Field Test: Walkie-Talkies
Portable two-way radios help you stay in touch in remote areas where cell phones won’t work.
By Gibbs Milliken
Pocket-size two-way radios provide instant communication between people in the field. Their advantage over cell phones is that Family Radio Service or General Mobile Radio Service (FRS or GMRS) transceivers work in wilderness situations far from urban transmitter towers. The units are excellent safety and logistic tools to keep your fellow hunters, campers or anglers apprised of real-time events. You can simply press a button to report wildlife sightings, a change of travel plans or an accident in need of a quick response. Travelers arriving by car, boat or bike can maintain critical connections via these electronic messengers.
One of the most popular consumer two-way radios on the market is the Motorola Talkabout SX700R. Sold in pairs, they have variable power from a low 1/2-watt FRS boosting to 2-watt GMRS output. This inexpensive set has 22 channels and 121 privacy codes available. It comes with nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) rechargeable batteries and two charger units. In addition, it has many features such as channel scanning, NOAA weather monitoring, a silent VibraCall, an extra clip-on faceplate and belt holster. Being low-power units, they have a limited broadcast range and are not waterproof. It is best to purchase a soft waterproof accessory carry case to ensure weather protection. ($79.99, Talkabout SX700R Kit, Motorola, 800-638-5119, www.motorola.com)
The latest Midland GXT 650 has an improved antenna system for greater range. Under ideal conditions like flat terrain or open water and maximum 5-watts of power, the maker claims contact is possible up to 18 miles. This set of two camouflaged-finish variable 1/2- to 5-watt units offers 22 channels, 121 privacy codes, vibrate alert, 5 regular plus 5 animal call alerts, silent operation, eVox voice activation and NOAA weather reception. The FRS/GMRS kit comes complete with belt clips, headsets, NiMH rechargeable batteries and both AC and DC chargers. Like most consumer-grade two-way radios, these sets are water-resistant, not waterproof. ($89.99, 2-Way Radio Set, #GXT650VP4, Midland Radio, 816- 241-8500, www.midlandradio.com )
Perhaps the best choice in hand-held communications is a professional grade marine radio. These radios are more expensive, but are waterproof, durable and offer users much greater versatility. A set like the Standard Horizon HX471S is made of non-corrosive metal and designed to complement a standard 25-watt boat-mounted marine system. If you are wading the salt flats or hiking into backcountry, this compact 5-watt radio keeps you in touch, and, in case of an emergency, can even send a strobe light S.O.S. distress signal. It comes with a rechargeable lithium ion battery for faster recharge times. The unit uses VHF-Marine channels on water and utilizes regular FRS and GMRS frequencies on land. The reception capabilities include MURS (Multiple-use Radio Service), aviation channels, NOAA and AM/FM broadcasts. ($299, HX471S Radio, Standard Horizon, 714-827-7600, www.standardhorizon.com)
Inexpensive radios work best at short range. Manufacturers’ claims of long-distance service are usually disappointing because most sets are rated under ideal situations, not real-world conditions. Radio waves are much like the rays from a light bulb. They travel in a straight line, but, with dense obstructions or rough terrain, become interrupted. Some transmissions will pass through light structure, reaching perhaps one-half a mile or less before there is a significant signal degradation. Distance loss also occurs if the antenna is held during operation. When someone is on a high point with a clear view, the signal can beam down to contact a second set with much greater effectiveness.
NOTE: Use of GMRS frequencies (channels 15-22) in the U.S. requires the purchase of an FCC radio operator’s license at a cost of $80 for five years. This license is not necessary for the FRS (channels 1-14).