The ‘Best’ Radio for FRS/GMRS
Update : This article is still very useful in terms of appreciating the issues surrounding how to make a choice of two-way radio. But the recommended choice in this article – the Baofeng UV-5R – has now been sort of superseded by a new model, the Baofeng F8HP. Click the link for an explanation of the differences.
There are dozens – maybe hundreds – of radios being sold for use on the FRS and GMRS bands. Clearly some are better than others – and not so clearly, most are not very good at all. Which are the better and possibly best of the many radio choices?
Before answering the question, may we ‘cheat’ a bit and redefine the question from ‘the best radio for FRS/GMRS’ and instead look at it from surely the better and broader perspective – the best radio for short-range wireless communications. The ugly truth is that all FRS radios are deliberately designed to be next to useless, and most consumer rather than professional grade GMRS radios are only slightly better.
So, can we look at the broader topic of short-range radios, but we’ll keep the GMRS/FRS requirement in mind.
By short-range we mean ‘tactical’ ranges based more or less on lines of sight – ie the ability to communicate reliably, probably up to a mile and definitely less than ten miles. In other words, you want to be able to communicate from anywhere on or immediately adjacent to your retreat property to anywhere else on or close to it.
Of course the range of any radio depends massively on the terrain, so it is difficult to generalize and part of what you need to do once you’ve purchased radios is to then ‘map out’ your retreat and adjacent areas, testing communications to see if there are dead areas anywhere, ending up with some coverage maps, sort of like the wireless companies publish.
As you probably know, there are other radios capable of much longer distance transmissions – even circling the globe, and even bouncing signals not just off overhead satellites but even bouncing signals off the moon too. But these generally are quite a lot different to the concept we’re considering here – short-range radios, possibly/probably hand-held. (If you ask us nicely enough, we might write separately about longer range radios. 🙂 )
If you have real problems with short-range radio coverage, you can consider an option to substantially extend the range by adding a repeater, and we’ll explain about repeaters in a subsequent article. The radio we are recommending is ‘repeater capable’, and the GMRS service allows for repeater type operation.
So, what’s the best radio? That’s of course like asking how long is a piece of string, because any choice involves compromises between cost and features and portability and many other things (see our two-part Buyer’s Guide to FRS/GMRS Radios for more information on these issues).
The radio we are recommending is a low-cost/high-value radio. It isn’t the best performing and doesn’t have the most features, but it is unbeatable from a value point of view.
Now, before introducing you to the radio, some more introductory comments.
Using Ham Radios for FRS/GMRS – Legal, Illegal, or a Grey Area?
Okay, so remember our comment in our article ‘A Prepper’s Introduction to Walkie-Talkie Radios‘ – the part where we said ‘always follow the law’?
We meant that when we said it, and we still mean it now. But….. It seems that perhaps the policing body, the FCC, doesn’t really care all that much, any more, about what happens on the FRS and GMRS frequencies, and as long as you don’t do anything too egregious, they may be content to ignore you.
This is almost definitely true of the diminished need to get an $85 five-year license to operate on GMRS frequencies, and may also be true of the requirement to only use formally approved radios on the FRS and GMRS bands, or so this message in a Yahoo Group seems to hint at. We asked the message writer for clarification and he wrote back to us simply affirming that the Baofeng radios are okay to use on GMRS frequencies without showing any proof of his assertion, so make of that claim as you will (hint – a lot of nonsense is put forward as fact in many of these forums).
We subsequently spoke to an official spokesperson at the FCC, but she first asked to only speak ‘off the record’, which we of course happily agreed to, and hoped that meant she would then speak frankly. Unfortunately she then proceeded to do nothing other than robotically repeat the official FCC regulations without giving any hint at all as to the real-world application of these regulations. However, she did disagree with the claim in the preceding paragraph that a radio that is not licensed for GMRS frequencies (Part 95 of their regulations) could be used on those frequencies if it was licensed to be used under similar frequencies by the FCC under either Part 90 (commercial land mobile use) or Part 97 (Ham radio operator) requirements.
Maybe the most that can be said is that if you are using a unit that conforms to FCC specifications for the GMRS service, and if you use it appropriately without causing interference or problems to other users leading to complaints to the FCC, and without going overboard on transmit power, then perhaps – just possibly perhaps – no-one’s going to come knocking at your door.
After all, if the radio conforms to FCC requirements, how would anyone even know that you were using a non-approved radio? It is only when you’re using a radio that doesn’t conform to their requirements (too broad a bandwidth, poor frequency control, too much power, etc) that you’re raising red flags in the broader radio using community (which does a fair amount of self-policing and reporting to the FCC about unlawful use) and possibly causing someone to complain to the FCC about you.
If you do choose to use a ham radio on these ‘Part 95’ regulated bands (there are four Part 95 bands – CB, MURS, FRS and GMRS, and all are close to ham bands, with appropriate ham radios usually being capable of working on the nearby Part 95 band as well), then some advice.
- To avoid drawing attention to yourself, don’t use ‘high power’ on MURS frequencies. MURS service is limited to a maximum of 2W transmitter power, although it does allow for external antennas.
- Don’t transmit on the FRS channels at all. They are limited to 0.5W of power and don’t allow external antennas – if you suddenly started transmitting on the FRS band with a 5 or 50W transmitter and a super external antenna, you’d be very obviously contravening the regulations and inviting someone to file a complaint with the FCC. The FCC might not voluntarily hunt down offenders on its own initiative, but it will respond to complaints.
- GMRS service allows for external antennas, repeaters, and up to 50W of transmitter power. You can probably use reasonably powerful ham radios and with high quality antennas on the GMRS frequencies and no-one will be any the wiser.
So, to answer the question we posed at the start of this section, in theory using unlicensed equipment on the GMRS or MURS bands is illegal, but if your transmissions conform to the other requirements of the band you are transmitting on, you’re probably happily in a grey area of non-enforcement – a bit like if you drive just a few mph over the speed limit on the open road.
All these worries would of course evaporate if you obtained a Ham radio operator’s license.
So with all this as lengthy preamble, may we introduce :
The Baofeng UV-5R – the Very Best Radio for FRS/GMRS (and MURS) Use
The lovely Baofeng UV-5R series of radios have just about every feature one could hope for in a mid-grade portable radio transceiver, and at a bargain price (typically around $40 each). They are not the best performing radios out there, but they are definitely the best value and have all the capabilities and options you are likely to need.
They are also dual band, which means you could theoretically use them on both the MURS and GMRS bands.
On the other hand, strictly speaking, although they are FCC certified for both Part 90 and 97 use, these radios are not certified for Part 95 use (ie on the GMRS, FRS and MURS bands).
If there’s any way to discreetly use these radios without arousing the ire of the FCC (see the preceding section), then it would be great to be able to do so, and they are probably your very best choice of radio in terms of value and cost/performance compromise.
Ideally, you should get a Technician level Ham license (see our article about getting your Ham license and our subsequent article about the easiest way to pass the Technician Ham License test) and then you can use the Baofeng units totally legally on the 70cm (similar to GMRS) and 2m (similar to MURS) Ham bands they support.
Note – there are many different models in the UV-5R series. Some are described as ‘new for 2013’ or ‘improved’ or whatever else. They are all identical. The only difference is the model number (eg UV-5RE, UV-5RA, UV-5R+, and so on) and the external case design. This is the same as how some companies will make products for Costco with a different model number to the same product which is made for Walmart, and the same product with a different model number for other stores, too.
Buy the cheapest UV-5R radios you can find – often they are on Amazon for under $35 and with free shipping, even though on the same page of listings you might see some ‘chancers’ trying to sell ‘improved’ units (which are identical) for $20 or more extra.
Oh – you’ll also see different models get different review ratings on Amazon too. But, trust us with this. ALL the UV-5R units are identical. What’s that – you don’t trust us? That’s okay, you can prove it for yourself. Simply see the official FCC approval numbers. They are the same on the different models. Every different radio model with a change in its electronics needs a different approval number – the fact that all the UV-5Rs (even the F-22 models) have the same approval number seems clear proof to us that the radio is identical.
It is that whole marketing thing with radios again – as we asked before, why is it that radio marketing keeps getting so terribly close to downright dishonesty?
Like many other Chinese products, their manuals are not very well written. However, there is a huge community of enthusiastic users of these radios, and a couple of people have written their own very much better manual, which you can see here. We’ll be publishing a separate article shortly full of tips about how to best use your Baofeng radio.
Oh, there are lots more Ham radio transceivers that are designed ostensibly for the Ham 440-450MHz (70cm) band that will also work on the GMRS 462-467MHz band too, but none of the other radios cost less than $100, and only when you start getting into the $200+ and $300+ units do you start to get units that are noticeably better than the lovely UV-5R units. Just for comparison purposes, here’s the probable ultimate in such radios – the Yaesu VX-8DR – where you’ll be politely asked to pay $500 per unit rather than under $50.
Summary – and More Information
We recommend the Baofeng UV-5R radio series as being the best value radio for most prepper’s local radio communication needs. Ideally, we urge you to get a Ham license and use it on ham radio bands rather than on GMRS and MURS, but it does seem that the FCC is being reasonably permissive about the use of such radios on the GMRS band in particular.
The UV-5R radio, while good ‘out-of-the-box’, will work much better if you add some extra accessories to it. That will be the subject of our next article (please click on to read it).
Update : As we said that the top, there’s now a new model Baofeng – the F8HP. It offers greater power, a better antenna, and longer battery life, but it costs twice as much (although that still means a cost below $65). Click the link to read our article about this new radio, then decide whether you want the UV-5R or F8HP.