Top Ten Things to Know Before You Buy Two Way Radios for Camping and Outdoor Use
Two way radios are one of the best camping gadgets you can buy. Everyone loves to use radios, regardless of how much they show it. It gives you a certain air of importance that you might not otherwise have. With that being said, they can be a bit complicated to use. Even worse, there are many things about two way radios that people simply do not think about prior to buying two way radios. The information contained within this article should help you to make an informed buying decision.
Two Way Radio Basics
Generally speaking, two way radios are all going to work in the same way. There is a battery powering each unit and that battery is rechargeable, usually on a base that comes with the unit. The volume of the unit (and the de facto on/off switch) is usually a knob or two buttons located on the face of the unit. The radio is generally operated via the use of a transmission button. The button is pressed and the user can simply speak into the microphone on the unit in order to transmit a message to any receivers in the area. Once the button is released, the receiver on the radio unit becomes active again so others can send messages to the radio.
Radios generally operate on multiple channels. Each channel will have a single frequency that can be assigned to it. Having multiple channels is good, because it allows you to assign different channels to different people for a more specified form of communication. This is also a good way to help prevent any interference or eavesdropping in places where there are multiple sets of radios being used.
The Top Ten List
Without further ado, here are the top ten things to know before you buy two way radios for camping and outdoor use:
1. More expensive is not always better. This might be the most important point to keep in mind on the entire list. Just because a radio costs a lot of money does not mean that it will function better than the cheaper end of the spectrum. It is important not to choose something too cheap, but it is equally important to understand that quality does not always equate to a higher price and vice versa. This is something that many people ignore when they are buying radios.
2. The intended use of the radios. What are you planning to use the radios for? This is another extremely important point. A radio that is meant for short range use is going to be very different than one that is intended for long range use. You need to make sure that you know everything you need out of the radio prior to buying. If you are looking for a cool camping gadget, you might not want to spring for a radio that has a very long range, because one or two miles will work just fine.
3. Two way radios use either VHF or UHF frequencies. These are simply two frequency ranges that are used for two way radios. VHF stands for “very high frequency” and UHF stands for “ultra high frequency”. The VHF radios are going to be the ones which are best for outdoor use because they stay closer to the ground and they are better able to travel through open areas. UHF are more popular and they work for both indoor and outdoor situations because of their ability to go through obstructions.
4. Watch the way that channels are advertised. Many radios will have multiple channels. With that being said, many others will advertise having tons of channels and, in reality, only have a handful. This issue is not a case of the company being nefarious. Instead, it is simply a tricky way of describing how the radios work at their core. Each channel can have a single frequency attached to it, but the frequency can be changed on each channel, so long as only one frequency is used per channel. The way it is commonly advertised is that every possible frequency is multiplied by the number of channels, resulting in a huge number of possible transmission alleyways which is somewhat misleading to people who do not understand the ins and outs of the subject.
5. Be wary of range. The range of two way radios is often much shorter than it is being advertised as. UHF will generally travel farther and better than VHF, but even then, the advertised range is usually the combination of best case scenarios that is used when the radios are being tested. In reality, the range is usually much smaller than the one which is being commonly advertised. They make mention of this in documentation for most radios, by saying that obstructions and weather conditions can play a large role in the actual distance that the radios can transmit across. That doesn’t stop them from advertising a long range, though. According to most studies, the vast majority of situations will allow a range of less than 2 miles.
6. Programming is not as simple as it seems to be. If you think you can just throw your radio cable onto your computer and your radio and then begin programming your radio, you are incorrect. The process is actually much more complicated than that. With that being said, it is not a problem that cannot be overcome. There are many resources online that you can consult which will provide plenty of information about this subject. Many hobbyists have put work into making that information readily available for people who wish to utilize it for their own radios.
7. Two configurations of radios are available. FRS stands for “family radio service”. These are low power units which transmit on around 7 FRS channels and 7 shared channels for a total of 14 channels. GMRS stands for “general mobile radio service” and are higher power radios which are typically utilized for outdoor recreational activities. These will transmit on FRS and GMRS bands for a total of 22 channels. Many modern radios are the 22 channel type.
8. The wattage of the radio plays a role in the range. The higher the wattage used by the radio, the better it will be able to transfer over a long distance. FRS is generally going to be a shorter distance than GMRS, and they will generally use less power to transmit as well. If you are only going to be using the radios over some short distances, you may want to consider picking up an FRS radio. If you believe that you will be doing a lot of transferring over a longer distance (or a distance blocked by obstructions) then you might want to spring for a GMRS radio.
9. The weight of the radio is roughly comparable to its usefulness in a camping situation. If you are going to be going camping then you probably have some idea of how weight can affect a person over a long distance. Lightweight radios are the best for this purpose. Feel the weight of the radios before you purchase them. If they are heavy or large, you might want to opt for a smaller model, even if that smaller model is more expensive. Try to find something which looks and feels comfortable in your hands so that you can use it with ease as well.
10. Batteries are extremely important. Most radios will either take a number of loose batteries or will have a rechargeable battery pack included with the unit. This will allow you to place the unit onto a stand and charge it when you need to. The longer the battery life, the better. When you are in the field, you do not want to be stuck trying to use your radio only to find out that you cannot use it because the batteries have died. Look for a long battery life.
There are many things to keep in mind when you are trying to purchase a two way radio. Primarily, you will want to make sure that what you are buying is actually what you need. When people go out to buy camping gadgets, they are usually just “winging” it. They usually do not do more than a cursory amount of research beforehand and, thus, they usually wind up making an uninformed buying decision. There are, of course, many ways that you can overcome this issue when you are trying to buy two way radios for your next camping trip.
First, you can do more research yourself. There is plenty of information out there for people who choose to look for it. Most of it is good information, but you should be wary of sales tactics. If you come across an article that is talking about all of the benefits of a single unit, you can rest assured that the individual who wrote that is somehow invested in selling more of that unit for their own profit. Thus, it is generally going to be biased. Look on sites that you trust or on aggregate review sites which compile multiple reviews into a single interface. Amazon is a very good choice for this, especially for buying consumer products, because you will get a range of reviews from non biased individuals who have actually purchased and used the items.
Second, you can ask for recommendations of friends or family. Particularly, anyone who has used a two way radio in the past. Think about people you know who have worked retail, as retail operations frequently use radios. Ask people who go camping on a regular basis, because they will probably have used them. Another thing to consider is whether or not to ask people you know in the military. They will have experience with radios, but they might not know too much about consumer models. Asking people that you trust will help you to make an informed and good buying decision.
You want to purchase a two way radio in order to stay in touch with your family during a time of emergency or, more often, in order to have some way to communicate over a significant distance when you are camping. Some things to keep in mind about two way radios: They are smaller and more light than CB radios are, and they are portable. They do not have coverage issues like cell phones do because they are not pinging a tower to be used. They can operate anywhere. There are no fees for use or “roaming” fees involved. They have great sound quality and they work over a very long range when used in the right conditions. The power requirements are not very high either, so you will be able to use them for longer.
There are some downsides, however. Reception is generally going to be limited to line of sight use. Clear channels are difficult to find if you are in an area with a lot of radios in use. In an emergency situation, this could spell disaster for you or your group because you simply won’t be able to find a clear channel to communicate on. If you are going to be using GMRS then you will have to have an FCC license to do so and you will have to pay a fee. These radios are best utilized over short distances and will not typically have a long range unless you are in perfect conditions.
Two way radios are a great way to stay in touch with friends and family during either emergency situations or when you are camping. They are not too expensive and provide a great alternative means of communication when you believe that you will be unable to utilize modern cell phone technology. Though the range is typically much shorter than it is advertised as being, that does not affect usage too much, considering not many people will be using these radios outside of a one or two mile radius.