When disaster strikes, there’s nothing more stressful than being unable to communicate with family and friends. Walkie talkies may feel old-fashioned in these days of smartphones, but they may be your best bet in an emergency.
Cell phones are great for day-to-day communications, but network gridlock, damage to infrastructure or the need to escape to a remote location are all reasons not to trust your cell when SHTF.
A portable two-way radio (otherwise known as a walkie talkie) is your best option for emergency communications.
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What Type of Walkie Talkie Should You Buy?
Buying a long range walkie talkie can be a complicated business. It’s worth reading our Complete Guide to the Best Two Way Radios for a detailed guide to the pros and cons of the different options.
But essentially it boils down to these three most likely options:
Ham radio – useful if you want to communicate with the emergency services or other amateur radio users across the country to share information on what’s happening in different areas. Handheld devices typically give a range of up to 20 miles. Ham radio is very much at the ‘techie’ end of the spectrum – you’ll need to pass a test to get an amateur radio license.
GMRS radio – this is likely to be the best option for communicating with your family across a range of distances. You still need to buy a license, but one license will cover your entire family.
FRS radio – you don’t need a license to use FRS radio and it’s easy to operate. The downside is that range is limited to a mile or two. You’ll find that many long-range walkie talkies come with both FRS and GMRS channels.
The higher the wattage, the more powerful the radio and the further you can transmit. Walkie talkies are typically limited to 5 watts of power which is why it may be worth investing in a more powerful mobile unit if you have a designated Bug Out location.
Different Power Options
The more power you’re using, the quicker you’ll drain your battery. Walkie talkies with different wattage options allow you to optimize use for transmission and battery life.
Privacy codes help filter out communications on a channel that aren’t set to the same privacy code. If there’s a lot of radio traffic around you this can help you communicate without interference.
You may have a separate emergency radio for listening to local broadcasts, but having NOAA channels on your walkie talkies gives you another option for picking up weather and emergency bulletins. This can also be handy if your party is separated, as everyone can pick up alerts directly.
Weight and Battery Life
Cheap walkie talkies may use AA batteries, but more expensive models will have a single rechargeable lithium-ion battery. Weight and size will be a consideration if you’re tight on space in your Bug Out Bag or if you want a walkie talkie that’s easy for kids to use.
3 Ways to Boost the Range of Your Walkie Talkie
Let’s talk about the elephant in the room – walkie talkie range, or how far you can go before your conversation turns to static or cuts out altogether.
Some manufacturers give an estimated range for their radios, others don’t. If they do give a range, it’s usually a maximum value based on “ideal circumstances”.
This means if you were out in the desert with a completely clear line of sight and a fully charged battery, you may get close to the stated range.
In reality, the range is likely to be much more limited and if you’re in a hilly or urban area, you may only be able to communicate across a few miles even with a long-range walkie talkie.
But there are a few things you can do to boost the range of your radio.
1. Know Your Local Geography
Spending time using your walkie talkies around your local area will help you figure out what obstructions there are to your radio signal. As a general rule, the higher you get, the better your range. Time to climb that hill…
2. Use a Better Antenna
Simply replacing the stubby antenna on your walkie talkie with a whip antenna can help boost your range. Note: You cannot legally use a whip antenna on an FRS radio.
3. Use a Repeater
If you’re using Ham or GMRS radios, you may be able to set up or access a repeater. These receive a signal, increase its power and re-transmit it. They’re often used to overcome obstacles such as mountains or tall buildings.
There’s a national network of repeater towers but these are privately owned and operated, so you’ll need to request permission before using them.
Best Long Range Walkie Talkies
Output: 2 watts or 500mW (low power) | Weight: 7.7 oz | Privacy codes? Yes | License required? Yes
At 2 watts, the GMRS-V1 has a much lower output than the BF-F8HP, but the build quality and performance make this one of the best walkie talkies if you don’t want to get a Ham license.
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The range is variable, but users have reported getting up to four miles range in urban/forested areas and 15+ miles in clear terrain.
In addition to the 22 two-way channels, there are 8 modifiable repeater channels, enabling you to connect to nearby repeaters.
The antenna is also removable so you can switch it out for a more effective whip antenna to boost range.
The GMRS-V1 has a built-in FM radio and plenty of programmable scanner channels which you can set up to receive NOAA weather warnings and other local channels.
It’s compatible with all models of GMRS radio and has a decent manual and good tech support, making it a good option for both novices and more experienced radio users.
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Output: 1, 5 or 8 watts | Weight: 7.8 oz | Privacy codes? Yes | License required? Yes
This is one of the most powerful and best value handheld walkie talkies on the market.
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BaoFeng doesn’t give an official range, but users have reported being able to hit repeaters at distances of 15-20+ miles in flat or rolling terrain.
In addition to the 8-watt power setting, there are also options to run it at 1 or 5 watts to help conserve battery life.
If the range is the best thing about this walkie talkie, the second best thing is the battery life. The rechargeable battery will last up to 24 hours, making it a good option if you’re having to travel to a Bug Out location.
You’ll need a Ham license to use the BaoFeng BF-F8HP and a bit of technical know-how to get it set up, but as Ham radios go, it’s fairly basic. A great option if you want to be able to tap into the Ham radio network away from your home or Bug Out base.
Cobra MR HH450
Output: 1, 3 or 6 watts | Weight: 9.59 oz | Privacy codes? Yes | License required? Yes
The MR HH450 is designed as a dual-band VHF and GMRS radio for use in marine or other environments where there’s a high probability of it getting wet.
It’s got a rugged casing, floats in water and has a bright orange core to help you fish it out of the water if it decides to take a swim.
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There are three power settings for both short and long-range communication and a rather useful ability to replay missed VHF calls (though not GMRS calls).
The main downside is that a lot of users have reported issues with the GMRS channels, both in terms of the clarity of communications and the range – probably because this is designed to be a marine radio first and foremost.
It’s not bad – you should get a mile range at least in forested areas and 5-10 miles in open terrain such as a lake – but it’s not the best GMRS radio out there.
If you need a waterproof walkie talkie for use on and off the water then the Cobra radio is a good option.
If waterproofness is a ‘nice to have’, you’d be better off going for the BTEC GMRS-V1 and packing a plastic bag.
Befove Walkie Talkies
Output: 0.5 or 1 watt | Weight: 5 ox (approx) | Privacy codes? Yes | License required? No
While older teens may have enough interest in radios to train them on a more complex system, for younger kids, you want something that’s simple to use, easy for small hands to manage and fairly robust.
There are lots of kids’ walkie talkies on the market but most are designed primarily as toys than a functional piece of emergency kit.
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The Befove set of walkie talkies are a bit of a half-way house.
They’re small and simple enough for all the family to use, but have a reasonable range, privacy codes, and a keypad lock, so you don’t have to worry about your kids accidentally changing the settings and being unable to communicate with you.
These radios should be good for communicating up to about two miles in open or suburban areas.
While this is by no means “long-range”, it should be sufficient for most occasions when your family could be separated in an emergency.
They’re also great for camping and backcountry trips, giving kids the freedom to explore while still being contactable.
As you get four in a pack, they’re a great budget buy. They use AA batteries and hold the charge pretty well, but you’ll want to take the batteries out if storing them for a while.
So which walkie talkie wins? Well, it really depends on what you want it for. You may even decide you need more than one set. After all, it’s always useful to have a backup option…
But if we had to pick a winner, then we’d suggest the BTEC GMRS-V1 offers the best combination of price, range, and functionality for most preppers.
If you have kids, a set of the Befove walkie talkies are a low cost, lightweight add on that can be useful for keeping your family in touch over short distances.