Practical Range of Two-way radios

In this thread a few months ago, we discussed the practical limitations of the low end walkie-talkies that are available at the mass market retailers. Although they advertise a range of 2.5 miles, a couple of posters pointed out that these are line-of-sight radios, which means that for practical purposes, the real range is much less. The ones I bought worked within a radius of about 0.2 miles.

Are there two-way radios on the market that would give me a practical range of a couple of miles? I’ve got three kids aged 12 and 10, and whether they’re playing in the neighborhood, at school, the library, or walking to the ice cream shop around the block, they’re always within a mile of home. Is their a two-way radio solution that would work under these circumstances, or am I better off buying them cell phones?

If the radios you have are FRS, then GMRS radios will likely serve your needs. Mainly they are higher powered. A license is required, but I believe this is just a matter of filling out a form.

GMRS radios are also allowed to use different antennas. If you could put an antenna on the roof of your house, you will have greatly extended the range. Just improving the antenna at one end will probably be all you need.

Line-of-sight radios in the VHF, UHF or microwave range will send their signal straight out, instead of bouncing off of the ionosphere and thus following the curve of the earth. But that “line-of-sight” may extend 20-50 miles out from the radio, depending on its height above ground. The more likely reason why FRS radios don’t have much range (0.75 - 1 mile in my personal experience) is because of vegetation, buildings or hills that reflect the radio wave everywhere except where you want them to go. You either need to increase the height of the antenna, apply more power or get a more sensitive receiver, and none of these are options with FRS. One option is to pay the FCC $75 for a 5 year GMRS license. With GMRS, you have up to 5 watts hand-held power, or up to 50 watts at a base station, and no restrictions on antenna height or type. 50 watts will cover a large area, and 5 watts hand-held to hand-held will cover several miles. GMRS is intended by the FCC for family or group type communications, and one I’ve thought of with my family (I’m the only ham radio op in the family and no one else seems to be interested in getting a license).


Vlad/Igor – is this the kind of thing you’re talking about? i’m havign a hard time deciphering what it means when a product is listed as having both FRS and GRMS channels.

The FCC website said that FRS radios have a maximum power of 0.5 watts. But how can a radio be 5 watts and offer both FRS and GRMS?

I don’t mind paying the price for a product, I just want to make sure I get what think I’m getting. The advertised range on these FRS radios is very deceptive.

Am I to understand that you are thinking simply base to mobile? By that I mean home is “base”, and you want to communicate with the kids being “mobile”. In that case GMRS will do if you can put up a simple antenna on the roof of where you live. This will easily handle 2 miles.

It is also just possible that with high powered GMRS radios it’ll work if used just mobile to mobile, with no base antenna. It depends a lot on what sort of building/vegetation are in your area. If the kids are always within one mile, mobile to mobile almost surely will do. 2 miles might be pushing it. With GMRS there will be a license fee (looks like $80 for 5 years at the moment), unless you go bootleg. Of course, per SDMB policy you are advised always to comply with the law.


I’m not Vlad/Igor, but that is indeed what he was referring to. Those radios also have the FRS channels along with the GMRS ones. For what you want, you’ll need the higher power of GMRS. And also have to pay the $80 license fee.

What N8NOO said. FRS radio frequencies are interstitial frequencies, meaning they fall between the established GMRS channels. GMRS radios can tune to those interstitial frequencies and can talk to FRS radios, but FRS radios don’t have the GMRS main channels. The radio featured in the e-bay listing is the type I’m talking about, but they also seem to have a permanently attached antenna. I’d want a detachable one so that I could put on a higher gain antenna or connect it to an external antenna. And, as always, these radios require an FCC license for legal operation. Do not operate them without proper licensing.


To answer the question, ‘a couple of miles’ is about the best one can expect from any handheld radio (HT/portable). This assumes level ground and average, suburban terrain and obstacles, ie homes, businesses, trees, etc. In my experience, ‘couple of miles’ refers to 1.5-2 but three would really, really be stretching it.

If one users is very high, range is dramatically extended. Likewise, if one user is very low (like in a hole or valley), range drops off to mere yards. Removing obstacles and terrain, like in the desert or, say, over water will yield range increases as well.

If GMRS in your area is overcrowded, you might consider the unlicenced MURS band. This is VHF and power is limited to 2 watts. VHF tends to get around obstacles a little better but this may not be seen in a practical test. I have a pair of swanky Motorola Sabers that are 6W and VHF and around here (Chicago subs), 1.5 miles is doing pretty well (less during Ø, winky wink).

KC9massiv :wink:

This likely is going to be very important for the OP if they want 2 mile range. I noticed from the previous thread the OP bought some cheap ass FRS radios with very little range and found then useless. For what you need, you are doing to have to pay decent money. I note the OP mentioned buying cell phones for 3 kids. That’s gonna run up some serious bucks over time. Decent GMRS radios will have a large initial outlay, but no monthly costs after that.

What the OP should be looking at is GMRS radios that have:

#1) Decent output power. As in at least 3 watts.
#2) Rechargeable battery packs, such as MiMH. Just charge the packs daily, and you’ll always have usable batteries. You can also buy extra battery packs. Always carry a spare, so if one runs out you can use the spare.
#3) Likely at least one GMRS radio with a detachable antenna that will be used at base. That way at home the kids will always be in range. With an external antenna at base, even at low power likely the kids will always be reachable. With UHF radios, decent antenna tends to be much more important than power. This is the significance of LOS (line of sight). If the antenna is up high, this means it can be “seen” at quite some distance.

GMRS almost certainly will fit the needs of the OP, provided they are willing to spend enough.

What about old fashioned Citizens Band. As I recall, CB radios are AM and not restricted by line of sight.

When I was a kid, I remember having CB walkie-talkies which had a pretty good range. Car or boat mounted CBs had quite a long range (25-50 miles, maybe) and sometimes you could hear jokers with illegally boosted signals from half-way across the country.

Does anyone make hand-held CB’s these days?

Radio Shack does.

Not hugely powerful, and a whole lot smaller than I remember from my days there, but I’ve always liked Radio Shack radios.


CB radios still exist, including hand helds. However, they would be a bad idea in this case. For one, they are largish and bulky. And getting 2 mile range from a hand held CB radio to another likely would be impossible. Almost surely the OP would want to go the GMRS route. MURS would be a possibility, but probably only if where the OP lived GMRS is highly congested. (The latter is a possibility, particularly if the OP lives in a highly urban area.)

CB radios use amplitude modulation which is more prone to interference. A proper CB antenna is pretty big, too. Smaller, handheld CB antennas are the product of compromise and will likely be unsatisfactory.

Most of the long range CB’s were of the ‘peaked and tweaked’ variety, meaning having had illegal power modifications performed. Otherwise, truckers can get some pretty good range from their stock radios but then this is over the open road and there’s not as many obstacles. Huge antennas in use, too.

And not only were those using long range CBs peaking and tweaking, many were using illegal amplifiers. I have no idea what the CB scene is like now, but I remember it well in its heyday a quarter century ago. Many folks were using amplifiers to transmit 100 watts or more. The legal max for CB is 4 watts. With 100 watts and a decent outdoor antenna, transmit range of over 50 miles was possible. Even many truckers were using illegal amps.

Even without an amp a trucker can get good range. With a huge antenna mounted on a big truck, this increases line of site quite a bit. Particularly as jnglmassiv states over the open road. Almost all of where a long haul trucker travels is in the open country. No buildings and such in the way. And out in the country, interstate highways are pretty straight. While there may be lots of trees and such off the road, likely it is a straight shot down the highway to communicate with another truck 20 miles away. While today along the major interstates there is cell phone coverage all the way, decades ago there were no cell phones. The only ways truckers could communicate with others was by CB radio. (Ham radio back then would have been a possibility. However, in those days getting a ham radio license required not only a lot of technical knowledge, but also knowing Morse code. Plus jumping through some difficult bureaucratic hoops. Even today, while knowing Morse code is no longer required in the VHF and higher bands, getting a license tends to be a PITA.)

Today, unless someone wants to jump through the hoops needed to get a ham radio tech class license, GMRS is where it is at if they want anything more than very short range communications. And I did some checking, and it looks like the FCC at the moment pretty much is willing to trash GMRS. Search Google for “bubble pack pirates”. I’m truly surprised that the FCC is allowing selling FRS radios that also have the GMRS frequencies at less than $10 each. I have to figure that those folks buying GMRS capable radios at less than $10 each almost never bother with getting a license that costs $80 for 5 years. The folks who buy these at that price likely see them as little more than cheap walkie-talkies that are basically toys. Likely soon the FCC will throw in the towel on GMRS like they did CB radios a quarter century ago. I still remember my CB radio call sign from back then when getting a license was required. (Free, back in those days.) GMRS will no doubt soon follow.

MURS also looks like a silly idea. FCC aproved MURS radios are almost impossible to find. I checked ebay, and finding legit MURS radios are scarce. However, I did find not so legal MURS capable radios easily available. As a licensed ham radio operator, I can legally buy such easily and use them in the 2 meter ham band. All else use them at their legal peril. Age ago, hams used surplus VHF radio gear because it was dirt cheap. Looks like it is still possible. All else beware.

Illegal CB linears are still out there, as are the Galaxy 11/10M radios that are sold to anyone. I also hear CBers “waterfalling” with a lot more than the allowable 4W. I briefly considered the possibility of buying some of the used public service VHF HTs at the next hamfest for MURS, but IIRC, the rules state that the radio has to be type accepted, and those HTs wouldn’t be.

I suspect that the FCC is taking the same approach to FRS/GMRS/MURS that they are with amateur radio: self regulation. In amateur radio, we propose the the FCC what we want, and they do their best to implement and enforce what they can (the CW and band-plan issues aside). No one is going to do that or even want to do that on the CB bands, so the FCC enforcement of GMRS licensing will be non-existant, and and general adherence to their rules will be essentially optional.


Well, if I get the handhleds I linked to before, a base station like this one, an antenna and the FCC license, that’s around $200 for everything. The monthly bill for a couple of cell phones would surpass that pretty quickly.

Thanks to all who answered. You were all helpful.

I just checked on those Galaxy radios with Internet suppliers. While out of the box they can’t be used illegally on the 11 meter band, they flat out state they can be modified to do it. Nudge, nudge. Wink, wink. I checked the MURS rules, and indeed they have to be type accepted. However:

People are selling new public service VHF HTs on ebay specifically advertising they can be used on the MURS frequencies. My guess is that there is little worry about the guys from the FCC with the big truck with lots of antennas on it showing up are basically zilch if these radios are used on the MURS frequencies. About the only way the FCC folks would notice is if someone were transmitting on the MURS frequencies with 1000 watt power from a base station. If they picked up a strong signal 100 miles away, this would stand out. :wink:

But on a search of the Net I found many complaints by GMRS users that the “bubble pack pirates” basically have destroyed GMRS for what it was intended. Self regulation works on the amateur radio bands because hams tend to be a lawful bunch of folks. On 11 meters, many of the folks using it actually would brag that they were flouting the law. The difference with GMRS is that there are a huge number of users who don’t even know they are breaking the law. I’ll bet a lot of parents would be shocked if they knew that by allowing their kids to use $10 HTs they bought for them without proper licensing they were risking a $10,000 fine from the FCC. :wink:

“In 2004, licensees showed an increased interest in seeking FCC help to deal with interference from unlicensed use and commercial piracy. Complaints to the FCC through normal channels however seemed to fall on deaf ears. Even formal comments filed by this magazine regarding GMRS interference matters appeared to mean very little to the decision makers at the FCC.”

It would appear of late the FCC has pretty much thrown in the towel on GMRS. I doubt this will change.

You’ll also need cable to go from the base unit to the antenna, probably a mast to get the antenna up high on the roof, & brackets or a kit to mount the mast. All of this should be available from Radio Shack. However, nothing they don’t have there suprises me anymore. I wouldn’t spend more than $50 for the other stuff. You’ll probably also want some cable ties to secure the cable

I Googled “bubble-pack pirates” and saw the Popular Wireless article/notice. I commend the GMRS users for staying within the rules and for doing what they can to get the FCC to enforce the GMRS rules. If they had an umbrella group similar to the ARRL to petition, lobby, pester and otherwise keep the FCC on task, they might have a chance, but I haven’t seen them organize to that degree. I fear, as you, that the FCC is going to let GMRS go.

A couple of years ago, I ran across a now 404 website that was devoted to GMRS. One of the truly curious things it said was that most GMRS (non-business) repeater owners wanted to know who was using their machines and wanted to be contacted before use (how this would be practical if you were on the road is another issue). The website mentioned that these repeaters were private property and you would be trespassing after a fashion if you used one without permission. Compared to my experience using amateur repeaters, that was a really odd attitude, but given the unlicensed use now, I better understand the point. Sort of.

anson2995, I hope we have helped, and don’t hesitate to ask again. I apologize if we’ve hijacked this thread too far from your OP.


Perhaps not so. I immediately spot some problems.

#1) That GMRS base station just has 2 watts output. That may be inadequate. It also has just 15 channels, not the full 22.

#2) You are also going to need a coaxial cable with the proper connectors on both ends to hook up to that antenna. There will be an additional cost for that. Nothing outrageous in cost since you are already planning to spend $200, but you will need this.

For the life of me using search engines I can’t find any GMRS base units for sale with high power (10 watts or more.) Can anyone else find such? Considering what you want to use these radios for, which basically is to page the kids, the higher the power the better. 2 watts may not cut the mustard. Particularly as the kids are using cheap ass GMRS radios which are pretty much toys. I wouldn’t expect much sensitivity with a $10 GMRS radio. Thus to make sure they can receive your transmission, particularly if they are in a building, is to punch through with high power.

One other thing you need to check is how active the GMRS frequencies are in your area. You can do this with the cheap radios you already have. Monitor channels 1-15. If usually you can’t hear anyone, then this is good. However, if they are frequently busy, your kids may not recieve your transmission because all they can hear is others talking on the channel.