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Whether for work or leisure, two-way radios are useful in situations where you need a steady stream of communication, or where cell phone use isn't practical for a variety of reasons. They're commonly used for keeping in touch while camping, hiking, or on the site of a large event.
Once you've decided to buy a set of two-way radios, the problem is finding the best one. If you're new to the world of two-way radios, some of the terminology may be confusing. IP codes, VOX support, VHF, UHF — what does it all mean?
The good news is, we at BestReviews are here to cut through the jargon and bring you fair and thorough reviews, helping you make those all-important purchasing decisions. To do so, we test products in our labs, liaise with experts, consult existing customer feedback, and do extensive research. Read on for our full guide to two-way radios, or — if you're ready to buy — scroll up for our product matrix, featuring our top five picks.
You'll find two main types of two-way radio on the market: consumer and professional.
Consumer two-way radios are designed for leisure use — for instance, when hiking or camping, or just for fun.
Pros: Tend to be smaller and more lightweight than professional models, comparatively very affordable, perfectly adequate range for most leisure activities.
Cons: Less durable than professional models, fewer channels and frequency bands.
Price: As little as $20 for basic sets with poor range and few extra features, up to $150 for high-end models or larger sets.
Two-way radios with a noise filter give you a clearer signal and enhanced range.
Professional two-way radios are designed for use at work. For instance, on construction sites or by event security teams.
Pros: Have additional frequency bands reserved for business use, larger number of channels, more rugged and durable, generally have a longer range.
Cons: More expensive than consumer two-way radios, can be quite heavy and bulky.
Price: About $60 to $500, depending on quality, range, and number of radios per set.
It's bad form to interrupt a conversation already going on within your group or on your channel, unless it's an emergency. In which case, say "break, break, break" to alert the other users you're trying to use the channel due to an emergency situation.
Two-way radios give you access to a range of channels either on the General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS), Family Radio Service (FRS), or both.
GMRS and GMRS/FRS radios have a longer range, but you'll need a license to use the GMRS channels. FRS radios have a shorter range, but anyone can use them.
Now, we get to privacy codes. The channels available to you on your two-way radio are the same channels available to anyone else with a two-way radio. So, if you're using the same channel as someone else in range, you'll hear all their communications, too.
Using a privacy code adds an extra identifier to your communications, so your radio will filter out anyone who's not also using this code, even if they're using the same channel.
It's worth noting, even when using a privacy code, anyone in range using the "monitor" feature on their two-way radio can hear your communications — so it's probably best to avoid sharing sensitive information over a two-way radio.
A two-way radio's "IP code" denotes its internationally recognized ingress protection (IP) rating. This tells you how good a two-way radio is at protecting itself from solid particles (such as dust and debris) and water. An IP code starts with the letters "IP," which are followed by two numbers. The first number is the "solid particle rating" and the second number is the "liquid ingress protection rating." But, what exactly does that mean?
Solid particle rating of 0 = Not protected.
Solid particle rating of 1 = Protected against particles of 50mm diameter or larger.
Solid particle rating of 2 = Protected against particles of 12.5mm diameter or larger.
Solid particle rating of 3 = Protected against particles of 2.5mm diameter or larger.
Solid particle rating of 4 = Protected against particles of 1mm diameter or larger.
Solid particle rating of 5 = Dust protected.
Solid particle rating of 6 = Dust-tight.
Some two-way radios come with various accessories, such as headsets or cases — but, don't be swayed by these extras unless you wanted them anyway.
Liquid ingress protection rating of 0 = Not protected.
Liquid ingress protection rating of 1 = Protected against vertically falling water.
Liquid ingress protection rating of 2 = Protected against vertically falling water when enclosure is tilted 15 degrees.
Liquid ingress protection rating of 3 = Protected against spraying water, up to 60° from vertical.
Liquid ingress protection rating of 4 = Protected against splashing water from any direction.
Liquid ingress protection rating of 5 = Protected against jets of water from any direction.
Liquid ingress protection rating of 6 = Protected against immersion for up to 30 minutes.
Liquid ingress protection rating of 7 = Protected against continuous immersion.
Liquid ingress protection rating of 8 = Protected against high temperature, high pressure spray at a close range.
You can't speak and listen at the same time on a two-way radio, so don't keep the "talk" button pressed down after you've finished speaking — you won't be able to hear the reply.
Two-way radios may have a maximum range from anywhere between a few hundred feet to 50 miles. FRS radios have a shorter range — up to a maximum of about six miles — whereas some GMRS radios can transmit over a range of up to 50 miles. However, it's worth noting that you'll rarely ever achieve the maximum range, as conditions need to be perfect to do so.
Think about the size and weight of your chosen two-way radio. You want it to be comfortable to carry around with you for long periods. Check the product description for the precise weight and dimensions of your chosen model.
Bear in mind that two-way radios bought in the United States can only legally be used in North America.
Some two-way radios are voice-activated, so they can be used hands-free — a feature useful for cyclists, skiers, or anyone else who might not always have a spare hand to operate the radio. This voice-activated operation is often referred to as "VOX."
You can find two-way radios with a built-in system that lets you know about adverse weather. They constantly scan National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration channels and update you with any weather alerts. This is particularly handy when you're out camping or hiking somewhere remote, and need to be cautious of poor conditions.
Most two-way radios run on AA or AAA batteries, and will accept both disposable and rechargeable varieties. The battery life will depend on what kind of batteries you use — lithium ion is the best choice for longevity.
If your radio has a scanning function, you can use it to quickly scan through the channels and discover which one your group is currently using.
The calling or paging feature causes each radio to ring or vibrate before the talker relays their message. This is helpful in loud places or busy situations, where it might be easy for a communication to slip through the cracks.
Very high frequency (VHF) two-way radios are generally best for long-distance use out in the open, whereas ultra high frequency (UHF) units are best for use in urban areas as the signal better penetrates through obstructions, such as buildings.
While any two-way radios that operate on the same frequency can communicate with one another, two different models may not have the same features, meaning you'll miss out on some functionality. As such, it's best to buy them in pairs or sets.
You'll get the best range if there's a clear line of sight between users — even if they're not actually able to see each other with the naked eye due to distance.
Q. How many two-way radios will I get in a pack?
A. Two-way radios are sometimes sold singly, but usually come in pairs or larger packs. Some packs even contain 10 or more two-way radios, for use at work or by large groups. Consider how many two-way radios you need and select a pack size accordingly.
Q. Do two-way radios have any emergency features?
A. Yes, most two-way radios have a range of features useful in an emergency. This may include all or some of the following:
Q. Do I need a license to operate my two-way radio?
A. You may need a license to operate your two-way radio, but only if you intend to use GMRS channels. The FCC issues said licenses, and they cost around $75 per person to cover the use of as many radios as you choose.
At BestReviews, we purchase every product we review with our own funds. We never accept anything from product manufacturers. Our goal is to be 100% objective in our analysis, and we do not want to run the risk of being swayed by products provided at no cost.