Thursday, March 13, 2014
Why not just use cell phones instead of radios? Cell phones are great, and should be carried as a means of communication. But they require cellular tower coverage, and you might be out of range of a cell tower. Radios don’t require anything like a cell tower, so they’re useful if you’re way back somewhere off the grid, or perhaps during a disaster when the grid is down.
Unless you want to be come a HAM radio operator, you’re pretty well restricted to two types of handheld 2-way radios. One is called FRS, which stands for Family Radio Service. The other is called GMRS, which stands for General Mobile Radio Service. There’s a significant difference between these two. But you can buy radios that combine the frequencies for both services in one unit.
In fact, I use a 22-channel dual band radio that covers both the FRS band and GMRS band. FCC regulations allow use of FRS frequencies (channels 8-14) without a license, but for use of the higher power of the GMRS frequencies (1–7, and 15–22) a license is required. There is no test to get a license, you just have to be 18 or older and send in a form and pay an $85 fee. The license is good for 5 years, and one license holder in the family covers all members of the family, even aunts, uncles, cousins and in-laws.
FRS radios are limited to 1/2-watt of transmit power, and the range is advertised to be about 2 miles. Realistically, it's good for up to about a mile, but you know what they say — your mileage may vary.
These are "line of sight" radios, so they won't transmit or receive through massive buildings or through mountains, etc. You pretty much have to have a clear and unobstructed shot at the other radio in order to make contact at maximum range.
GMRS allows transmit power from 1 to 5 watts, and that translates into longer range and stronger signals. Still, for maximum range and best performance, you want a clear path between your radio and the other one you want to contact. Advertised range for GMRS can be as high as up to 35 miles, but everything depends on the surrounding conditions.
The latest generation of radios offers some pretty good features that are worth getting. For use after dark, a radio with a backlight is nice. A VOX system allows you to activate the transmit mode simply by speaking, without having to push any buttons. This is a good feature for hands-free operation if you wear a headset. If you're going to use it during water activities, look for a waterproof unit, or get a dedicated waterproof bag to keep it in. And use a lanyard to keep the radio from slipping out of your hands and going overboard.
From a survival standpoint, the ability to reach out and talk with someone is critically important if you get lost or injured. If you’re hiking or camping with someone else who has a two-way radio, make sure you’re both tuned to the same frequency. That way, if one of you gets in trouble, you can call for help.
This is Rich Johnson — Out!