Good communication is the key to Dirk Collins’s job. As an action-sports filmmaker for Teton Gravity Research, he relies on handheld two-way radios (a fancy way to say walkie-talkies) to coordinate shots between, say, a snowboarder atop a mountain and filmers on the snow and in the air on helicopters.
“Without clear communication the shot will be missed,” he says, “and unlike Hollywood shoots, there is no second take.”
Whether you’re communicating with your troop at a jamboree or keeping in touch with Mom and Dad in your neighborhood, two-way radios are among the most useful pieces of gear you can carry. But not all radios are created equal, so we asked Collins to give us some smart buying tips.
Most two-way radios operate on two special radio bands: Family Radio Service (FRS) and General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS). You need a license to use GMRS, so that’s why you might hear most of the two-way radios you’d buy referred to as “FRS radios.” All have 22 channels. Dial in one channel and, with just a push of a button, you can instantly talk with your friend on the same channel—even if he’s miles away.
PRICE: These days, you can find two-way radios for as low as $20 and up to $250. Usually the list price is for a pair of radios, but always check to be sure. In general, the more you spend on a radio, the more features, durability and greater talking range you’ll get. Just $50 should get you a radio that’s plenty good for most Scouts’ uses.
RANGE: Basically, range is the maximum distance you can have between two radios and still be able to communicate. You’ll see range claims plastered all over the packaging, saying things like, “Up to 20 Miles.”
“Be aware of the range that each radio claims,” Collins says. “They list the optimal range, but this does not apply when there are mountains or lots of tall buildings in the way. The range will be significantly smaller when you have these obstructions.”
Manufacturers make their range claims based on line of sight. So for radios with a five-mile range, you’ll only get that sort of distance when you and a buddy are standing in the middle of a wide-open field five miles apart. Throw in trees or valleys and you’ll be lucky to get a mile-and-a-half of range.
FEATURES: Most two-way radios let you communicate between your radio and everyone else in the group with radios on the same channel. But more expensive units include features like direct call, which — like a cell phone — lets you dial a number and communicate privately with just one other person in your group. Radios in the $80 to $100 range often come with a weather radio feature that alerts you automatically if bad weather or other hazards are headed your way. Privacy codes are also an important feature to consider. They scramble your communication to help prevent other people from listening in on your conversations. The more privacy codes, the greater protection you’ll have.
BATTERIES: Some two-way radios are powered by regular alkaline batteries. Others come with rechargeable batteries and charging stands that you can plug in. If you plan to use your radio in the field for more than a couple of days, look for units that let you use both kinds of batteries. “After you’ve had them awhile, rechargeable batteries don’t seem to hold a charge very long—especially in cold weather,” Collins says. “We always carry extra AA batteries just in case.”