Since mobile phones often don’t work in an emergency situation, and the government’s 9-1-1 or 1-1-2 police / fire / medical emergency dispatch systems may be down or overloaded, we need alternative communication methods. We need to be able to talk with family and friends to summon help, to coordinate our activities, and to deliver help to those who need it. This article is a summary of our 2-way communication options. It includes problems and their solutions, the pros and cons of various types of 2-way radio products, plus the recommendations of our team of experienced experts.
License-Not-Required Option: FRS / GMRS 2-Way Walkie-Talkie Radios
In the U.S., no license required for these 2-way radios, but regulations in other countries vary greatly. The inexpensive hardware store/sports-store models of these radios are rarely adequate, and in our testing, none of them came even remotely close to being able to communicate over the distances claimed.
FRS radios are nearly useless due to limited transmitting range, but a higher quality GMRS radio such as those made by Motorola, Midland, Uniden, or Cobra, are worth considering. These will have a similar operating range to that of the goTenna, but maintaining a stable voice connection over the radio is more difficult than the digital signal of the goTenna. As a result, a goTenna device may have a greater effective range than most FRS and GMRS radios. Most GMRS radios also have the FRS frequencies, so they are often marketed as FRS/GMRS radios.
FRS / GMRS walkie-talkies for voice-only communication, are available at a fraction of the cost of the goTenna. Those with the same transmitting power of the goTenna (2-watts), will typically have 15% less operating range than the goTenna.
Our Recommended “Best GMRS 2-Way Radio” (No License Required)
On the other hand, higher-power GMRS radios are readily available, such as the Midland GXT1000VP5 which boasts the maximum legal power of 5-watts. These 5-watt GMRS radios are generally far superior FRS, MURS, MARS, and the CB radios which became popular in the 1970s and are still used by long-haul truckers.
Our Recommended “Best GMRS / GPS ‘Combination’ Dual-Use” Radio
If GPS features (maps and location-finding) are important to you, the Garmin Rino 755t 2-way GMRS radio also has a built-in GPS receiver and maps.
Since the Rino also provides the capability of voice communication and text, rather than just text, it is far more versatile than the goTenna. It can even monitor NOAA weather frequencies which are used for weather reports and emergency messages from the U.S. government. On the downside is the high cost, it’s not quite as easy to use as a goTenna, FRS, or GMRS 2-way radio, and the map screen is smaller (3-inch), as which is far smaller than many cell phones.
Notwithstanding, detailed and purpose-specific maps can be uploaded into the Rino 750 series devices. The 755t comes with color topographic maps for the United States pre-installed. Yet, you may want to add detailed local maps for the area where you live or will be traveling.
If you live in a country other than the U.S., or you want to purchase the Rino 750 rather than the 755t for another reason, you can add the Garmin 100K U.S. map and other maps as after-market software chips to upgrade the onboard maps.
For both the Rino 750 and 755t, special-purpose maps are available for needs such as marine and aviation navigation, city maps, and unique maps such as the $80 Garmin “HuntView” maps for each U.S. State (2 for TX and CA). These include added features such as landowner names and boundaries, fuel locations and land boundaries, all applied to a digital topographic map that is equivalent to 1:24,000 scale U.S. Geological Survey maps.
The HuntView map also includes Garmin’s BaseCamp software. This software makes it possible to tether a Rino 750-series device with a laptop computer. In combination, it becomes a simple task to keep track of Rino users who are operating in the area.
Another plus is that the Rino 750 is far more durable than the cell phone/goTenna combination required for the goTenna system to work. And, the Rino 750 is sufficiently waterproof to withstand submersion in 1-meter of water for 30-minutes (IPX7).
The Garman Rino ‘700′ is less expensive, but it has a B&W screen which negates many map features, and maps cannot be uploaded to the device. Garmin also makes similar-looking devices which are GPS-only, without the 2-way radio features.
License-Required Option: Amateur (Ham) Radio – The Best Choice
If the need is to communicate with someone who is more than a mile or two away, nothing beats an Amateur (Ham) Radio. Available in handheld (walkie-talkie-size), mobile (under-dash vehicle size), and base-stations for use at home, these 2-way radios come in various sizes, power, and capabilities.
Amateur (ham) radios can be used for both voice and digital communication, and they can be operated over impressive distances. With the right equipment and environmental conditions, they can be used to communicate with those who are on the other side of the world.
Amateur (ham) radios are the best communication option, but they do require passing an exam and obtaining a license issued by the federal government.
These 2-way radios come in various sizes and power capabilities, but low-cost budget radio such as an 8-watt BaoFeng can be purchased for under $50 (each). Whereas an amateur (ham) radio capable of transmitting around the world will typically cost over $1,000. These higher-cost radios are more powerful, larger in size, and must be connected to a larger antenna to achieve long-distance communication.
Handheld “Walkie-Talkie” (Handi-Talkie / HT) Amateur Radios. Even a budget-priced handheld amateur (ham) radio, such as the pocket-size BaoFeng UV-5R Tri-Power 2-way radio, or the improved version of the same radio, the BaoFeng BF-F8HP, are capable of voice communication at 5x+ the distance of a goTenna or an FRS / GMRS walkie-talkie.
Our Recommended “Best Budget Handheld” Radio
The BaoFeng BF-F8HP Amateur (Ham) Radio.
This is our top pick for an inexpensive handheld amateur (ham) radio because of it’s low-cost but modern design. Though this model costs a little more than cheaper BaoFeng radios such as the UV-5 series, this one has a stronger case, larger battery, improved antenna, and more advanced electronics. Though it costs more than the UV-5 series models, it is still remarkably inexpensive. Plus, accessories such as extra batteries, 12-volt adapters, and external antennas, are also easy on the wallet.
The Baofeng 2-way radios, like most handheld amateur (ham) radios, use frequencies in the VHF and UHF radio bands (importantly, the 2-meter/70cm bands). Therefore, their use is generally limited to line-of-sight communication. Nevertheless, this typically translates into transmit/receive distances that are far greater than FRS or GMRS radios. Depending on conditions and the operating environment, it’s sometimes only a few miles–but in an open area, it can be much, much more.
In a conducive or rural environment, or over water, these little 2-way radios can send and receive at distances of 50-miles, and occasionally more than 200-miles. And, on infrequent occasions, they can be used to communicate with another radio operator who is thousands of miles away. The same is not true for FRS/GMRS and CB radios.
As with all radios, the operating environment makes a huge difference. If you use your radio from a high elevation or in an area without obstructions, and you have a quality antenna connected to your radio, a handheld amateur radio can be used to communicate over a substantial distance. For achieving long distance communication, these environmental conditions and a good antenna are far more significant than the wattage (power) of the radio.
Cost. Even when you add in the cost of an external magnet-mount antenna such as the Nagoya UT-308UV which vastly improves radio communication from inside a vehicle, the total price of an inexpensive handheld radio like the Baofeng BF-F8HP, car adapter, and external vehicle antenna, can still be less than a goTenna.
Programming. Rather than manually program your amateur (ham) radio, which can be a pain, download programming software onto your computer and purchase a programming cable from the manufacturer of your radio. Many manufacturers sell programming software, but free software is also available, such as CHIRP, which is simple to use. Remember to include channels such as your local radio stations (if your radio will accept them), as well as NOAA Weather Band frequencies and other useful radio stations. The appendix included with the book, “PREPARED, Ready to Roll” by SIG Swanstrom, has a list of frequencies to consider adding.
The only reason that the Baofeng 2-way amateur (ham) radio qualifies for inclusion in this article is that it delivers adequate performance at a meager purchase price. It is a lot of radio for the price, and since many are not able to afford a more expensive radio, it qualifies as our budget-conscious top choice ham radio.
Our Better-Quality Recommendations (License Required)
In an emergency situation, it is to the user’s advantage to have a radio that is more rugged, water-resistant, and feature-rich. So if you can afford it, we have several other 2-way radio recommendations for you to consider.
Our Recommended “Best Handheld” Radio
The Kenwood TH-D74A is one of the best handheld (Handie-Talkie / HT) 2-way radios available. It is a tri-band amateur (ham) 2-way radio, has a built-in GPS, and it can be connected to a computer for additional advanced features. This is our top pick in the handheld radio category.
*** As a point of reference, the brands “ICOM,” “Kenwood,” and “Elecraft” are the ‘gold standard’ brands in the amateur (ham) radio world.
Our Recommended “Best Backpack-size” Radio
Our top choice in this category is either of two radios. For those who are willing to spend the money and energy to learn more about amateur radio, the Elecraft KX2 (13-ounces / 0.4 kg) and Elecraft KX3 (1.5-pounds / 0.7 kg) are small knapsack-size radios.
These two Amateur (ham) Radios are not much larger than a handheld (walkie-talkie), but they are heavier and yet similarly powered by rechargeable batteries contained inside the radio’s diminutive case. But that’s where the similarity ends. These are powerful HF radios capable of worldwide communication. Both of these radios are rock stars.
If you communication need will be over long distances or internationally, the KX2 may be your best GO-Bag option. If your need is for long distance communication AND local communication, take a closer look at the slightly larger and heavier KX3.
Batteries for Handheld and Backpack Radios
Lithium-ion batteries are expensive to purchase but last longer. Each GO-Bag should have the number of batteries needed to operate the radio continuously for at least three days. Each family member and friend in your group should be equipped with the same radio, or a radio capable of talking with all the other members of your group.
For emergency situations, it is best to have a handie-talkie (walkie-talkie) for each person in their GO-Bag, and a mobile radio in each vehicle and at home and your safe-haven retreat location.
Vehicle-based “mobile” radios. These require an external antenna mounted to the outside of the vehicle and should be connected directly to the battery (older vehicles) or according to the advice of an expert (all newer vehicles). On the positive side, a quality 50 or 100-watt mobile radio and a good antenna, are a combination that provides far more reliable communication than a handheld 2-way radio. These can be used for more reliable communications. As you would expect, the better the equipment, the better you will be able to communicate. The quality of the antenna is especially important.
If the mobile radio is an HF (high frequency) model such as the ICOM IC-7100, it is not unusual to be able to talk with another user in a different state, or even on the other side of the world. An HF radio matched to a mobile HF antenna is an expensive but fabulous communication choice for emergency communication, but this is beyond the scope of this article.
Notwithstanding, a radio such as the IC-7100 can be used for VHF and UHF local communication, as well as long-distance communication. So even if you don’t want to learn about HF communication initially, an HF-capable radio and HF-antenna can be added later, when you are ready to move to the next skill level.
Our Recommended “Best Mobile” Radio
The ICOM IC-7100 can be used in a car, or with the addition of a 12-volt power supply, it can also be used at home as a ‘base station’ radio. With this radio and a good antenna, it is possible to routinely communicate with someone on the other side of the world.
Our Recommended “Best Mid-Priced Mobile” Radio
Our top pick for a mid-priced mobile 2-way radio is the Kenwood TM-D710G. It is not nearly as capable as the IC-7100 and can’t achieve the same transmitting range, but it is nevertheless impressive–and half the cost of the above ICOM radio.
Our Recommended “Best Low-Cost Mobile” Radio
The ICOM IC-2300h is our favorite mobile radio in two categories: low-cost and easy-to-use. This is a high-quality 65-watt radio at a low price. It only operates on the 2-meter band, but for those who do not intend to become amateur radio experts, that’s okay because it makes this radio simpler to use.
A quality antenna is just as important as the radio itself. In fact, probably more important. If you have chosen an amateur (ham) radio, don’t skimp on your antenna. Thankfully, these needn’t be a costly purchase, but it does involve making some informed choices.
In fact, you can build your own at-home antenna quite easily if you are willing to undertake a simple do-it-yourself project. However, antennas for use on a vehicle are more exacting, so you will probably want to purchase a car antenna. In this section, you will find several recommended antennas to help you shop.
Vehicle Antenna. The best vehicle-mounted antenna for the above radios is a much-debated topic, but one of the best mobile ham radio antennas is the Larsen NMO2/70B. This antenna is just under 35-inches tall, but when you are not using your radio, the NMO base makes it possible to store the antenna inside your vehicle. When needed, it only takes 30-seconds to screw the antenna in place, and this can be accomplished without the use of any tools. This method keeps it confidential that you have a 2-way radio in your car.
Mounting the antenna-mount directly through the center of the metal roof or trunk (boot lid) is best, but for those who want to be more subtle, a Larson 3-1/4 inch NMO magnet mount can be used. With an adapter attached to the other end of the cable, this antenna can also be connected to a handheld amateur (ham) radio. The same is true for an at-home “base station” antenna.
Be sure you have the correct antenna connection(s) for the radios you will connect to your antenna.
Home Antenna. Cushcraft AR-270b “Ringo” antenna is a popular, efficient, simple to install, omnidirectional (360-degree) antenna. Of course, a mounting pole is also needed, typically 20-30 feet in height, but your location may require something special, especially if there are nearby structures or trees. Ideally, your antenna will be higher than nearby objects, including roofs and other objects.
Heavy-duty coaxial cable (wire) designed for amateur (ham) radio use will also be needed to connect the antenna to the radio. Install the antenna as close as possible to the radio as the longer the length of the wire the more signal loss.
Antennas for base stations (home installations) is even a more strident debate than what is the best antenna for use on a vehicle. Therefore, you may want to get the advice of a ham radio operator with many years of experience. Or, undertake your own study of the subject starting with a visit to the website, ARRL.org. Note: General searches of the Internet are problematic since there are many self-proclaimed “experts” who are ill-informed.
For “High Frequency” (HF) amateur (ham) radios, such as the above ICOM IC-7100, at least two antennas are needed. One for local-use frequencies such as the above Cushcraft Ringo antenna, which operates on the 2m/70cm bands, the other for long-distance and international use.
The simplest and least expensive HF antenna is one that uses a dipole design, such as the Ni4L 7-band Windom HF Antenna. These can be strung between two trees or buildings. For more on antennas, the ARRL Antenna Book explains and evaluates the most popular types.
Power Supply – Using a ‘Mobile’ Radio at Home
A “Power Supply” such as the PowerWERX 30-amp, or another 12-volt power source is needed to operate a ‘mobile’ radio at home, or at your safe-haven retreat location. A mobile radio cannot be plugged directly into an ordinary electrical power outlet.
A mobile radio used in a fixed setting, such as inside your home, is referred to as a “base station.” In the past, these were large, expensive, tabletop radios, but now most people use a mobile radio for this purpose. This adaptation is a flexible solution since the mobile radio can be easily transferred into a vehicle if the need arises.
Since mobile radios were first designed for use in a vehicle, they require 12-volt power to operate. As a result, to use them as a base station radio, household electrical current must be stepped down to 12-volts. To accomplish this, an ordinary converter is not adequate. It needs to be a device designed for use with a 2-way radio.
Our Recommended Power Converter: The PowerWERX 30-amp 12-v Power Supply is one of the most economical but quality solutions. It is relatively inexpensive, simple to use, quiet and does not produce radio ‘noise’ like an ordinary power converter.’
These are simple to install. The power supply is plugged into a wall outlet, and then the radio is plugged into the power supply.
Off-Grid Power. If you want to prepare your radio for off-grid use, all that is needed is a quality deep-cycle battery such as an Optima, a solar panel to recharge it, and of course, sunshine. A fuller explanation of this method is beyond the scope of this article.
Additional 2-Way Radio Information
*** License Required *** You can use GMRS and CB radios without a license in the U.S. and many countries, but transmitting on an Amateur (ham) 2-way radio does require a license issued by your federal government. These licenses are generally not difficult to obtain, but a license is needed.
Moreover, these radios typically require training or time studying a User Guide to learn how it is operated. For more information about Amateur radio licensing, radio selection and operation, visit www.ARRL.org.
While licensing may not be stridently enforced if the radio is used by an unlicensed person for a life-or-death emergency situation, it is still necessary. Practice is important, and this requires a license.
Practice Exams. Getting a license does take a little time, but it needn’t be a painful process. In the U.S., we recommend utilizing the free study guides found on HamStudy.org. When you are ready, find a local ham radio club to take the exam.
Exam Location. To find a local place to take the test, visit the ARRL.org website and plug your zip code into the lookup table.
For those looking for technical information on mobile radio installation and antennas, another reliable resource is K0bg.com.
“Lock” your radios. After installation, we recommend getting the help of a ham radio enthusiast to select a “simplex” frequency to be used by your family or group, program it into each radio, and then electronically “lock” the radio and the microphone. This will prevent inadvertent changes to the radio which would prevent communication between group members. For anyone who is knowledgeable, it’s a simple task to unlock the radio to change frequencies. We also recommend that you use a label maker or permanent-ink pen to mark the radio case itself with the frequency, as a reference in case it is needed.
News. And, to keep up with the news and to obtain emergency information, buy a portable shortwave radio (listening only) that is capable of receiving NOAA Weather Band broadcasts, shortwave radio stations, amateur radio traffic, and local radio stations. Even if you have a 2-way amateur (ham) radio, you also need a battery-operated multi-band shortwave radio. You don’t need a license to listen to a ham radio.
To communicate with family and friends, they need to equipped with the same equipment, and ready to utilize the same radio frequencies. With lower-cost 2-way radios, units made by the same company often provide clearer communication when they are used to communicate with other radios made by the same company. 2-Way radios which operate on amateur (ham) radio frequencies are much more capable, but in addition to requiring a license, users need training and practice. This needs to be accomplished in advance of a need.
In an emergency, you may be able to get away with using an amateur (ham) radio without a license, but don’t count on it. The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) stridently enforces radio communication laws and rules, especially if the radio is capable of transmitting a long distance.
If you are unwilling to take the time to get a license and learn how to use an amateur (ham) radio, we recommend that you purchase GMRS 2-way radios for communication.
3 Questions You Need to Answer
Each GO-Bag and emergency kit should be equipped with a 2-way radio. Plus, a wall charger, 12-volt vehicle adapter, extra batteries, and an AA-battery pack adapter. This is a given. But what else do you actually need?
Your answer to these three questions will provide your answer.
Question #1: What can you afford to buy for each GO-Bag? Each family member needs a 2-way radio. Having a 2-way radio is nice to have during an emergency situation, but the urgency in satisfying this need diminishes if you don’t have anyone who you will need to communicate with during the emergency. Do you have someone with whom you will need to communicate? If so, satisfying this need should be a high priority.
Every GO-Bag should contain a 2-way radio and a battery-powered radio which, at the very least, is capable of receiving AM/FM commercial radio stations and NOAA Weather Band frequencies.
Question #2: Are you willing to expend the effort needed to get your amateur (ham) radio operator’s license? For most people, it takes 1-2 days of study, plus showing up at a testing location to take the 1-hour multiple-choice exam.
If your budget is tight or you aren’t willing to commit the time, a GMRS radio may be your best choice. Yet, even a “budget” handheld amateur (ham) radio is far superior to our first-choice GMRS radio — but you need a license. Whichever you choose, make sure that every adult and teenage child has a 2-way radio in their GO-Bag.
Question #3: What radio gear do you truly need?
Most of us aren’t looking for a new hobby. We regard 2-way radios as a communication device to use if our mobile phones don’t work. Or, if we are facing an emergency situation. So what do we really need?
The answer rests on how important it is for you to communicate with others.
If you live with a spouse or have children living with you in your home, then 2-way mobile and base-station radios are a high-priority. Similarly, if there is another person in your life and you are responsible for their wellbeing, then 2-way radio communication needs to be considered a high priority. You need to equip yourself and make sure that these other people are similarly equipped.
Moreover, if you travel by car to work and it is more than 10-miles (16 km) distant from home, or you would have difficulty walking home, or you have another person you will need to communicate with during an emergency situation, then you need a mobile radio in your vehicle. If you expect to use a private vehicle for evacuation when that need arises, then that vehicle needs a mobile radio. Similarly, if you live in a place where weather conditions periodically strand people in their cars, then you need a mobile radio installed in your vehicle.
If you think an emergency situation could force you to shelter-in-place in your home, or at a safe-haven retreat location, then that place of safety needs a base-station radio, power supply, and antenna.
If you have equipped your vehicle with a mobile radio and can’t afford the expense of buying another mobile radio to use as a base station, then equip that place of safety with a power supply and antenna so that you can, if the need arises, move your mobile radio indoors.
If you can only afford to buy a handheld 2-way radio for your GO-Bag, get an external antenna designed for use on a vehicle. And if feasible, install a roof antenna on your home that you can connect to your little handheld amateur (ham) radio. Be sure to stockpile plenty of disposable batteries. If the power goes out you may not be able to recharge battery packs.)
Our modern society has become dependent on instant communication. If you use a mobile phone, instant messaging, or check your email more than twice a day, expect to experience high anxiety when your communication tools cease to work. Consider this need in relation to your family members and friends, too. They may experience an unnecessary crisis due to communication failure.
Having amateur (ham) radios on hand, and knowing how to use these 2-way communication devices can be an emotional lifeline in addition to helping satisfy physical needs. Don’t minimize the importance of emotional support during a crisis. Sound decision-making requires emotional stability. Get the 2-way amateur (ham) radios you need, get licensed, and practice with your radio equipment. These tools aren’t useful unless their operation is second nature.