What Is A Two-Way Radio?
As the name implies, two-way radios have two functions. The first is to transmit, the second is to receive. They have built-in antennas for communicating with other radios on the same bandwidth.
A subcategory of two-way radios is the walkie talkie. Despite common misconceptions that walkie talkies and two-way radios do different things, they are essentially the same. The difference is that walkie-talkies are handheld size, whereas two-way radios can be larger. For the purposes of this guide, they’re synonymous. A walkie talkie is a handheld radio, just like a two-way radio.
What Makes A Good Two-Way Radio?
There are a surprising number of features that walkie talkies might (or might not) have. But which are most important in making a reliable radio? A few common features and functions to look out for are:
The strength of the signal you can send/receive is one of the most important things to know about your radio. Will you be able to talk to your party members on the summit while you’re at basecamp? Or even just over the next ridge?
The strength of a radio’s signal is usually displayed in watts. The higher (up to four watts), the better. A longer antenna will also increase the range, especially in rugged terrain.
FRS or GMRS Band, UHF or VHF
Another factor that determines your radio’s range is what band it uses. The most common publicly available bands two-way radios use are FRS (Family Radio Service) and GMRS (General Mobile Radio Service).The important thing to know is that FRS is much more short-range than GMRS.
In addition, different radio wavelengths (UHF or VHF) can boost the signal as well. VHF typically performs better long-range and in hilly terrain.
Power Source and Battery Life
Many two way radios use wall chargers. This often gives you longer battery life, but if your radio dies in the backcountry, you’re out of luck. Alternatively, some radios enable you to swap out batteries on the fly, but these batteries typically don’t last as long. Radios that offer a dual power source option – both wall charging and battery swapping, are best.
Durability and Weather Resistance
If you’re expecting weather for any extended length of time, you need your radio to be waterproof. It only takes a little water leaking through your radio’s shell to fry the electronics inside.
Durability is also a concern. You want your radio to be able to survive a fall to the ground from chest height, at a minimum.
Some radios also use batteries designed to handle extreme cold, which is a big plus for winter expeditions.
Ease of Use and Design
A radio’s overall design is another major factor to consider when choosing a model for the mountains. If the temperature is in the single digits, you don’t want to have to take your gloves off just to push the talk button or change channels. Having a radio that you can operate easily with your thumb and forefinger in gloves will save you precious heat, time, and energy.
Weather Alerts and SOS Functionality
Some radios allow you to tune into Naitonal Weather Service broadcasts for weather alerts. This is a feature that could legitimately save your life, giving you time to turn around before high winds or precipitation set in.
Similarly, some radios allow you to broadcast an emergency alert. This sends out a ping that lets any other radio in range know that you’re in need of help. It’s not quite as foolproof as a personal locator beacon, but it’s a lot better than nothing.
The best walkie talkie on the market is the BCA BC Link 2.0 for its functionality and features. On a budget, the Midland T10 will get most jobs done fine. The most bang for your buck for mountaineering is the Rocky Talkie. In an emergency, the Motorola T600 is the most likely to save your skin.