Handheld two-way radios for preppers
(and other curious folks)

Written by lcamtuf@coredump.cx.

1. Introduction

This document is essentially a short, FAQ-style addition to the common-sense emergency preparedness guide that I published back in 2016. I decided to put this FAQ together because handheld two-way radios are often seen as one of the staples of any survival kit - and with the advent of low-cost devices such as BaoFeng UV-5R, more and more folks are deciding to take the leap.

At the same time, I feel that the understanding of the characteristics of these radios in the emergency preparedness community is fairly poor - in part because the need for licensing often discourages casual experimentation. In the end, many folks end up adding such radios to their 72-hour kits or evacuation bags "just in case", without trying them out and without fully understanding the limitations or the capabilities of this tool.

I'm by no means an expert, but I'm fairly sure that the notes collected here are accurate, and that they go well beyond what you can find on a typical prepping blog.

2. Do I need a handheld radio?

There is the oft-repeated mantra of "better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it" - but that justification can be used to max out your credit cards or take a second mortgage to pay for ballistic vests, night vision goggles, and a getaway boat. In the end, any funds we divert to such purchases cut into our bottom line, and we need to carefully consider not just the very speculative benefits, but the inevitable opportunity cost.

In the event of a prolonged power outage, two-way radios can be a wonderful way to stay connected with friends or relatives who live nearby, or to stay in touch with household members when running local errands. On the flip side, there seems to be less merit in talking to strangers in faraway lands: in a major disaster, most of them won't be able and won't be inclined to help. Emergency radio chatter is seldom particularly informative, too: it is a rumor mill not much different from what you can see on Facebook or on Nextdoor - except that in an outage, there is no way to quickly fact-check the claims.

It is also worth noting that many cell towers and virtually all telco central offices have backup power, so you do not necessarily lose the ability to communicate the moment the lights go out on your block. The emergency power will not last forever, but neither do most outages; in the short haul, investing in a UPS for your modem and wifi router may be a better bet than buying radios and then trying to reach your friends.

Finally, especially when it comes to ham radio, you should ask yourself if you and your potential contacts have any interest in actually learning the craft; the radios can be finicky and there is a fairly steep learning curve, so it's not something you want to deal with while holding a flashlight, unable to search the Internet for tips. And if a friend or a relative is not monitoring the frequency, there is no guarantee that anybody else will; if you just want the ability to call for help, a satellite communicator such as Garmin inReach, or a distress beacon (PLB), may be a a safer choice.

3. What if I just want to listen to first responders?

Most government agencies have moved to trunked systems, which use digital signaling to allocate small time slices on a set of shared frequencies; if you tune in to one such frequency with a basic receiver, all you're gonna hear are bits and pieces of conversations, mixed with angry modem noises. You might be able to infer some meaning from this, but it won't be much.

Further, many such systems have gone all-digital (P25 or otherwise), and cheap handhelds are not able to decode this traffic at all - not even the bits and pieces of audio you'd hear in the mixed-mode systems of the old. And finally, many urban and suburban police departments have transitioned to AES-encrypted comms, where even a specialized trunk-tracking scanner won't do.

This is not to say that you are definitely out of luck; there may be some older, single-frequency systems in use in your region. For example, in some places, your state police, highway patrol, or rural sheriffs may be still on single-frequency FM systems. But the bulk of urban and suburban first responder traffic is out of reach to a person equipped with a BaoFeng.

4. What's the actual range of a handheld radio?

In urban high-rise environments, the range of handhelds is very modest: vertically, you might be able to clear anywhere from 5 to 20 floors in a building; horizontally, 2-5 city blocks if you're standing on the street.

In suburban areas, direct handheld-to-handheld communications are usually feasible within 1 to 2 miles, depending on housing density and terrain. It can be considerably less if there are hills or office buildings in the way.

Finally, in sparsely-populated rural regions, a range of 3-4 miles is usually possible - although again, it can be less if there are hills or dense forests in the way.

In exceptional circumstances, such as transmitting from a hill or a tall building overlooking a rural valley, you can get as much as 20-40 miles; this is the basis for the extraordinary marketing claims for some "blister pack" radios. In the real world, such results are rare.

5. Can I buy a more powerful handheld to improve range?

In short, not really.

The upper limit on the range of handhelds is largely a matter of physics: for most part, radio waves propagate in straight lines and are absorbed by stuff that's in the way. The usual distance to the horizon from the vantage point of a six foot tall person is around 3 miles. Past that point, things begin to slide "below" the horizon and end up in the largely impenetrable radio shadow of the planet we all walk on.

In urban and suburban environments, the horizon is not your only worry, too. Not only is the signal from your radio attenuated when crossing through drywall or masonry, but the longer the distance it has to travel, the more likely it is to eventually encounter a much less permeable obstacle along the way - a metal garage door, a major appliance, or simply the grand sum of all the household wiring and piping along the path. There is also an incrementally higher chance that the faint transmission will be drowned out by a source of interference that is closer to the recipient; motors, light dimmers, motion sensors, fluorescent and LED fixtures, TVs, computers, and car ignition systems are just some of the things to worry about.

In other words, while transmit power can make some difference, the payoff tends to be disappointing; for example, switching from a 2 W handheld to a 5 W one is unlikely to increase your range in the suburbs by more than 30%; and going from 5 W to 8 W is mostly just a way to more quickly discharge your battery.

In the end, with the current battery technology and other practical constraints, such as the desire to not give you RF burns, the transmit power of around 5 W is generally seen as the sane maximum for a handheld device.

6. Can I change the antenna to improve range?

Possibly, but do not expect miracles. And there is a very real trade-off: the antenna is gonna be big.

Most handhelds come with antennas that are somewhere around 3" to 5" long; that's considerably less than what would be optimal for the frequencies they are transmitting on. It's an intentional trade-off, because long antennas are cumbersome, and very few people want to carry a handheld with a three-foot whip sticking out. Another factor is more subjective: consumers associate stubby, injection-molded antennas with high-tech gadgets operating in the gigahertz range; and conversely, they see long and skinny antennas - especially of the telescoping kind - as something outdated and cheap.

That said, if you are willing to make your radio a bit more unwieldy, switching to a 13" antenna (e.g., Diamond SRH320A) is a pretty reasonable way to make sure that more of the energy pumped out by your transceiver is actually turned into radio waves. It still won't get you past the horizon, but it should improve your reach in built-up areas - perhaps by as much as 20-30%.

On the flip side, if you see stubby antennas advertised as having some wondrous properties, don't waste your money. It's almost certainly not gonna work.

7. So, can I actually talk to people more than 3-4 miles away?

Yes, if you get high! Put down the bong, though. If you elevate the antenna, you accomplish two things. First, your horizon moves farther away - you can see almost seven miles out by the time you climb to 30 feet. But just as importantly, the straight-line propagation path between you and other people no longer hugs the ground, and can clear many low obstacles along the way.

In practical terms, there are three things you can do to achieve this effect:

The practical upper limit to your range when using these techniques is hard to predict, but probably peaks at around 20-30 miles in densely populated areas, and 40-60 miles in rural valleys. More might be sporadically possible, and sometimes you can find linked repeaters or other clever contraptions of the sort that can get you heard 200+ miles away, but don't count on that.

8. But I hear stories of amateurs making contacts around the globe?

Yeah, but not with handhelds. Without the use of repeaters, there is no good way to "see" past the horizon on the frequencies that can be efficiently transmitted on with the kinds of antennas you can put on a handheld.

There is a range of lower frequencies, in the HF band, that can bounce off the ionosphere or propagate through ground currents and reach locations hundreds or thousands of miles away. But the wavelengths involved call for large, stationary antennas that are the domain of hardcore ham operators. Although such setups can be "portable", they are portable in the sense that you can load them into your car, and then deploy them in the field.

There are several oddball handhelds that can transmit on frequencies where this type of propagation is occasionally possible, but because of the aforementioned antenna constraints, the approach does not work all that well.

What you might be able to do with a ham radio handheld is ask other operators to relay urgent messages for you; within a couple of hops, you might be able to indirectly reach most places in the country. But the odds of being able to pull this off go up significantly if you understand the ham culture and know how to make contacts beforehand.

It is also, of course, possible to put up an antenna mast and communicate on lower frequencies over much greater distances. That said, this requires the other party to make a comparably substantial investment on their end, and doesn't give you the ability to stay connect when on the move.

9. Are you saying there's no difference between FRS, GMRS, CB, and ham?

There are no profound differences when it comes to the range of direct handheld-to-handheld comms. In particular, if you have a GMRS radio, a ham handheld is not necessarily an upgrade. That said, there are some marked differences in the "facilities" you find in these bands, and the types of contacts you are likely to make.

CB radio is an ancient band available to the general public; in the US, it does not require an explicit license, outside of the manufacturer's certification for the transceiver itself. You are limited to 4 W, and there are no repeaters. It uses 40 designated channels centered around 27 MHz. The low frequency could theoretically give you better propagation - but also means that most CB handhelds with small antennas will not be transmitting very efficiently; the technology is much better suited for vehicles and homes. Once very popular with all kinds of users, CB is now mostly the domain of long-haul truckers, who use it as a sort of a chat room.

It is also worth noting that CB in the US is restricted to AM modulation, which has lower voice quality and is more prone to interference than the FM mode used for FRS and GMRS. Perhaps because of this, in many parts of the country, the CB frequencies are dead - but where still used, it has a reputation as a uniquely lawless band, with comparatively higher incidence of mischief and trash talk. There is a distinctive culture surrounding CB, with its own lingo and a set of recurring conversation topics. If you call for help on CB frequencies near a major road, you will probably get help; but for casual chatter, it's an environment not to everybody's taste.

CB radio manufacturers include Cobra, Midland, Uniden, President Electronics, Galaxy, and several more.

FRS is basically a category of "family" radios that require no licensing. The radios operate on a set of 22 designated channels in the 462-467 MHz territory. Many of the cheapest "blister pack" walkie-talkies fall into this bucket; their recently-increased power limit is 2 W, which is still plenty and certainly more than adequate for staying in touch on a 40 acre farm. There are no bells and whistles here: you don't have repeaters, there are no digital modes or texting capabilities, and there is really no FRS community to speak of. The frequencies are mostly quiet in most parts of the country, except for the occasional kids messing around with the walkie-talkies they found under the Christmas tree (and most kids would rather get a smartphone these days).

GMRS is a "step up" from FRS that allows more transmit power and permits repeater use. Most of the GMRS channels are shared with FRS. You need to get "licensed" for it in the US, but the license is really just a tax: you pay a fee to the FCC and get a piece of paper for your effort (this is good not just for you, but for your family). The maximum transmit power for GMRS is 50 W, although most handhelds on the market stick to around 2 W. GMRS repeaters can be found in many metro areas, but aren't nearly as common as in the ham radio bands. There is no discernible GMRS culture that I know of - it appears to be used mostly for private communications between people who know each other, much like FRS. It is fairly popular on farms and in other rural settings, but is largely displaced by cell phones in places where network coverage is robust.

FRS and GMRS radios are manufactured or marketed by Motorola, Midland, Cobra, Uniden, DeWALT, and an endless procession of ephemeral brands from China.

Finally, ham radio is a bit of a different animal. At its core, it's a license to build almost any equipment you please and transmit in almost any way you please, on a wide range of frequencies, subject to some very general ground rules. The license requires passing an exam, and passing that exam requires spending a day or two to memorize a bunch of answers - some useful and some silly. It is pretty straightforward, but you need to do the work.

The ham culture is comparatively sophisticated, with a number of clubs maintaining repeaters and other infrastructure, with well-developed on-the-air etiquette, formal emergency response plans and organizations (ARES / RACES), regional frequency coordinators, annual conferences and events, etc. Many hams are also fond of experimenting with digital technologies, including packet networks and keyboard-to-keyboard comms. The frequencies used by ham operators generally aren't crowded, but you can hear a fair amount of chatter in any major metro area if you scan the frequencies for a while.

Other than the license and the community, "ham radio" is also a shorthand for a range of handheld transceivers, generally operating on 144-148 MHz or 420/430-450 MHz; the manufacturers include Yaesu, Icom, Alinco, Kenwood, and a bunch of newer brands from China, including BaoFeng. These radios range from very basic products that just transmit FM voice, to very sophisticated units capable of sending digital voice, digital text messages, GPS beacons, and much more. The usual maximum transmit power for such handhelds is 5 W.

(There are several other niche types of non-commercial radio systems, including marine and aircraft VFH, MURS, and so forth; but they are generally more restricted or less appealing than the options outlined above; for example, MURS offers just 5 channels and a dearth of radios to choose from.)

10. Do I really need to get licensed?

Many preppers make the argument that in situations where they would need the radio, nobody's gonna bother to enforce the rules. But if you refrain from using your radio until a disaster strikes, you're going to have a hard time figuring it all out in a stressful situation where mistakes can potentially cost you quite a bit.

Especially with "bargain bin" radios, it's not uncommon to find out that they don't properly transmit at all. With ham radio transceivers, it is also easy to put any radio in an unexpected mode by pressing the wrong button - and the first time you do that, it's probably going to take you a while to understand what happened and how to go back. The manuals are not necessarily helpful, as they often assume you already know the difference between SSB, NFM, and WFM, or what "squelch tones", "notch filter", and "VFO" mean. None of this is insurmountable, but also not a fun thing to do in the light of a flashlight and with no Internet connection to search for that stuff.

Finally, it just takes quite a bit of experimentation to see what is the practical range of your radio in your region, what are the blind spots, how to use the repeaters near you (keeping in mind that the lists and settings you find online are seldom 100% accurate)... and so on, and so on.

And although the FCC doesn't seem to be spending too much energy on enforcement, it stings when they do come after you. The fines they hand out are often to the tune of $15,000, plus equipment forfeiture to boot. So operating without a license does seem like a dumb risk to take.

11. So... is Baofeng a good radio?

It's the cheapest radio. It is OK for the price, but it is lacking in some respects; for example, many users complain about the radio being easily overwhelmed by strong signals on other frequencies. Their QA also seems hit-and-miss, with some devices having issues with audio. Even if you don't get a lemon, in all likelihood, you will eventually want to upgrade.

The cheapest brand-name ham handheld on the market is probably Yaesu FT-4XR (~$80). The most affordable non-sketchy digital voice option is likely Alinco DJ-MD40T (~$100). The fanciest popular handheld is Kenwood TH-D74A ($500 and a change), boasting advanced digital voice, digital data, and APRS capabilities, along with integrated GPS and a bunch of other bells and whistles for people who really want to get into the hobby.

But maybe all you really need is a GMRS radio - in which case, there's plenty of low-cost products from Midway, Cobra, Motorola, and other reputable manufacturers. A pair usually costs around $70; if you need inspiration, Midland GXT1030VP4 is a pretty solid choice. Don't focus too much on the transmit power; be sure to consider flexible battery options (such as the ability to use AAs), battery life, sound quality, water resistance rating, and overall ruggedness.

12. If I go with ham radio, should I get a digital-capable one?

Digital modes are likely the future. Compared to analog voice, they require less bandwidth, less transmit power, and offer far better sound quality. Digital modes also generally offer built-in support for reliable, high-speed data. That said, the timing is a bit awkward, as there is a bit of a "system war" happening on the amateur bands.

The three completely incompatible contenders are D-Star (backed by Kenwood and Icom), C4FM / Fusion (backed by Yaesu), and DMR (not really championed by anyone for amateur uses, but supported by Alinco and several other Chinese manufacturers). It is actually difficult to say who is winning; there is plenty of Fusion-capable repeaters, but this is largely because the manufacturer is handing them out on the cheap to local clubs, and because they also work with analog FM traffic; the actual use of the system seems far lower than the repeater counts imply. Taking this into account, D-Star and DMR are probably in the lead when it comes to organic use - and DMR appears to be growing more rapidly. But the winner is still far from clear - so there is some risk of betting on the wrong horse, and having to switch to a completely different system down the line if you want to be able to talk to other folks.

My only commentary here would be that D-Star and Fusion are developed with amateurs in mind, and both offer a variety of cool and fairly intuitive features. Of the two, D-Star has a bit more vendor support and a more vibrant community, while System Fusion is a tad more modern. DMR, on the other hand, is a boring, utilitarian system developed mostly for commercial users, with little consideration for amateurs - but it certainly benefits from the availability of sub-$100 radios on the market.

In the end, if you're on a budget, you can probably stick to analog FM for now, and reevaluate some time down the line. Otherwise, roll the dice, and be prepared to upgrade in 6-10 years. It's good to check what types of digital repeaters you have nearby, but all other things being equal, D-Star may be the horse to bet on if you want nice radios and cool features to explore, while DMR may be the choice for folks wanting to bank on the current growth trends.

13. What's up with all the different bands?

If you're buying a ham radio, you're probably gonna run into a confusing mix of frequencies (in MHz) and wavelengths (in meters or centimeters). But when it comes to handhelds, all you're probably going to see is the 144 MHz band (aka "2m") and the 420/430 MHz one ("70cm"). You can also sometimes bump into the 222 MHz band ("1.25m"), but it's comparatively rare.

As noted earlier, handhelds are generally too small to make a good use of the HF spectrum, where you can get over-the-horizon propagation and several other perks. On the other side of that equation, as you get into the microwave territory (1 GHz+), the signals are very easily attenuated by vegetation, rain, or fog. Given all the other uses of the spectrum, this leaves the 2m and 70cm bands as the sweet spot for handheld devices; many radios support both, and very few support anything more.

Although you see some differences in propagation at different frequencies within this range, they are not hugely significant, and you probably shouldn't lose sleep over it. That said, all other beings equal, the 2m band with a longer antenna can give you an edge in rural and suburban settings; while the 70cm band is wider, so you are less likely to bump into others on the frequencies you want to use.

14. Are there any complicated rules I need to learn?

The ham community can be a bit crotchety, with some clubs being rather protective of the things they are familiar with and suspicious of all the new-fangled digital communication modes and such. That said, you don't really need to integrate; the frequencies are not crowded, and you are unlikely to step on any toes as long as you are not being a jerk.

The basic rules you should follow are pretty common-sense:

Again, outside some urban repeaters, the amateur bands aren't crowded, and if all you're doing is talking to a friend on a handheld, nobody is gonna bat an eye, even if you don't follow the protocol exactly. And in the very unlikely case you bump into some toxic jerk... just spin the dial and try again.

If you are using repeaters, it is nice to donate to your local club, even if you do not intend to become a member or otherwise socialize. The equipment is expensive and needs regular maintenance, and most clubs are entirely reliant on donations and the goodwill of volunteers.

Finally, of note to preppers: the FCC has rules against encrypting or otherwise obscuring the purpose of your communications in the amateur bands. Using exotic / advanced modulations, such as digital voice modes, can give you a degree of privacy from operators who don't have compatible equipment. Ditto for using less common bands, such as 1.25m. But that's about as far as you can take this while sticking to the rules. Some imported DMR radios do support AES encryption, but using it can get you in trouble if you're caught.

15. Random links of note