A longer-range is one of the most sought after features for walkie talkies. Some boast a range of 36 miles, which sounds fantastic until you know that when you are on a boat in midst of waters and talk to someone else on the other side, you can only get such a range.
In a forested area, if you use the same transmitter, well, you’ll be fortunate to cross several miles. Why would that be? Three things form the functionality of the radio range:
- The Height and
- The Frequency
Some frequencies, stronger than others, penetrate into solid objects. Radio waves work across the line of sight, but for a longer range, you need to be at a higher elevation. And finally, the power of civilian radios is limited, but having a licence would allow you to use more powerful radios that can continue to broadcast.
So, with or without a licence, what are some of the best long-range radios you can purchase and use?
Best Long-Range Walkie Talkie: Midland GXT1000VP4
The Midland GXT1000VP4 is a handheld radio transceiver that operates over both FRS and GMRS bands at the maximum power legally allowed for both. Channels 1 to 14 are transmitted over FRS, which is limited to half a watt. Channels 15 to 28 are GMRS, which transmit at a heftier 5 watts but require a license to use.
The rest of the channels have privacy codes set up, which lets them function as extra channels. In fact, you can customize the privacy codes to have 3,124 channels. There’s also a weather scan function using NOAA’s services, which can alert you to incoming inclement weather.
Unfortunately, the battery is an undersized 700-mAh NiMH battery that, while Midland claims it lasts up to 11 hours, may only work for up to 8 hours in the real world. You can swap it out for four AA batteries, but you’ll lose transmission power.
- Many privacy codes
- Maximum FRS and GMRS transmission power
- Waterproof and durable
- Short battery life
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Best Long-Range Walkie Talkie: Kenwood ProTalk TK-3402U16P
The Kenwood ProTalk TK-3402U16P is a professional-grade handheld walkie talkie that can be programmed to use your specific channels. You use a dial to select between 16 channels but have access to many more through the programming. You can program one and clone its programming in the field to another radio of the same model. This radio transmits at .5 watts over FRS channels and 5 watts over GMRS channels.
Kenwood claims a modest 7 miles, but this is real-world handheld-to-handheld use and is well above average. If you’re transmitting from a mountaintop or through a repeater, you’ll be able to transmit for dozens of miles.
There are many professional features, such as the Lone Worker setting. This detects if the radio hasn’t been used after a certain period of time and alerts other users to the possibility that the radio user is unresponsive. There’s even a scrambler so other people on the channel can’t listen to your conversations!
- Large battery
- Professional features
Best Long Range Handheld Radio: BaoFeng BF-F8HP
The BaoFeng BF-F8HP is a multi-band handheld radio that’s more capable than mere walkie talkies. You’re not limited to just FRS and GMRS frequencies. You also have access to MURS, CB, ham radio frequencies, and then some.
Though, this does present a legal issue: the BF-F8HP comes pre-programmed to broadcast on military channels. You’ll need to reduce the power and change the frequencies to legally use this radio without raising the ire of the FCC.
However, with the appropriate licenses, you’ll be able to transmit on GMRS or even ham radio frequencies. This greatly increases the usable range. In fact, if you’re a ham radio operator, you can connect to repeater networks, which can allow you to broadcast at ranges in excess of 100 miles.
A 2,000 mAh battery gives this radio a battery life of 24 hours or more. It also includes a high-gain antenna, though upgrade options are limited because it twists onto the radio in the opposite direction of most domestic antennas.
- Powerful and versatile
- Repeater capable for extended range
- Reverse gender antenna mount
- You can get in legal trouble with some pre-programmed channels
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Best Long Range Handheld Radio: Cobra HHRT50
The Cobra HHRT50 is a handheld CB radio. It doesn’t broadcast on FRS or GMRS bands but on the Citizens Band (CB) radio channels. CB is often considered a short-range radio system. However, with appropriate antennas and power amplifiers, you can broadcast at ranges over 100 miles!
The Cobra HHRT50 doesn’t come set up for that range but can with additions. The stated maximum range is 4 miles. This is enough for most users. It includes an antenna with a magnetic base to attach to the top of your vehicle. This increases the range, so this is a good, inexpensive mobile CB radio if you don’t want to permanently mount a transceiver to your vehicle.
That antenna isn’t the best, but you can always add on something better. A sound tracker system cuts through background noise so you can more easily hear other people. You can also monitor two channels at once with the dual watch function.
- Compatible with CB amplifiers and antennas for additional range
- High battery capacity
- Mediocre antenna
Best Long-Range Manpack Radio Transceiver: HYS G25W
The HYS G25W is a manpack ham radio transceiver. This means that you can mount it to a vehicle or desk if you want, or you can charge it at home, put it into your backpack, and take it into the field with you. A mobile radio transceiver is much more powerful than any handheld unit. This one is capable of transmitting at 25 watts. The dual PTT function lets you transmit on one of two channels by pressing a button. It will transmit your ID as well.
Though it has a 12,000-mAh battery, the radio is powerful enough to go through that much power in just 4 hours. You can program the transceiver directly. It’s capable of remembering up to 199 channels. The antenna that comes with the HYS G25W gives a normal range of 15 miles, though you’ll be able to get more from a high-up spot or by adding a better, longer antenna. Since it’s a ham radio, you can connect to repeater stations, which will extend the range to 50, 100, or 200 miles, or even further.
- Can be used mounted or mobile
- Very powerful mobile ham radio
- Short battery life
Best Long-Range Manpack Radio Transceiver: TWAYRDIO 25W
This radio transceiver is very similar to the HYS G25W but does have some differences. It too is a rechargeable mobile ham radio that can be used by itself or mounted to a vehicle. So, you can charge it, put it into your hunting backpack, and head into the woods satisfied that you’ll have 25 watts of transmitting power should you need it. The battery can only be on standby for up to 8 hours, so I wouldn’t keep the radio on unless you need to use it.
Like any other mobile radio, it won’t be able to reach 100 miles by itself. However, it is a fully-functioning ham radio, which lets you tap into repeating networks and get a theoretically infinite range. You can upgrade your range by adding a longer antenna and climbing to a higher point. You can program this radio on the unit or on the PC, though it’s somewhat difficult to program in either case.
- Can be used in your backpack
- Compatible with ham radio repeater
- Difficult to program
- Short battery life, even on standby mode
Best Mobile Radio Transceiver: Kenwood TM-281A
The TM-281A is the most powerful two-way radio made by Kenwood that’s not a base station and is available to amateurs. It’s a ham radio transceiver that transmits at either 25 watts or 65 watts, which is powerful enough to give it an impressive range when you add a good antenna.
There’s no stated range because the TM-281A doesn’t come with an antenna. Your choice of the antenna will greatly affect range; the longer the antenna the better. You can program the receiver with up to 200 channels. If you want to add a name to each channel, then this drops to 100 channels. An LCD screen lets you program on the unit, or you can program it using a computer. This requires additional accessories, though.
You need to provide a constant power source to use this radio. It’s too powerful for rechargeable battery packs. This means mounting it to a vehicle, plugging it in at home or a powered campsite, or lugging a car battery around with you in the woods. It comes with a handheld microphone with numpad and also has a powerful speaker.
- The most powerful mobile radio transceiver
- Does not come with everything (such as an antenna) required for operation
- Requires a power source
Best Mobile Radio Transceiver: BTECH Mobile UV-50X2
BTECH is BaoFeng’s American division. The BTECH Mobile UV-50X2 is a full-size mobile radio transceiver that can be used as a base station or can be mounted to your vehicle for long-range ham radio broadcasts. It transmits at 50 watts of power but requires an additional antenna to do so. The antenna you choose will determine the maximum range. At least one user got 40 miles out of this unit. Keep in mind that as a ham radio transceiver, you aren’t limited by your own radio’s range. You can use repeaters to extend your range.
The UV-50X2 functions on both UHF and VHF frequencies and can be used as two radios at the same time. The LCD screen is even designed to monitor two channels, though it is rather small. You need to power this transceiver directly, which is what limits it to vehicle use unless you want to carry around a car battery. The UV-50X2 is easily programmable on the unit.
- Easy to program
- Usable as a base station or mobile transceiver
- Does not come with an antenna
- Tiny display
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What Are Long Range Walkie Talkies?
Many people have used walkie talkies to keep in contact with family members while at amusement parks, while hiking, or in other places where you don’t want to lose contact with the other members of your party.
Walkie talkies are miniature radio transceivers. They receive radio waves and convert them to sound. Then, when you press the PTT (push to talk) button, they convert sound to radio waves and broadcast them. Since they can both listen and transmit, these are two-way radios, as opposed to the AM and FM radios which can only receive.
However, walkie talkies have a weakness, and that is range. Remember how power and height are both important for determining a radio’s range? Well, walkie talkies are weak and have short antennas, which cuts down on height.
So, your average blister pack walkie talkies from a department store can only be considered to have a “short range.” For long-range radios, you need power and height. This means a powerful radio with a long antenna.
What Are They Used For?
Long-range two-way radios are used to keep in contact with other people outside of shouting distance. That’s true of walkie talkies too, but the extra range is much further than that. Truckers use CB radios to communicate with other truckers.
You can use ham radios to communicate with people in other states or even other nations. So, they’re good for communication. But more importantly, they are not reliant on the cellular network. Long-range two-way radios will work (provided you can power them) even in locations without cell service, which makes them excellent for deep-wilderness exploration or for communication during an emergency. If a hurricane or tornado hits, you may not have a working phone. But if you have batteries or a generator, your ham radio will continue to work.
How to Choose Two Way Radios?
The world of long-range radios is complex. There are FRS frequencies, CB radios, and HAM repeaters. What does this all mean? Well, before you pick out your radio, you need to determine how you’ll use it. Maximum range, in the US at least, is closely tied with the type of radiofrequency you’ll broadcast on.
Radio Ranges, Systems, and Licenses
Each radio system has certain frequencies assigned to it. You can also only legally broadcast at certain power limits which depend on the system/frequency used. There are two radio systems available to the civilian who doesn’t want to shell out the cash for a yearly license:
For now, at least, FRS radios won’t give you much range (only about 6 miles), and CB radios will give you more range. However, you will not get 100-miles worth because FRS and CB radios have federally mandated power limits of .5 watts and 4 watts, respectively.
If you want to pay for a license and get more range, you have two more choices:
GMRS radios cannot be more powerful than 5 watts, giving them a similar range to CB radios. Expect up to 36 miles under perfect conditions. Ham radios, however, are not that limited. With a ham radio license, you can get radios that transmit 65 watts or more.
Amateur radio operators are still limited in some respects (don’t transmit on military channels!), but if you want a massive range, you need to get a ham radio. You can reach 50 miles with a good antenna. If you add an antenna to your home, then you might be able to reach ranges in excess of 100 miles!
Note: Amateur and GMRS radio licenses are separate licenses. A ham radio license is cheaper but requires passing a test, while GMRS radio licenses are more expensive and test-free. Let’s look at those services in more detail:
Ham (Amateur) Radio
The oldest radio system is ham radio, AKA amateur radio, which can be traced back to the 19th century. It’s also the most complex radio system, with a wide variety of broadcasting methods and technologies. Suffice it to say, ham radio operators have access to the most powerful non-professional radios with the greatest range. It’s basically limited by your antenna’s length and height.
In fact, some ham radio operators have contacted the International Space Station! Ham radios also have a major leg up over other radio systems: repeater networks. You can use your ham radio to contact any other ham radio in range. If the receiving station obliges, and often they will, they can repeat your signal. This can be used to take a 15-mile radio and turn it into a 150-mile radio if you’re polite.
CB radios are another old radio standard. These frequencies are usable by any civilian without a license. However, there are only 40 CB radio channels. This caused a problem several decades ago because the channels were getting swamped with traffic. Only one person can transmit at a time with most two-way radios. Still, CB radios are the most powerful non-licensed radios available.
You can use powerful CB radio transmitters to reach for hundreds of miles, but legally you’re limited to 4 watts. If you’re using a CB radio, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, channel 9 is an emergency communication channel. Many people monitor it so they can help relay information in an emergency, but don’t use it for casual chatter. Second, channel 19 is known as the “traveller’s channel.” If you are travelling and want someone to yak to, then tune in to channel 19.
Family Radio Service
FRS was created as a response to overloaded CB channels. It’s similar in idea, but due to the much weaker power requirements, you won’t run into many people flooding a channel. However, FRS radios are short-range radios, though some long-range radios can still broadcast on FRS frequencies at the legal level.
General Mobile Radio Service
GMRS is like a more powerful version of FRS that requires you to pay for a license. Only one person in your family needs a GMRS license when communicating for personal or business reasons. Employees, hunting partners, and other non-family-members will need their own license from the FCC.
Handheld GMRS radios are ten-fold more powerful than FRS radios and can be slightly more powerful than CB radios. There are also GMRS repeaters of up to 50 watts, but you may have to set one up yourself. They aren’t as ubiquitous as ham radio repeaters and networks and only work with certain radios.
Note that while GMRS transmissions require a license, the FCC typically lets this slide when you are in an emergency. So, it can be worthwhile to get an FRS/GMRS radio and use it only in FRS unless someone’s life is in trouble.
There are three types of long-range radios:
Handheld long-range two-way radios are more powerful versions of walkie talkies and sport longer antennas and a larger variety in transmitting frequencies.
Manpack, or backpack, radios are too large and heavy to carry in one hand but can fit in a pack. They are even more powerful than handheld units and can have an even longer antenna. Some can be used inside your pack thanks to a coiled microphone cable.
Mobile radios are designed to be mounted to your vehicle. They can draw power from a car, truck, or even ATV, which lets them be twice as powerful as a manpack unit. Also, you can mount much larger antennas to your vehicle than you can carry around.
Receiving and transmitting are not the only two tasks available to radios. Some of the following features may be beneficial or useless depending on how you’ll use the radio.
Many long-range radios have weather radios via NOAA’s national weather service. This can help you monitor changing environmental conditions when you’re in the field. Some can even alert you to incoming storms without having to monitor the weather channel yourself!
Many radios, especially the channel-limited FRS and GMRS systems, allow you to use privacy codes. These are pieces of information transmitted when you push the PTT button to make the transmission readable only by other transceivers with the same codes.
Privacy codes are not perfect, so you shouldn’t rely on them for actual private information, but they can be useful to block out other users on the same channel and make it so you only hear who you want to hear.
Your antenna has a greater effect on transmission range than the unit’s raw power. A 65-watt transceiver with a one-foot antenna will only be able to transmit several miles. However, a 50-watt transceiver with a large antenna will be able to reach 50 miles or more.
If you’re looking for a better antenna, then look into whip antennas. They are much longer than the stubby antennas that come with most radios, which sometimes makes them awkward to use, but the added range can be worthwhile.
If you want to use a long-range radio that’s more powerful than handheld walkie talkies, then you’ll need to pay for a license from the FCC. This gives you access to the GMRS system, which has a theoretical maximum range of 36 miles.
With ham radio, you’re only limited by the size of your antenna. If it’s large enough, then you may be able to transmit to counties hundreds of miles away thanks to amateur repeater networks. The most powerful and longest-range radio you can use on foot is a 25-watt manpack ham radio. Charge it at home and toss it into your backpack. Add a long whip antenna, and you’ll get many miles of broadcast range without needing to be tied down to a car or base station.
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