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Mar 272013
 

FRS/GMRS portable radios come in all shapes and sizes.

FRS/GMRS portable radios come in all shapes and sizes.

If you collect any random group of radio owners together and asked them what they would most like to improve on their radios, the chances are most of them would emphatically say ‘more range’.

Now, when we talk about greater range, it is important to realize there are two parts to a radio’s range.  The first part is how far away its transmission can be heard, the second part is from how far away it can receive transmissions from other radios.

There is usually little point in improving one part of a radio transceiver’s range without improving the other part as well.  What is the point of being able to transmit further than you can receive (or vice versa)?  The whole idea of a two-way radio transceiver is that you can communicate bi-directionally, both to and from some other person.

On the other hand, if you made some tweak to your receiving circuit so you could now hear stations twice as far away, and if they were to do the same thing to their receiving circuits too, then that would balance out and you’d both be able to send and receive to each other again.

So if you are seeking to optimize conditions among your own group’s radios, making an ‘unbalanced’ improvement to your radios is okay if you make the change to all the radios.  And of course, always, any better performing feature is to be preferred to an under-performing feature.

Number 1 Priority :  Antenna

The most important thing you can do to improve your radio’s range – both for transmitting and receiving – is to improve its antenna.  For some strange reason (mainly cost, secondarily size) the standard default antenna that most radios come with is very disappointing and does not perform as well as an antenna is theoretically capable of doing.

A ‘good’ antenna may be a bit larger than the standard default the radio comes with (the ideal length for an ‘on radio’ FRS/GMRS antenna is about six inches) but that’s not a huge increase in size so is almost an essential ‘must do’ upgrade.

A poster on a Yahoo group about the Baofeng UV-5R transceivers gave a great example of the impact the antenna can have on the radio.  He measured the strength of transmitted signal from a UV-5Rwith its standard antenna, and with two different after-market antennas instead.

The standard antenna gave a signal strength of -19 dBm.  The first of the two after market antennas gave a strength of -12 dBm and the second one came in at -10 dBm (lower numbers are better).

Now for the amazing thing.  These are logarithmic measurements, so a 9dBm change is about the same as an 8.5-fold increase in transmitting power AND receiver sensitivity.  Oh – the cost of this amazing antenna that converted the radio from an average performer to a super-performer (the Nagoya NA-701)?  Less than $10 on Amazon!

Now if you have a FRS radio, you probably can’t replace the factory antenna, because it almost certainly comes with a fixed ‘hard wired’ antenna.  The same is true of most but not all GMRS radios (especially the low-priced ‘blister pack’ consumer units).  The importance of a good antenna can not be overstated, and so you should make this a part of your buying evaluation of radios – do they have removable antennas or not.

A good antenna is by far the best thing you can do to improve your radio’s performance.  It will give you a balanced improvement in both transmitting and receiving capabilities, and will give you the equivalent of a hugely overpowered transmitter, without breaking the law/restrictions on transmitter power, and without using up your batteries more quickly (which would happen if the transmitter was consuming power at a much greater rate).

If you have a radio to be used in your car or at your home/retreat/wherever, you have more options for antennas without needing to be quite so concerned about antenna size/weight/portability.  In particular, there’s another amazing transformation you can do for a fixed ‘base’ station, and that is to mount your antenna outside the building, and as high up as possible.

Getting your antenna up higher not only gives a clearer line of sight to nearby radios, but also extends the line of sight distance for further away ones.  At typical heights when your radio is being held to your head, the horizon is only 3 miles away (and if the other radio you are communicating with is also, say, 5.5 ft above ground level, then the total distance between you should be under 6 miles for line of sight conditions).  But if your antenna is 20 ft up, you’ve almost doubled the distance to the horizon, and you could now be almost 9 miles away from the tower antenna.

If your communications will always be in one general direction, you can also consider choosing a directional antenna to focus your transmitting power (and your receiving sensitivity too of course) in only one part of the hemisphere that otherwise radiates out from your antenna.  Even if that is not the case, there can be advantages to having both a general antenna and also a very directionally focused one, and if you need to, switch from the general to the directional antenna and point it where the other radio you want to communicate with is, and that will surely give you another doubling or quadrupling of equivalent transmitter power and receiver sensitivity.

Note :  Please also see our two-part article on how to choose and install an external antenna for more information about improving your radio’s antenna.

Number 2 Priority :  Power and Voltage

If you have a portable unit, maybe it is designed to operate with a rechargeable battery pack that it is provided with.  If so, well and good.  But maybe it is designed to work with standard AA or AAA type batteries, or perhaps even a 9V battery.

If that is the case, there is a temptation to replace the standard single-use batteries with rechargeable Ni-MH batteries.  Normally, this is a great thing to do, but rechargeable batteries (both Ni-Cd and Ni-MH) are 1.2V per battery, whereas standard single-use batteries are 1.5V.  Rechargeable batteries have 20% less voltage.

How important is this?

Your radio’s receiver will work pretty much the same with either voltage.  But your radio’s transmitting power is probably proportional to the square of the battery voltage.  In theory this is true, but maybe the radio has a voltage limiting circuit inside it and cuts down the voltage from the standard batteries and runs at full power with rechargeables.

Assuming no voltage limiting circuitry, then with the rechargeable batteries, your radio might be only developing 64% of the power it would with the standard batteries.  That’s an appreciable power reduction – not as significant as with an antenna change, for sure, but still an appreciable one, and if you’re in an area of marginal coverage, it might make all the difference between getting a signal out or not.

What to do in such cases?  Either use single-use batteries, or have an external power pack with sufficient rechargeable batteries to equate to or slightly exceed the standard battery voltage and a wire running in to the radio from the external power pack.

Oh – in addition, if you’re in a marginal coverage area, make sure your batteries are reasonably fully charged.  That could help, too.

Number 3 Priority :  Hold Your Radio High, Don’t Shield It

We suggest you get an external microphone/speaker or earpiece/microphone for your radio, so that when you are transmitting, or struggling to receive a weak signal, you can hold your radio not at your mouth but high above your head.

Not only does this give your signal a bit more clearance, but it prevents your body from soaking up some/much of the signal.

If this is not practical, at the very least, and as best you know where the other people you wish to talk with are, don’t put your body between the radio and the direction you want to transmit/receive.  That can sometimes make a small bit of difference too.

Number 4 Priority :  Move Your Position

If there’s a big barn immediately next to you and blocking your line of sight to the other radio you are trying to communicate with, then (if the signal is poor) move so that the barn is no longer blocking you.

If you’re in a small dip in the land, climb out of it and onto the highest ground you can find.

While radio waves will go through objects to some extent, as a general rule of thumb, the more clearly you can see the other person you want to communicate with, the more clearly your radio signal will reach him, and the more obstructions between you, the lower the signal quality will be.

Other Comments

The preceding items are about all you can do once you’ve bought your radio(s).

But you need to consider performance issues when first buying your radios to start with.  We’ll be writing about this separately and soon.

In general, we suggest the most important part of your radio to optimize is its receiving ability.  Think in real life – which super-power would you prefer :  Super-hearing or a super-loud voice?  Most people would choose super-hearing, and you should too.

Your objective is not to be heard by everyone, everywhere, within an extraordinary radius of your radio.  Rather, you want to be able to hear everyone – friend, foe, and neutral stranger – and communicate primarily with those you need to communicate with and ideally without being overheard by any more people than you absolutely can’t avoid.

The less transmitting power you need and use, the better.  That keeps your transmissions closer to ‘below the radar’ of other people who might be out there, and saves the batteries in your radio.

For More Information

This is part of a growing series of articles we are publishing on GMRS and related types of walkie-talkie radios.  You can see everything to do with all sorts of communications here (both wireless and wired).

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David Spero

David SperoDavid Spero has been prepping since before it was ever an issue. He remembers how his father would store vast quantities of food and supplies at home, and both of them thought it to be normal prudent actions - as, of course, they are. He has a masters degree in business, has worked internationally, speaks several languages, is a nationally accredited firearms instructor, a licensed ham radio operator, and through this website is becoming increasingly a respected authority on matters to do with prepping.

  18 Responses to “How to Maximize the Range of your FRS/GMRS Radios”

Comments (13) Pingbacks (5)
  1. I have ah modified ICOM IC-T7H that puts out as much as 6 watts when powered by 12 volts.
    I have the ability to transmit on FRS and GMRS @ 6 watts if I really needed to.
    I would recomend getting two of these radios to modify for longer distance transmissions.
    Be aware that this is Illegal.
    With GMRS, repeaters are available and so increase output power but need to be Licensed.

  2. how about ExpertPower® 14.4″ Dual Band Two-way Radio Antenna for the UV-5Rplus?

  3. The best upgrade you can do is take the test to become a licensed ham radio operator. It’s easy, and ham radios can be inexpensive. Especially the imports from China. You can greatly increase your range over GMRS or FRS radios.

  4. Ditto to what Roger says. Ham radio handhelds are typically in the 5 watt range compared to the FRS which are usually less than 1 watt. Also ham radio handhelds have more antenna replacement options and possibly can transmit up to 5 or more miles, realistically.

    Ham radio mobile rigs which can be used in a car or on a power supply in the house can offer up to 50 or more watts which can give up to a 20-30 mile range depending on terrain etc.

    Just a simple 35 question test after a little bit of studying. More info at http://www.arrl.org

  5. Bill, you are incorrect. Its not illegal to free band radios to boadcast out of band. It is illegal to broadcast on those bands unless it is a life threatening emergency.

  6. David..Thank you for the info.

    I am a prepper and I’m also about 75% deaf..I can hear some words over the radio but mostly they are unintelligible.

    Is there a radio of some kind that is “closed captioned”. Sorry this is probably the dumbest question you’ve ever received..but I know how important this is going to be when the shtf.

    I could learn morse code…that may be an option..but seems like it takes a long time to learn and understand..I’m kinda at a loss here…any help would be appreciated. Rusty

    • Hi, Rusty

      Thanks for writing and your very sensible question.

      Actually, yes, there are various sorts of radios that would give you the communication capabilities you seek. Certainly Morse code is in some ways the simplest and best, and learning it is surprisingly simple if you’re prepared to take the time. It is the ‘lowest tech’ and longest range method of communicating.

      Another now less common form is RTTY – radio teletype, where you send typewritten type messages.

      Then there are a bunch of computer to computer type radio protocols, heck there is even amateur television as well!

      So there are a lot of ways you can communicate via radio other than simply using a microphone and speaker. The problem is that these technologies are not as common, but Morse remains well supported, particularly in the HF bands, for which you need a General rather than Technician level license.

      I hope this helps answer your question, and come back with any more questions you might have.

      Thanks for visiting, and very best wishes

      David.

  7. thanks David for getting back to me…I will begin to do some research on this…have a great weekend. rusty

  8. Great information, also ole scanners work better with a good antenna, Have had my SportCat -Uniden since late 70′s and picks up all police in my area, DEA,Fire, and even school bus dispatchers..The long and short of it is the rubber 6″ is ok if I’m outside with it on my belt, inside have 22″ high gain works like a champ. Also comes in handy for weather band 164.00mghz/..
    Thx Guys..

  9. Don’t forget to get/build a Faraday cage to keep your radios in, just in case.

  10. i have a question do cop radios connect to there radio in the car and transmit through that if so would this make a good set up using civilian legal equipment i am just wondering because i am going into security work

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