If you’re searching for a way to communicate when your mobile phone is searching for service; you’ve probably considered picking up a set of cheap handheld radios from your local big box store. Or perhaps you’re setting the stage to sell yourself on a vehicle-mounted CB. Maybe you’ve pondered a ham radio and the requisite licensing process. However, if you are looking for a radio that is not going to fall apart, require mounting brackets, or an extensive FCC exam check out some of our picks for overland travel and short distance communication.
Caution: Using marine radios on land is illegal (USCG monitors communication).
UHF Handheld Radios
FRS and GMRS are two terms you will probably see on a vast majority of handheld radios. For the lack of a better term, FRS is pretty weak when it comes to distance (FCC limited .5 watts). Despite claims of 40+ miles on the packaging, an FRS radio is suitable for few uses when it comes to vehicle-based adventure. Expect a range well under a mile when using FRS. The upside is that anyone can legally operate an FRS radio. No license required.
GMRS packs a bigger punch, typically one to five watts, but a license is required to operate GMRS. The license will set you back $65 but navigating the FCC’s website will make you reconsider if it’s really worth pursuing (start here to apply online). Once you’ve printed your PDF license you’re set; at least for the five years before your renewal. Bureaucracy aside, with the right equipment a GMRS setup boasts a range of 5-25 miles, but that requires some extra gear. For example… a 20-foot antenna. Also, if a handset is both FRS and GMRS capable (aka “Dual Service”), you may only use its FRS functionality without the previously mentioned license. Which can be very confusing since seven of the FRS channels are also GMRS.
The Motorola MS350R and Cobra ACXT545 are both great options
VHF Handheld Radios
While not as ubiquitous as FRS/GMRS units, MURS handheld radios provide an excellent alternative to the UHF radios mentioned above. MURS requires no license to operate its five frequencies, and best of all the FCC limits MURS radios to two watts (four times more power than FRS). The FCC’s restriction on external and detachable antennas does not apply to MURS radios. There are also a number of modifications that a user can make to a MURS radio. Any modification is prohibited when considering an improvement to an FRS unit.
There are a handful of great MURS radios available; covering a range of prices. They require a bit more setup and have a steeper learning curve than FRS models, but once tuned/programmed they offer excellent performance. A few of the best are from Motorola and Wouxun.
goTenna – a Smartphone Alternative to Handheld Radios
So it’s a radio, but nothing like the ones above. The good… goTenna uses MURS frequencies so it has great range. More good… it’s compatible with iPhone and Android. Even better… it’s text based and encrypted. Sounds great, right? The big downside to this breakthrough technology is that you cannot use it for voice communication. Beyond that small shortcoming, goTenna works great in a wide variety of environments. We tested a pair and were able to go just over a mile; from a goTenna inside a house to another in a vehicle. They’re relatively affordable, lightweight, and turn your signal seeking iPhone into a useful communication tool.