5 mile range, depending on the terrain. You could use double a's or rechargables that came with the package. (Two radios, a charging base, car and home plugs, two rechargable packs and two ear pieces.) I think they cost me about $100 or so. I'm sure there are better radios out there, but these were pretty good for the money.
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Re: 2-way radios: What's good, reliable and cost efficient?

Post by CannondaleKid » Dec 14 2010 7:38 pm

I've been scanning the internet and on ConsumerSearch the top-rated GMRS radio is the Motorola MR350.

Something I found out, they are UHF radios, and as such, they are pretty much line-of-site possibly reaching 25 or even 50 miles under ideal conditions, but sometimes they may only reach .5 mile. So it just depends on the surrounding conditions.
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Re: 2-way radios: What's good, reliable and cost efficient?

Post by chumley » Dec 14 2010 7:44 pm

I've got a 10-year old pair of Motorola Talkabouts that work on the FRS. They've got 14 channels and 38 privacy codes. The privacy codes are key when using in an area where you will encounter others (I use mine skiing quite a bit, and without the privacy codes, you run into a lot of other peoples conversations).

The downside is that there's only 14 FRS channels, so if you want to use them with some of the newer models (GMRS?) out there, they are limited to using 1-14.

My old-skool ones are only rated for 2-miles, which on full charge, they come pretty close to. Line-of-sight works the best, and rough canyon-type terrain significantly reduces their distance capability.

I have been looking at adding to my pair (friends don't usually have their own), but every time I do more research, I get frustrated because the reviews are all over the map with regards to what distances are "claimed" versus what distance they actually cover. I'd like to reliably get a little bit more distance from a new set but I believe its safe to say that absolutely none of them get anywhere near 20-miles or whatever the best ones now claim to get. (Some of my research has indicated that they all get pretty much the same range regardless of the claims.)

I also will be happy to read the responses on this thread.

As far as durability, ease of use, convenience, etc. my old Motorola T6300 Talkabouts have served me very well, and are still runnin. (Includes weatherband radio, time, alarm, normal alkaline AAA or rechargable, weatherproof, belt clip, and headset jack).
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Re: 2-way radios: What's good, reliable and cost efficient?

Post by Sun_Ray » Dec 14 2010 7:49 pm

Looked up the Motorola MR350 and see MR350R............ anyone know what the R stands for? Later model? I need to hurry up and get a model number to Santa. :D
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Re: 2-way radios: What's good, reliable and cost efficient?

Post by Thoreau » Dec 14 2010 8:00 pm

Being the radio geek that I seem to be becoming, I guess I'll take a stab at this one. Keep in mind, a grain of salt should go with everything hereafter. I may have picked up my HAM license, and been addicted to this junk for a while, but I'm still very much a novice in the radio-comm world.

That said, I see two real options when it comes to general backcountry radio use. GMRS, and ham radio, with my personal preference wanting to lean towards ham, but reality kinda gets in the way of that wish.

GMRS:
This is what you'll find in pretty much every bubble pack radio at Walmart, Costco, etc. For the most part, they're all the same. 22 channels (1-14 are 'FRS', while 1-7 and 15-22 are 'GMRS' (note the overlap of 1-7,)) short, permananent antennas, and often feature rich with extras like weather radio, built in flashlights, nity beeping doodads, etc. One thing worth noting is that these radios REQUIRE AN FCC-GRANTED LICENSE if you plan to use anything except channels 8-14 which are strictly FRS. GMRS is the part that requires the license. Also worth noting is that pretty much NOBODY actually follows that rule. While I certainly can't condone ignoring the law on this one on a public forum, let's just say that it's more common then jaywalking, and outside of businesses using the frequencies, about as consequence-free.

All in all, these radios are great for short range communication in the 2-mile-or-so range. They all advertise MUCH higher numbers. A pair I saw at Costco yesterday are rated at 35 miles (nice radios actually.) That number always comes from truly ideal conditions that nobody is gonna find in their actual use. Generally it means they took a radio, put it on top of a tall mountain right next to a large body of water, and sent the other radio out onto the water in a boat while maintaining direct line of sight. In the real world, 2 miles is a pretty safe bet most of the time, and sometimes more or less depending on the terrain or other conditions. I've seen some of those radios push the 5 mile envelope in mostly flat areas, but I wouldn't wanna bank on them.

GMRS radios are, however, EXTREMELY common. Everyone has one (or more) laying around and they're easy acquire and use. This whole search for Joe thing got me thinking recently, and I think it would be a good thing if the hiking community settled on one of the channels in the 22-channel range to be some sort of unofficial 'hiker' channel. Great for emergency use, or just to shout out and see if you're really alone out there =) That said, I'm pretty a few National Parks actually monitor channel 1 these days.

Ham radio:
There's SO much to cover on this one, but the short version is that anything GMRS can do, ham can do better, and ham can do a lot that gmrs can't even dream of.

First off, let's get this out of the way. It requires a license. And not "requires" in quotes, but you really do need a license, or trust me, you WILL be caught using any of the ham frequencies without it. Suffice it to say the FCC takes enforcement seriously, and the ham community takes it even moreso. THe good news is, it's truly not hard to get. It looks daunting at first, but just remember that there are grade-school kids who hold the top license ("extra" class) out there, so any average Joe who spends a little time studying can easily get the entry-level license ("technician" class.) If anyone is interested, I can certainly post up some more info on that task. Some free websites, plus a $20 or so study guide, and it's a breeze. The license itself is also technically free. You just end up paying about $15 to the volunteer exam coordinator for administering the test. I studied for less than a week proper, and in one afternoon was able to sit in on a cram session run by the MCSO Communications Posse and pass my Tech test that day. Only 35 questions, multiple choice, and the ACTUAL questions AND answers are published and freely available. =)

Ok, thats the annoying part that turns most people off of ham. Now for the good part... What IS it, and what can it do?

Ham isn't really anything special. Just like any other 2-way radio, it takes your voice, modulates it, slaps it onto a frequency, and transmits it out via nifty radio waves. GMRS radios spit out your voice, via Frequency Modulation, on frequencies around 462 mhz, and you get (on most radios) 22 channels (or frequencies) to choose from. Ham just gives you a *LOT* more. While GMRS/FRS radios just give you those 22 pre-defined slots to transmit on, ham gives you massive ranges you can use. One small example would be the "2 meter band" (techie term) that lets you use frequencies from 144mhz to 148mhz. When you consider that the frequencies are in steps as small as 144.005, 144.010, 144.015... and so on, you can see how the horizons just open up. And that's just a small portion of what the ENTRY level license gets ya.

The equipment itself isn't anything too special either. They're just like your typical Motorola Talkabout bubble pack radio, but with a lot more frequencies, ability to use different antennas, more transmit power, etc. (GMRS tends to stop at 2 watts, whereas the average ham handheld can push out 5 watts.) The ability to use different antennas also makes a WORLD of difference... far more than additional wattage. Slapping on a $30 antenna can really give you some crazy range. For example, when sitting on top of Mt. Peely a couple weeks ago I was able to connect to a repeater that was located on the Chase bank tower in downtown Phoenix, and make a phone call through it. I was also able to contact one repeater on Mt. Ord, Thompson Peak, the White Tanks, Mesa, Shaw Butte, MT. LEMMON, and even Mt Elden. Being a hiking community, I'm sure you guys know just how far those peaks really are. =)

Another huge bonus to ham radio is REPEATERS. These are FREE systems that sit atop almost every major mountain in Arizona and usually have much larger antennas (measured in yards, not inches) and much more power. You transmit to that repeater, and it re-broadcasts your message to it's radius. Just to give you an idea of what some repeaters can get as far as coverage...

( dead link removed )

You can be anywhere within the range of that repeater, and if you can hit it, you can talk to any other radio in that same radius. Heck, there's one repeater in Tucson on Mt. Lemmon that I was able to hit from my 3rd story bedroom in NE Phoenix with just a 5 watt handheld, 17in antenna, and too much spare time =)

Yet another nice bonus is that many repeaters have what's called an 'autopatch'. This is a device on the repeater itself that lets you make phone calls with your radio. You press the push to talk button, key in some codes, and bada bing, you are making someone's phone ring and you've got a phone call. Ever wanna order pizza from the top of a mountain? muahahahahh! Seriously though, this could be a huge safety feature for hikers. I was making phone calls on Mt. Peely in a spot where I couldn't even get SMS messages to go out. Throughout pretty much all of the path from trailhead to the top I had communication with a repeater sitting atop Mt. Ord, crystal clear.

I should also add that these little radios can do a lot of other things like listen to weather radio, listen to GMRS/FRS, listen to CB, listen to public services (Phoenix Fire and DPS are two that I listen to often,) listen to aircraft, boats, shortwave radio from around the world, and so much more. In an emergency (and only then) if a radio has been tweaked a little bit, it can even transmit to the above. God knows I hope to never test it, but it would not be hard for me to talk to an airplane flying overhead if I needed help. I was even able to listen to the radio chatter from the official SAR teams on the first weekend (the one where we all got shut out of the road to the trailhead by MCSO.)

Lastly, different frequency ranges tend to behave differently in the wild. Generally, the lower the frequency, the better it works for wilderness use. That's why you'll see most S&R groups sticking to frequencies in the 140mhz area (which is an area of the radio spectrum that ham radio users get to use as well.) You can go lower, but at a certain point you need antennas that are just not feasible for handheld use for them to be really effective.

I'm certain that I'm missing some things here, but this should give a pretty basic idea of where my thoughts are on this one. Ham takes some effort, but it can pay off many times over. Of course, some (most) folks will simply never want to go that route. For those instances, pretty much any recent Motorola GMRS/FRS radio is going to be as good as it gets without ham. (I'm partial to just getting whatever Costco has for sale at the time. Good price, all the accessories, and of course a top notch satisfaction guarantee!)

Hopefully I didn't ramble too long that I bored folks. Either way, feel free to ask questions. If I can, I'll certainly answer them, or try to find our what I can't =)

For the record, I primarily carry my Yaesu VX-7R these days (although MUCH less-pricey options definitely do exist):
( dead link removed )

Once such less-pricey radio might be:
( dead link removed )

And this is actually a REMARKABLY feature-rich and capable radio for $80. In a lot of ways, it's just as good as that $300+ radio:
( dead link removed )

And I've also got probably a half dozen Motorola FRS/GMRS radios of various models (mostly from Costco), a couple Uniden GMRS/FRS radios, and a Cobra Marine VHF radio that also does GMRS.

Variety is the spice of life :y:

PPS: I should mention that from my 3rd floor bedroom near Scottsdale/101 I was able to talk directly with a friend who lives on the south east side of the 101/60. 19 miles with handheld radios. =)
Last edited by Thoreau on Dec 14 2010 8:26 pm, edited 4 times in total.

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Re: 2-way radios: What's good, reliable and cost efficient?

Post by CannondaleKid » Dec 14 2010 8:01 pm

@SunRay:
On the Motorola site they show nothing as just MR350, but there is an MR350R and an MR350RVP:
( dead link removed )
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Re: 2-way radios: What's good, reliable and cost efficient?

Post by Thoreau » Dec 14 2010 8:14 pm

By the way, speaking to the frustration folks have about the claimed range of most radios... a little back story on why they pretty much all perform about the same (and nowhere near the advertised numbers.)

First is the method they use to test them which I outlined in my other post (or was that a full on book? hehe...)

Second is the FRS band. Those first 14 channels were originally just 'FRS'. As such, the FCC regulations dictate that they can only have a small FIXED antenna that is not user-replaceable/changeable, they can only transmit at 0.5 watts max, and they only get those 14 channels. The idea was that for the typical family using them (Family Radio Service) range doesn't need to be a lot, and keeping range down also helps control inteference, congestion, etc.

After a while, radio manufacturers started selling radio models that could use FRS but ALSO use GMRS (General Mobile Radio Service) channels. I'm not sure why, but that service overlapped FRS on the frequencies used on channels 1-7. GMRS is great because you can legally have bigger antennas, more transmit power (up to 50 watts) and all for the paltry $80 (roughly) license that lasts five years.

The problem is that for the radio to still be legal on FRS, they have to maintain the permanent antenna, which is a HUGE part of what limits the range of these radios. They upped the transmit power for the GMRS channels in most cases (usually to 2 watts, and not more since you would fry a set of AA batteries in no time going much higher). That's why these radios will often transmit at 2 watts on 1-7 and 15-22, while only half a watt on 8-14. In any case, the tiny antenna and limited power output are INTENTIONAL, and manufacturers are trying anything they can to make their products stand out among the rest now that they all have the same limitations and have tweaked the radios as far as they can under those limitations.

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Re: 2-way radios: What's good, reliable and cost efficient?

Post by Sun_Ray » Dec 14 2010 8:16 pm

@Thoreau
Good stuff......thanks for taking the time to educate us on the subject.
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Re: 2-way radios: What's good, reliable and cost efficient?

Post by The_Eagle » Dec 14 2010 8:17 pm

First.... Thoreau .... Excellent write up! You should turn it into a HAZ article so the information does not get lost for future use.

I have these and have been happy with them.
Motorola TalkAbout MJ270R 27-Mile 22-Channel FRS/GMRS Two-Way Radio
published 27 mile range (I've had conversations at 7 miles)
22 Channels plus sub-channels
6 Weather bands
Emergency alert
and a dinky flashlight
comes with a charger base for the built in rechargable batteries.

Can't beat $46 on Amazon w/ free shipping

http://www.amazon.com/Motorola-TalkAbou ... ikearizona
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Re: 2-way radios: What's good, reliable and cost efficient?

Post by Thoreau » Dec 14 2010 8:35 pm

coanbru wrote:First.... Thoreau .... Excellent write up! You should turn it into a HAZ article so the information does not get lost for future use.

I have these and have been happy with them.
Motorola TalkAbout MJ270R 27-Mile 22-Channel FRS/GMRS Two-Way Radio
published 27 mile range (I've had conversations at 7 miles)
22 Channels plus sub-channels
6 Weather bands
Emergency alert
and a dinky flashlight
comes with a charger base for the built in rechargable batteries.

Can't beat $46 on Amazon w/ free shipping

http://www.amazon.com/Motorola-TalkAbou ... ikearizona
No problem. I think there are a few other hams here that can chime in with more knowledge. I can't imagine that I'm the one who holds rank on this, lol. If I am, we're all doomed!

That motorola is pretty close to the units I've had for a while. That 'dinky flashlight' is actually one of my favorite features too. It definitely isn't much, but it IS a small light, readily accessible, and not TOO shabby in a pinch. It's nice to see that and the weather bands on any model these days as they really do add to the 'emergency' use capabilities of the radios.

One thing worth considering with regards to the batteries... most of those things still use nicad for the included rechargeable batteries. Kinda sad, but reality sometimes is =) One way to fix that real quickly and get some pretty good improvement as well... Sanyo Eneloop rechargeable batteries. Not to sound like a walking Costco ad, but I've picked up a LOT of those Eneloops over the las few years there, and they work REALLY well in these radios (and my camera flash, and anything else I slap them into.) They're NiMH technology which is still pretty much king for rechargeables. The real kicker is their capacity. Without getting too technical, the included battery packs can sometimes have ratings as low as 800mAh. Slap in a set of Eneloops and you're up to 2100mAh on average. That is to say, the radio will run a lot longer with Eneloops, and those batteries hold their charge much better over time as well. Plus, it gives you cross-compatibility with any other AA devices you take along on a hike (Garmin eTrex series GPS's come to mind.)

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Re: 2-way radios: What's good, reliable and cost efficient?

Post by The_Eagle » Dec 14 2010 9:31 pm

@Thoreau
I just opened the back on mine, and there are 3 "AA" wrapped in a plastic pack. They are 650 mAh. I have yet to have a problem with them running out for an entire days use, but have never had to use them continuously for a day. I agree with the Sanyo Eneloops. I run them in my Etrex and they easily last for two days of hiking. When the batteries in the Radios start loosing their charge quicker, I'll replace the, w/ the Sanyo Eneloops.
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Re: 2-way radios: What's good, reliable and cost efficient?

Post by kevinweitzel75 » Dec 17 2010 6:16 pm

Excellent write up Thoreau! Holy crap! Now I know alittle more about handhelds.
Thoreau wrote:This whole search for Joe thing got me thinking recently, and I think it would be a good thing if the hiking community settled on one of the channels in the 22-channel range to be some sort of unofficial 'hiker' channel.
I would say that this would be an excellent idea. Hell, truckers have their own channel. Why don't hikers?
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I took the road less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference."
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Re: 2-way radios: What's good, reliable and cost efficient?

Post by CannondaleKid » Dec 17 2010 6:34 pm

In general, truckers WANT to hear all the conversations to keep up on where the "smokies" are so it makes sense to use the same channel.

However if there happens to be a number of separate hiking groups in the same vicinity, I'm not so sure they'd want to jump all over each other's conversations.

Once when hiking I was catching up to a couple kids who had radios that were turned up loud enough I could hear them for a while and they never stopped chattering with whoever they were in contact with. At first I thought it was their parents but it had nothing to do with the hike, just useless chatter that I was happy to get away from. Now sure, if our group were on the same channel we could easily switch.

I'm just sayin'... All hikers using the same channel won't necessarily provide the same benefit it does for truckers.
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Re: 2-way radios: What's good, reliable and cost efficient?

Post by kevinweitzel75 » Dec 18 2010 9:40 am

@CannondaleKid
Thats true. Good point.
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I took the road less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference."
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Re: 2-way radios: What's good, reliable and cost efficient?

Post by BobP » Dec 18 2010 11:56 am

I have 3 pairs( but now after Sheep I have 2 pairs)....old school frs with 14 channels which were great in their day. After searching Sheep...both of the antennas on the radios broke or were already breaking . Goods news is it forced me to find my newer radios. Motorola talkabout 350. but still have another set I can't find. We would use them all the time on trips where cells wouldn't work. I also found my bigger more powerfull field glasses and pack for them when I found the radios and the dry bag I've been looking for....kinda like Christmas :y:
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Re: 2-way radios: What's good, reliable and cost efficient?

Post by kevinweitzel75 » Dec 18 2010 12:32 pm

rlrjamy wrote:I have 3 pairs( but now after Sheep I have 2 pairs)....old school frs with 14 channels which were great in their day. After searching Sheep...both of the antennas on the radios broke or were already breaking . Goods news is it forced me to find my newer radios. Motorola talkabout 350. but still have another set I can't find. We would use them all the time on trips where cells wouldn't work. I also found my bigger more powerfull field glasses and pack for them when I found the radios and the dry bag I've been looking for....kinda like Christmas
Thats funny. Was digging into my closet and found my good binocs and my yellow dry bag today also. :D But I went out and bought new radios. Cobra 22 channel 21 mile range with rechargable batteries and charging base for $45. The radios are pretty small (I like that). Will have to see how they work.
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Re: 2-way radios: What's good, reliable and cost efficient?

Post by base871 » Dec 20 2010 5:24 pm

Yeasu FT250. Ive talked to people in flag from phoenix on them. You will have to do a few things to make them work, but it is easy. They go for 114 bucks new.
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Re: 2-way radios: What's good, reliable and cost efficient?

Post by Thoreau » Dec 20 2010 5:56 pm

A little more pitching in favor of ham:

This weekend I hauled my fatness up to the top of Picketpost Mountain. From there I was able to tag a repeater on Pinal Peak, which in turn was part of the EAARS repeater network, and as a result I was able to make radio contact with a friend in Safford.

I should mention that the repeater systems in Arizona are REALLY really good. Aside from many just having huge coverage on their own, the multiple networks are awesome. Some of them are:

Eastern Arizona Amateur Radio Society:
If you can reach any repeater in this network, your signal is automatically re-broadcast on all of the other repeaters in the system.
Heliograph Peak, Guthrie Peak, Jacks Peak (New Mexico), Pinal Peak, Mt. Lemmon, Greens Peak, South Mountain (not the one in Phoenix, but near Alpine AZ apparently.
http://www.eaars.com/

NorthLink:
Same as above, but with repeaters on South Mountain, Scottsdale Airpark, Mingus Mountain, White Tanks, Smith Peak, Mt. Ord, Mt. Elden, and Towers Mountain.
http://www.azrepeaters.net/pmwiki.php?n ... .Northlink

RimLink:
Greens Peak, Mt. Elden, Pinal Peak, Mt. Ord
http://www.azrepeaters.net/pmwiki.php?n ... ARARimlink

CalZona:
Arizona/California linked network.
http://www.azrepeaters.net/pmwiki.php?n ... alzonaLink

Yet again, just the tip of the iceberg =)

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