Imagine yourself, sitting in a beautiful national forest campground at the picnic table enjoying your lunch. Tall pine trees towering above and providing just the right amount of shade to make it cool enough that you need a jacket. Off in the distance, you can hear to roar of the local river and the chirping call of some very active squirrels. When all of a sudden the serene moment is shattered by yelling. “HEY HONEY, WILL YOU BRING SOME NAPKINS…..NAPKINS…..NO…..BRING SOME NAPKINS WHEN YOU COME BACK?” This is one of many places that FRS/GMRS radios can come in extremely handy while camping. We use ours all the time. When we are backing up the trailer, we use them to communicate without yelling and silly hand signals. When exploring a town and bouncing in and out of shops, “Hey come over here and check this thing out.” While fishing to keep in touch as we work the river. Or simply to call everybody back to camp when dinner is ready.
The Family Radio Service (FRS) and General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) are great alternatives to Citizens Band (CB) radios that were very popular in the 70’s and 80’s. FRS/GMRS radios can be found in a wide variety of retailers and have a large variation in size and features. Trying to decide on which FRS/GMRS radios to buy can be a bit overwhelming. Between the number of channels and the various mileage claims, it is not always clear what the differences are between models. We hope that we can cut through some of the clutter and give you actual real-world experience to help you make an informed decision.
Let’s start with the number of channels. Regardless of what a manufacturer says their radio is capable of, there is only 22 standard FRS/GMRS channel. When they claim they have more than 22, they are usually doing some type of funny business and claiming it as a unique channel. This is most frequently seen with Midland brand radios, which are actually my favorite. Generally speaking, more channels is better but anything over 22 is just fluff.
Next are the mileage claims. These are drastically overstated for what you will actually observe in the field. Generally, they are based on ideal conditions (direct line of sight, over water, with no interference). While FRS and GMRS both use the same channels, FRS is limited to a lower output power, thus reducing the potential range. To use the higher power allowed by GMRS, you will need to get a license from the FCC. Licenses are good for 5 years and cover every family member. If longer distances are something that you are concerned about, I would highly suggest getting a GMRS license. That being said, unless you are in ideal conditions, I would not expect to get the 30+ mile range that manufacturers are claiming. Virtually any of the radios will work great for close communications around the campground.
With the number of channels and mileage claims under control, what should you look for when buying radios? The things that are important to me are:
- Belt clips
- Privacy codes / Tones
- Overall ergonomics and weight
While rechargeable battery packs are what we use the majority of the time, I want my radios capable of running on AA batteries. I have standardized on AA batteries for our camping tech as they are easy to get and I only want to have to take one kind with me.
The belt clip needs to be sturdy as this is what is going to keep the radio attached to you or your pack. I don’t like “clips” that swivel in and out of an attachment or that have some type of push to release feature. A good clip should be attached firmly to the radio and while squeezing at the top opens at the bottom so you can attach it. Make sure the clip is big enough to get onto your belt or pack.
My preference is to have a drop-in charger. These are the ones that you put your radio into when charging and not just a cord that plugs directly into your radio. Ideally, the charger would be USB based or have a 12v DC (cigaret lighter style) connection, so that you can plug it into your trailer’s battery system or in the car. Newer radios, like Midlands X-Talker T70 series, have a USB based drop-in charger. This allows you to charge the radios much like you change your cell phone and the T70 radios allow you to also connect the USB cable directly to the radio. The bottom line with chargers is looking to maximize the effectiveness in the most amount of situations while minimizing extra stuff and weight.
Privacy codes (also called, Private Line (PL), Digital Private Line (DPL) or tones) are a must and allow you to essentially mute other users on the channel. It is like having a secret password that unless somebody knows it they can’t talk to you. Please don’t mistake this for any level of privacy though. Anything said on an FRS/GMRS radio can be potentially heard by anybody. The main advantage here is being able to set a code on a given channel for your family. If others in the area are using that channel you will likely not hear them as they would be using a different code. The number of codes doesn’t really matter, you just want to make sure that you have this ability on your radios.
Lastly, the ergonomics of the radio should be considered. This would include the overall size, weight, and color of the radios as well as the button positions and screen. I personally don’t like radios that have a Push To Talk (PTT) button in the middle of the radio and prefer it to be on the left side. However, Some smaller children have a hard time with the side button and find that the center PTT works better. How the radio feels in your hand and the actual weight will likely be hard to judge in the store packaging. There is no real right and wrong here but you want it to be comfortable and look good.
While hand held radios are my primary go-to, you may also want to consider a higher power mobile radio that you can mount in your RV or tow vehicle. Midlands MXT series of MicroMobile radios are a great option for a more permanent mount base station. These radios have an antenna that can be placed on a magnetic surface giving you a more consistent signal. This can be a bit of a challenge in some RVs or tow vehicles where magnetic surfaces are limited. In those situations, you would need to get a bit creative or have a different type of antenna installed. Having a radio mounted in your RV or tow vehicle is really nice when calling the troops back to the rig for dinner or keeping in-touch with other vehicles in your caravan. While you can do this with a handheld, having a more permanent mount radio with higher power and an external antenna, really makes communication a snap.