Programming Motorola Two-Way Radios and Primer on FRS and GMRS Radios

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Two-way radios are one of the coolest camping gadgets that a family can buy. They are a great way to help maintain communication for families during camping trips or during emergencies. A good and dependable set of two-way radios should nearly always be included in the emergency kit of a family. Since they work in remote areas, this type of camping gear is a step above some other common methods of communication such as cellular phones.

MOTOROLA MG160A 16-Mile Talkabout® 2-Way Radio (Light Blue)

MOTOROLA MG160A 16-Mile Talkabout® 2-Way Radio (Light Blue)

One important distinction that needs to be known before attempting to use or modify your two-way radio is the distinction between FRS and GMRS. FMR is a type of communication that is found in older radios, on marine radio sets, and on aircraft radio sets. Though it does not transmit as well as its counterpart, it is still found in many modern radios. FRS will stick to the ground and will travel farther in open space, though generally not as far as GMRS is capable of travelling. GMRS is used when there are possible obstructions in the way. Modern radios typically contain a combination of FRS and GMRS.

Actually Programming the Radio

Generally, the steps to program a two-way radio are going to be the same regardless of the unit that you are using. With that being said, you should always consult the technical information for the radio that you have purchased in order to make sure nothing significant has changed in the programming methodology for your radio. The first thing that you will need to understand is how frequencies and channels work and how they play a role in the usage of your radio. An important aspect of this is how the actual communication works between two radios.

When using two way radios, an important thing to keep in mind is that channels are much the same as they are with a normal consumer radio that you would be using to listen to music. Each channel is going to be able to be assigned a certain frequency. That frequency is what is then used to communicate with others on the same frequency. So when you assign a frequency to a channel, what you are doing is storing a “favorite” frequency that you can quickly switch back to without having to put all of the work in the reassign the frequency or change anything on your device. This is extremely useful. It is one of the important things that separates consumer two way radios from others.

A frequency, in general, is the number of times something happens over time. In the case of radio waves, the frequency is the speed that the radio waves are coming to you. Higher frequencies mean they are coming faster and lower frequencies mean they are coming slower. This is the main way that different radio frequencies can communicate. You change the frequency that your particular radio will transmit on or receive on. It should be noted that radio waves can be cancelled out by broadcasting the opposite wave at it. With that being said, that information is beyond the scope of this article.

One important thing to keep in mind is that when you have the push to talk button depressed on your radio, you will not be able to receive messages. Two way radios are only half duplex. What this means is that you can only transmit or receive at any given time, but not do both. This is something which is important to remember when using two way radios. When the button is not depressed, the receiver becomes active so that you can get new messages from the radio. When it is depressed you are able to transmit your speech but not receive.

When you are in an emergency situation, it is probably already too late for you to choose to program your radio. You want to do that ahead of time. So how do you do that? How do you program the radio for communication ahead of time? It is somewhat complex, but can be explained relatively easily. All channels are programmed into the radio. The most important radio stations to keep frequencies programmed for are SHTF survival channels, marine VHF simplex channels, and some of the most important Ham radio channels. For receiving, you will want to have NOAA weather channels programmed into your device. You should be able to find a file with these frequencies listed within it relatively easily when running a basic internet search.

Many two way radios are going to be sold without any default programming. The use of these radios require manual programming through a keypad or the use of software which is able to load the frequencies that you want onto the channels of the radio. One of the most popular types of software which is used for this is known as Chirp. This allows you to use a CSV file, open the file in Chirp, and then connect your radio to the computer via USB cable in order to load the file directly. This does not work with all radios, however, so it is extremely important that you make sure you either have the correct type of radio or you know how to alternatively program it.

FRS stands for family radio service. This is a low power and short range radio system. Many marine radios and aircraft radios will utilize this. They are often known as bubble pack radios primarily because they are sold commonly in the blister packs on store shelves for relatively cheap. Often, this kind of radio is even sold in the toy sections of some stores. These are located worldwide and are some of the most common radio systems in the entire world. FRS are limited by their power use, which is only about a half of a watt of output power. They have permanently attached antennas as well, so you won’t be able to use external antennas.

The normal range for these types of radios in the field is about a mile. Often, that range will be less. These frequencies that are used by FRS radios are FM simplex. They have 14 total channels and they are in between the common GMRS frequencies, which will be discussed next. There are some privacy tones on these types of radios as well. FRS radios are extremely straightforward to program and use, though they do have the downside of being low power and not having a very long range.

GMRS stands for General Mobile Radio Service. These are local distance radio systems which use the UHF band. These types of radios have a better range than FRS radios and they are more dependable in general. This is something which is becoming more and more popular in blister packs for sale in stores as well. Many of the type of two way radios sold in stores will have bot FRS and GMRS channels available for use.

GMRS is going to use FM simplex or duplex channels with around 16 total channels. As stated before, the FRS channels are going to be in between the GMRS channels. The power output for these types of radios is generally much higher than it would be for an FRS style radio. These have up to 50 watts of available power. The common GMRS radios will use external antennas. Generally, two way radios of this type will be using about 5 watts or less and will usually have a type of antenna called a ducky. Repeaters will usually have an input at 467 megahertz while the output will be 462 megahertz. Most of the bubble packs that include two way GMRS radios are only going to be simplex and they do not have functionality with a repeater. The will only operate with a repeater on specific channels, typically 15-22.

Programming these radios are all going to depend on the exact type of radio that you have. If you have a mobile, base, or handheld radio then the requirements will be a little bit different. Most of the modern radios that are being sold can be programmed through a cable adapter which connects the radio to your computer via a USB cable or a serial port. This could also use the microphone or a data jack on the radio itself. The instruction manual and use guide for your radio will have further information about this. If you do not have the current documentation for your radio set or if you purchase a radio second hand, then you will want to check the website of the manufacturer in order to find a PDF or word document containing the documentation for that particular radio. That documentation is the key to programming the radio, in many cases.

Final Thoughts

As far as cool camping gadgets go, two way radios are some of the best. They simply take things a step beyond casual camping and into the realm of true outdoor experiences. Beyond that, they are a wonderful addition to any survival pack for anyone who is trying to expand their emergency preparedness. The only issue with these types of radios is coping with the fact that they require programming to use properly. When the stuff hits the fan, it can become extremely tough to get it programmed properly. The process itself is relatively simple, though it can be hard to do under stress or in emergency situations. Often, you will want to get this done ahead of time.

Remember that each channel is like a storage area to put one of your favorite frequencies. Store and assign multiple frequencies for multiple modes of communication or for different groups. Communication is key, and you will probably want to record common frequencies on a sheet of paper. You also want to have a written record of what the frequencies are that you have assigned. It is frustrating to flip through every channel just to find the right one. If they are assigned ahead of time then you will not have an issue with that sort of thing. Make sure you do as much as possible in advance.