Complete Guide to the Best Two Way Radios: Ham, CB, FRS, GMRS, and MURS

Living in the modern world, we take it for granted how easy it is to get in contact with our loved ones. But, in an emergency situation, communicating isn’t as easy as picking up your cell phone.

How are you to get in contact with your family, who may be 5 or even 50 miles away?

Unless you want to use a smoke signal on a tall hill, you’ll need to get a get a two-way radio.

There are many types of two-way radios, including some which allow you to talk to groups. Some require a license to operate.

This guide will cover information about choosing a two-way radio for emergencies, plus recommend some reliable products.

The Overview:

A two-way radio allows you to communicate with others over a set distance. For emergency preparedness, HAM radios are the best option.

For emergency preparedness, HAM radios are the best option.

They are reliable and even handheld options can transmit up to 50 miles. However, they do require a license and are more expensive to buy.

For transmitting around camp, during hikes, or contacting family members who might be up to 5 miles away in a suburban area, GMRS and CB radios are good options.

They are cheaper and easier to learn – but don’t’ be surprised if you find yourself getting pulled towards HAM radios later.

We get in-depth on the best products later but here’s a quick look at our top picks in each category:

What is a 2-Way Radio?

A two way radio is simply any radio which can transmit and receive voice communications. This is different from broadcast radios which transmit signals but don’t receive them.

Two way radios can be stationary, portable, or a combination of stationary and portable. Here are some examples of these.

Type Example
Stationary Military bases using radios to communicate with each other.
PortableTruck drivers using radios to communicate traffic information.
CombinationBase station communicating with team members on the move, such as taxi dispatchers, airline controllers, or police stations.

Want Kind Do You Need?

Hopefully you’ve already made an emergency plan for your family. This should include a communication plan – such as where will you meet up if separated and how you will get in touch.

Once you’ve made this emergency plan, you can figure out which kind of two-way radio to get.

You’ll probably want portable radios. Each member can keep a radio in their car, at work, or school locker. It’s also nice to have a radio at your home base.

Difference between 2-Way Radios and Walkie Talkies

vintage walkie talkie toys
The picture shows walkie-talkies from the 1970s and 80s. They were really popular as kid’s toys.

There is a lot of confusion about the difference between 2-way radios and walkie talkies. The two terms are often incorrectly used interchangeably.

To make matters worse, we usually associate the term “walkie talkie” with children’s toys, so people will think that a walkie talkie must be inferior to a 2-way radio.

A walkie talkie is simply any portable 2-way radio.

They were first used in WWII, but later became available as cheap kid’s toys (which is why the term has picked up a bad connotation). A walkie talkie doesn’t have to be bad quality. There are many walkie talkies which are capable of transmitting signals long distances.

A walkie talkie is a 2-way radio, but not all 2-way radios are walkie talkies (think squares and rectangles). This is because some 2-way radios are stationary. If either end of the 2-way radio has a “base,” then it isn’t a walkie talkie.

Two-Way Radio Terminology

There is a lot that goes into learning two-way radios. If you are going to get your HAM license, you’ll have to learn all this, plus operating practices, FCC rules, and much more.

For the sake of choosing and buying a two-way radio for emergencies, you’ll at least need to know these terms below.

Wattage:

Wattage is a measure of how much power a two-way radio uses. The higher the wattage, the better it will be able to transmit. This is important if you want to transmit messages over a long distance – especially if obstacles like forests or mountains may be in the way.

The downside of high wattage is that it will blow through batteries quickly. Good two-way radios will let you select from a wattage range. This allows you to conserve the battery when you don’t need high wattage.

Range:

Range is how far a two-way radio can transmit. It is common for two-way radios to overstate their range. Many reviewers find that a 25 mile range radio, for example, will only transmit 3 miles.

Bear in mind that range is given for ideal circumstances.

Obstacles like trees, mountains, tall buildings, or bad weather can significantly hinder range. This has to do with the fact that two-way radio waves usually are between 150-900MHz frequency. These waves can only travel in straight lines.

On certain types of two-way radios, range can be increased using:

  • Antennas
  • Repeaters – a device which receives a signal and repeats it at a higher power
  • Better batteries

 

ham radio
Radios like this one used by the military can transmit over hundreds of miles.

Frequency:

Two-way radios use either VHF (Very High Frequency) or UHF (Ultra High Frequency). Of the two, UHF tends to be stronger as it can better transmit through obstacles.

Note that VHF and UHF are not compatible with each other. If you already have a VHF radio and want to add another to communicate with it, you won’t be able to use an UHF.

Channels:

Channels is a specific frequency over which you communicate. You can set a channel for each group. For example, a concert venue might have one channel for security and another channel for the lighting crew.

Most two-way radios have at least 22 channels. Some models offer many more channels. However, you may not be able to communicate over all the channels. For example, 10 of the channels might be weather alerts.

Because there is a limited number of channels, there is a possibility that a third party could hear your communications. To prevent this, you can use “privacy codes.” These use a filtering system which blocks any communications which aren’t set to the same privacy code.

Top Tip: If you want to communicate without interference – especially if you are in a busy area – then you need a two-way radio with privacy codes.

Types of 2-Way Radios – Quick Overview

There are many types of 2-way radios available. The core differences are their allowed watts, range, and number of channels. There are also legal restrictions for using some types of 2-way radios.

Below is a quick summary of the pros and cons of each type and underneath we get into more detail.

Ham Radios

  • Very long range
  • Many frequencies
  • Can communicate directly with local emergency responders
  • Up to 1500 watts legally
  • Can use extenders and amplifiers
  • Higher quality communications
  • Community of HAM operators
  • Handheld range up to 20miles
  • Mobile and base ranges over 50 miles
  • Requires license
  • More expensive
  • Higher learning curve
  • Equipment not as readily available
 

CB Radios

  • No license required
  • Many channels
  • Up to 50 mile range
  • Channels often busy and noisy
  • Only 3-5mile range handheld
  • Max of 4 watts (AM) or 12 watts (PEP SSB)
 

FRS

  • No license required
  • Low learning curve
  • Very short range
  • Often low-quality products
 

GMRS

  • One license covers entire family
  • No test required to get license
  • Up to 25 mile range
  • Good sound quality
  • Not a lot of noise
  • Can communicate with FRS radios on some channels
  • Requires license
  • Not as many people using as HAM
 

MURS

  • No license required
  • Channels not very busy
  • Only up to 3 mile range
  • Not very popular

Detailed Overview

Ham Radio

talking to Russian cosmonaut on ham radio
You can use Ham radio to talk to cosmonauts in space!

Amateur Radio Service, more commonly referred to as Ham radio, allows users to talk to other operators across the globe. The “amateur” part doesn’t mean novice. Rather, amateur means “non-commercial” in this case.

Because of its long range and the skills required to operate a ham radio without causing interference, the FCC requires Ham radio operators to be licensed.

Note that it isn’t the ham radio which gets licensed. It is the operator which must be licensed.

According to ARRL.org, there are 600,000 ham radio amateurs in the USA and over 2 million worldwide.

Many ham radio operators are hobbyists who simply enjoy the technology and communicating. A ham radio can be interfaced with a computer or tablet to send data, texts, images, or Morse code. There are ham radio contests where the object is to see how many hams in far-away locations can be contacted. You can even call an astronaut using ham radio. Cool!

When an emergency occurs, “hammers” are often the first to respond. This was the case with hurricane Harvey and hurricane Maria.

Ham radios can be incredibly powerful, but the typical handheld ham radio is about 5 watts or less. Mobile ham radios are usually around 10 to 100 watts, and ham base stations usually have 100 to 200 watts.

Amplifiers can be used to increase the power to 1000+ watts. Antennas can be installed on rooftops or towers to increase range.

Note that there are different ham radio license types, and some limit how many watts you can use. Here is a cheat sheet of allowed frequencies and modes.

Overview:

  • Max Power: 5 watts (handheld); 50 watts (mobile); 1500 watts (base)
  • Band: HF, UHF, VHR
  • Assigned Channels? No
  • Range: 1-20 miles (handheld); 5-1200 miles (mobile); 50-2500 miles (base)
  • License required? Yes

CB Radio

trucker cb radio
CB radios are used by truckers to communicate on the road.

CB stands for Citizens Band Radio Service. These are very powerful 2-way radios and are commonly used by truckers, and operate on 27 MHz HF (shortwave) band.

As one user called it, CB is the “wild west of radio services.”

There are almost no legal requirements for operating a CB radio. The FCC rules (95.403) only state that foreign governments cannot use CB radio, and people with an FCC cease and desist order cannot operate CB radio. You are not allowed to have overseas communications with CB radio.

There are 40 channels on CB radio. Each channel can be used in AM mode or single sideband mode (SSB). The SSB mode is further divided into upper sideband mode (USB) and lower sideband mode (LSB). This gives users even more channels to choose from.

Note that SSB CB radios usually cost more than AM CB radios. However, SSB CB radios tend to have much longer range and are more reliable in bad weather conditions.

Important Note: Channel 9 on the CB radio is dedicated to emergency communications.

Overview

  • Max Power: 12 watts in PEP SSB; 4W watts in AM
  • Band: AM and SBB
  • Assigned Channels? Yes
  • Range: 3-5 miles (handheld); 7-10 miles (mobile); 10-50 miles (base)
  • License required? No

FRS Radio

Family Radio Service (FRS) is becoming increasingly more popular because it doesn’t require any license, and it is easy to use.

There are 14 total FRS channels, of which 7 are dedicated to FRS and the other 7 are shared with GMRS.

Many walkie talkies are combos of FRS/GMRS. The range of FRS radios is limited, so these would be good for communicating with people around a base camp, such as when out in the wilderness.

Overview

  • Max Power: 5 watts
  • Band: UHF
  • Assigned Channels? Yes
  • Range: 1-2 miles (handheld)
  • License required? No

GMRS Radio

General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) is a 2-way radio designed for short-distance communications. However, you can use repeaters with GMRS to get much longer ranges.

The great thing about GMRS is that it is FM. By comparison, CB operates on the 11 meter (27mhz) HF band in AM. Without getting into technical details, this means that GMRS is much quieter and has better sound quality.

There are a total of 15 channels, of which 7 are shared by FRS. A license is required for GMRS, but only one license is needed for the entire family.

Overview

  • Max Power: 5 watts
  • Band: UHF
  • Assigned Channels? Yes
  • Range: 5-25 miles (mobile)
  • License required? Yes

MURS Radio

Multi-Use Radio Service (MURS) was first created in 2000 and doesn’t require a license. It has a max power of 2 watts, which is higher than a FRS.

However, its popularity is being stifled by the fact that there really aren’t that many MURS radios to choose from. Because MURS isn’t as popular, channels won’t be as busy.

Overview

  • Max Power: 2 watts
  • Band: VFH
  • Assigned Channels? Yes
  • Range: 2-3 miles (handheld)
  • License required? No

Which Two-Way Radio System Is Best?

When choosing a two-way radio for emergency communication, these are the things you need to consider:

  • Signal range
  • How much time you are willing to invest in learning the system
  • How busy channels are
  • Whether you can listen to emergency broadcasts and NOAA alerts
  • Communication with local emergency responders
  • Cost of license and radios

With these considerations in mind, the only types of two-way radios worth considering are HAM, GMRS or CB.

Choose HAM if:

  • You may need to communicate over a distance of 50+ miles
  • Mountains, forests, or other obstacles might block signals
  • You want to be able to communicate with emergency responders
  • You like the idea of being involved in a community of amateur radio enthusiasts
  • You’re willing to invest time to learn HAM and get licensed

Choose GMRS if:

  • You are primarily concerned with communicating with your family, not emergency responders
  • A range of up to 25 miles is adequate
  • You don’t want to pay for a license for each user

Choose CB if:

  • You really don’t want to pay for a license
  • You don’t mind listening to static and profanity
  • You want a cheap and easy solution until you can upgrade to GMRS or HAM

Best HAM Radios

If you are serious about two-way radios and want something reliable, then go with a HAM radio. You can buy the radio but remember you’ll need a license to operate it.


Top Pick

BaoFeng BF-F8HP

Why get it? Its awesome battery life, durability, and hands-free feature make it great for Bug Out Bags.

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  • 20 hour battery life
  • Built-in flashlight
  • Lightweight
  • 1w/4w/8w power settings
  • Dual watch receiver
  • Supports CTCSS, DCS, and DTMR
  • Handless operation with VOX
  • 65-108MHz range
  • Very affordable price

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BTECH Mobile UV-50X2

Why get it? As far as car HAM radios go, this has an impressive range of features yet is still affordable.


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  • Great price
  • 136-174MHz on VHF and 400-520MHz on UHF band
  • High\low power settings 10 and 50 watts
  • Dual band
  • Multi-function scanning
  • Variable frequency scanning
  • Privacy mode

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Kenwood TH-D72A

Why get it? This HAM radio is designed for outdoor use and actually transmits well in less-than-ideal conditions, such as through dense woods. Its GPS receiver allows it to be used as a GPS tracker. It’s pricy, but is loaded with high-tech features you’ll love.


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  • Very durable
  • APRS implementation
  • 6 hour battery at 5w
  • 0.05-5w power settings
  • Store up to 5 target points
  • USB port
  • Acts as a digipeater
  • Dual receive on same band
  • Messaging features
  • TNC compliant with AX.25 protocol
  • MIL-STD810 durability standards
  • IP54 waterproof rating
  • 1000 channel memory
  • Plus tons of other high-tech features

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Best GMRS Radios

You don’t have to take a test to get a GMRS license, and a single license will cover your entire family. This means you can get started almost immediately.

GMRS radios can get great range and they have a lot of built-in emergency features like NOAA alerts.

The two models below are good options.


Top Pick

Midland GXT1000VPR

Why get it? For its price group, the GXT1000VPR works surprisingly well. It’s great for newbies to two-way radios who want something that will serve during a disaster but doesn’t require a huge investment.


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  • 36 mile range
  • 50 channels
  • 10 weather channels
  • Waterproof
  • Dual watch monitor
  • Auto squelch
  • 142 privacy codes
  • SOS siren
  • NOAA alert enabled
  • Good battery life
  • Affordable

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Motorola MR350R

Why get it? If you are prepared to invest more to get a better radio, then you’ll appreciate all of the high-tech features on the MR3504.

It is a bit hard to program, but performs very well in outdoor situations such as during hunting or in your bug out bag.


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  • 35 mile range
  • 22 channels
  • 11 weather channels
  • 120 privacy codes
  • Emergency alert siren
  • Boost power
  • Vibrating ringer option
  • VOX hands-free communication
  • Up to 23 hour battery life
  • Lightweight

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Best CB Radios

CB radios aren’t recommended for emergencies. But, if you really don’t want to get a GMRS or HAM license, a CB radio is the best alternative.

The models below have some decent features for emergency preparedness. You can also use the CB for monitoring traffic – so long as you don’t mind the noise and profanity!


Top Pick

Uniden Bearcat 880

Why get it? It does a great job of canceling the noise you normally get on CB. It is also very easy to use, so a great option for beginners.


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  • 40 channels
  • 10 NOAA weather channels
  • 7 color display
  • Handheld or mountable
  • 6-pin noise canceling
  • Squelch control
  • Instant channel 9
  • Analog S/RF meter
  • User-friendly design
  • External speaker capability
  • Compatible with wireless mics
  • Affordable

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President McKinley USA

Why get it? This is the crème de la crème of CB radios. It clearly receives and transmits over long distances and has cool features like self-calibration of SWR and overrides.

President also makes some other high-tech CB radios, but this is an overall favorite.


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  • 40 channels
  • 12/24V
  • NOAA weather channels
  • Alerts plus overrides
  • SWR self-calibration and testing
  • Tone control
  • Roger beep and optional keep beep
  • Switchable talkback
  • Noise blanker
  • Hands-free operation with VOX
  • 3 color display plus dimmer
  • In-dash mounting
  • Plus tons of other features

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Do you have a two-way radio for emergency communication? Which type did you choose and why? Let us know in the comments!

Diane Vukovic spent her childhood roaming the woods of upstate NY, making brush shelters, backpacking and orienteering.

Now she is the proud mother of two adventurous girls whom she takes wild camping and teaches survival skills and self-defense. Learn more about Diane here.

Leave a comment

  1. I need to know, if I am 50 miles away from my family and something happens that all phones no longer work,what cb or ham radio can I depend on to make sure I can contact my family.

  2. This was very helpful. I’m looking for a two way radio to reach Family roughly 5-6 miles away in a suburban area in the event of an emergency. From what I read here, a CB or GMRS would be idea. Of the two, is one more recommended?

  3. I’m looking for a good hand held , usb rechargeable. Or regular batteries. Will pick up all bands and weather …will transmit on ham or cb bands and water proof

  4. Mac,
    There is no legal radio that can do that. CB is about useless anymore due to wave reflection from sky layers. Truckers rarely use it. Get a Ham technician license and use FM 2 meter repeaters. Many have internet connections that can be used to talk around the world.

  5. I have a GMRS license. If I use a walkie talkie an the GMRS band, does the other person on the other end need to have a license to transmit back to me?

    If I am on my farm and go out with a friend, I may communicate with him and he will respond. I am licensed. Does my license apply to his use of the system?

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