COMMUNICATIONS

FRS-GMRS Walkie-Talkie Range Distance Claims Are Often Ridiculous

I’m talking about the typical consumer handheld ‘walkie talkies’ (2-way radios). Manufacturers claim all sorts of supposed achievable communication distance or range… Such as “up to 16 miles”! How can they claim that?!

Answer: Marketing.

In reality, or the real world, these radios never come close to the acclaimed range and distance. Do you have any of these 2-way radio “walkie talkie” handheld radios? If you do, then you know I’m right. So what gives? What’s the deal?

Well, read on… here’s the deal…

As is typical with marketing of just about any product, they stretch the truth. And that’s often an understatement.

In the case of claiming a potential communication distance of “16 miles”, for example, here’s the only way that could ever happen…

Walkie Talkie Distance

Do you see that picture at the top of this article?

If you’re on top of a mountain with a completely unobstructed line-of-sight to the receiver – while transmitting at maximum allowed signal strength – in perfect conditions. In other words, horizon is not a factor. Perfect conditions. That’s the only way you’re going to achieve what is technically achievable.

However while living in the real world, you’re probably not on a mountain.

To be fair though, 2-way radio ‘walkie talkie’ communication distances can be pretty good for practical use if you have a decent radio and if there’s not too much in the way between the two parties.

First this:

The Wavelength

We denote wavelength by Frequency > how many complete waves go by per second.

UHF

These consumer handheld 2-way radio walkie talkies transmit and receive in the UHF (Ultra High Frequency) range. I’m not going to go all technical on you. But, the consumer walkie talkie band we’re talking about here is called FRS (Family Radio Service), and the GMRS band (General Mobile Radio Service).

There are frequencies (channels) that have been reserved for these types of consumer FRS/GMRS 2-way radios. They are in the 462 and 467 (Megahertz) MHz range. I only bring that up to translate into it’s wavelength (I won’t bore you with how that’s done). We’re looking at about 2 feet full-wave, about 1 foot half-wave, and about 6 inches for a one-quarter wavelength.

When that invisible wave travels through the air, it gets impeded (attenuated) every time it “hits” something in the way. Trees will reduce the transmitted signal. Houses and Buildings. Metal. Etc..

VHF

Whereas lets say professional commercial “business radios” (and VHF Marine radios) operate within the general range of 150 – 174 MHz, their wavelengths are longer. 76 inches at 155 MHz. Although we’re still talking “line-of-sight” for these radios, because of the longer wavelengths they are better able to get past those obstacles than FRS/GMRS.

2 meter Ham radio, for example, is between 141 and 148 MHz. 144 MHz is 82 inches full wave. Similar to the aforementioned “business band” frequencies, these wavelengths are better than FRS/GMRS at getting past those obstacles. But I digress…

I only bring it up to illustrate that the range of “walkie talkie” frequencies (FRS/GMRS) can be affected due to its frequency and wavelength – depending on one’s environmental obstacles (and their characteristics).

How far away can I talk on walkie talkies?

Anyway, without going all tech on you, here’s the most important things for optimizing your range on ordinary consumer handheld walkie talkies (FRS and/or GMRS)…

Height Above Ground

As it is with both UHF and VHF radios, we’re talking line-of-sight communications. The number one way to get longer range is to get higher up. Consumer handheld radios don’t generally have a way to utilize installing a better or external antenna (legal issues). So height above ground will simply be your own physical location and how high up you are while you use your handheld radio.

Antenna

The antenna is very important. Some radios may have a better antenna than others. If we were talking about radios other than consumer walkie talkies, the topic of antenna importance would be significant. However these consumer type handheld radios don’t have interchangeable or upgradeable antennas. You’re stuck with what you get.

Without stepping into potential legalities, you might say that the following handheld 2-way radio works quite exceptionally well for FRS / GMRS comms.

Here’s one article that I wrote which addresses its antenna upgrades:

[ Read: Best BaoFeng Antenna Upgrade for Ham Radio and GMRS, FRS, MURS Bands ]

Environmental Obstacles & Terrain

Obstacles in the way. It matters. What they are, matters. Their physical properties, density. It’s pretty common sense. For example, your transmit range will be much more reduced through a dense forest compared to a partially treed area. Or open fields!

If there’s a big hill in-between you and the other person, that’s going to be a big problem.

Transmitting from one person inside a home or building to someone outside will also reduce some range (walls within the house).

I think you get the idea. Out on the open range, you’re going to get good distance. Otherwise, not so much.

Power

Transmit power is less effective for optimizing range than the previous mentioned things.

Also, consumer handheld FRS/GMRS walkie talkies can only transmit at maximum power levels set by the FCC.

To the best of my current understanding of FCC rules for transmitting power on unlicensed FRS/GMRS is limited to 1/2 watt on some channels (8-14) and up to 2 watts on others (1-7, 15-22).

It is important to note that some of the consumer radios do not transmit up to the maximum allowable power. It’s sort of like, you get what you pay for…

Enough Already! What’s the Distance for Transmitting on these Radios?

Range

Here are my estimates for approximate real world range for FRS/GMRS walkie talkies at 1/2 watt.

Open terrain, 1/2 mile up to maybe 2 miles.

Suburbia, 1/2 mile to 1 mile or possibly a bit more.

In the woods, 1/4 mile to 1/2 mile, maybe more, greatly depending on terrain and obstacles.

Let me know your own experiences with range for these radios in the comments below.

I have only been talking about FRS/GMRS consumer walkie talkie radios. GMRS distances can be greater due to increased power if you’re licensed (no test, just a form and fee). But that’s for another post. There’s also MURS (only 5 channels though, and other annoyances I’ve encountered). Then there are Marine radios. Business band radios. And of course, Ham radio. But all that is beyond the scope of my intent here.

Apparently the most popular inexpensive “walkie talkie” right now:
>> Motorola T100 Talkabout Radio, 2 Pack
(view on amzn)

This one is a step up, higher power on permissible channels, and also very popular:
>> Motorola Talkabout T465

There sure are a lot of these radio choices out there. Way back when, years ago, I bought a set of Midland’s that worked out well for us. I still have them (actually 4). I also have purchased a number of Baofeng’s which I like much better (though require some technical know-how to use to their fullest capabilities).

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20 Comments

  1. I bought my first pair of FRS walkie talkies several years before cell phones became popular and several years after CB radios became almost useless because of all the constant traffic and interference. They were Cobra’s with two channels with a slide switch selector. We used them to stay in contact when we would split up. We would go to Galveston or Padre Island, me fishing off the piers, wife and kids making the beaches and shops. Me out over the water, we had about a two mile contact range. Like any new tech, they were expensive back then in comparison to today, Gave $80 for the pair. Still have them, still use them.

    Fast forward, I now have probably 5 pairs of GMRS/FRS not counting my Walker shooting muffs with the mounted compatible radio. Even with the range limitations, they are a very important part of my preps, and my day to day here at the homeplace.

    Been concentrating on these frequencies and ways to extend those ranges with success. May share in a different post what can be done to accomplish that, some technically frowned on by FCC using the Baofeng, or completely OK with them using radios they’ve approved for those upgrades/additions.

  2. I bought a set of radios that actually did what was advertised–in a sense. I live high up on one side of the valley. My sister lives on the other bench. Line of sight. Nothing in between except air. When I called her we got a clear signal.

    From her house she had (at the time) a straight line of sight to two other siblings. We tested it and she could reach all three of us, so she became communications central. We were unable to reach two other siblings because they had obstacles between.

    1. Lauren,

      You didn’t mention distances, but same here. That first set I bought years ago were with us when we started building our original cabin here on the mountain a couple of years before we retired and moved up here. My brother’s home was about 3 3/4 miles from us. With my elevation the two locations had clear communication.

      1. I don’t know. Maybe 10 miles? Like Ken said, height and perfect conditions. We both live in subdivisions that immediately drop off into the valley at our location.

  3. Good info Ken. With just minimal effort, you could pass an easy test. All those issues will disappear.

    OK OK, I’ll stop.

    1. @Plainsmedic,
      As a former General Class license holder, yes, I know…

      And to be clear, this particular article is for the ordinary consumer with these types of radios. Not everyone is particularly interested in Ham radio as a hobby. Tons and tons and tons of people use these FRS/GMRS handheld radios for all sorts of things having to do with short range communications.

      Road trips – multiple vehicles traveling together
      Camping – keeping in contact with others
      Boating – staying in touch with your group on shore
      Hiking – emergency communications if you get separated
      Hunting – keeping in touch with your partners
      Skiing – contact with your group on the slopes
      ATV – comms with fellow all-terrain-vehicle travelers in the group
      Security – communication between locations, patrols
      Homestead – general purpose while out on the property
      Emergency – contact with others

      …and more

      1. Ken…Plainsmedic,

        I’ll add that with the FCC rule changes with some GMRS frequencies allowing up to 50 watts and with better antennas, local coverage is very good (20+ mile radius, 40+ mile circle).

        I’ve been experimenting with these enhancements, while keeping in mind the compatibility with the lower power “blister-pack” radios. I’ve found that the weaker radios communicating with the enhanced radios perform much better than two weak radios with each other. The Walker muff radio, the weakest in transmit range (normally less than a mile) can do 2 1/2 miles when talking to my Baofeng connected to my elevated (20′) homemade 1/4 wave antenna.

        This doesn’t compete with ham, but combining the capabilities of GMRS/FRS makes for a fairly capable home base commo solution…..my main objective…….would be nice to be aware of a battle taking place 400 miles away…..could be deadly not knowing a battle is taking place the next homeplace over……….

        1. Dennis,
          What type of 1/4 wave antenna? A vertical? You might also try building a Yagi for those frequencies. It would throw a signal better in one direction, so you’d have to point it, but you’ll get longer range. Your experimenting is exactly what most hams do. Build, test, upgrade, find what works best for you and your area. Good stuff.

          1. Minerjim,

            Actually I’ve built two 1/4 wave’s for UHF (462-467) using 12ga romex wire and a 239 chassis mount connector. Mounted one beside the house on a 20′ mast with rg8x coax connecting it to a Baofeng.

            The other 1/4 wave I actually connected straight to the top of a Baofeng mounted it on the windshield of the side x side using a cell phone windshield mount and a a speaker/mic. Just an experiment but worked very well. much better transmitting performance than the aftermarket radio mounted antennas.

            Then tried a Browning BR450 5/8 wave 5.5 db gain antenna mounted on an aluminum plate bolted to the top of the side x side w/6′ of coax connecting it to a Baofeng…good results.

            Next is testing both antennas with the Leixen VV898s 25watt when it gets here and I figure out the programming.

            I’ll reiterate that none of these radios I speak of have any frequencies programmed other than GMRS/FRS/MURS….although they are capable of being programmed for other frequencies (the reason FCC frowns on their use, well that and the power levels), I purposely deleted all HAM frequencies the Baofeng came pre-programmed with and the Leixen is supposed to come with no pre-programmed frequencies.

      2. The other half bought two-ways on sale.
        Motorola T800
        Up to 35 mile range big print
        Like Ken says, advertising

        Mountain to valley up to 35 miles
        Open water up to 6 miles
        (Extreme drop)
        Neighborhood up to 2 miles
        All in small print.

        We haven’t played with them, but once.
        She in the house.
        Me in the vehicle, traveling away. Trees and thick brush along the road way. Flat land, then a slight hill.
        We lost contact just short of a mile.
        But considering all the blockage, between us, I didn’t think that was bad.

        (And of course, we have the annoying cell phones. So if she wants to yap at me, especially when both my hands are busy, that’s what she uses.)
        Convenience

        And the radios will be packed in the faraday. Along with the chargers. Batteries removed.

    2. The biggest problem with that Plainsmedic is that one word license, another license from the gov,,,,
      not sure about you, but im pretty sick and tired of having to be approved for stuff by some schmuck in a cubicle somewhere, they can blow me

      1. Kula,
        I get ya. For me it’s purely a preparedness thing. I have a driver’s license, hunting, fishing, paramedic, etc. etc. etc. I don’t have a problem with any radio comms. Anything is better than two cans and a string. Just read an old article from 2016. Something about overcoming the fear of failure. Trying something new, even if it’s outside your “comfort zone.” This is here on MSB.

        I wish only the best for everyone here. Hard times are coming. Each situation is unique, so folks will prepare as they see fit. There are always different approaches to every problem. I simply choose to NOT hamstring myself, for a few hours of effort. To me, it’s the most efficient use of my time and effort.

        I have a slingshot and a bb gun. I also have a pellet gun. Are those my “go-to” solutions? Maybe sometimes, but usually not. If I need to feed my family, I’ll likely choose something else. Unfortunately, we’re all on lots of lists. If ya purchase walkie-talkies with a credit card, there’s a record of that. I do agree with you on too many licenses. Not sure how to fix that.

        1. Plainsmedic,
          i hear ya, locally i got such a bad taste from a few hams and things that have been said that it soured me to the whole thing

          1. Kula,
            I have experienced the same thing with “arrogant” hams at a local club, which is why i am not a member. Don’t let those types keep you away from having some fun. Taking the test for a Tech license is one way, or do like Dennis and play around with UHF that doesn’t need a license is another. the whole idea is to have fun and learn.

          2. It really turned me off, i went into it with memories of one of my folks old friends who was a collector of old radios and a hardcore HAM, I was gung ho, then after a few interactions with these guys i said screw it, some clubs arent worth the admission, this was one of em

          3. Kula,
            you don’t strike me as a “Joiner”, i get that. I don’t go in for all those “contests” and such that are sanctioned by the ARRL, but i am a member to have access to technical information they can provide.

          4. Kula,
            Ya don’t need that club or those hams. Get some comms, be it ham or something else. Only you know your needs. There are some good folks within ham. Not all of them are clique-ish and rude. It’s mostly a solitary thing anyway. Ya hafta do what’s best for your interest. Don’t allow a few jerks at some ham club, dictate to you what you’ll do or won’t do. You get a LOT MORE bang for your buck with ham, but get something. I think we’re all going to wish we had something.

  4. Found an easy design for a 3 element Yagi antenna for GMRS. Take a look at ” nt1k dot com” page. This antenna is very small because it is for UHF GMRS frequencies. Very directional. For those that do not know, a Yagi antenna has the shape of the old TV antenna with multiple cross pieces (elements). They have the ability to send the radio signal out in one direction, and improve range.

  5. When considering FRS, one should consider GMRS instead.
    Children’s toys vs. adult’s tools, IMHO.
    There is a – No Exam – License of $70 per 10 years (soon to be reduced to $35) required to *legally* use the GMRS frequencies.
    For that fee, and more expensive (but still reasonably priced) radios, the increase in capabilities are significant.
    Wouxun KG-905G and KG-805G are *type licensed* for GMRS frequencies, i.e. legal, and are considered to be among the best available. BTECH GMRS-v1 are another good choice.

    Plainsmedic: I’m studying for the Technician license now, but will likely continue to use GMRS with family members because my one GMRS license covers the entire family.

    1. Night Owl,
      Your situation illustrates my point exactly. There is a place for radio comms. If shtf, no one will know or care about licenses. Then, it will come down to what your equipment can do for you. GMRS may well be good enough for some situations. Some folks work very hard to get the most out of GMRS they can. The potential with ham is far better. The same effort will garner far better results. Having both GMRS and ham will provide comms with family and the added ability for YOU to reach out much much further. Good luck on your test. It’s easier than ya think!

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