2-Way Radios For Pre & Post SHTF Local Communications

midland-gmrs-radio-base-station
(Midland GMRS ‘base’ or ‘mobile’ 2-way radio)

 
2-way radios (walkie-talkies) do not require a working infrastructure as do cell phones (antenna towers, network service providers, power-grid, a paid service plan).

A set of 2-way radios ‘just works’.
The only thing a 2-way radio needs is a charged battery.

2-way radios may have their limits on how far they will transmit and receive. However there are some that are perfect for local communications while serving a wide variety of purposes.

We have been using GMRS 2-way radios here at the homestead for awhile now. They’ve been great! (GMRS stands for General Mobile Radio Service).

Since it’s just Mrs.J and I, whenever either of us goes out somewhere on the property, we ALWAYS bring a 2-way radio. It’s not only convenient for normal communications, but you just never know when an emergency situation may arise.

I also always keep a set of handheld 2-way radios in the truck for ‘just in case’.

Here’s a bit more about GMRS radios… A ‘Base station’ concept (and base antenna), handhelds, and why I like GMRS for local general purpose communications

 
CHOICES
There are several choices when it comes to choosing the best type of 2-way radio for local communications.

In short, there’s MURS, FRS, GMRS, and CB radio.

I’m not going to get too technical about it. But each of these types of radios operate on different frequency bands. Each have their pros and cons. I feel that GMRS is the best for ‘local’ communications, especially given that these radios can operate up to 5 watts power.

‘LOCAL’
What do I mean by ‘local’ communications? I’m talking about a range within just several miles or less.

Again without getting into potentially boring technical reasons (although I find it interesting ;) ), there are many factors which affect range.

GMRS is ‘line of sight’ (from one radio to the other) although it will transmit through forest, buildings, some terrain, etc., to an extent depending on terrain density. I won’t go deeper into it than that. So just know that I’m talking about communications within several miles (although you can go hilltop to hilltop up to 20 miles or thereabouts, depending.).

 

Handheld and ‘Base Station’ GMRS radios

I have had handheld GMRS 2-way radios for years. They work well.

With that said, a radio designed as a ‘base station’ may offer some attributes that potentially make it more powerful.

Their electronics may be better designed (although not always). More importantly they can be paired up with a better antenna which enables the radio to reach out further than a handheld.

For example, the following GMRS radio although designed to mount in a vehicle, serves well as a base station for inside the house (use with an upgraded external antenna).

Midland MXT100 GMRS 2-Way Radio

The radio being designed for the vehicle will require a 12-volt DC power connection. Alternatively for inside the home you simply need a small 12 volt DC power supply. Example:

70W 12V AC to DC Power Converter

Note: I really like the simplicity of this radio. However (tech alert), it does not have ‘repeater’ capability (Duplex mode) (See the next note). But that’s okay with me since I’m only using this type of radio for local communications.

Note: Some GMRS radios include ‘repeater’ functionality that enables you to transmit further by way of repeater stations which ‘repeat’ your signal by first receiving your transmission and then re-transmitting it from the repeater location (typically located in high spots like tops of mountains, buildings or towers.). There’s more ‘technical’ description, but I’ll leave it at that.

 

GMRS Base Station Antennas

While a handheld GMRS radio typically has an attached short ‘rubber ducky’ antenna (a short whip), an antenna can be a factor that can increase your range.

A ‘base station’ type radio will enable you to choose your own external antenna which may have characteristics that increase your range. Additionally by increasing the height of your antenna (mounting it up high), you can improve the distance your signal radiates.

There are a number of GMRS base station antennas which are designed for this specific frequency range. One popular and relatively low cost GMRS antenna with 6.5 db gain is the…

Tram 1486 UHF Land Mobile Base Antenna

Additional considerations will be procuring the coax cable between the radio and the antenna, mounting it (e.g. to the house via a pole and mounting brackets), making a feed-through from the inside to the outside of the house, fine tuning the antenna,…

 
HANDHELD GMRS 2-WAY RADIOS
There are LOTS of these radios out there. Some more simple to operate than others.

Years ago I purchased several pairs of the following handheld GMRS radios. They’re stilling going strong today with lots of use and abuse…

Midland GXT1000VP4 FRS/GMRS Two-Way Radio (Pair)

A very popular and highly rated 2-way radio:
BaoFeng UV-5R Dual Band Two Way Radio

 

Uses for GMRS 2-way radios

Camping and keeping your group in communications with each other
Great for large properties and farms
Local neighborhood communications
vehicle to vehicle travel
Security watch/patrol
Hiking
?

 
DOES GMRS REQUIRE A LICENSE?
Technically, GMRS does require a license from the FCC to transmit, and transmitting power is allowable up to 5 watts. However in 2010, the FCC proposed to remove the individual licensing requirement for GMRS and instead license GMRS “by rule” (meaning that an individual license would not be required to operate a GMRS device). This proposal is still pending. In practice, hardly anyone uses a license on this band due to its consumer popularity…

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30 Comments

  1. We went with the Dakota MURS system for a few reasons.

    First, it ties into our Dakota Alert alarm system, so the same base station works for receiving alarms and talking. Second, with our terrain being what it is, a system with more range would be wasted. Roughly one mile is maximum, and then only if you’re in the right spot. Third, since it’s on the same frequency as our alarm system we can be down at the river 1/2 mile away and know if someone has come down our driveway, where we have to alert sensors.

    We really like the Dakota Alert system. You can have up to 4 sensors programmed with different alert messages so you know where the alert is sounding from. We started out with just one on our driveway, but soon found out false alarms from deer, and even our dogs would eventually lead a person to ignore it. When we put the second alarm on it eliminated wondering if it’s a false alarm, as we get “zone 1”, and later “zone 2” confirming activity in the driveway.

    1. Great minds Tom. Similar setup and usage here, and we sleep better with the MURS Dakota Alerts watching the driveway and as burglar/intrusion alarms inside a couple buildings semi-distant from our home. The base station works pretty well considering it’s only 2 watts and has a telescoping antenna, and the handheld is very rugged and uses rechargagble AA batteries. The motion activated transmitter works on anything from about 8v to 15v, and it’s design makes it easy to modify and troubleshoot/repair if needed. Own several, the oldest about 8 years old now, and only had one ever fail (partially, it’s degraded but still usable). There’s an article detailing how the Dakota Alert motion detectors work, and with some prepper/survival uses for them that shouldn’t be hard to find if anyone is interested.

  2. Thanks for this useful information Ken. Our current walkie talkies are not very powerful and have been thinking about upgrading to a better quality set of communications. I have always been a bit overwhelmed by all the acronyms. That’s the reason I have put it off for so long.

  3. We have a set of three….the grand-kids use them when here and wanting to go walk about the ranch without the adults. They work for about 8 miles when hill top to hill top. Pretty good actually.

    I will usually assign two to the kids and keep one at home base….on me or grandpa. They also carry binoculars, a good whistle, and are learning topo maps and compass skills.

    We have been teaching them radio etiquette as well, so they know not to create a bunch of “chatter”.

    Good article Ken….keep em coming. Also, let me know if I can help with an article or two. Be glad to, if it is something I know anything about! LOL

  4. Completely Radio Challenged here (read brain dead), although I just contacted 2 local HAM clubs, time for this old fart to learn more….. I mean, what’s one more “hobby” right? Funny, I talk to some retired people I know and they always say “I don’t know when I had the time to work with all I have to do now”…… How true.

    As far as FRS, MURS, GMRS, HAM, SSB, AM, FM, Scanners, Repeaters, Skip, and all of the rest of the acronyms, boy-oh-boy time to get my arzz in gear and learn up on this stuff.

    AND as a note to pioneer woman; Girl, you have forgotten more than most of us will ever know….. So please none of this “if it is something I know anything about! LOL” —– OK???? :-) :-) :-)

    NRP

  5. Good info, and something I want to learn much more about.

    you say
    “we ALWAYS bring a 2-way radio”

    how large are these/how heavy/how awkward/what do you use to carry them in?

    ex…about the size/weight of a pound of butter?

  6. We have handhelds which are intended as emergency communications between myself and my sister about 10 miles away but within line of sight–opposite sides of the valley. She is then within line of sight of three more siblings, so we’d intended her to be the center-point in our communications network.

    Unfortunately my other siblings declined to participate (i.e., showed 0 interest) so it’s just the two of us at the moment.

  7. As a retired LEO, radio communication has been, and still is, a priority for me. Even with cell phones, I don’t feel comfortable out of sight of home in my remote location where cell phone reliability is spotty at best (mainly because I’m getting old and my physical abilities are deteriorating).

    My first hand held units were 2 channel Cobra brand FRS. Loved them, and they are still my favorites. Since, I have purchased and used several brands of the newer multi-channel FRS/GMRS units claiming unrealistic communication distances. My experience has been around 5 miles line of sight, 1/2 to 1 mile through the woods. My experiences may be skewed to the high side, as my home sits at the highest point in my neck of the Ozarks. This is more than sufficient for 90% of my needs. My vehicles are equipped with Cobra CB’s that have been “peaked and tuned” and reliably get 5-10 mile range.

    One word of caution when buying GMRS radios, be sure to check what type batteries they use. I mention this because of the experience I had when buying Midland radios. While they claimed on the package they use 4 AAA batteries, when the rechargeable batteries went bad, I discovered the battery holder was wired so you had to buy Midland Battery Packs for replacement at a cost of about 4X the cost of other rechargeable batteries. Took some doing, but with some bending and soldering I was able to rewire them to accept aftermarket batteries. Don’t know if this was the exception or the rule for Midland radios, but once was enough for me. I no longer consider their radios.

    I can’t imagine a SHTF situation without the ability of every family member having instant communication at their fingertips.

    1. Dennis,

      If I may… I would have passed up any transceiver labeled for use with AAA cells. They provide very little current and run time. IMHO it is better to acquire that type of gear set up for AA cells. You’ll get 3-5 times the life out of the battery for very minimal increase in weight/size. Cost delta between the two cell types is typically nil.

      1. McGyver,

        Can’t argue that point. Like I said in my post, I’ve long had an affinity for the little FRS/GMRS radios. My first were bought probably 20+ years ago, these were the 2 channel Cobras, for which I paid close to $100. They touted a 2 mile range, are powered by 3 AA batteries (no self contained charging capability).

        They actually have a greater usable range than the later multi-channel rechargeable units with purported 28 mile ranges, powered by 4 AAA batteries. While the Cobras will last about 2 1/2 days of normal use with non-rechargeable batteries and the re-chargeables will typically last around 8 hrs. in all my radios. I do have to recharge every eight hours, but I usually have a pair on the charger if I have an extra long day.

    2. That’s good advice to check to see if the radio ‘only’ accepts ‘special’ batteries (not ideal).

      The Midland handheld 2-way radios that I have also accept ‘AA’ batteries (4 of them). When the Midland battery packs wore out (after lots of charge cycles) I switched to AA eneloop rechargeable batteries – which have been great!

      Related: Best AA Rechargeable Battery

      1. Ken,

        Actually, I didn’t do a good job explaining the battery situation on the Midland radios I have. They will accept regular batteries for operation. The problem is the recharging configuration inside the battery compartment.

        The rechargeable battery packs were actually 4 AAA batteries inside a plastic wrapper with contacts on the back of the pack. In other words, if you replaced them with after market batteries they made no contact with the charging points. I had to take the radios completely apart and re-route the wiring to the standard spring and post terminals. Now they charge fine with regular batteries. I’ve seen the recommendations for Eneloop batteries and plan to try them.

      2. +1 on the eneloop rechargeables. BaoFeng sells a AA battery shell case for their radios- recharge your AA batts with something like a Goal Zero solar panel, put them into the shell, attach to the radio, and there you go…

  8. A good article, Ken. My Husband and I had just started researching 2-ways to have on hand. So very timely. It will be helpful to read the other comments.

  9. Hate to say it, but Ken, or anyone could you provide a pre-configured BOM for a home base set up with up to 5 radios to include antenna, cable and all devices? This is an area I struggle in due to time,options and effort. I am looking for a turn key solution to the radio challenge.

  10. We use 2 way radios all the time. We live on 15 acres and it is so much more convenient using them instead of a cell phone. If there was/is an accident or whatever, it is so much easier pressing a button for instant communication than trying to dial a cell phone. I actually hang my radio on my shirt collar for easy access.

    We have a pair of Uniden walkie talkies and also a midland base camp model xt511 that is rechargeable, and has am/fm, weather stations and gmrs. It also has a built in dynamo hand crank charger and led flashlight. I did replace the battery packs on the Uniden portables, but they are over 10 years old and are rechargeable.

    I have also found a way to have some radio fun at the expense of my wife.

    I explained the importance of using the proper radio lingo/terminology such as ” Roger, Copy that, Over/and out. It was a tutorial that would remind you of Barney Fife.

    Anyhoos, I was cutting down a tree a the far end of our property a couple years back, and after the tree came down I shut off the chainsaw to evaluate the situation. My wife heard what was going on in the distance and keyed the mic on the radio and said,

    ” Hey, I heard that tree fall and then couldn’t hear the chainsaw anymore, is everything OK?”

    I didn’t answer back right away. Then she said

    ” Hey, can you here me?” Then I answered,

    ” Yes, I can hear you fine, but I didn’t know you were finished talking cuz’ ya didn’t say “OVER” at the end!” She then said,

    ” You’re a DORK!!!!!!…….OVER.”

    1. I don’t remember how much I paid for the radios. However being far out of the range of the proverbial ” Slap Upside the Head”………….priceless!!✋✊. ??

    2. From yours: “” Yes, I can hear you fine, but I didn’t know you were finished talking cuz’ ya didn’t say “OVER” at the end!” She then said,

      ” You’re a DORK!!!!!!…….OVER.””

      That is hilarious! And it reminds me of my teenage daughter. I have been trying to teach her situational awareness for years. I thought it was futile effort. All I ever get from her is: “Yeah I’m like with my friends at that park, like over by the, ya know, that, like restaurant thingy sorta by the school, but on the right.”

      I had just about abandoned all hope for her… until last week, when her car broke down in a bad area where she and her friends decided to stop to go pee after a day hike. THAT phone call was quite different:

      “Dad, my car is crank, no-start. I’m with three of my friends at the Jack in the Box, 14611 Dalewood St. We are approximately one quarter mile south of Interstate 10, from the Puente off ramp. From westbound you’ll make three immediate left turns. Please hurry. There is a scary homeless guy here who keeps insisting he wants to fix my car.”

      Well then…. I guess she WAS paying attention to all those ‘dork’ lessons about awareness and cardinal directions. Made my day.

      Interesting side note. The “scary homeless guy” was still there when I arrived. He was a Vietnam veteran. He offered me his opinion of what was wrong with the car. And he was exactly correct.

      1. Hahaha,that’s a great story too. Glad to hear your daughter absorbed some of your lessons.

        “This is DORK….over and out.”

  11. Great article. I’m in the process of studying for my HAM license and I would highly recommend that anyone who’s thinking on it go ahead and do it. Took me about a week of hard studying, but now I pass the practice tests with ease.

  12. A great site to learn about emergency comms for non Hams with CB’s’ GMRS and MURs radios.
    Search ( CH3 Project / AMRRON )

  13. I’m assuming most people on here are well versed on firearms as it directly ties in with personal defense and self reliance. In my opinion, you must view two way radios in the same regard. I believe in a real life post-catastrophe situation you will be pushing your PTT button a lot more than you will be pulling your trigger. Don’t let the technical jargon spook you and don’t believe you need to have a technical degree in electrical engineering to pick up on this stuff. Just take it a little at a time. When I first realized I needed to know more about radios, I did a simple google search to learn the difference between UHF and VHF. From there, I just started following links and googling whatever related information came up so I could learn more about each aspect of it. It quickly all started clicking together. There are no shortage of really good tutorial web sites and youtube videos out there that will make it a lot easier to understand.

    Here are some sites that I thought were interesting in that they can show you what kind of activity is occurring where across the frequency spectrum:

    http://www.radioreference.com/

    http://www.jneuhaus.com/fccindex/spectrum.html

    http://www.w2aee.columbia.edu/fcc-bandplan.html

  14. think it’s safe to assume most people on here are well versed in firearms as they tie in directly with personal defense and self reliance. In my opinion, one should view two way radios in the same regard. I believe in a real life post-catastrophic situation, I will be pushing my PTT button far more often than I will be pulling my trigger. When I first realized I was deficient in my knowledge of two way radios, I started with a simple google search looking for an explanation on the difference between UHF and VHF. From there, I just started following links and doing other searches for the new terms I was learning. Don’t think you have to be an electrical engineering genius to pick up on this stuff. It’s not that bad. There is no shortage of tutorial web sites and youtube videos out there that make it easy to learn.

    I would also like to throw my two cents in here about the FRS/GMRS radios (a.k.a. bubble pack radios, consumer radios, etc). If you go out into the internet poking about to gain radio knowledge, you are bound to come across all kinds of opinions about why those radios aren’t that great. I have a different opinion. Those radios do have a place in your SHTF planning, but should not be the whole communications plan. They are low power, stubby antenna radios making them useful for only short range communications but no one ever seems to consider the upside to that. Think about your group’s organizational planning. It’s probably going to resemble a military organization (individuals make teams, teams make squads, and so on). In your smaller groups who will be most likely staying close together and within easy range of FRS/GMRS radios, individuals in the group will be able to communicate with each other. In another area, individuals of another group in the organization can communicate with each other, and the two (or more) groups would be more likely to not cause radio interference to each other. The leaders of those groups can communicate through VHF radios that typically get better distance in open terrain to relay information from small group to small group or to a base station that may be equipped with an HF radio that can be used to communicate with other base stations much further away. A large area communications network can be established and it all starts with the FRS/GMRS radio at the individual level. Another upside to short range is you are limiting the range by which not-so-friendly individuals or groups can detect your presence and intercept your communications. “Alpha 1, this is Alpha 4. We are good to go on food, water, and medical supplies, but we are completely out of ammo.” is obviously not something you want to transmit over long distance for everyone to hear. At the very least, get everyone in your group an FRS/GMRS radio and then build up your network from there as needed.

  15. HG#28,
    Ha-ha. I loved your line of “Alpha 1, this is Alpha 4. We are good to go on food, water, and medical supplies, but we are completely out of ammo.” Hopefully, everyone would know to use code words for this!

    Thanks for your insight on learning about radios. This is an area I’m still deficient in–it’s on my list to do soon!

    1. Thanks, Wendy. You are absolutely right about codes. Anything of a sensitive nature should be coded but slip-ups do happen. That’s another reason I advocate using FRS/GMRS at the individual level. With fewer people in the group with longer range capability, the less likely it will be that someone is going to send such a statement out across a 5 to 10 mile or more radius.

      Those Baofeng radios oddguy has mentioned below are a good choice for someone in a leadership position in the group as they can be programmed to communicate with all the services stated, including the bubble pack FRS/GMRS radios. I’m envisioning people who have already prepared for post-catastrophe and who have already learned how to use that type of radio are also going to find themselves in positions of having to look out for family, friends, neighbors, etc. who have never put one bit of thought into something like this before. You may want to keep them in radio contact for a variety of reasons so I believe the best solution is the one in which they receive the shortest range radios for their use. They won’t venture too far away from you anyway so range won’t be an issue. You can then control what gets said over the air as your group is in communication with an ally group several miles away in another neighborhood, farm, camp, or whatever.

      Also, sorry for the double post thing. My browser crashed when I entered the first comment and when I didn’t see it after I got the browser going again I retyped my message as best as I could remember it. Now we have two, sort of.

  16. My take on 2way:
    Get a Beofang UV-5R radio for each person in your group (4 for ~$100- cheap for what you get) that have detachable antennas (alows you to change configuration-for alot more range wih an extension cable or another antenna) comes with a battery that on Rx will last a week. Can get bigger batteries (3600mah for ~$10 doubles time) and has a few mile range(4-5 watt output) But most important (atleast to me) can be programmed (chirp software is free and easy to use)for FRS,GMRS,MURS,WEATHER CHANNELS,MARINE VHF,MANY POLICE AND FIRE(think local quick info) all in one radio. You can communicate with SO many other types of radios.
    These ARE NOT the end all of radios, if your looking for an ICON/KENWOOD/REAL HAM RADIOS etc. keep moving along but they are a GREAT low cost keep your group from losing each other gather info radio. I have FRS give-aways for “other” people” but my core group will stick with the BASIC beofeng radios. Atleast ITS A GOOD PLACE TO START.
    Use FRS/GMRS low power and MURS low power now and whatever you want after SHTF. Do they break/get wet and short-yep, but at $25-$29 on amazon its ok- just rplace them(keep old ones for spare parts) Go get a couple and try them out(my first 2 cost less than $50) and after realizing I could talk with my puking777 and my FRS motarola walkies and my cobra FRS I figured they are “good enough” for me.
    I have also come up with a solar option for charging the radios (~2 watt solar panel usb-> 9v dc-dc converter and charge away) I also keep most of my radios under AL foil in case of EMP- but that another thread.

    1. @ oddguy

      Well I have been thinking (not always a good thing). Well I went to my first “HAM” breakfast HA-HA with a local group, I’m thinking they were speaking some outer-space language or something HAHAHA

      I keep hearing about these Beofang UV-5R hunk of plastic…. Ordering a pair tonight. Will not broadcast till I get licensed of course. But need to start somewhere.

      Thanks for the input.

      NRP

  17. Well dag-gum-it.

    Anyone have an opinion on the newer BaoFeng BF-F8HP , it’s a little more money but…..

    NRP

    1. They got a good review on the Miklor site.

      http://www.miklor.com/COM/Review_F8HP.php

      A pair of them with hi-cap batteries and antenna upgrades is on my “to-get” list. Your going to want to get a FTDI programming cable for about another $20.00 because you’ll need that to program with your computer (a recommended method). It’s a good investment, that one cable will work with a lot of different “Chi-Com” radios.

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