Most people relate walkie-talkie use with emergencies. But, did you know they also come in handy where mobile networks are iffy, such as off-grid camping trips?
Walkie-talkies are portable, easy to use, and versatile for diverse applications. There are also different varieties to choose from, and this complete guide to buying walkie-talkies will help you figure out which one to buy.
What Is a Walkie Talkie?
The walkie-talkie, two-way radio, or handheld transceiver (HT) is a portable handset using a specific frequency band for wireless communication. It was first created in the 1930s by two independent inventors; a Canadian, Donald Higgs, and an American, Alfred Gross.
The modern walkie-talkie is a battery-powered handset with a transmitter/ receiver, an antenna, a loudspeaker/ microphone, and a-push to-talk button.
People wishing to use walkie-talkies will first set the frequency band that the handsets will use to broadcast information.
Operators then press the push-to-talk button whenever they wish to talk and release it when done. The handset’s microphone picks up the sound, converts it into radio waves or digital data, and transmits it to the listener’s handset over the preset frequency channel.
Ordinarily, the microphone also acts as a loudspeaker, but in more complex units, the mic and speaker are separate components. When the walkie-talkie receives the radio waves, it converts them back into sound and broadcasts over the speaker.
Benefits and Drawbacks of Walkie Talkies
Walkie-talkies are cheap and have a simple construction that makes them easy for everyone to use. They are also lightweight for portability and have a decent transmission range for most civilian applications.
Walkie-talkies are flexible because they have many channels available, and it is easy to switch frequencies when there is heavy traffic in a particular frequency band. Additionally, some units can work as intercoms for baby monitors.
There are many radio services available for walkie-talkies, depending on the use. For example, hikers or climbers on a trip can use the FRS, GMRS, or MURS services, while the CBRS service is ideal for emergency responders and business applications.
While two-way radios are pocket friendly, most are analog and don’t offer privacy as they are susceptible to interference from other transmissions. Most radio services are short-range and not very effective in uneven terrain. The more powerful radios require a license and may not add value to the occasional user.
Walkie-talkies are half-duplex gadgets, meaning only one person can talk at a time and are susceptible to collisions if two devices try to transmit data simultaneously.
Factors to Consider When Buying Walkie Talkies
There are lots of walkie-talkie varieties in the market, and finding the right one depends on what activity you intend to use it for. While there are two main categories of handheld transceivers, you’ll commonly find units that use analog and digital technologies.
For example, an FRS walkie-talkie may support digital features such as GPS, text messaging, and NOAA weather alerts.
Generally, walkie-talkies use radio wave technology to transmit information, making them ideal for communicating in places with poor mobile networks. The radio frequencies typically fall between 136 MHz to 900 MHz and are regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
Generally, the frequencies allocated for handheld radios are in the Ultra High Frequency (UHF) and Very High Frequency (VHF) ranges. While some frequency bands are free to use, others require a license from the FCC.
Ultra-High Frequency Band (UHF)
Walkie-talkies in the UHF band are more versatile because they provide better voice clarity indoors and in places with multiple obstructions, like hills and buildings.
Frequency bands in the UHF range allocated for civilian use include Family Radio Service (FRS), General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS), and Industrial/Business Radio Service (BRS).
FRS is a free service that provides 22 channels in the 462-467MHz frequency band for family and group activities.
FRS walkie-talkies are the most common variety available and typically have a transmission range of a few miles, making them ideal for outdoor excursions and natural disaster preparedness.
Similarly, the GMRS radios have 22 channels that use the same frequency band as FRS and eight additional channels for repeater systems. However, GMRS is a licensed service, and GMRS radios are more powerful with better transmission range over uneven terrain than FRS and CB radios.
GMRS walkie-talkies are ideal for coordinating work activities on large farms, ranches, warehouses, factories, and construction sites.
The BRS is also a licensed service that supports various industries, such as power, petroleum, film, and video production, and land transportation applications like railroad, taxicabs, and automobile emergency radios.
While it is similar to GMRS, it has more advantages because it does not share the same frequency bands as FRS, so the channels are less congested.
Citizens Band Radio Service (CBRS)
The Citizens Band Radio Service (CBRS) is similar to GMRS and offers 40 channels operating in the 26.965 – 27.405MHz band. CB radios have a short transmission range of about one mile.
They are popular with people in the trucking business, hobbyists, offroaders, first responders, and neighborhood security.
Multi-Use Radio Service (MURS)
The VHF spectrum has more transmission range than UHF and requires less power to work. The Multi-Use Radio Service (MURS) is the most common civilian radio service under the VHF spectrum.
It provides five channels in the 151-154 MHz band for personal or business applications. While MURS radios have a transmission range of less than a few miles between stations, external antennas can extend the distance to about 10 miles.
Amateur Radio Service (ARS)
Amateur Radio Service (ARS) is a worldwide service for licensed amateur radio (Ham Radio) operators, including first responders, disaster preppers, survivalists, offroaders and RV campers, engineers, and many others. The service offers twenty-nine small frequency bands shared by millions of amateur operators worldwide.
Personal and Business
FRS walkie-talkies are popular with the general public due to their inexpensive cost and availability in the market. Ideally, most people use them for personal and business applications and occasionally as kid’s toys.
These two-way radios are typically small handheld gadgets with a short transmission range. They are ideal for emergency preparation, outdoor excursions like hiking and camping, and coordinating group or work activities.
However, the proliferation of these cheap and license-free walkie-talkies is a concern for people operating on licensed services sharing the same frequency band, such as GMRS.
Rescue Operations with WalkieTalkies
They create traffic on the channels, making it a challenge to communicate effectively, especially in emergencies. For example, when Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in September 2017, it wiped out all public communications systems on the island.
Rescue operations by the Red Cross relied on Amateur Radio operators on the mainland for communication between teams.
Similar power and communication outages often happen in the wake of natural disasters, such as wildfires, tornados, and earthquakes. In such a scenario, CB radios and ham radios are the primary modes of communication.
However, these gadgets may be too bulky for disaster preparedness kits, and most people typically equip themselves with FRS and GMRS walkie-talkies. It gives them a higher level of control when dealing with the unexpected and a better chance of getting help.
The Different Types of Walkie-Talkies
There are two main categories of walkie-talkies; analog and digital. Analog handheld radios transmit sound between the gadgets as radio waves.
In comparison, digital radios convert the audio into a digital format for transmission, which the receiving radio converts back into sound. Let’s look at them in more detail below.
Analog Walkie Talkies
Analog walkie-talkies have been around since the early 1930s and operate via sinusoidal (sine) waves that transmit sound signals in one uninterrupted wave. These two-way radios rely on simple technology to operate effectively, making them inexpensive to buy and easy to use.
On the upside, voice signals are transmitted with minimal risk of digital interference as the radios use a specific frequency bandwidth or channel. Some examples of analog walkie-talkies include:
Commercial walkie-talkies – Operate within the licensed frequency band Business Radio Service (BRS). General applications include retail stores, shopping malls, and manufacturing and construction industries.
Civilian walkie-talkies – for use with the license-free signals of Family Radio Service (FRS), Multi-Use Radio Service, and the licensed General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS). Typical applications include camping and hiking trips, group and event coordination, disaster preparedness, and personal business.
Amateur Radios – Also known as Ham radios, they are typically used by licensed operators such as first responders, engineers, disaster preppers, and hobbyists.
Citizen Broadcast Radios – Also known as CB Radios, these gadgets are popular with truckers, RV campers, offroaders, first respondents, and hobbyists.
Advantages of Analog Walkie-Talkies
The advantages of analog walkie-talkies include:
- Affordable and readily available in the market,
- Wide variety of gadgets for various applications,
- Uses efficient and reliable communication technology,
- They have a short learning curve for new users
Disadvantages of Analog Walkie-Talkies
On the other hand, the drawbacks of analog two-way radios include:
- They allow only one conversation per channel, limiting communication efficiency,
- Analog walkie-talkies are limited to specific frequency bands and transmission ranges,
- They are susceptible to interference from other users due to heavy traffic in the frequency bands,
- Updating an analog setup requires a total overhaul of the old one
Despite these challenges, analog radios remain the preferred method of communication in place of cell phone networks. Some of the common uses of analog walkie-talkies include:
- Coordinating camping and group activities,
- Emergency and rescue operations,
- Staff and fleet management,
- Industrial and construction applications
Digital walkie-talkies use an encoded computer language to transmit sound waves. On the upside, they provide better sound quality than analog varieties and can broadcast over long distances.
Advantages of Digital Walkie-Talkies
Other advantages include:
- Capacity to have multiple conversations on one channel,
- It has less background noise and static than analog systems,
- Secure communication between operators,
- They can communicate with analog radios,
- Extra functionality features like GPS, call groups, and software apps
Disadvantages of Digital Walkie-Talkies
On the downside, they are expensive compared to analog walkie-talkies and are more complex to operate. Other disadvantages include:
- High upfront cost and a steep learning curve,
- Heavy traffic in radio signals can cause system errors,
- Time delay in encoding and decoding the voice transmission
Digital walkie-talkies transmit data using two types of wireless technology. They are Time Division Multiple Access (TDMA) and Frequency Division Multiple Access (FDMA).
TDMA technology divides the radio frequency (RF) cellular channels into time slots to allow many walkie-talkie operators to share the same frequency band. A two-time slot TDMA can support two users while three users can share the same frequency using a three-time slot TDMA.
In the TDMA system, a single RF can support multiple channels and simultaneous conversations.
On the upside, TDMA radios use up to 40% less battery juice than analog varieties as the transmission is not continuous. However, the time delay between time slots to prevent overlapping is comparatively more than in other systems.
The FDMA system is less complex and efficient and does not differ significantly from analog systems. However, FDMA walkie-talkies are susceptible to interference from adjacent channels.
Another type of digital walkie-talkie worth mentioning is the satellite phone. These handsets combine the effectiveness and ease of use of a walkie-talkie with the unlimited range and privacy of a mobile phone.
Satellite walkie-talkies are ideal for people who regularly travel to remote areas with little or no mobile networks.
While they are significantly more expensive than typical two-way walkie-talkies, satellite handsets offer reliable, low latency, and weather-resilient communication to anyone worldwide.
Additionally, they are rugged to withstand extreme conditions making them ideal for various applications. Satellite phones use the Iridium Satellite Network, a constellation of 66 cross-linked low-earth orbiting satellites covering the world.
They are ideal for researchers, expeditions, travel and outdoor adventures, hunting, survivalists, extreme sports, aviation, and maritime applications.
Walkie-talkies are an effective communication tool in places where cell phone networks are unreliable and for coordinating several people in a particular location.
At the basic level, you can get affordable FRS and GMRS walkie-talkies for simple communication tasks with your family. However, Ham radios, CB radios, and satellite phones have a better range and advanced features for professional use.
Whatever your needs, I hope this guide helps you choose the right walkie-talkie for your needs.